William Shakespeare has often been hailed as a feminist writer, but what does that really mean? Feminism today holds a different significance than it did in the 1940s, and it is undoubtedly different from the 16th century, as the word itself wouldn’t even be coined until some three hundred years later. However, the absence of the word doesn’t mean that the phenomenon itself didn’t exist. Gender equality wasn’t a foreign notion during Shakespeare’s lifetime at the height of the English Renaissance. The Renaissance itself was a time of reformation and questioning, with the Puritans in particular supporting a more liberal attitude towards women, challenging long standing ideals about marriage, and criticising the double standards surrounding adultery and virginity.1 So does all of this reform mean that Shakespeare could have been a feminist? Frankly, the question is a complex and flawed one. Would Shakespeare have to portray women as equal in every play in order to qualify as a feminist? If not, would there at least need to be a message about attitudes towards women in every play? Again, if not, how many “feminist” plays would have to exist in his folios for Shakespeare to be considered a feminist?
Even if all of these questions could be answered, the principal issue would still remain: we cannot speak for Shakespeare’s personal ideologies, and thus have no authority to answer the question of whether or not he was a feminist. So instead of trying to answer a fundamentally flawed question, we can instead examine the complex roles of female characters in Shakespeare’s plays to determine what message they are portraying about equality, marriage, and women’s place in society.
Berggren (1983) notes a disparity between Shakespeare’s comic women and his tragic ones when she states that “in Shakespearean comedy, it is true, the heroine dominates; in Shakespearean tragedy, she most emphatically does not.”2 This statement is problematic in itself, specifically, how do we define dominance? There is no Shakespearean play where the female characters dominate the male in the sense of stage presence or number of lines, although there are some comedies, for example As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice, where a woman has the most lines out of all the characters. However, even in these cases, the female presence is swiftly dwarfed by the sheer number of male characters, as illustrated by the graph below, displaying the total lines spoken by each gender in the comedies.
As a comparison, Figure 2 shows the percentage of lines spoken by male and female characters in the tragedies.
The comedies have an average of 24.5% female lines, while the tragedies have an average of only 14.9%, which both supports and challenges Berggren’s assertion that women “dominate” in the comedies. They certainly occupy more stage time on average, but can any group of people with less than 25% representation ever be considered dominant? It seems clear, then, that we must define dominance in a different way, for example, the extent to which a female character can manipulate and affect the plot of a play. In the following posts in this series, we will study three of Shakespeare’s plays: Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth to examine the complex roles of female characters and to determine if they could ever be considered to be the dominant characters.