The Women Characters in Shakespeare’s Comedies
There are social norms in every culture. How we act is often dependent on the society around us. This is true for cultures throughout the world and throughout time. In “Shakespearean Comedy” Katherine Eisaman Maus argues that some characters challenge the status quo throughout the play but in the end, “the characters’ unruly energies into a form that seems to ultimately reinforce rather than challenge the status quo.” I have to disagree with this. I believe that as these characters’ progress in their respective comedies, they represent breaking free and living independently. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia challenges her father and his idea of her marrying Demetrius because she is actually in love with Lysander. She is constantly rebelling against the societal status quo but never gives in and stays rebellious the whole time in order to have her true love. In Much Ado About Nothing a character that needs some focus is Beatrice, who refuses to give into love, when social norms would have her go willingly into marriage. She resists doing what is right for her, rather than just being the vulnerable damsel in distress. Both of these characters happen to be female and both stick to their guns throughout the entire comedy in which they appear. While both characters might end up falling into the norm of falling in love and joining a male companion, I think that the way in which they allow this love to happen is the important part and is the true challenge to societal norms. There disobedience per say is what sticks with the reader.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream provides us with Hermia, who is fighting for her true love. Social norm would have her marry the man her dad wishes but she loves another man. At a point in the comedy, Demetrius insults Lysander and Hermia gest defensive: Out, dog! out, cur! thou drivest me past the bounds Of maiden’s patience. Hast thou slain him, then? Henceforth be never number’d among men! O, once tell true, tell true, even for my sake! Durst thou have look’d upon him being awake, And hast thou kill’d him sleeping? O brave touch! Could not a worm, an adder, do so much? An adder did it; for with doubler tongue Than thine, thou serpent, never adder stung. Hermia starts out this quote by calling Demetreus a dog and a cur both of which are dramatic insults to use against someone. She is so offended and defensive over Lysander that she questions Demetreus on whether he killed Lysander. In a society where women are subordinate to men for Hermia to do this is very saying telling her character. She was willing to stand up for what she believed in and did so in a way that was completely against social norms. Even though in the end, Hermia and Lysander get married in a happily ever after sort of way, that is not the point that sticks with the reader. We as humans love to watch conflict and struggle. We love an underdog. Hermia being a woman back in the 1500’s, would defiantly have been considered an underdog and her fight to achieve true love is what sticks with the reader, not the marriage itself. Going against Demetreus in the quote above, Hermia gives the reader a sense of power. We love the fact that she is defending her love because we all have something that we desire and we feel a sense of power through Hermia. It can be argued that Hermia was actually a damsel in distress. She was so madly in love that even when she was treated poorly by Lysander when he was under the potions spell she stuck around and let the men around her control her. I do not believe that this effects the strong and independent characterization of Hermia. I believe that she stuck around with Lysander because she new that he was the one she wanted and she wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of that even if it meant her being in pain and going through some hard times. We get this same sense of power through Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Throughout the comedy Beatrice steers away from love. She is actually afraid of love. She knows she must protect herself so she devotes herself to others, such as her cousin, rather than love. At one point in the comedy, Leonato says to Beatrice, “Well, niece, I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband.” The way that Beatrice responds says a lot of her values: Not till God make men of some other metal than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a pierce of valiant dust? to make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? No, uncle, I’ll none: Adam’s sons are my brethren; and, truly, I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.
The way that Beatrice responds we see that she is skeptical of the men around her. She views them more as kin rather than lovers. It is out of the ordinary for a woman to not have a man attached to her hence the reason for her uncle’s statement. Beatrice was testing Benedict, she had once been hurt by love so for her, she must defend herself, she must find what she truly wants. In the end, Beatrice ends up marrying Benedict. The way the play ends makes it seem as though Benedict is the one who finally got what he wanted with his happiness being expressed when he pushes away the messenger who is trying to give him some important news and states, “Think not on him till to-morrow: I’ll devise thee brave punishments for him. Strike up, pipers.” This gives the final word to Benedict, however, Beatrice had the love letter written to him for a long time so in the end she is a victor as well. Some may say that she was not the stand out strong women as stated above. The fact that she had the letter but refused to express her true feelings may have some thinking that she is timid and staying docile around the men. Beatrice did not just give in. She obviously had feeling for Benedict, however the way she came about accomplishing marriage went against the social norm. She tested benedict throughout the comedy making sure that he would not hurt her like her last love. Her hunt for the right man was the most prevalent part of this story. For her to refuse love for so long in order to do what was right for her even though it was out of the ordinary, is what catches the readers attention. She was a strong willed woman who ended up getting what she wanted because she stuck to her believes and didn’t let outside pressure get to her.
The 16th century was a time in which women were becoming more popular consumers of literature. Greenblatt’s general introduction states, “Books published for a female audience surged in popularity in the late sixteenth century, reflecting an increase in female literacy.” This gives the idea that women were among the many consumers of Shakespeare’s work at the time. Greenblatt also says that at the time, “it was the duty of women to be chaste, dutiful, and modest in demeanor.” These women were part of Shakespeare’s audience; they would be motivated by his works. I believe that Shakespeare’s women characters were a call to this. The men would view the women characters as the love sick damsel and they would feel like the heroes. However, the women were taking in the larger message. They could fight for what they want. They could dictate the way in which their lives went. Maybe these plays motivated some of the women of the time because the defiance and independence that were show by both Hermia and Beatrice were the most provocative issues in these comedies. They went against the grain and left an impression that will stick with the reader for their lifetime.
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There are social norms in every culture. How we act is often dependent on the society around us. This is true for cultures throughout the world and throughout time. In […]