First Prize Winner, 2005 Shakespeare Fellowship Essay Contest
Shakespeare and the Education of Women
By Jamie Bence
If Renaissance writers sought to accurately portray humanistic ideals and construct true to life portraits using words, then the women of Shakespeare's plays embody the apex of this intention. Shakespearean dramas often attribute cunning intellect, calculated control and enigmatic beauty to his female protagonists. In modern reflection, they are revealed as forerunners of contemporary women who aptly proved their ability to rival men in wit and intellect. Rarely powerless or ambivalent, Shakespeare's women often drove plots in which they served as the contrivers of the play's central focus. Undoubtedly, the frequently disputed author must have been someone who held education in the highest of esteem; he clearly believed the powers thereof could be used for iniquity or self-betterment. As will be shown, Shakespeare depicts the genius of which women are capable as well of the unspeakable evil in which some of literature's most recognizable females indulged.
This dichotomy is perhaps best illustrated in two of Shakespeare's most recognizable plays: "Macbeth" and "The Taming of the Shrew." In the former, Lady Macbeth conceives a massacre of the existing royal family in order to elevate her husband to the throne of Scotland. The second play exemplifies the struggle of a spinster to derail the nuptials of both her sister and herself by warding off but eventually submitting to Petruchio's courtship. Both women are delineated by the candor and cleverness of their speech and in due course must face the fate they least desired. However, rarely in any Renaissance play does there exist a woman as remarkably intelligent and beautiful as Portia in "The Merchant of Venice". A female protagonist, she almost certainly embodies what the author believed the ideal woman should be.
Lady Macbeth's manipulative instigation of the central murders in "MacBeth" illustrates the naked ambition which a woman was capable of. As authoritarian and devious as any of Shakespeare's characters, Lady Macbeth symbolizes the ability of ethical weakness corrupted by power to lead to corruption by immorality. A descendent of regal blood both historically and in the play, her education is presumed equal with any other woman of such status in the Renaissance.
In order to understand the background of aristocratic ladies in the fifteenth century, it is critical to examine the socio-cultural transformation affecting women throughout Europe. As noted by Margaret L. King in Women of the Renaissance, the course of a changing balance of power, brought on by education being made more widely available to women, resulted in men beginning to respect their wives and look to them as a source of guidance, often in secular and domestic matters. It was with reference to this period that Marie de Guarnay wrote The Equity of Men and Women, in which she questioned the values of an uneducated woman and suggested that only women of culture could have a true sense of themselves. Another noted female writer, Christine de Pizan, wrote The City of Ladies, which was translated into English in 1521, around the time Shakespeare wrote his plays. The most significant of Pizan's twenty works, the author detailed the significance of her own education and the instruction of other women. Though only limited education was sought out by commoners, Lady Macbeth would have been part of an elite class whom were fortunate enough to have the benefit of private instruction.
Lady Macbeth's eloquence hints at her implied learnedness. An articulate woman was a rarity among the working classes and was therefore a valued sign of class supremacy among the aristocracy. In Act I, Lady Macbeth's monologue in scene five epitomizes both her ruthlessness and rhetoric:
LADY MACBETH. The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood,
Stop up th'access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th' effect and it. Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief.
Lady Macbeth employs extended metaphors and caustic diction as she implores masculine courage and clearly defines her unequivocal ambition to overtake the throne by assassination. The sheer contemptuousness of this articulate soliloquy is evidence of an intellectual force who is in fact the dominant partner in her marriage to the future King Macbeth.
In concordance, it may be inferred that Lady Macbeth exploits her regal status and intellectual prowess to bring harm unto others and ultimately facilitate her own demise. Her conscience is shown only as she descends into madness and ultimate suicide:
LADY MACBETH. Wash your hands, put on your night-gown, look not so pale. I tell you yet again, Banquo's buried; he cannot come out on's grave
DOCTOR. Even so?
LADY MACBETH. To bed, to bed; there's a knocking at the gate. Come, come, come, come, give me your hand; what's done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed.
Lady Macbeth amounts to a character utterly devoid of ethics. Though not entirely representative of Shakespeare's opinion of educated women, his treatment of Lady Macbeth surely suggests that a woman's intellectual ability, when miss-used, has adverse effects on the individual and those surrounding her.
From the inception of "The Taming of the Shrew", it is clear that Katherina indeed lives up to her reputation as "Katherine the Curst" (Shakespeare, 95). Baptista's eldest daughter behaves aggressively to the friendliest of acquaintances but she is also psychologically astute and capable of tremendous wit and candor. Though Katherina's feisty demeanor may be at first deceptive, by adding innuendos and complex metaphors to her discourse, Shakespeare alludes to a capable, clever woman beneath her pugnacious nature.
Additionally, the author sets forth a counter-plot between Bianca and Lucentio who epitomize what a conventional young couple should be; his handsome looks and charismatic manner pair well with Bianca's youthful beauty. Their relationship contrasts strongly with the tempestuous encounters between Petruchio and Katherina. However, Bianca is portrayed throughout as submissive and her role is never one of particular interest; it seems therefore that Shakespeare favors Katherina if only because her persona is the more fascinating to encounter. Bianca, though likely educated and reared similarly to Kate, lacks the gumption and resolve which makes her sister more demanding of her suitors and active in the play. Shakespeare's favoritism is further evidenced in the play's title; Katherina is clearly the "shrew" and therefore the protagonist. In sum, the author has favored a willful woman over her submissive counterpart, validating a woman's attempt to control her choice of partner rather than proper obedience.
As for the author's inspiration, scholars have suggested that Katherina may have been modeled after his sister, Katherine de Vere of Windsor. If de Vere's sister was the inspiration for his shrew, it is evident that he did not remember her fondly! When Edward de Vere was in his adolescence, Katherine attempted to obtain his inheritance and earldom by suing him. If Edward de Vere was in fact the author of the Shakespeare plays (Looney 1920, et alia), it seems his personal partialities may have influenced many of his female protagonists.
Katherina is further characterized by the literary elements in her speech; her wit and rapid responses are among the sure signs that she is as clever as the men who surround her and a perfect adversary for Petruchio. Her infrequent victories over male counterparts are nearly always marked by two facets: Katherina's refusal to relinquish her stance and her keen ability to out-quarrel her opponent. In this passage, Katherina attempts to defy the wishes of Petruchio:
KATHERINA So may you lose your arms. If you strike me, you are no gentlemen, why then no arms.
PETRUCHIO A herald, Kate? O put me in thy books.
KATHERINA What is your crest- a coxcomb?
PETRUCHIO A combless cock, so Kate will be my hen.
KATHERINA No cock of mine; you crow too like a craven.
PETRUCHIO Nay, come Kate, come; you must not look so sour.
KATHERINA It is my fashion when I see a crab.
Notably, Kate's contemptuous remarks and quick-witted responses come as a great surprise to Petruchio, who seems to enjoy their combative exchange. Katherina dispels the notion that ladies must be demure and submissive if they wish to attract the company of a suitor.
Perhaps the most telling moment in the play is Katherina's final monologue; it seems this speech has been the subject of more controversy than nearly all others in literature. It has been subjected to scholarly scrutiny, denounced by feminists and continued to awe readers for centuries because it is the most indicative moment of Shakespeare's view of femininity. From the feminist movement of the twentieth century, there comes the revisionist theory that Kate has not been tamed at all and her character is a mockery of men's treatment of women. Evidence to support this includes Christopher Sly's comments about the play, in which he states that Petruchio's actions have taught him how to treat a woman. Since we are aware of Christopher Sly's foolishness, it is unlikely that the author aimed for readers to identify with this view.
It seems possible that Shakespeare intended to reveal the lingering misogyny of an era in which willful, intelligent women were often dismissed as stepping outside their natural roles. Though it seems avant-garde in the context of the period, this theory suggests that women's submissiveness has been mocked and the play is ultimately successfully feminist. If the final monologue is intended to deceive Petruchio and is a calculated attempt to win back his favor, then Katherina's character is truly revolutionary because she has beguiled the two men who know her best- Petruchio and Baptista- into believing that she yields to their desires. But this interpretation of Petruchio and Katherina demonstrates to why it is believed The Earl of Oxford respected Elizabeth Trentham: she was an intellectually gifted woman who was capable of actively participating in affairs traditionally allocated to men.
The alternate theory and more accepted of the two, is that Kate is a broken woman and male supremacy has been achieved. Aside from Kate's final monologue, there is evidence throughout the play in favor of a misogynistic interpretation. In particular, Act IV, in which Petruchio and Kate return home from their wedding, is atrocious yet exemplary of brutal tactics used to keep women from taking charge of the household. Throughout the scene, Petruchio makes subtle suggestions that Kate has been transformed by their wedding from her father's property to his. Furthermore, as Petruchio becomes enraged by the servants, he directly prevents Katherine from relieving her fundamental need of food and sleep. In response to her "taming", Kate attributes the following accolades to her husband at the end of Act V:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee
And for thy maintenance; commits his body
To painful labor both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou li'st warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience--
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Interpreted by the second view, this speech may be considered an elegy for the vivacious, feisty Katherina that has been replaced by the subservient Kate. She has eschewed every facet of her personality which had been valued so greatly to this point in the play. In a sense, Katherina is representative of the cycle which many aristocratic women faced in the Renaissance: they were educated to be proficient members of society only to be silenced at the hand of a husband they often did not desire. If the speech is not a tongue-in-cheek betrayal, then Katherina has truly been broken by Petruchio's incessant cruelty and she represents a victim of the repressive treatment many fifteenth century women endured.
Perhaps no examination of Shakespeare's treatment of educated women could be complete without deciphering Portia's enigmatic mix of beauty and intellect. She is seemingly a series of contradictions: a free sprit abiding by strict rules, feminine but strong and happy to be rid of many of her suitors yet saddened by her inability to control her marital prospects. Portia is a woman of remarkable wealth and patrician social status yet her values are those of every woman. She is clearly the play's protagonist; her humility and capacity to make the situations work in her favor counter Shylock's malignant conduct.
The epitome of Portia's contribution to the plot can be found in Shakespeare's oft discussed court scene. Disguised as Balthasar, she effectively imitates as a man who has been educated through law school. This is the strongest suggestion that Shakespeare intended Portia to be not only learned but also wise; her trial scenes reveal a keen sense of manipulation which allows Portia to address both parties without apparent bias, though to the reader she hardly seems impartial. In her famous speech, Portia equates the virtue of mercy with the divine and beseeches Shylock's compassion for Antonio:
PORTIA. The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain falls from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gave and him that takes.
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
Portia is indeed a woman of great articulacy who adapts fluidly to her role as a mediating lawyer. She has used her grace and candor to make a stellar case for Antonio's life; this could not have been accomplished without her previous schooling. Balthasar turns the case around entirely: by trial's end, Shylock is begging for mercy from Antonio. Portia has indeed floored the courtroom with her arguments and saved the life of her husband's comrade. The protagonist has effectively used her wits and ingenuity to deliver justice into the hands of an innocent man and antagonized Shylock's gluttonous ploy. In the context of women's education, Portia exemplifies that with knowledge, women may be as effective as men. Because she is posing in a traditionally male position, it is significant that Portia prevails in the case and delegates a fair result even for the disagreeable Shylock. Though she is clearly capable of being as effective as any male lawyer, Portia is forbidden to do so unless she poses as a man. Shakespeare is thus providing a strong critique of the limitations of gender roles and satirizing male superiority, a concept quite radical for his time.
In a historical context, we are aware of some parallels between these characteristics and the second wife of the Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford's second wife, Elizabeth Trentham. Though little is known about her background or life with de Vere, from his will and letters certain principles are clear. Elizabeth Trentham did participate in managing of the Earl's finances and her letters suggest that she was eloquent and probably of distinguished academic background for a woman of her time. Since it has been said that de Vere's married her for love rather than social gain, we may infer that his true preference leaned toward women of capable intellect and practical abilities. Portia certainly exhibits these traits; her ability to speak in court and prevailing love for Bessanio suggest that she is a woman of resolve and strength.
The court scenes in "The Merchant of Venice" are so potent that they have been the subject of noteworthy scholarly debate. In particular, Portia's capable trial speeches bear similarities in tone to the pleas Mary Queen of Scots made for her own life in 1587. Significantly, Edward de Vere was a judge at this trial and though clearly his sympathies lay with Elizabeth I, de Vere may have been struck by Mary's unaided defense which was palpably an attempt to appeal to the sympathies of her judges. She is said to have broken down in court and unabashedly pleaded with the judges for her life. Though her life was not spared, it has been said that she was effective in arousing pity in the court:
Mary defended herself with consummate ability before a tribunal almost entirely prejudiced against her. She was deprived of legal aid, without her papers and in ill health she reached a point of touching eloquence which might have moved the hearts, though it did not convince the intellects, of her august judges.
Perhaps, the very notion of a woman mounting her own defense at a trial was an idea which struck the Earl of Oxford as worthy of further expansion and like Mary Queen of Scots; he constructed the character of Portia to underscore the significance of "mercy" as a divine attribute bringing both the giver and receiver closer to God.
The women of Shakespeare's plays were harbingers of the present; they represented triumph of ability and intellect over rigid gender roles. In Shakespeare's time, intelligent women were often viewed as a threat to male superiority; however, it seems their attributes often made them capable of dominating their relationships with men and their cogency proved equal. This idea is further established by the notion that Portia and Katherina may have been based on women from the author's life. Though studying the works of Shakespeare, it becomes clear that women evolved on the stage as they did in life and as their education increased, so did women's ability to play a significant role in society.
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