Taming Of The Shrew And Twelfth Night By William Shakespeare


The Role Of Women 
It is curious to note the role of women in Shakespearean
literature. Many critics have lambasted the female
characters in his plays as two-dimensional and unrealistic
portrayals of subservient women. Others have asserted that
the roles of women in his plays were prominent for the time
and culture in which that he lived. That such contrasting
views could be held in regards to the same topic is
academic. It is only with close examination of his works
that we are able to suppose his intent in creating
characters that inspire so much controversy. Two works,
"Taming of the Shrew", and "Twelfth Night", stand out
particularly well in regards to Shakespeare's use of female
characters. After examining these two plays, one will see
that Shakespeare, though conforming to contemporary
attitudes of women, circumvented them by creating resolute
female characters with a strong sense of self. 
"The Taming of the Shrew" is one of Shakespeare's most
famous plays, and has weathered well into our modern era
with adaptations into popular television series such as
Moonlighting. For all the praises it has garnered
throughout the centuries, it is curious to note that many
have considered it to be one of his most controversial in
his treatment of women. The "taming" of Katherine has been
contended as being excessively cruel by many writers and
critics of the modern era. George Bernard Shaw himself
pressed for its banning during the 19th century (Peralta).
The subservience of Katherine has been labeled as barbaric,
antiquated, and generally demeaning. The play centers on
her and her lack of suitors. It establishes in the first
act her shrewish demeanor and its repercussions on her
family. It is only with the introduction of the witty
Petruchio as her suitor, that one begins to see an
evolution in her character. Through an elaborate charade of
humiliating behavior, Petruchio humbles her and by the end
of the play, she will instruct other women on the nature of
being a good and dutiful wife. 
In direct contrast to Shrew, is "Twelfth Night", whose main
female protagonist is by far the strongest character in the
play. The main character Viola, has been stranded in a
foreign land and adopts the identity of her brother so that
she might live independently without a husband or guardian.
She serves as a courtier to a young, lovesick nobleman
named Orsino. Throughout the play she plays as a go-between
for him to the woman he loves. In the course of her
service, she falls in love with him. Only at the end, does
she renounce her male identity and declares her love for
Both plays portray female characters unwilling to accept
the female role of passivity. Katherine rebels against this
stereotype by becoming a "shrew", a violently tempered and
belligerent woman. Viola disguises herself as a man for
most of the play in order to preserve her state of free
will. Katherine endures reprimands, chiding, and
humiliation in the course of her chosen rebellion. Viola
enjoys life and position as a man, and does not reveal who
she is until the last scene of the play. Curiously enough,
both women voluntarily accept the roles that society would
impose on them again at the close of the plays. It is
important to note though, that they freely resume these
roles, and that they do so out of their own sense of self.
For each woman, it is a personal choice based on their
desires. In the case of Katherine, she realizes that
propriety is as much a signature of self-respect as respect
for others, and she has a husband to whom she does need to
prove anything because he already respects her. In the case
of Viola, she is in love with the young Orsino. Having
found the man she would be willing to wed, the pretense of
her male identity is no longer necessary, as she desires to
be his wife. 
Having seen the similarities between Viola and Katherine,
one should take notice that they do have different
circumstances regarding their behavior. The reason for
Katherine's shrewish demeanor is never given in the play,
though many directors have interpreted it as an act to
discourage suitors, much like Hamlet's feigned madness.
Others have attributed it to sibling rivalry between
Katherine and her sister Bianca. In any case, no clear
rationale is given to the audience as to the reason for
Katherine's behavior. It is enough to say that the actions
of her father and sister do not relieve the situation as
well. Throughout the whole of the play, her father treats
her as a commodity to be bargained away to whoever is
willing to take her. Granted that he doesn't view Bianca as
anything more than a commodity as well, but he clearly
favors her over Katherine as unspoiled merchandise. Bianca
has a rather small role to play in the whole of things. She
seems to be the archetypal young lady of quality. Her lack
of understanding for her sister causes them to quarrel and
results in Bianca taking the physical worst of it, whilst
Katherine is blamed for her belligerent nature. The entire
presence of family in the play gives Katherine her
motivation and explains much of the whole situation in the
dialogue. Contrast this with the isolated Viola. She is
shipwrecked and has no one to connect with at all. Her
situation is implicitly understood by the Shakespearean
audience as being an awkward one for a young woman. Lacking
anyone to provide for her, she is forced to take measures
to protect herself and her estate. The understood reason
for her deception is to insure for herself, and it is
clearly stated by Viola at the end of Act I .Scene 3.
Obviously, the two women are very different individuals.
Yet they share the same characteristics that Shakespeare
imparted onto many of his heroines. Each is resolute and
knows her own mind. Though society demands certain behavior
from them, they each chose to undertake a different path to
deny that behavior. The self is promoted over the public
image. Yet, each is not averse to returning to society's
established roles if it serves their needs and wants. The
entire concept of choice and free-will, of which
Shakespeare was so fond of, applies as equally to his
feminine characters as to his masculine. It is this very
important point which establishes the conclusion that
Shakespeare did indeed create realistic and meaningful
female characters.
Sources Cited
Peralta, T. "The Taming of the Shrew." English 28:
Shakespeare's Plays. 
 Cerritos College. Norwalk, CA, Fall semester 1996.


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