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Thea Olson


Prof. Moss

Shakespeare: An Accidental Feminist

It is difficult to imagine a time when the masses were unfamiliar with William

Shakespeare and his vast canon of iconic works. For this reason, it is entirely typical for

scholars and mere fans alike to speculate about his personal life, tastes, and beliefs with

only the evidence that his works provide; unfortunately, most of the arguments made

about Shakespeare’s personal tastes and intentions are just that, conjecture. One of the

foremost questions individuals have so painstakingly sought to elucidate is that of

whether or not Shakespeare was a feminist. My aim is not to attempt to prove or disprove

this theory, but is rather to examine a variety of the popular texts we have discussed in

class, especially those which feature powerful and/or headstrong women, and extract

from them what is representative of the feminist agenda, and explain how his works may

have influenced female empowerment. It is nearly impossible to completely steer clear

from making assumptions about Shakespeare’s motivations and intentions with particular

characters and plots when talking about the topic of feminism in the Renaissance, and so,

it is my estimation, that Shakespeare included feminist aspects in his work, not

necessarily to make any kind of a political statement, but rather to be progressive as a

means of setting himself apart from other playwrights, and as an individual in general.

The fact that Shakespeare is “a staple ingredient in all curricula,” can possibly be

traced back to the Shakespeare Ladies’ Club of 1736, which played an enormous part in

bringing him back to popularity (Eger, 127). Around this time, feminist literary critics,
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like that of Virginia Woolf, began textual revision and adaption to accompany the

budding “dramatic trends of the English stage”(128). In fact, it is undeniable that “by the

beginning of the nineteenth century, a knowledge and love of Shakespeare was

considered integral to the English character,” and this is all due to the efforts of female

scholars of the 18th and 19th centuries (128). The role women have played in

Shakespeare’s fame is seldom accredited.

While most female writers have struggled to have their important contributions to

the literary canon (which has predominantly consisted of work written by men)

acknowledged, “few have considered women’s role in forming that canon at its first

inception” (Eger, 129). This sad truth is substantiated by the fact that so many women

wrote under male pseudonyms, like that of the Bronte Sisters, and Louisa May Alcott, as

a means of gaining greater notoriety in a time where the intellectual sphere was entirely

dominated by the male population. Two women in particular who contributed a great deal

to Shakespeare’s fame were Elizabeth Montagu and Elizabeth Griffith. Their

contributions as literary critics Shakespeare’s canon of works and their merit contributed

a great deal to his growing fame at the time. Montagu’s critical essay argues for the bards

“originality and natural genius,” while Griffiths work formed a “zealous defense of

Shakespeare’s dramatic power”(131,137). With their critical analyses’ of Shakespeare, a

vehement patriotism began to be associated with the study his sonnets and plays, which

has survived even today. Their recognition of his genius nearly singlehandedly was the

catalyst for his literary immortality.

In many of Shakespeare’s works, he presents strong female characters. This was a

rather unusual practice of the times, which is the reason many claim that Shakespeare
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himself was a feminist. While it was not unusual to praise a woman for her beauty in a

sonnet or a ballad, it was uncommon for women to be recognized in any kind of creative

work for anything other than their beauty during the Renaissance. Specifically in

Shakespeare’s works Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, and Twelfth Night strong

female characters are at the forefront of the driving action that occurs. Although it is

undeniable that these strong females, for reasons that will be discussed in detail, were

somewhat ahead of their time, this was a device used to stir debate and provoke thought,

rather than to make any kind of radical political statement. Although, it is at the same

time, slight evidence that Shakespeare was sympathetic to inequality among men and


In contemporary culture, various taboos have begun to surround the word

feminism, and “the result is the situation we see today: feminism has been turned into the

unspeakable F-word, not just among students but in the media too” (Moi, 1739). Many

shrink at the mention of the word because of the manner in which feminist extremists

have corrupted it. Those radicalists who claim to be feminists in the public sphere, made

it into something that many of the general population don’t want to identify as, or

conversely, identify as, without really understanding what they are stating about

themselves. Herein lies the problem—identifying as a feminist is where feminist ideals

become murky and altered. Many have weaponized the term, which, in turn, has caused it

to be associated with frivolous bitterness and overreaction, trivializing the cause of

feminism and making the assertion, “I am a feminist” less of a credible statement and

more of an absurd one. Knowing this is important for our discussion, because

“developments in the area of political ideas influence artistic practice,” and in this case
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the artistic practice is playwriting, the playwright is a man, and the time period is early

1600 (Wandor, 90). Some of the feminist ideals that are exemplified in Shakespeare’s

plays are so momentous purely because they were so ahead of their time.

Just as Simon Beauvoir asserts that a woman is not born but is made, a person’s

identity is not something that they are born with, but is something shaped through

experience and exposure to culture. Gloria Jean Watkins, otherwise known as bell hooks,

a feminist scholar and social activist, clarifies that feminism should not be associated

with identity at all because it is a political practice, and identifying yourself as either

feminist or anti-feminist merely creates a greater chasm between the disparities. There

are too many things associated with feminism as a commodified identity that it is no

longer clear what being a feminist really means. Shakespeare’s plays, in specific cases,

exemplify feminism in its purest form, that being a presentation of women as full,

intelligent characters, and as deserving of love and happiness as their male counterparts.

Proclaiming oneself a feminist without comprehending all that it entails is dangerous and

rather unnecessary, which is why Shakespeare and many others who have contributed to

the development of feminist ideals and by extension equality, have never made it a point

to declare this about themselves. Mainstream feminism is anti-male, which is just as

destructive of a practice as upholding patriarchal ideals, and the majority of feminist

work today “produces only tediously predictable lines of argument,” which is why many

are becoming disenchanted with feminism (Moi, 1735). Advocating for feminist politics,

not feminism as an identity is Bell Hooks’ philosophy, and I think this can be applied to

nearly any identity or platform. There is little need to claim or proclaim it in the public
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sphere, but is rather better to demonstrate it in your actions, and Shakespeare used his

works to express this very idea.

A great deal of things in nature exist in binary. So much so, that many are lead to

suppose that it also exists in societal constructs and conventions, and has even been

extended to dogma and politics. As a result of this close-minded way of seeing the world

and its parts, many assume if they do not conform to one specific ideal, then they must

automatically belong to the opposite view, when really most things, especially those

associated with identity, exist as a spectrum. Despite this fact, many characters in

Shakespeare’s plays fall prey to this false binary logical fallacy. In the case of Posthumus

in Cymbeline, this is especially true as he jumps from believing his betrothed Imogen to

be a faithful lover to believing she has betrayed him at the slightest shred of evidence.

Posthumus does not stop to consider that there may be some scenario that he is excluding

or failing to recognize. Another case where this false binary is employed occurs in

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night where the character Viola, who also assumes the role of the

pageboy for Duke Orsino, makes the fluidity rather than the mutual exclusivism of

gender clear. It would possibly make understanding the world much easier, if this so

called black and white view were accurate, but as his been illustrated, only problems arise

for those individual that view the world through this black and white lens.

Lady Macbeth is yet another character who falls prey to these false binaries. She

assumes that because she does not posses the submissive and gentle qualities assumed to

belong to that of the typical woman, that she then must be “unsexed” to be able to better

reflect the desire for power and dominance that she undoubtedly feels more drawn to.

This unquestioning submission to this idea is what causes her demise. She assumes this
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false binary in herself, only to realize that neither completely ascribing to one or the other

of the contrasting behaviors will satisfy her needs and desires while at the same time

permitting hers mental health to remain stable. Lady Macbeth is driven to madness

because she surrenders herself wholly to one ideal. If she had recognized early on the

danger that assuming she embodied one extreme set of ideals, simply because she didnt

identify with those on the opposite end of the spectrum, she may have survived.

Shakespeare, through these various depictions of characters succumbing to the false

binary, emphasizes it as a problem and sets it apart as something that is highly


Lady Macbeth is the mastermind behind all of the schemes that the power hungry

couple undertakes. Masculinity is linked to ambition and violence in the play as Macbeth

remarks to Lady Macbeth, “For thy undaunted mettle should compose/Nothing but

males”(83-84). She manipulates her husband throughout the play and demonstrates a

great thirst for power and control. Both she and the three witches are some of the most

powerful characters of the play, which implies that women are often times as ambitious

and brutal as men. However, the fact that Lady Macbeth is reduced to a mad woman

scrubbing the imagined blood from her hands, is not a criticism of the woman’s inability

to assume a more masculine role, but is rather a criticism of binaries and what happens

when an individual submits themselves entirely to one of two extremes.

According to Penelope Oaks, a scholar of human psychology, this same

phenomenon of an assumed binary occurs in social categorization as well, because by

“simply telling people that there were two groups and they were in one of them—could

provoke discrimination” (Oaks, 811). This is the same with feminism, as what is
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commonly believed to be feminism, i.e. those beliefs and practices upheld by feminist

extremists, have strayed a great deal from how feminism originated. Of course it must be

acknowledged that institutions change with times and trends; this is unavoidable, but

what can be avoided is allowing these false binaries to exclude some and include others.

This is a poor and flawed foundation for equality to be built on, and those truly rallying

for it would be mislead in their attempts, if creating more of a division was their agenda.

In the majority of Shakespeare’s prolific works, he uses various techniques to criticize

societal norms, generally by portraying them in a forward-thinking way.

Setting aside the use of binaries, the play Twelfth Night perceptibly possesses a

great deal of feminist philosophies as well. Shakespeare uses the character of Viola to

shed light on the predicament of women at the time. Viola makes the choice to dress as a

man in order to be able to find work after being shipwrecked in Illyria. Without explicitly

saying so, the bard draws attention to the fact that women can and are capable of doing

what men can do, but because of societal limitations, are simply not given the

opportunities to do so. I have no doubt that this idea was favorable among women of the

time, especially seeing as the Renaissance era was a main contributor to the patriarchal

ideals that have been adopted in contemporary society. It was indisputably easy for

women of the time to identify with Viola’s plight, especially because of the dramatic

irony involved at the onset of the play, where only the audience is privy to Violas true

identity. This device is a technique intended to cause the audience to more intimately

identify with the plight of Viola as a woman in a mans world.

In Much Ado About Nothing Beatrice is a particularly strong, intelligent, and

quick whited character. The idea that despite her intelligence and strength, that she is
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limited because she is a woman, (specifically in the instance where she seeks revenge on

those who have slandered Hero) is a device used to both conjure sympathy for her from

the audience, and to highlight the inequality among men and women at the time. Beatrice

is anything but a shallow character, and the fact that she declares at the onset of the

comedy that “[she] would not [marry]… / lest [she] should prove the mother of fools,”

sets her apart from women at the time (280-281). This assertion she makes is albeit half-

hearted, but is probably motivated by the idea that marriage is either unappealing to her,

or that she feels she may never find someone suitable enough, which merely serves to add

more depth to her as a character. A female character reacting adversely to the idea of

marriage is another subtle hint Shakespeare plants to indicate that women are both

capable and intelligent creatures. When it is revealed that Beatrice is actually open to the

idea of marriage, but simply desires to do so for love, is yet another illusion to the plight

of women at the time and further highlights the injustice of Beatrice’s inability to fight

for her slighted friend.

In Michelene Wandor’s article The Impact of Feminism on Theater she discusses

the difficulty female playwrights are having in the present day to get there work out to the

masses as well as the rise in female actors. She explains that the plight of women in

theater is greatly due to “the way in which the traditional education system practices

favors boys over girls”(90). Another avenue in which women have struggled for equality

is entertainment. It is the belief of many, that in order to get its agenda across, feminism

has retreated to cinema, which has proved to dilute its power as a movement. Similarly,

recent film adaptions of Shakespeare have brought about “feminism’s so called

Renaissance in popular culture”(Lehmann, 261). These claims about contemporary

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cinema being a feminist renaissance, however, are rather short sighted, because the

problem with this “pop feminism” is that “it signals not a rebirth for women of the new

millennium but a reversion to oppressive conceptions of gender,” seeing as it is not a new

idea that media often over sexualizes women. (261). The more recent 90’s film adaptions

of Shakespeare plays are often set apart as having a feminist agenda not because they are

analyzed on a deeper level, but because they portray women in positions of power and get

their points across by being over the top. This is just one of the many examples of how

feminism has been sullied over time and how Shakespeare has even been dragged into it.

Shakespeare sought to present, not necessarily always what was popular (although

this was sometimes the case), but rather what was important. He has been known to draw

attention to important issues through the use of either drama, humor, satire, or sometimes

a combination of all three, and gender equality was merely one of those important issues.

Whether he was what could be categorized today as a feminist or not is irrelevant, what is

rather more important is how, in many ways, aspects of his plays represent feminist

ideals, and therefore lobby for equality in veiled ways. An important distinction to make,

however, is that Shakespeare never found it necessary to explain his intentions or

motivations. It is left up to the audience to glean meaning from his works, and the very

fact that he examined issues so ahead of his time is what has caused them to be popular

topics of discussion even today. Those things that rouse debate are the most intellectually

valuable, and those things that manage to continue to do so over great spans of time are

those most deserving of study.

Overtime, theater, and the arts in general, have been influenced by women and

feminism alike. Many authors, playwrights, and poets have been influenced by
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Shakespeare, the most notable of them being one of the foremothers of feminist thought,

Virginia Woolf. She was an early recognizer of binaries and the need to abolish them.

She believed it was more effective to attempt to fuse the male and female identity into a

single person, as a means of eliminating gender roles. Seeing as she was a pioneer of

progressive thinking, it was only natural that she found herself influenced by another

forward thinker. She once remarked that she felt, at various times, “oppressed” by

Shakespeare’s “greatness”(Sawyer, 1). It seems that Woolf both recognized genius in

Shakespeare’s work, while at the same time, intermittently criticized its structure and

form. In connecting the works of Shakespeare to more modern works, Robert Sawyer

articulates, “[Virginia] Woolf also produces a more modernist Shakespeare, an updated

bard who would be as comfortable in Bloomsbury in 1919 as in Bankside in 1594” (6).

Woolf “felt conflicted towards Shakespeare”, which she attributes to her unorthodox

education, as women were not permitted to attend university at the time. She was almost

entirely self-educated. She felt that the trouble she sometimes had with relating to

Shakespeare’s works most likely stemmed from this and from, what she felt, were

sometimes un-relatable characters.

In many Woolf’s literary works, including one of the most famous, Mrs.

Dalloway she makes illusions to Shakespeare. In this particular case of Mrs. Dalloway,

Septimus Warren Smith (one of the principle characters) pronounces, “he would not go

mad,” which is a clear echo of King Lear’s plea “O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet

heaven / Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!” (Sawyer, 8). Later in life, Woolf

accurately states that it was merciful and convenient that Shakespeare was a man not a

woman. The fact that he was a man made him an effective vehicle to lobby for change in
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subtle ways, because it is both an obvious and a sad fact that if he were a woman, he

would have been completely rejected by his generation. She saw the “English bard

extraordinaire” as a writer who transcended personality and as “an overwhelming

presence that is both inspiration and threat…both desired and dangerous” (Sawyer, 10).

In short, Woolf, as I am sure did many other female intellectuals, grappled with

Shakespeare’s poetry and dramas in such a way that her writing functioned as a praise of

and a reaction to his work, and in this way, his influence on modern feminism began.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is of course the argument that

Shakespeare, rather than lobbying for equality, presented patriarchal ideals in his works.

There is evidence for both of the disparate arguments, but I assert that in those instances

where the patriarchal argument appears to have more merit, as many assert is the case

with King Lear, that Shakespeare allows this to happen not because it was something he

sympathized with, but rather as a commentary—to point out the flaws in this type of

thinking. For those critics whose ideas align with the feminist critical perspective,

“Shakespeare is not free of his culture, but is locked within it” (McEachern, 270). Rather

than being an earthshattering interpretation, this simply misses the mark, because

“Shakespeare’s experience and understanding of the pressures that patriarchy exerts upon

its members enabled him to write plays that interrogate those same patriarchal systems”

(McEachern, 272). This makes him a double agent of sorts in the cause of feminism.

The part Shakespeare plays in the development of feminism was not deliberate,

which is another main hole in the argument suggesting he has anti-feminist tendencies.

His aim was merely to emphasize and criticize problematic societal practices. One of the

chief devices he uses in his plays to comment on patriarchy the depiction of the father-
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daughter relationship. In the case of Much Ado About Nothing those of the opposing view

jump at the chance to condemn Shakespeare as a supporter of the feminist critical

perspective as a result of a surface reading of the character Leonato, Hero’s father. As

patriarchy is principally preoccupied with the father being in control of the household and

having stewardship of all other members of his family, this analysis would seem to fit,

however, upon deeper analysis, Leonato becomes a father whose authority we question,

as we see he him quick to doubt his blameless daughter. When Hero is slandered by Don

John at the alter no less, the fact that she faints is an indication that, “she cannot bear the

weight of the accusation directed against her,” and as a result, “her subservience works to

de-idealize Leonato’s fatherhood” (McEachern, 290) Leonato abuses his authority when

he doesn’t trust in his daughter, and in this way, “Shakespeare, in letting us see such a

mistake, undermines our confidence in the power that we invest in fathers”(McEachern,

290). As is apparent by the evidence, Shakespeare, rather than resigning himself to the

problematic practices of the times, seeks instead to demystify, and expose them for what

they really are.

As it becomes evident that Shakespeare’s intentions were more likely focused on

setting himself apart as a forward thinking artist rather than on political identification, he

transforms into an accidental activist for equality, and for this very same reason, he was

an effective one. It is both interesting and surprising that a great deal of Shakespeare’s

fame must be attributed to the female scholars who so captivatingly reviewed his work

and helped produce it for the masses. When it is understood that what is at the heart of

feminism is not identification, but is rather empowering ideals, it becomes clear that

various aspects of Shakespeare’s plays, although at first glance may appear to rally
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against feminism, actually support it as a movement.

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Work Cited

Eger, Elizabeth. “‘Out Rushed a Female to Protect the Bard’: The Bluestocking Defense
of Shakespeare.” Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 65, no. 1/2, 2002, pp. 127–

Lehmann, Courtney. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Agenda: How Shakespeare and the
Renaissance Are Taking the Rage out of Feminism.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol.
53, no. 2, 2002, pp. 260–279. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Matsuura, Eleanor. “Was Shakespeare a feminist?” BBC iWonder, BBC,

McEachern, Claire. “Fathering Herself: A Source Study of Shakespeare's

Feminism.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 3, 1988, pp. 269–290. JSTOR,

Moi, Toril. “‘I Am Not a Feminist, but...": How Feminism Became the F-Word.” PMLA,
vol. 121, no. 5, 2006, pp. 1735–1741. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Sawyer, Robert. “Virginia Woolf and the Aesthetics of Modernist Shakespeare.” South
Atlantic Review, vol. 74, no. 2, 2009, pp. 1–19. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Wandor, Michelene. “The Impact of Feminism on the Theatre.” Feminist Review, no. 18,
1984, pp. 76–92. JSTOR, JSTOR,