Shakespeare's comedies promote female emancipation
Compared to many of his contemporaries, Shakespeare's comedic work is often surprisingly sensitive regarding women, presenting them as intelligent and independent characters.
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In Shakespeare's day, women were legally considered male property (belonging either to their father or husband depending on whether they were married), and as such were not often considered to have their own agency or talent, meaning Shakespeare's depiction of female characters sometimes breaks social stereotypes. However, an important challenge to this prevailing view of women was the rule of Elizabeth I, who was queen of England for much of Shakespeare's life and career. She was a powerful ruler who was admired by many important men of her era, and is sometimes considered to be a significant inspiration for some of Shakespeare's female characters.
Shakespeare's comedies promote female emancipation more than any other genre of his work, showcasing women's abilities to make their own decisions, find happiness in love and assert themselves through romantic and familial struggles. Many of the comedies deal with a central female figure who is either seeking or avoiding marriage, and although the majority of plays end with a wedding, Shakespeare goes to great lengths to present the happiness of the female protagonist in her match and display her intelligence and decisiveness. For example, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing is a sharp-tongued, witty young woman whose early scenes in the play involve insulting and engaging in elaborate verbal sparring with Benedict, her eventual beau. This displays a modern and refreshing image of romantic compatibility based on humour and intellect. Another example is Viola in Twelfth Night, who disguises herself as a eunuch and is employed by the king as a close servant. Here, Shakespeare uses the comedy genre to prove that a woman can successfully occupy a male role in society. The comedies appeal to women through their strong female characters so much so that several of Shakespeare's comedies have been adapted to contemporary films aimed at young women, such as Ten Things I Hate About You (based on The Taming of the Shrew) and She's The Man (based on Twelfth Night).
Although some of Shakespeare's female characters are independent and assertive, these often appear the exception rather than the rule. In Hamlet, one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, the figure of Ophelia is a typical presentation of an irrational and ridiculous woman who disobeys male advice, with critic Elaine Showalter even calling her a "Tinker Bell" figure. The comedic heroines never reach the status of the male tragic heroes or historical kings as the comedic plots are less focused on her as an individual and more focused on society. There are characters in the comedies who perpetuate the idea of women as submissive, such as Hero in 'Much Ado About Nothing' and Celia in 'As You Like It'. Shakespeare presents these characters as conventionally feminine and delicate, under the control of their families or a more domineering female character. Suggesting Shakespeare's work actively promotes female emancipation is inaccurate and ignores historical context. This argument is only a response to modern interpretations of his work. His plays do not necessarily suggest female emancipation in their original context.
[P1] Shakespeare’s comedies showcase women’s intelligence and ability to make their own decisions in a world where women’s opinions were often not valued. [P2] He gives women happy endings as well as time to display their personalities and intelligence throughout the play. [P3] His appeal to women is so significant that some of his comedies have been adapted into teenage comedy films directed at young women.
Rejecting the premises
Many of Shakespeare’s plays, however, display sexist attitudes and female characters who exist purely to serve the interests of the male dramatic leads. Several female characters in the comedies are presented as submissive and passive foils to more “aggressive” female characters. Suggesting Shakespeare’s work actively promotes female emancipation ignores the social conventions of his era.