Tamed Shrews And Twelfth Nights: The Role Of Women In Shakespeare

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 that he lived in. 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 him.
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 whom she need prove nothing
to 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