Silenced Women in Othello, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, and The Merchant of Venice
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The Silenced Women in Othello, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, and The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
In the 16th century, women and men had specific gender roles that they were meant to follow, but William Shakespeare was ahead of his time by trying to allow women to show off what they were capable of. Women were viewed as possessions in the 16th century. They were to be married off to men who would take care of them as long as they remained loyal, quiet and obeyed their husbands. The men however were not always so faithful, but women were still expected to be the perfect wife. William Shakespeare however, did not believe that women were meant to be silent and should be able to do what a man could do, within limits. Shakespeare made some of his female characters strong, smart and capable, but as soon as they returned to their female roles, they would be silenced. Shakespeare would also create female characters who would have been considered the perfect wife, but would still end up silenced. In the article “Revisiting Shakespeare and Gender” it says:
Although Shakespeare reflects and at times supports the English Renaissance stereotypes of women and men and their various roles and responsibilities in society, he is also a writer who questions, challenges, and modifies those representations.
Everything that was around Shakespeare would have affected his writing, so in order to better understand his plays, people have to understand what it was like in the 16th century. There was an unmarried female ruler at that time. Queen Elizabeth would have influenced Shakespeare’s writing and how he viewed the gender stereotypes put onto both men and women during that time period. In Othello, Macbeth, Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare provides female characters who deliberately stray from the typical female roles in the 16th century by taken on the roles of males and he also provides female characters who commit to the female roles of society, but in the end all of the women are silenced by marriage or death by returning to their female roles.
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Men in the 16th century were strong and worked hard for their families. They could work as doctors or lawyers that required an education. They ran farms or businesses and in some cases would allow their wives or daughters to work with them to help them out. Some boys were not allowed to go to school because they were expected to help out around the family business right away or start helping to provide for their family if they were poor by the time they were seven. Men had arranged marriages. Women were possessions to them and a way for them to pass down their name and business and possibly gain more wealth (Lambert).
Women in the 16th century were meant to be silent, faithful and obedient. Women weren’t allowed to work as doctors or lawyers. They were meant to stay at home and take care of the house. They were allowed to work as bakers or embroiders or other jobs that didn’t require education. Most women were wives and mothers in the 16th century because it was difficult to survive on their own. Marriage was arranged and the girls could marry when they were 12 years old. They were expected to have a baby about every two years and if they were rich they would have a baby about every year. A lot of women would die in childbirth due to infection. Girls were not allowed to go to grammar school, but if the family was wealthy, then they were taught at home. According to the article “Life for Women in the 16th Century,”
Tutors taught upper class girls. Middle class girls were taught reading, writing, arithmetic and skills like sewing by their mothers. Merchant’s daughters were very often taught to run their father’s business. Some women were taught to read by their husbands or by the parish priest.
Some upper class women were highly educated like King Henry VIII’s wives and his daughter (Lambert). William Shakespeare would have been influenced by what society was used to in the 16th century and that would have affected his writing.
King Henry VIII believed that women should be educated, which is why he had educated his wives and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth. Queen Elizabeth became queen after her father, brother and sister died. After her father died, Edward VI became king, but then he died and Mary became queen. Mary had Elizabeth imprisoned at the Tower of London because she saw her as a threat. Eventually Mary allowed Elizabeth back at court and Mary died and Elizabeth became queen. She ruled for 45 years and never married or gave birth to any children (Sharnette). Queen Elizabeth established an English Protestant Church and approved many successful military campaigns, one was the Spanish Armada, which was one of the greatest military victories in English history (The Life of Queen Elizabeth I). According to Heather Sharnett in the article “Queen Elizabeth I:”
Philip had spoken of invading England and dethroning Elizabeth for years but the execution of the Queen of Scots gave him an added incentive. Now he could claim the English throne for himself and not for her. In the summer of 1588 he sent his mighty Armada fleet against England. But by superior tactics, ship design, and sheer good fortune, the English defeated them. Elizabeth’s popularity reached its zenith. It was also another personal triumph as she had proved that she, a woman, could lead in war as well as any man.
Queen Elizabeth would use her unmarried status as a way to lure in those who she wanted to defeat and also as a threat that she might marry someone else’s enemy. She almost married twice, but she was loyal to her country and knew that it would have been a disaster (Sharnette). For a woman to be an unmarried ruler with so much success to show in the 16th century would have been difficult for people to understand and accept. William Shakespeare saw her success and was influenced by it to include female characters in his plays who didn’t conform to the typical female roles put on them by society at the time and when they did conform to the gender roles, they were ultimately silenced.
William Shakespeare wrote the play Othello, in which he gave Desdemona the characteristics of being loyal, obedient and quiet. Desdemona would have been considered the perfect wife in the 16th century, however she ends up dead. William Shakespeare wrote, “Thou art rash as fire, / to say that she was false. Oh, she was / heavenly true!” (Act V, Scene II). Emilia was trying to tell Othello that he had lost his mind because she never cheated and she was only true to him. William Shakespeare also wrote, “Nay, lay thee down and roar, / For thou hast killed the sweetest innocent / That e’er did lift up eye” (Act V, Scene II). Emilia was again telling Othello that he was mistaken for killing Desdemona and that he should be upset that he killed her because she was the most innocent and sweetest woman to ever live. Desdemona was the perfect wife and stayed true to Othello even when he was cruel to her and angry. She stayed innocent, sweet, loyal and quiet. William Shakespeare created a character who was the perfect wife in the 16th century and then silenced her because women shouldn’t be quiet and they need to speak out against the angry men who are disloyal to them. William Shakespeare believed that women could be more than what society told them to be in the 16th century, which is why Shakespeare silenced the woman who did everything right.
Even though Desdemona did everything right, she was still considered a strong female character. She disobeyed her father and married Othello, but she also spoke out against Othello when he strikes her and calls her a devil. William Shakespeare wrote, “I have not deserved this” (Act IV, Scene I). She becomes upset that he hit her and even Lodovico tells Othello that he should apologize because she is now crying. She leaves so that she doesn’t continue to make him angry, but she is strong by staying with him. She knows by the end that she may have made a mistake by marrying Othello because she knew of his anger and still was foolish enough to marry him. She thinks she only has herself to blame for marrying him too quickly. William Shakespeare created a strong female character to be silenced in the end for staying in her female roles and not speaking out against Othello and his anger later in the play.
William Shakespeare silenced Desdemona in Act V, Scene II. When she was silenced she was claiming to be innocent and Emilia is crying out for her friend. For Desdemona’s last words Shakespeare wrote, “Nobody. I myself. Farewell. / Commend me to my kind lord. Oh, farewell!” (Act V, Scene II). Even in death Desdemona was still faithful to her husband. She took the blame for dying and said that she killed herself. William Shakespeare is trying to say that by doing everything right as a woman in the 16th century, Desdemona ended up dead. Women aren’t meant to be quiet possessions for their husbands. Women are strong and when they hide that part of themselves to hide behind a man, then they end up silenced through death in Othello. Shakespeare saw a female ruler who was strong and led without a husband and didn’t see that as a weakness, but as a strength. Women become silenced when they conform to the female roles that society puts on them.
In Macbeth by William Shakespeare, the main female character is Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth differs from Desdemona because she is more outspoken and has more influence over her husband’s actions. Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth that he should kill the king to fulfill the prophecy and become king himself. In the beginning of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is seen as stronger, more ruthless and more ambitious than her husband. William Shakespeare wrote:
Yet do I fear thy nature; / It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great, / Art not without ambition, but without / The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly, / That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false, / And yet wouldst wrongly win. Thou’ld’st have, great Glamis, / That which cries, “Thus thou must do,” if thou have it, / And that which rather thou dost fear to do, / Than wishest should be undone (Act I, Scene V).
Lady Macbeth is telling her husband that he is too weak to take the crown for himself and kill the king in order to do so. He lacks ambition and power. She tells him that he is too kind to be aggressive about what needs to be done. Lady Macbeth is trying to manipulate her husband into killing the king so that they would be the rulers like the witches said would happen. She manipulates him by telling him that he is not man enough to do what is needed to be done. Shakespeare wrote:
What beast was ’t, then, / That made you break this enterprise to me? / When you durst do it, then you were a man; / And to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place / Did then adhere, and yet you would make both. / They have made themselves, and that their fitness now / Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know / How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me. / I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums / And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you / Have done to this (Act I, Scene VII).
Lady Macbeth tells her husband that she would have killed for him, but he is having doubts, so she implies that it makes him less of a man. She manipulates him into murder by taunting his manhood. As the play goes on and Macbeth becomes king, he finds more confidence in himself and less use for his wife telling him what to do, which drives her mad. Macbeth decided to have Banquo killed without Lady Macbeth and instead of consulting with her like he used to, he made the plans alone. His confidence grew as hers was squashed. Shakespeare wrote:
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Naught’s had, all’s spent, / Where our desire is got without content. / ‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy / Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy. / How now, my lord! Why do you keep alone, / Of sorriest fancies your companions making, / Using those thoughts which should indeed have died / With them they think on? Things without all remedy / Should be without regard. What’s done is done (Act III, Scene II).
Lady Macbeth sees that Macbeth no longer needs her to make decisions and realizes that killing the king might not have been the right choice. Slowly she begins to lose who she was as a strong, ruthless and ambitious woman because she grows more submissive to her husband. William Shakespeare made Lady Macbeth into a strong female character only to have her characteristics striped away by her husband taking on those characteristics instead. Lady Macbeth challenges him to be more of a man only to realize that she didn’t actually want him to be more of a man because that takes away her power.
Lady Macbeth ends up silenced by killing herself because she could no longer handle being slowly stripped away of her power by her own husband. In Act V, Scene I Lady Macbeth begins sleep walking and the doctor is worried about what is bothering her mind. In Act V, Scene III Lady Macbeth begins to babble about how Banquo is dead and how she can’t get the blood off her hands. Lady Macbeth’s last words of the play are, “To bed, to bed. There’s knocking at the gate. Come, come, come, come. Give me your hand. What’s done cannot be undone.—To bed, to bed, to bed!” (Act V, Scene I). In her mind she keeps replaying the death of the king and how the blood is on her hands. It is assumed that Lady Macbeth kills herself because she couldn’t handle being crazy and having no one to talk to. Her husband grew in his confidence which leads him to his death as well, but Lady Macbeth couldn’t handle the fact that her husband stripped away her power by gaining his own, which leads her to be silenced.
William Shakespeare provides a female character who is silenced by marriage and by cross-dressing in Twelfth Night. Throughout the play, Viola is recognized as a character who is likable and someone whose love is the purest. Viola cross-dresses as Cesario to mourn her brother. She becomes the servant to Orsino who loves Olivia. Viola is silenced by her cross-dressing because she is not able to tell Orsino how she really feels about him. William Shakespeare wrote, “My father had a daughter loved a man / As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman, / I should your lordship” (Act II, Scene VI). When Orsino asks Viola who she loves she tells him that it would be someone like him because she really is in love with him, but she can’t tell him because she is dressed as a boy. William Shakespeare wrote:
My master loves her dearly, / And I, poor monster, fond as much on him, / And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me. / What will become of this? As I am man, / My state is desperate for my master’s love. / As I am woman, now, alas the day, / What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe! / O time, thou must untangle this, not I. / It is too hard a knot for me to untie! (Act II, Scene II).
Viola is hopelessly in love with her master and Olivia is hopelessly in love with Cesario. Neither one will work out because Viola is really a woman. Viola continues to be silenced by interfering in the male world and attempting to take on male attributes. She is funny and obedient, but she continues to suffer because she can’t speak out as a woman. Shakespeare wrote, “My lord wants to speak. It’s my duty to be quiet” (Act V, Scene I). Orsino even finds himself liking Cesario because he contains female attributes as well, but knows he can’t like him because he is a boy. William Shakespeare silenced Viola through cross-dressing and marriage to show that once women return to their female roles, they are silenced and also to show that if women take on male attributes, they are silenced as well because Viola is not allowed to tell Orsino how she truly feels about him.
Viola is also muted once she returns to her female self by marriage. As soon as she reveals that she is actually a woman, Orsino offers to marry her and she doesn’t speak again in the play. William Shakespeare wrote, “The captain that did bring me first on shore / Hath my maid’s garments. He, upon some action, / Is now in durance at Malvolio’s suit, / A gentleman and follower of my lady’s” (Act V, Scene I). Viola’s last words were to explain where her women’s clothes were and explains who Malvolio is to her. Even though Viola knew that Orsino is in love with Olivia, she still agrees to marry him because she is in love with him. Orsino’s love changes easily, but Viola love is pure and stays the same and once she goes back to her female roles she is silenced. William Shakespeare silences Viola because women in the 16th century become muted once they return to their female selves.
William Shakespeare created one of the strongest female characters in his play The Merchant of Venice. Portia was strong willed and becomes silent by cross-dressing as a lawyer to help save her husband’s friend. Portia remains obedient to her father’s last wishes of having her future husband pick the right chest. Two suitors come before Bassanio who Portia doesn’t really like and doesn’t want to marry and she allows them to pick a chest right away. When Bassanio arrives, she convinces him to hang out for a while before he chooses a chest. William Shakespeare wrote:
I pray you, tarry. Pause a day or two / Before you hazard, for in choosing wrong / I lose your company. Therefore forbear awhile. / There’s something tells me—but it is not love— / would not lose you, and you know yourself / Hate counsels not in such a quality. / But lest you should not understand me well— / And yet a maiden hath no tongue but thought— / I would detain you here some month or two / Before you venture for me. I could teach you / How to choose right, but I am then forsworn. / So will I never be. So may you miss me. / But if you do, you’ll make me wish a sin, / That I had been forsworn. Beshrew your eyes, / They have o’erlooked me and divided me. / One half of me is yours, the other half yours— / Mine own, I would say. But if mine, then yours, / And so all yours. Oh, these naughty times / Put bars between the owners and their rights! / And so, though yours, not yours. Prove it so. / Let Fortune go to hell for it, not I. / I speak too long, but ’tis to peize the time, / To eke it and to draw it out in length, / To stay you from election (Act III, Scene II).
Portia wants Bassanio to choose the right casket, but she doesn’t want to disobey her father’s orders to instead she might hint to him which casket to pick. With the other suitors she didn’t bother to talk to them before choosing, but she wanted to be able to choose for herself who she was going to marry. A song plays alongside Bassanio as he walks toward the caskets. Of course he picks the right one and gets to marry Portia. Later in the play he decides that he needs to go save his friend Antonio and Portia allows him to do so. In Act III, Scene IV Lorenzo tells Portia how kind she is for allowing her husband to go and save his friend. Portia also remains in control of the money once they are married, which would have been abnormal in the 16th century. Usually the man would have taken control of her money once they were married, but Portia gives him money to go and save his friend. William Shakespeare created a strong female character who isn’t silenced by marriage as they typically are, but is silenced by cross-dressing and taking on male attributes to achieve her goals.
In the 16th century, women were not allowed into professions like being a lawyer or doctor. Portia was wealthy, so she was most likely educated at home, but if she had shown up to court dressed like a lady, they would have never taken her seriously. She knew she was able to help, so she silenced herself by dressing like a man in order to help her husband. As payment she asked for the ring that she had gave him earlier. When he returns home she is furious that he lost the ring. William Shakespeare wrote:
If you had known the virtue of the ring, / Or half her worthiness that gave the ring, / Or your own honor to contain the ring, / You would not then have parted with the ring. / What man is there so much unreasonable, / If you had pleased to have defended it / With any terms of zeal, wanted the modesty / To urge the thing held as a ceremony? / Nerissa teaches me what to believe. / I’ll die for ’t but some woman had the ring (Act V, Scene I).
Portia wanted to make sure that Bassanio knew that she was worth a lot more than the ring and that she demanded to be treated with respect while they were married. She also wanted him to know that it was her who saved the day and was able to be quick-witted and smart enough to be a lawyer. Portia was the second to last person to speak in the entire play because she refused to give up her power to her husband. She held onto who she was before Bassanio, which is why William Shakespeare did not silence her in the end to marriage.
By creating strong female characters in Othello, Macbeth, Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare is showing his audience what women could be capable of if they didn’t conform to the typical female roles put on them by society in the 16th century. Desdemona was strong enough to speak out against her husband when she didn’t deserve his anger, but ended up silenced by death for returning to her quiet and obeying female roles. Lady Macbeth was ambitious and powerful in the beginning of the play, but as her husband grew more confident, he stripped away her power and drove her mad and she ended up silenced by killing herself because she couldn’t stand not having that power. Viola ends up silenced through cross-dressing and marriage because she isn’t allowed to tell Orsino how she really feels and once she does, she no longer speaks in the play. Portia remains powerful and strong throughout the play, but still is silenced through cross-dressing because the men would not have taken her seriously as a woman. William Shakespeare was ahead of his time in believing that women could be more than what society said they should be in the 16th century. He believed that if women were able to be true to themselves, then they would be more powerful, like Queen Elizabeth.
- Lambert, Tim. “Life for Women in the 16th Century.” Women in the 16th Century, www.localhistories.org/women.html
- “The Life of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603).” Luminarium, www.luminarium.org/renlit/elizabio.htm.
- “Revisiting Shakespeare and Gender.” WILLA v5 – Revisiting Shakespeare and Gender, scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/old-WILLA/fall96/gerlach.html.
- Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. BiblioLife, 2009.
- Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Methuen, 1985.
- Shakespeare, William. Othello. British Home Entertainment, 1965.
- Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority, Library, 2018.
- Sharnette, Heather. “QUEEN ELIZABETH I(1533-1603).” Queen Elizabeth 1, www.elizabethi.org/.
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