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The Complexity of Female Roles’ Portrayal in Shakespeare's Plays

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The Complexity of Female Roles’ Portrayal in Shakespeare's Plays essay

In Shakespearean plays, the female roles are consistently more complex than the male ones, and though the protagonists are often male, the action is frequently directed by a woman. Though the female characters are often perceived to have a definite aspect of craftiness to their personalities, the trickery that sometimes accompanies this craftiness is used for causes that, it can be argued, are honorable both today and during the era when the plays were written. In the play “Measure for Measure”, it is Isabella who sets the quick pace of the play when she approaches Angelo about her brother’s sentence, and it is Mariana who takes fate into her own hands when she agrees to switch places with Isabella in Angelo’s garden.

In “The Merchant of Venice”, it is Jessica that steals away with Lorenzo and Shylock’s money. Portia immediately decides to aid her husband Bassanio when he takes leave to help his beloved friend Antonio. Women are portrayed in these plays in several ways at once; it is as though a great many colored spotlights are shining on them during a single performance. They are simultaneously seen in a sympathetic light, a noble light, a clever light, and a determined light. These viewpoints sometimes muddle together and create complicated and problematic characters, but generally offer a sense of verisimilitude that surpasses the relatively simplistic male roles.

One of these problematic characters is Mariana. Admittedly, she is hardly a central character in “Measure for Measure”, not introduced until Act IV, Scene 1, and then appearing only briefly in two more scenes. On the surface, it seems as though she is merely a convenient way to advance the plot. Once Mariana introduced, Angelo is revealed as the bad guy he is, Claudio escapes death, Isabella remains a virgin, and Mariana herself wins the man for whom she has been longing. Though she helps to “capture” the villain in the end, and though she appears deceptively simple, Mariana is quite a complicated character.

Like so many female Shakespearean characters, she has been wronged by a man, and she seeks justice by wronging Angelo in return. This contributes to the problematic ending, in which the only truly happy couple is Claudio and Juliet. Mariana’s method of remedying the situation creates a sense of ambiguity with regards to the very moral questions the play seems designed to explore. As the “solution” to so many characters’ problems, her equivocal actions make a clear interpretation of the text difficult.

On a deeper level, however, Mariana is a feminine hero. She deals with the unequal position of women in Shakespearean society. Though readers today may view Mariana’s methods as problematic, she most likely elicited cheers from women in Shakespearean audiences. Mariana loses her brother and her dowry at sea, and Angelo leaves her. She thus loses both of her male supports in one disheartening blow. It seems as though she is doomed to suffer in isolation, as most women in her situation would. However, Mariana is determined to win back her rights and her lost lover, despite his wretchedness. This is an admirable display of independence and tenacity. In the final scene, the chastened Angelo falls under her control, and Mariana is able to overcome societal conditions while saving Isabella’s virginity and Claudio’s life.

Mariana is not the only complex, layered female character in “Measure for Measure”. While it is clear that Angelo wants nothing more than control and sexual power, Isabella is far more complicated, and therefore more realistic. She is a sexually repressed, innocent idealist with a slightly twisted (though subconscious) desire for martyrdom. While the other residents of Vienna sit idly by and watch Claudio paraded through town as Angelo’s trophy, and even Claudio makes no attempt to save his life, Isabella jumps into action immediately upon hearing the news. She goes directly from her convent to Angelo to plead Claudio’s case.

It is here, however, that her true mindset begins to be revealed, and we see that she is not as innocent as we have been led to believe. Though she is too innocent to grasp the implications behind Angelo’s words when he asks if she would “Give up [her] body to such sweet uncleanliness / As she that [your brother] hath stained?” (II.4.54-55), her response reveals a mind in which pain and sexuality are strangely mingled:

Were I under the terms of death,

Th’impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies,

And strip myself to death as to a bed

That long I have been sick for, ere I’d yield

My body up to shame. (II.4.100-104)

Though Isabella would rather suffer a terrible, agonizing death than relinquish her chastity, her language fails to indicate actual pain. She instead implies that a martyr’s delight lies in suffering; her blood would be treasured and displayed for all to see, as rubies. The potentially masochistic significance of whipping is further enforced by her word choice: “keen”, “strip”, and “bed” (for which she longs). Here, Isabella imagines that in a martyr’s death she would find all of the sexual fulfillment that she would be denied were she to enter the nunnery. When she consciously realizes Angelo’s implications, her answer is unambiguous: she would rather give up her brother’s life than surrender her virginity.

While Isabella’s decision might seem cold-hearted to a modern reader, readers during Shakespeare’s era would empathize with her more easily. To give herself to Angelo would mean eternal damnation, and to abstain would result in only a clean death for her brother. It is extremely idealistic on Isabella’s part, however, to assume that her brother will follow suit. Her cleverness is revealed when she begins her conversation with Claudio by speaking lowly of Angelo so that Claudio will see the baseness of Angelo’s request, saying that should her brother wish it, it would “…fetter [him] till death. (III.1.66)”

Isabella’s sinister side is explored further when she reports back to the Duke disguised as a friar, hiding the fact that she has made plans to meet with Angelo in his garden at night. Her tone suggests that she is, in fact, enjoying the masquerade: she expresses her amusement at Angelo’s enthusiastic desire to show her “[t]he way twice o’er. (IV.1.38)” Similarly, she is pleased with the fact that she has invented a waiting servant in order to explain the briefness of her visit.

Like Mariana, Isabella is a sort of savior. She takes matters into her own hands, and when faced with failure she simply puts another plan into action. In this manner, Isabella heightens the complexity of the play: there is really no answer that she can give to the Duke’s proposal at the end of the play that would not alter the reader’s feelings for her and seriously compromise her already questionable moral standing. Rather than risk that, the play ends with the reader wondering what Shakespeare had in mind, and leaves Isabella with her honor intact. She is a very true-to-life character, unsure of what she wants, but able to hide a few tricks up her sleeve. Isabella is portrayed as confused and a bit egotistical, but, like Mariana, her heart is in the right place.

In “The Merchant of Venice”, the roles of women are similarly layered. The females are complicated characters that immediately go for what they want, letting nothing stand in their way. Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, is one example of this. We learn in Act II, Scene 3 how Jessica feels toward her father: “Our house is hell, and thou a merry devil / Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness. (II.3.2-3)” Jessica begins her mischief as soon as her father is out of earshot – she gives Lancelot a letter to deliver to her secret love, Lorenzo, thereby setting her plan in motion. Thus begins one of the play’s many interwoven plots.

Here, however, it is the male character who is taking orders from a female character. Lorenzo tells Gratiano and Salerio how Jessica “hath directed / How I shall take her from her father’s house” (II.4.29-30). In fact, Jessica is the torchbearer, the one literally lighting Lorenzo’s way. Not only does she succeed in escaping the unwanted male protection, but she overcomes the societal assumption that the male leads the way in a relationship.

Portia also leaps over this massive hurdle without so much as flinching. We begin to see the depth of her character the very first time she is introduced, in Act I, Scene 2. Though she at first may seem spoiled, complaining about the many suitors that seek her hand, closer inspection reveals her true character. Portia’s suitors are judged not on the basis of wealth or goods, but in terms of personal and moral qualities. However, despite her feelings for these men, she has no control over the selection. Her father’s will rules her choice of husband. Portia’s seeming centrality is revealed as false during a series of transactions with the Princes of Morocco and Arragon. In truth, she is merely an object of exchange, passing from her father’s hands into those of a lucky suitor. It is only when Bassanio is chosen as her husband that Portia begins to exercise her power of manipulation, helping her to overcome her position of weakness.

Portia’s gift of her ring to Bassanio is more significant than one might imagine. The ring is a visual sign of her vow of love and submission. It is a representation of Portia’s acceptance of her new place in society, which is characterized by her subjection, her loss of legal rights, and her status as “goods”. Furthermore, it signifies her place in a male-dominated hierarchy. At first, this declaration of love seems to show Portia’s acceptance of a woman’s place in such a system. It is only with her final disclaimer that we begin to see that she may not be so easily subdued.

This ring,

Which when you part from, lose, or give away,

Let it presage the ruin of your love,

And be my vantage to exclaim on you. (III.2.171-174)

The gift of her ring is the beginning of Portia’s plan to gain control over her life after so many years of oppression at the hands of her now-deceased father.

When Bassanio leaves for Venice to aid his friend, he has no ideas about what to do, unlike his wife, who already has a plan in mind. Portia embodies the traditional female when she promises Bassanio that in his absence she and Nerissa will live as “widows”, and tells Lorenzo that they will leave immediately for the convent. This fits the conventional ideal of womanhood at that time; women were expected to be chaste, silent, and obedient. Portia first evokes the ideal of a proper lady, and then transgresses it. She takes off for Venice dressed as a man, engages in public speech suitable only for males, and, most significantly, actively partakes in a trial. Portia practices a profession that depends upon knowledge, logic, reasoning, and rhetoric, all of which were areas of education not readily available to women. She surpasses the expectations of the average female, and is victorious in court.

However, “The Merchant of Venice” does not end with this victory. When Portia asks Bassanio to return her ring, knowing that she herself has secretly taken it, she reveals the conniving side of her personality. In losing his ring, Bassanio seems paradoxically to lose the male priviliges promised by the exchange of Portia and the ring, and he gives Portia “vantage to exclaim” on him. This is echoed in Gratiano’s loss of Nerissa’s ring. The rings no longer represent traditional relationships: they now symbolize female power – a power that was nonexistent for traditional females in the Shakespearean era.

The complicated female characters in Shakespearean plays have extraordinary significance. Isabella, Mariana, Jessica, and Portia all share qualities that set them apart from traditional women. These characters are dynamic, optimistic role models who take control of the lives that society says do not belong to them, but rather are the property of their fathers, brothers, and husbands. Their deeds often set the action of the plays in motion, keep the ball rolling, and pick it up at the end. These complex characters offer a refreshing sense of verisimilitude that their male counterparts do not possess. In these plays, Shakespeare reveals himself as a true feminist, and uses the electric female psyche to move the action along. These women cross the boundaries of societal laws and break down the power structure, ultimately emerging victorious.

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The Complexity of Female Roles’ Portrayal in Shakespeare’s Plays. (2018, May 23). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from
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