.. van Engl. 141-Mid-Term Essay March 30, 2000 Youve Come a Long Way Baby! Shakespeares presentation and portrayal of his female characters in The Merchant of Venice and Henry V follows a typical pattern that is present in all of the Shakespearean plays that I have read so far. When looking closely at the fate of his female characters, this pattern becomes even more evident for it repeats itself no matter how different the plays are. For instance, Henry V and The Merchant of Venice are different in every respect.
The female characters not only come from different backgrounds, they also have very different personalities. However, as different as these plays and their characters are, the female characters end up suffering the same fate. It doesnt seem to matter whether they are born into a life of peasantry, nobility, or come from royalty, for they ultimately will end up being no better than a piece of land, or cattle, or some possession that a man can own and do with as he pleases. Scholars have been debating for centuries now as to whether Shakespeares women reflect his societys attitudes or that of his own. Henry V is definitely geared more for the male audience. There are only two or three acts in which a female character is present at all.
When we first get a glimpse of Katherine, she is trying to learn the English language. This scene is supposed to be somewhat comical, but are we really supposed to believe that while there is a war raging throughout her country, that all Katherine is concerned about is the fact that she cant speak the language of her enemy? This scene in which we get our first glimpse of Katherine is somewhat degrading to her character as well as misleading. This leaves the audience with the inaccurate perception that Katherine, and thus all women in general, care very little about whats going on around them, and more about making themselves presentable. Afterall, isnt Katherine the “Grand Prize” that will be awarded to the winning side? I find it very insulting that Shakespeares only significant female role in the whole play, is being used as a ” Prize” to be given away. Shakespeare doesnt even try to hide the fact that he is setting Katherine up as a prize. I find this kind of arrogance to be offensive and very belittling to women. While the men are off fighting the battle, Katherine, the future Queen of France, does not appear to be a bit concerned over the fate of her own country.
Instead, she readily accepts her fate as she prepares herself for the role of Queen of England. This play is very biased and one-sided. Most of the English men are portrayed as noble, humble and superior to the French. Henry himself can do no wrong, and is portrayed through out the play as the best leader that the English have ever had. This image that he can do no wrong and is as close to being perfect as one can get, only holds up if you dont go digging around in Henrys past, in which he had been portrayed as a spoiled, pampered partying boy.
The French, in contrast to the English, are presented as arrogant, incompetent, and weak, very similar to what Henry had been not to long ago. There is, however, one thing lower than a Frenchman, and that is, a French woman. The fact that Shakespeare subjected Katherines character, (she, who had been born into royalty which was the highest social position one can reach), to being treated as a possession or prize for a man, only adds credence to the argument that Shakespeare had very little respect for women. Katherine character, for the most part, adds very little, if anything at all, to the play. In fact, the role of Katherine could have easily been omitted altogether, and personally, I wish it had been The last act, in which Henry easily manages to win the affections of Katherine, is a weak attempt on Shakespeares part to end the play on a an uplifting note. Its a shame that Shakespeare put it in at all because it definitely changes the way I feel about this play, in particular, as well as the others.
The women characters in The Merchant of Venice are treated with much more respect than Katherine had been. However, I have a feeling that its only due to the fact that Shakespeare thinks less of “Jews” than he does women. The Merchant of Venice, does have a strong cast of women who play very important roles throughout the play. These women are much more impressive than those found in Henry V. Portia, in particular, is by far the superior one of the play.
Like Queen Elizabeth herself, Portias character is a blending of femininity and masculinity. Portia has great strength of character, a quick wit, and is very well educated in the affairs of the world around her which is not a common theme in Shakespeares women. She is in every respect far superior to the fools she ends up being surrounded by. This might not have been the case if it werent for the fact that she, with all her intelligence and wit is still being dictated by a male. Her dead father dictates her life through his will.
I guess Shakespeare does not miss an opportunity to put even the most superior of all women in her place as he does just that to Portia. For all her power, riches, and strengths, she still is no better than the man she marries. Her new husband, Barsenio, is no match for her, and yet he is handed over everything that belongs to her, including her soul. Although Shakespeare gives the very best of qualities and traits to the female character Portia, he knows that in spite of her superiority and domination over all the other characters including the male characters, he can later strip her of all her greatness at any time, and does just that at the end of the play. What I find so unbelievable is the way that Shakespeares women just hand over everything including themselves, no questions asked, to a man they hardly know and yet willingly and happily marry.
I have a hard time believing that women of his day did this duty so graciously. Portias portrayal of being such a strong figure and at the same time, a woman who is subservient to her times, makes me question whether Shakespeare really knew what was gong on in the minds of the Elizabethan women. Just the fact that he disguises his women characters up as men in order to bring them to higher levels, leads me to believe that he is just making it all up as he goes along. Dont get me wrong, I love most of Shakespeares work. Its just his female characters that I have a problem with.
When reading Shakespeare it is easy to question what his motives might have been. Scholars have been doing this for centuries. We will never be sure as to whether or not Shakespeare was reflecting the times or his own feelings. One must keep in mind when reading Shakespeare that hs writings are not historically accurate and therefore most likely only reflect his views on things. I only hope that is the case, for I cant imagine women ever being so passive.
Could we have really been the passive beings that Shakespeare portrays women as, I seriously doubt it.