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Women and Patriarchal Society in Shakespeare

The domination of women through patriarchal expectations is common throughout Shakespeare’s works. An examination of Ophelia, Hero, and Desdemona portrays their victimization through male-centred forms of power. These patriarchal power structures classify women as walking wombs who must remain virtuous until marriage. The pressure from these expectations leaves women weak and vulnerable. As long as they appear subservient to men, they are considered good. However, the more women try to represent modesty, chastity, and loyalty, the more they are victimized. Male domination causes women to remain childlike rather than attain maturity. Because of the passive ideals placed on women, they become unable to act and think for themselves and cannot fully understand intimacy. As Dusinberre believes, ‘The struggle for women is to be human in a world which declares them only female.’1 Through Shakespeare’s depiction, woman are confined and deprived of submissive obedience.

Most people believe Hamlet’s Ophelia to be ‘the most static and one-dimensional’ character.2 She has been labelled as innocent, defenceless and helpless due to her dominating father and brother. Dreher states, ‘She has been alternately pitied and condemned,’3 others have classified her, ‘a helpless victim,’4 who ‘must seek to hear her own voice,’5 and who ‘obeys the commands of her brother and father.’6 Although these critiques are based on the text, a feminist’s glance shows that Ophelia is more than what superficial analysis allows her to be. ‘Traditional readings portrayed her as a simple, pretty girl of flowers whose mad scenes were artfully sung and danced.’7 These representations ignore the pain beneath Ophelia’s innocent shell. The tragic events of her life should be given more attention and consideration. Instead of attempting to understand her motive, readers create a repressive role for her, which parallels her experience with her father. For instance, Ophelia expresses her love for Hamlet only to have it suppressed by her father. She states:
My lord, he hath importuned me with love / In honourable fashion / ‘And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord, / With almost all the holy vows of heaven. (I.iii.109-13)

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In return, Polonius commands:

Do not believe his vows, for they are brokers, / ‘I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth / Have you so slander any moment of leisure with the Lord Hamlet. / Look to’t, I charge you. (I.iii.126-34)

Due to her father’s harsh words, Ophelia is torn between what she feels and what she is told to feel. She cannot decipher between the importance of her own desires and those of her father’s. Although she obeys her father, Ophelia’s ability to think and feel for herself is displayed through this exchange. Ironically, obedience expresses her subordination to the expectations placed on women. She is trapped between youth and maturity, torn between dependence and independence. Her feelings of intimacy toward Hamlet are hindered because of her father’s power over her, which implies she must protect her chastity. By allowing her father to dominate her emotions, ‘Ophelia [becomes] a spectator to her own life.8 Because of Ophelia’s acceptance of the ideal submissive woman, Ophelia places her father’s wishes before her own.

Polonius’ beliefs are not isolated but confirmed by his son, Laertes. Both advise Ophelia to protect her chastity in order to remain respectable. In doing so, Ophelia’s father and brother reaffirm ‘the demand that young women be presented as chaste vessels by their fathers to future husbands, sacrificing personal identity to their function as child-bearers.’9 Believing women are walking wombs, Polonius and Laertes advise Ophelia to save the only piece of dignity she has, her virginity. Once that is spoiled she will be nothing. Laertes states:
Then weigh what loss your honor may sustain / If with too credent ear you list his songs, / Or lose your heart or your chaste treasure open / To his unmastered importunity. (I.iii.28-31)

This warning haunts Ophelia throughout her relationship with Hamlet. She is unable to fully think for herself due to the dominant nature of her brother and father. Soon after Laertes’ attempt to sway her, Ophelia’s father figuratively tries to push her onto the ‘women should be submissive’ side. He warns, ‘Tender yourself more dearly, / Or (not to crack the wind of the poor phrase, / Running it thus) you’ll tender me a fool’ (I.iii.106-8). Through this statement, Polonius asserts Ophelia’s role as his daughter, his property. The problem then lies in Ophelia’s confusion due to her feelings for Hamlet. She believes his love is true, however her brother and father demand that it is false. While insisting upon the falseness of Hamlet’s words and the importance of chastity, Laertes corners himself into the position of a hypocrite. Because he does not practice the advice he preaches, Ophelia proclaims:

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, / Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven; / Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine, / Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, / And recks not his own rede. (I.iii.46-50)

Ophelia’s denouncement of the double standards within her patriarchal world displays her perceptive and intellectual nature. Although she is able to see through the veiled purity of her brother, Ophelia is unable to ignore his message, nor her father’s, completely. Polonius and Laertes’ depiction of courtship poisons Ophelia’s mind and leads her to believe that Hamlet’s words of love are a ploy to satisfy his own lustful desires. Her acceptance of both men’s fear instilling tactics places her in a helpless position. Eventually, Ophelia truly believes her chastity to be her most important virtue. The values and morals her brother and father force upon Ophelia are her first guided steps toward madness.

Ophelia’s opinion of Hamlet disintegrates soon after Polonius and Laertes plant seeds of distrust in her once trusting garden. She thinks of Hamlet as a man who intends to seduce her, does not keep his promises, and who only plans to use her. Because of this misguided analysis, Ophelia plans to return the variety of Hamlet’s gifts at their chance encounter. However, how can she plan for something that is meant to be coincidental’ From Hamlet’s perspective, Ophelia’s gift return is a rejection of his love and a denial of her own. Through this analysis, Hamlet and Ophelia’s dialogue is easily interpreted. Hamlet degrades her by saying, ‘I did love you once. / ‘You should not have believed me, for virtue / cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of / it. I loved you not’ (III.i.115-19).

Hamlet reassures Ophelia’s beliefs as to the nature of his love, both true and false. The harshness of his address breaks her heart as any similar news would when coming from its true source. The encounter between Ophelia and Hamlet ‘reveals the flaws in the patriarchal system where women’s compliance to the directives of men overlooks the humanity of the women themselves.’10 Again, by following Polonius’ orders, Ophelia is placed in a controversial position of sacrificing her own beliefs to rely on her father and brother’s analysis of her relationship with Hamlet. After Ophelia’s first experience with Hamlet’s lack of love, she spirals quickly toward madness. The combined effects of Polonius’ death and Laertes’ absence contribute to her dissent. Due to Ophelia’s dependency on her father, brother, and Hamlet, she has nowhere to turn when they are removed and collapses into madness. As Horne beautifully describes, ‘she was like a tender vine, growing first to the trellis of filial piety and then to that of romantic love. When these two are removed and she is left unsupported, she cannot stand alone, and falls.’11

On a similar note of innocence, Hero, from Much Ado About Nothing, is both praised and criticized. She possesses a passive vulnerability which is expressed through silence. Mainly she is referred to by ‘her beauty, her tenderness, and the hard trial of her love.’12 Her silence can be classified as either intriguing or boring, yet her character is mainly found to be mild and quiet. So quiet, that she is easily overlooked. However, Hero’s qualities should not be forgotten. They embody those of the perfect woman, chaste and obedient. As Dash states, ‘Hero tends to accept the decisions of men.’13 Throughout the play, it seems as though her main responsibility is to represent modesty and restraint. While her father and uncle discuss her future, Hero says nothing. They converse:

Antonio. Well, niece [to Hero], I trust you will be / ruled by your father.
Beatrice. Yes, faith; it’s my cousin’s duty to make / courtesy and say, Father, as it please you: – but / yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome / fellow, or else make another courtesy and say, / Bather, as it please me.
Leonato: Well, niece, I hope to see you one day / fitted with a husband.
Beatrice: Not till God make men of some other / metal than earth. Would it not grieve a woman / to be overmastered with a piece of valiant / dust! To make an account of her life to a clod of / wayward marl’ No, uncle, I’ll none; Adam’s / sons are bretheren; and truly, I hold it a sin / to match in my kindred.
Leonato: Daughter, remember what I told you: / if the prince do solicit in that kind, you / know your answer.
(II.i.55-73)

The juxtaposition of Beatrice and Hero’s presence in this scene accentuates the women’s individual characters. Beatrice, who rejects the patriarchal ideals of women, and Hero, who embodies them. Instead of speaking up with her own dreams for the future, Hero listens quietly as things are decided for her. This portrays the quality of her upbringing, in that women should express only modesty and chastity in the presence of men. However, her obedience and purity can do little because the quality of her identity relies on the opinion of men.

When Hero is surrounded by women in Act III, she is nothing like the person she presented previously, in Act II. Without the male presence, Hero wittingly converses with other women about a plot to trick Beatrice. In doing so, Hero is animated and vibrant. She refers to sparkling eyes, fortunate beds, passion and other romantic symbols. This scene enables her true, playful nature to be seen. ‘Apparently, she is not naturally shy or phlegmatic’Before men she is silent and deferential, while with her cousin and other women she may relax and be more herself.’14 To a similar but lesser extent, Hero exchanges witty phrases with those helping her dress for the wedding. These two shared experiences with women show Hero’s ability to bond with women and leave formality behind. Aside from affirming the quality of Hero’s reputation among women, it devalues her representation as a woman in society. Due to her silent nature among men, it appears Hero is attempting to attract a husband. If Hero’s quality can only be validated by men, then is her reputation not important in the eyes of other women?

The difference between male and female interpretations of purity is that one is more lenient. As seen in the wedding seen, Beatrice is the only person who does not immediately discredit Hero’s reputation. Although Hero attempts to defend herself, she is bombarded with negativity. Her father cries:

Hath no man’s dagger here point for me’ / ‘O fate, take not away they heavy hand! / Death is the fairest cover for her shame/ That may be wish’d for. / ‘Could she here deny / The story that is printed in her blood’ – / Do not live, Hero; do not ope thine eyes: / For did I think thou wouldst not quickly die, / Thought I thy spirits were stronger than thy / shames, / Myself would, on the reaward of reproaches, / Strike at they life. (IV.i.112-33).

In this situation, not only has Hero been betrayed, but she is also powerless against other’s beliefs, specifically those of Leonato. Regardless of her words, a mark has been placed on her once clean record of chastity. Therefore, according to the dominant patriarchal belief of women’s value being equivalent to their purity, Hero becomes a whore in the eyes of others when she ceases to be a virgin. Is a woman’s virtue so fragile that one smudge can cause her father to wish death upon her rather than a life of shame? After Hero’s countless years of perfect behaviour, Leonato cannot put faith behind her innocence. Hero’s predicament illustrates the insidious nature of slander, an attack for which woman has no defence.15 In this situation, Hero fell from grace without hope to rebuild her reputation. Due to society’s focus on motherhood and chastity, women cannot acquire honour after it has been lost. Instead, they are forced to wait for male perceptions to recreate their positive standings. Hero’s salvation is not dependent upon her own behaviour. It is dependent upon the male perception of her behaviour.

Hero’s reputation is redeemed through the confession of Borachio. Reactions to the news are joyous, especially that of Claudio. He expresses his love in saying, ‘Sweet Hero! now thy image doth appear / In the rare semblance that I lov’d it first’ (V.i.259-260). Claudio’s declaration of love displays its superficiality, he loved Hero’s image. When Leonato offers him another Hero, he gratefully accepts. His ability to substitute one love for another so quickly does not instil faith in his emotions. Rather, it reaffirms the fragile identity of the woman in a patriarchal society. When Hero is unveiled and everyone rejoices at her reputation’s miraculous recovery, she reverts to the Hero of Act I. She is no more assertive or angry after her experience. Instead, she resumes the ideal identity of chastity, morality, and loyalty to father and husband.

The purest form of loyalty can be found within Othello’s Desdemona. In a similar fashion to Ophelia and Hero, Desdemona’s character has been praised for her devotion and censured for her sexuality, described as deceptive, proud, and manipulative or as helplessly passive.’16 In addition to this, Desdemona is affectionate and sensual. Her wealth of love for Othello causes her to conform to the ideals of feminine behaviour. Goddard claims she has ‘a man’s courage’an extreme example of that union of feminine and masculine qualities that Shakespeare plainly held essential for either the perfect man of the perfect woman.’17 Not only are some critics impressed and intrigued by Desdemona, Othello also describes their interactions lovingly, ‘She’d come again, and with a greedy ear / Devour up my discourse’ (I.iii.149-50). Although this description is one of devotion and completion, it does not protect Desdemona and Othello’s relationship from patriarchal structures. After her marriage, Desdemona allows herself to become submissive. At first, however, Desdemona proclaimed her independence from her father by declaring her love for Othello. She maintains this free spirit long enough to elope but then transgresses to the patriarchal ideal of woman, which she explicitly foreshadows. She states:

My noble father, / I do perceive here a divided duty. / To you I am bound for life and education. / My life and education both do learn me / How to respect you: you are the lord of duty; / I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband; / And so much duty as my mother showed / To you, preferring you before her father, So much I challenge that I may profess / Due to the Moor my lord. (I.iii.181-189)

Her understanding of marriage is conventional and submissive. By choosing to adopt the role of her mother, Desdemona chooses to have her ownership passed from father to husband. In doing so, she refuses herself access to maturity and intimacy. Through this, like Ophelia, Desdemona becomes trapped between childhood and adulthood. The difference being that Desdemona becomes independent of her father. This paradox is the definition of Desdemona’s image. She is ‘courageous, heroic, passive, and vulnerable.’18 The defiance of her father was courageous while her role in marriage is passive. All of her actions surrounding Othello are selfless and done with good intentions. However, by trying to be the perfect wife, Desdemona denies her own authority. Due to the patriarchal form of marriage Desdemona tries to recreate, she submits to a typically father-daughter relationship rather than the trustworthy, intimate bond of husband and wife.

The confusion within Desdemona’s character is the cause of her submissive role with Othello. As she states, ‘My love doth so approve him / that even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns – / ‘have grace and favor’ (IV.iii.19-21). Her extreme loyalty to Othello blinds her from his flaws. Rather than understand his limitations, Desdemona embraces them as qualities of endearments. She reflects:
And ever will (though he do shake me off / To beggarly divorcement) love him dearly, / Comfort foreswear me! Unkindness may do much, / And unkindness may defeat my life, / But never taint my love. (IV.ii.157-60).

Desdemona’s undying love for Othello is reassured even in death when she speaks only to protect him. Her devotion transcends her. Her role in compliance can be attributed to her desire for finding cause and adventure in life. Due to the limitations she experienced, Desdemona is unable to pursue her dreams and finds her cause indirectly through a masochistic devotion to her romance. As she rejects the lifestyle of the subservient daughter through rebellion, Desdemona chooses a modest and obedient self to act as Othello’s wife. Similar to Hero, the person she once was no longer existed. Desdemona resumes the role of the daughter when she marries Othello because she believes it is what he deserves. In doing so, Desdemona laid a foundation for her marriage’s demise and her own death.

Desdemona’s confusion Othello’s lack of an identity other than soldier ultimately causes them to fail. Othello is capable of being a soldier and Desdemona a daughter. The same behaviours that make them excellent warriors and obedient women are what destroy them in their own home. By assuming the patriarchal marriage structure of controlling husband and subservient wife, they prevent real intimacy and trust. Desdemona’s chastity becomes more important to them than Desdemona herself because it is a valued feminine virtue. As seen before, there is nothing a woman can do to change a male’s perspective. Due to this, Othello’s jealousy takes charge and he murders Desdemona. Her loving selflessness, which translates to obedience, prevents her from defending herself against Othello’s reign.

As examined with Ophelia, Hero, and Desdemona, Shakespearean women are dominated by male figures in their lives. Within this domination, they are held up to various ideals. Women are forced to remain within the boundaries of the patriarchal structure, which includes obedience, modesty, and chastity. In the case of all three women, their reputations are questioned which results in further victimization. They are immediately devalued when a mark of sexual desire crosses their celibate pasts. These situations enforce the goals of the patriarchal power structures that bind women to their subservient roles. However, Shakespearean women seek comfort and security in their families and marriages, the very same structures that dominate, chastise and demand the need for a patriarchal order. This need for guidance and structure creates turmoil in the role of a woman as anything other than deprived and submissive.

NOTES

1. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983), p. 3.
2. Amanda Mabillard, Shakespeare’s Ophelia (Shakespeare Online, 2000) http://www.shakespeare-online.com/opheliachar.html (December 12, 2001).
3. Diane Elizabeth Dreher, Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare (Lexington, KT: 1986), p. 76.
4. Clara Claiborne Park, ‘As We Like It: How a Girl Can Be Smart and Still Popular,’ The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983), p. 102.
5. Irene G. Dash, Women’s Worlds in Shakespeare’s Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997) p. 26.
6. Rebecca Smith, ‘A Heart Cleft in Twain: The Dilemma of Shakespeare’s Gertrude,’ The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983), p. 198.
7. Diane Elizabeth Dreher, Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare (Lexington, KT: 1986), p. 77.
8. Marianne Novy, ‘Shakespeare’s Female Characters as Actors and Audience,’ The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983), p. 257.
9. Diane Elizabeth Dreher, Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare (Lexington, KT: 1986), p. 78.
10. Irene G. Dash, Women’s Worlds in Shakespeare’s Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997) p. 119
11. Herman Harrell Horne, Shakespeare’s Philosophy of Love (Raleigh, NC: Edwards and Broughton, 1945), p. 104.
12. Diane Elizabeth Dreher, Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare (Lexington, KT: 1986), p. 83.
13. Irene G. Dash, Women’s Worlds in Shakespeare’s Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997) p. 192.
14. Irene G. Dash, Women’s Worlds in Shakespeare’s Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997) p. 82.
15. Joyce Sexton, The Slandered Woman in Shakespeare (Victoria, B.C.: English Literary Studies, 1978) p. 39-44.
16. Diane Elizabeth Dreher, Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare (Lexington, KT: 1986), p. 87.
17. Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 951), p. 469-70.
18. Diane Elizabeth Dreher, Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare (Lexington, KT: 1986), p. 91.

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