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The following paper, Intelligence of Women in Shakespeares Four Major Tragedies
written by Katie Lott, a student in Advanced Placement English,
offers a comparative explication of Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello,
and King Lear from a feminist perspective.
Its quality deserves recognition:
Raymond Nighan. Ph.D.
Shakespeares women in Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear embody a feminist ideal through displays of intelligence usually reserved for male characters. Though not always moral, they break away from the patriarchal view of females as being always caring, motherly, and dim-witted. Shakespeare creates feminist women who are perceptive, cunning, and sometimes cruel in order to demonstrate their intelligence while living in a male-dominated society.
Shakespeares tragic heroines are observant in determining the characters of the men around them. His first intelligent female in tragedy, Ophelia, was the starting point for a line of progressively smarter women. In her first appearance in Hamlet, Ophelia initially seems to be dull-witted, as she does not say much when the two strongest male influences in her familyher father and her brotherattack her relationship with Hamlet. However, her responses indicate that she is aware of her brother and fathers personalities, and plays to them accordingly. Both males, especially Polonius, instruct her to stay away from Hamlet with no opportunity for refusal on her part. Her reply of I shall obey, my lord (I, iv, 145) sounds meek so as to please her father, though she disobeys him later in the play when she speaks to Hamlet before The Murder of Gonzago.
Emilia in Othello is also able to accurately judge each character. She quickly notices that jealousy is the cause of Othellos strange behavior towards Desdemona. Charolette Lennox says, Yet [Emilia] is the first who perceives Othello to be jealous (387). While other character believe matters of state to be what causes Othellos mood changes, Emilia understands immediately what has made him change so. When speaking to Desdemona about jealousy, Emilia notes, But jealous souls will not be answered so. / They are not ever jealous for the cause, / But jealous for theyre jealous. It is a monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself (III, iv, 180-183). Though Emilia is speaking of Othello to Desdemona, she also notes Iagos raging jealousy. Both Othello and Iago are consumed by jealousy to the point of madness without real evidence of a reason to be jealous. Her insight into the nature of jealousy is something that Iago, himself caught first in the clutches of unrelenting suspicion, describes in his second soliloquy. Unlike the other characters who never suspect Iago of being anything but honest, Emilia notices his jealousy pertaining to both Cassios rank and her supposed infidelity with Othello. When confronted by Desdemona, she says, I will be hanged if some eternal villain, / Some busy and insinuating rogue, / Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office, / Have not devised this slander. I will be hanged else (IV, ii, 153-156) and Some such squire he was / That turned your wit the seamy side without / And made you to suspect me with the Moor (IV, ii, 172-174). Though Othello, Roderigo, Cassio, and Desdemona have been deceived by Iago, Emilia is able to see through his guise of honesty. She sees his irrational jealousy at the suspicion that she is cheating on him with Othello, and his anger at Cassio being made Othellos lieutenant instead of him. Also, she says these while Iago stands beside her so that he can see that she knows whats happening and why. Emilia even judges Desdemona during the conversation on women between Emilia, Desdemona, and Iago. Iago praises Desdemona as being fair and wise, and Emilia asks snidely instead, How if fair and foolish? (II, i, 150). She seems to fondly consider her mistress foolish for marrying Othello, who is given to extreme jealousy because of his insecurities. She does not support the marriage of Othello and Desdemona because of the basis upon which it was founded and out of her own jealousy of Othello. Her judgment of the marriage is accurate, as Othello becomes verbally and physically abusive to his faithful wife, and finally kills her.
Lady Macbeth is even more perceptive than Emilia in judging the mind sets of the people around her. After reading the letter sent by Macbeth, she instantly understands what must be done to achieve the throne in the quickest way possible. Though her husband is a renowned soldier and has killed many men on the battlefield, Lady Macbeth correctly assesses his indecision as soon as she finishes reading. She says, Yet do I fear thy nature: / It is too full othmilk of human kindness, / To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great; / Are not without ambition, but without / The illness should attend it . (I, v, 16-19) While there is no evidence that she has ever spoken of treason with Macbeth, she knows him well enough to judge his reaction. She knows that like her, Macbeth is ambitious, but in contrast to Lady Macbeth, he has the feminine quality of being as weak as milk where treason is concerned. Though she actually has milk in her breasts, she has no feminine qualms at murdering someone to gain a higher position. Adelaide Ristori praises her: I could not better succeed in depicting the nature of this man, than Shakespeare so marvelously does in the lines of the first monologue of Lady Macbeth who, owing to her profound perspicacity, so well understands her husband (346). He further notes, The monologue depict[s] in its most vivid colours the nature of Macbeths character (347). Lady Macbeth is able to use her knowledge of Macbeths personality to gain the throne by playing his soldiers masculine pride against her insults and insinuations of femininity. She later manipulates him into fulfilling a plan of murder and deceit which he would not have done by himself for fear of being caught and disgraced.
Though Cordelia is gone for most of King Lear, she demonstrates her intelligence in her asides before openly rebelling against Lear. Before dividing up his lands, Lear publicly humiliates his daughters and forces them to submit to him in a misogynistic show of patriarchal power. Lear states,
Meantime we shall express our darker purpose
Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom; and tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburdened crawl towards death .
Tell me, my daughters
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state
Which of you shall we say doth love us most,
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.Goneril
Our eldest born, speak first. (I, i, 35-40, 48-53)
Lears selfish demand encourages dishonesty and exaggeration for a greater gain in lands and riches. While he happily accepts the hypocritical replies which Regan and Goneril give him, Cordelia knows that they are false and refuses to lie as they do. After Gonerils flowery speech, she whispers in an aside, What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent (I, i, 62). Cordelias refusal to humiliate herself by submitting to Lears mad request and portraying herself as the misogynistic ideal of a male-dependant, unintelligent female shows her personal strength despite living in a male-dominated society. The silent part of her thought stands in stark opposition to the verbose grandeur of her sisters speeches, which are accepted by Lear. Be silent shows her intent to defy her father, but by rebelling against his demand for a quantitative measure of her love, she actually shows her love more than either of her sisters do. When Regan speaks, she says again in an aside, Then poor Cordelia / And yet not so, since I am sure my loves / More ponderous than my tongue (I, i, 76-78). Instead of cheapening her love by falsely attempting to put words to her feelings, she perceives the value of it as an unquantifiable idea. While her reply will make her be materialistically poor, she is rich in love, unlike her two sisters. When it is Cordelias turn to profess her undying love, she says simply, Nothing, my lord (I, i, 87) despite being offered richer lands than her sisters. Barbara Millard writes:
The political expediency of Lears contestto ensure his youngest
daughters power (and his own rest) by means of more opulent
property and a carefully selected husbandapparently does not escape
Cordelia Rather than a helpless reply, Nothing is a deliberate choice,
the alternative dictated by her own imperative: Love and be silent, as
well as by Lears equation of words with reward. (147).
Lear questions her response and asks her twice to change what she says so she might still receive bountiful lands, but Cordelia is firm and truthful in her responses. As a strong, intelligent female character, she will not accommodate an arrogant king by lying for his pleasure.
Both Emilia and Lady Macbeth use their intelligence to manipulate others for their own gain. Though her husband Iago is given credit for causing Othellos downfall, Emilia does at least as much as he, though more subtly. Her supposed infidelity with Othello is half of what drives Iago to break Othello and Desdemona apart. Iago overlooks her intelligence, calling her foolish at points, and therefore does not see that she knowingly goes along with his plan, though for different reasons. Like they do to Iago, many of the other characters go to her for help or advice. Cassio begs Emilia to see Desdemona so she can speak to Othello on his behalf. After Othello has become maddened by jealousy, the Moor questions Emilia so he can know for sure that Desdemona was unfaithful. When Desdemona loses her handkerchief, she first speaks to Emilia about it and confesses her fears over Othello becoming jealous. Even Iago requires assistance from Emilia; he needs her to steal the handkerchief that Othello gave to Desdemona. After Cassio is fired, Emilia falsely assures him, But [Othello] protests he loves you / And needs no other suitor but his likings / (To take the safest occasion by the front) / To bring you in again (III, ii, 52-55). However, there is no proof that Othello does want Cassio back; Othello actually puts off speaking with him when confronted by Desdemona. Still, Cassio further asks for help, and says in the end, I am much bound to you (III, ii, 64). Like Iago, she instructs him on what would best help him, but will eventually lead to his downfall because of her manipulation. Iago describes,
[Othello] holds me well.
The better shall my purpose work on him.
Cassios a proper man. Let me see now:
To get his place and to plume up my will
In double knaveryhow? How? Lets see.
After some time to abuse Othellos ear
That he is too familiar with his wife
The Moor is of a free and open nature
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by th nose
As asses are. (I, iii, 433-445)
For Iagos plan to work, it is necessary that he be well-trusted by those he tries to manipulate, especially Othello. Emilia, on the other hand, needs Desdemona to trust her. She helps Iago to make Desdemona seem unfaithful by taking the handkerchief that Desdemona drops. When she picks it up, she says, My wayward husband hath a hundred times / Wooed me to steal it (III, iii, 336-337) and adds sarcastically, I nothing but to please his fantasy (III, iii, 343). However, the audience knows her last statement to be untrue because she never acts loving towards him; instead, she is devoted to Desdemona. When she shows it to Iago and orders that she give it to him, she protests, If it not be for some purpose of import, / Give t me again. Poor lady, shell run mad / When she lack it (III, iii, 364-366). She says this to taunt Iago into action and make him trust her, much like Iago does to Othello when he protests his honesty and then compares Cassio and Desdemona to animals copulating. Her words make her seem to Iago to be innocent and honest in her torn loyalties to her mistress and her husband. However, Shell run mad incites an image in Iagos mind of his plan working, which makes him more desirous to carry it out. She later does the same to Othello when being furiously questioned about Desdemonas chastity. Emilia says, I durst, my lord, to wager she is honest, / Lay down my soul at stake (IV, ii, 13-14). She recalls in Othellos mind Iagos statements of Cassios honesty. Both say one thing and incite the other thought in Othellos mind. Like Iago, she is perceptive and intelligent enough to use Othellos insecurities and doubts against him while seeming helpful. However, unlike Iago, she is not malicious in her desire to destroy Desdemona and Othellos wedding; instead, she does so out of unrequited love for her mistress. After Othello calls Desdemona a whore, Emilia rages, Hath she forsook so many noble matches, / Her father and her country and her friends / To be called whore? Would it not make one weep? (IV, ii, 146-148) Her anger at Othello is honestshe repeatedly shows her devotion to Desdemona throughout the playbut it also is meant to incite Desdemona against Othello. She emphasizes all that Desdemona gave up for love, only to be treated like a prostitute. Emilia laments, I would you had never seen [Othello] (IV, iii, 19) because of how he seems to view her as a treasure he acquired and has lost rather than as a human being. Emilia represents feminism in her disagreement with the misogynistic way husbands treat their wives. She says, Tis not a year or two shows us a man. / They are all but stomachs, and we all but food; / They eat us hungerly, and when they are full / They belch us (III, iv, 120-123). In women, honesty referred to chastity, and any woman of the time who was sexual or forward was labeled a whore. However, men like Cassio used these women, such as Bianca, to sate their own desires. It was acceptable for a man to cheat on his wife, but women would be harshly punished for doing so. Emilia protests,
But I do think it is their husbands faults
If wives do fall. Say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps;
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us. Or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite.
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them
What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is. And doth affection breed it?
I think it doth. Is t frailty that thus errs?
It is so too. And have we not affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well. Else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so. (IV, iii, 97-115)
Emilias words equate women to men on a sexual level, which was unheard of at the time. Instead of blaming the natural propensity towards lust and seduction that was part of the male attitude towards women, supported by Eve in Genesis, she criticizes men for neglecting their wives and not treating them as equals. Based on what the audience sees of their relationship, it seems Iago slacks his duties, and he says I lay with Cassio lately (III, iii, 470). Both Iago and Othello break out in peevish jealousies, and Othello hits Desdemona. Instead of encouraging patience in herself and Desdemona, she justifies revenge on their part. She then speaks of infidelity and condones it under the circumstances that they are in. She says that they have the same desires as men, and should be able to act upon them like men do, especially when their husbands treat them unjustly. The implication of Emilias words is that she and Desdemona should cheat with each other on their husbands as revenge and also for sport. Since neither of their husbands have used them well, it would be fitting for them to be unfaithful to their husbands with each other. However, Desdemona allows herself to be dominated by Othello, and in her final moments of life, she does not try to fight Othello, run past him, or cry for help; she pleads with him in a subservient, feminine way and is killed. Emilia is the one who must risk death to cry murder. Gayle Greene writes, Bursting in on the scene, demanding a word (V, ii, 90), it is Emilia who finds the voice of protests that makes itself heard (590). Emilia is heart-broken upon seeing that her love is dead, and bitterly cries when threatened by Othello, Thou hast not half that power to do me harm / As I have to be hurt / I care not for thy sword. Ill make thee known, / Though I lost twenty lives / Murder, Murder! (V, ii, 198-203) Her despair over Desdemona shows that she loved her mistress, and that her sadness was furthered because she had a hand in causing her death. Also, her courage in the face of a murderer shows that she is a strong character. Greene describes Emilia as the potential of what [Desdemona] might be (591). Though she makes the error of manipulating others, her love for Desdemona is as strong as Desdemonas ever was for Othello. While Desdemona is content to be always faithful towards her abusive husband, Emilia treats Desdemona in a much kinder way and tries to encourage her happiness. Emilia is the fulfillment of what Desdemona could be were she to rebel against the misogyny of her culture and become a strong, independent woman.
Lady Macbeth also manipulates people, but she does so in a malicious, ambition-driven way. After reading his letter, she immediately sees the possibilities for herself and her husband to advance in rank. Unlike Emilia, who shows her feminism through a want of sexual and social equality for women, Lady Macbeth expresses her feminism in a misogynistic culture by asking to become possessed. She says,
Come you Spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood,
Stop up th access and passage to remorse;
That no compunctious visitings of Nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Theffect and it! Come to my womans breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murthring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on Natures mischief! Come, thick Night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of Hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor Heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry Hold, hold! (I, v, 40-54)
This speech begins her role-reversal through the play, as she acts with manly courage, while Macbeth is womanly in his hesitation. She asks for cruelty, a trait reserved for men since women were supposed to be demure and loving. She even pleads with the Spirits to take away a physical feminine feature so as to allow her to leave behind her womanly quality of forgiveness. With the Spirits possessing her, she is able to incite Macbeth to commit treason. She begins by suggesting, I feel now / the future in the instant (I, v, 57-58) and starts to take the mans role by saying And you shall put / This nights great business into my dispatch; / Which shall to all our nights and days come / Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom (I, v, 67-70). Her confidence in her plan leaves little room for Macbeths protests, and her wanting to do it herself is an insult to his masculine pride. Though Macbeth says theyll speak of it later, he cant get her idea out of his mind. He describes, If it were done, when tis done, then twere well / It were done quickly; if thassassination / Could trammel up the consequence, and catch / With his surcease success; that but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all (I, vii, 1-5). Provoked by Lady Macbeth, he has the ambition and pride to do it, but his fear of the consequences holds him back. He knows the act is wrong, and therefore wants it to be over with and done quickly, but he cannot stop longing for the position it would give him. Lady Macbeth further incites him: Art thou afeared / To be the same in thine own act and valour, / As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou / live a coward in thine own esteem? (I, vii, 39-43). Her insult appeals to his soldiers pride and also his masculine pride. As a soldier, he should be willing to risk death to fight the enemy and kill their armies. As a man, he should never show fear, especially not in the face of something that his wife is unafraid of. Also, it will ruin him if he does not go through with the act and evermore questions his bravery, since bravery was the trait that he should have the most of. She continues to persuade him, describing,
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
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 pluckd my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashd his brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this. (I, vii, 49-59)
After being told that he will become even more the man if he commits the murder, and that his wife would in his place if he would not, Macbeth feels he has no choice but to go through with it. As a soldier, it is necessary to him for others to feel that he is a great man, so he could not stand his wife feeling that he was womanly. Lady Macbeths show of commitment by saying she would dash his brains out makes him feel a coward, because she would commit murder for no gain if she had sworn to do so, but he will go back on his word though murdering would help him. That she can harden her feminine heart when he cannot do the same is insulting and prompts him towards murder. He protests feebly, only questioning what will happen if they fail. To take away his doubts, Lady Macbeth says, We fail? / But screw your courage to the sticking-place / And well not fail / What cannot you and I perform upon / Thunguarded Duncan? What not put upon / His spongy officers, who shall bear the guilt / Of our great quell? (I, vii, 60-62, 70-73). Her words take away his doubts and seem to leave him with no choice but to murder Duncan. His morals have failed because of her insults and his own ambition, and by blaming it on someone else, he knows that they can get away with it. Her observations of what held him back let her take away all the reasons he had for not killing Duncan, so by the end of their conversation, he feels no reason not to murder Duncan, and every cause to go through with it. Ristori quotes G.J. Bell: [Lady Macbeth] draws Macbeth to gratify her purpose, she uses him as a single instrument, becoming herself his guide, his leader, insinuating to him all the plot (346). Lady Macbeth uses his pride and ambition so she can advance herself and become more powerful. However, she also desires to help him and sees him as being king, with her ruling by his side. She knows that he is ambitious, but not enough to do what she will prompt his him to do through her guidance. Lady Macbeth shows her inherent morality by being unable to murder Duncan herself. Despite being possessed by the murderous Spirits, the sleeping king reminds her of her father. This shows that she is not simply amoral; rather, she lets other desires take precedence over her morality. When the deed is done, she knows that Macbeth will have problems reconciling the act to himself, and knows enough of the mind to encourage him not to think about it and to tell him what to do so he will not be caught. However, her morality catches up with her because she can no longer tolerate being in darkness, and sleep is tormenting. She sees a mark of the devil on her skin, and cannot wash the blood she sees off of her hands. Her mental state shows her knowledge of her guilt, and in the end it drives her to madness, since Lady Macbeth is not naturally an immoral person. Only the Spirits possessing her allowed her to be able to kill. Hazlitt notes, She is only wicked to gain a great end; and is perhaps more distinguished by her commanding presence of mind and inexorable self-will (185). Though she commits horrible acts in inciting her husband to murder, she is a strong, intelligent female character who uses her will to gain what she wants: power.
Ophelia and Cordelia, on the other hand, are not manipulative in order to gain their own ends. Ophelia, the earliest of Shakespeares strong tragic females, acts out of love for Hamlet. She perceives that he is acting mad for some end, and helps to promote this idea. When he at first acts courteously and then seems mad, presumably because he notices Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius listening to their conversation, she catches on and cries O, help him, you sweet heavens! (III, i, 145) to show to them that he really is mad. After he exits, she perpetuates the idea of him having gone mad by saying, O, what a noble mind is here oerthrown! / And I, of ladies most deject and wretched, / That sucked the honey of his musicked vows, / Now see that noble and most sovereign reason, / Like sweet bells jangled, out of time and harsh (III, i, 164-171). Her words promote an image of Hamlet turning back on his love out of insanity, and help him to have others think him mad instead of purposeful. When she sings, she seems to have gone insane because of Hamlets own madness. She later commits suicide and is reported as having drowned, her madness over being spurned by Hamlet having led her to it. Though not as intelligent or courageous as Shakespeares other tragic heroines, Ophelia is the starting point upon which Shakespeare bases his other females. Emilia, Lady Macbeth, and Cordelia all inherit her perceptiveness, and Emilia and Cordelia gain her capacity to love, while Lady Macbeth and Emilia have her potential for manipulation.
Cordelia shows her strength in rebelling against her fathers ideas but still loving him enough to go to war for him. Though she is rejected, she loves him enough to wish something better for him than her sisters care. She says, The jewels of our father, with washed eyes / Cordelia leaves you. I know what you are /
Love well our father. /
But yet, alas, stood I within his grace, / I would prefer him to a better place (I, i, 270-277). Her sadness at her fathers state shows her love more than either of her sisters speeches displays theirs. She has strength of heart that Ophelia and Emilia had, and which is most clearly expressed in Cordelia. She is even willing to die for this man who has disowned her and thrown her away like trash to any suitor who would take her. Albany notes, Humanity must perforce prey on itself, / Like monsters of the deep (IV, ii, 50-51). However, unlike the monsters that her sisters are, Cordelias actions result from love. In the Lear universe, she is one of the few exceptions to this rule of bestial savagery being acceptable social behavior. Her actions in rousing the armies of France are well-intended, and stand in moral opposition to Edmunds behavior. Like Lady Macbeth, she takes on a masculine role by going with the armies of France to invade England. Foakes says, Cordelia
was a powerful Queen of France, not simply an embodiment of tenderness (35). As Queen, she incites Frances armies to invade England. However, she does so to save her father from her sisters clutches, and in doing so, sacrifices herself for Lear. Millard notes,
In attempting to gauge Cordelias motive, certainly, one cannot discount the punitive tone regarding the two who are the Shame of Ladies and the final cold anger of Shall we not see these daughters, these sisters? But this tone is only one of several, including her expression of filial sympathy .Cordelia accept and would restore the role Lear defined for himself in the first scene; she endeavors to atone for her sisters crimes by returning kingly majesty to him through military exploit (153).
Her righteous anger at her sisters behavior shows her morality, and her conversation with her father when they are reunited displays her unconditional love. Edmund, on the other hand, uses it to his own advantage when his father supports Frances army out of love and duty towards Lear. Also, her two sisters work together to strip Lear of his power and dignity, despite their words of complete and undying love for him in the beginning of the play. When Cordelia sees Lear again, she asks How does my royal lord? How fares your majesty? (IV, vii, 44) Unlike Goneril and Regan, who try to take as much power for themselves as possible, Cordelia tries to restore his power and sanity. Her eventual self-sacrificing death is the final act of showing Lear that love could not be defined by empty, flattering words. Millard says,
Having rejected the static role that Lear would have imposed on her in act one, Cordelia goes on to create her own future, to seek retribution and the creation of a new order beyond her sisters, and eventually to achieve her own transcendence through her reconciliation with Lear. She has in a manly fashion forged her own destiny. (158)
Cordelia chooses her own path by taking a stand against her fathers beliefs and then shows her kindness by attempting to help her wayward father. Her actions set her apart from the other females in the play because her intentions are pure, and she refuses to submit in any way to something she does not believe in. Foakes quotes Coleridge in his introduction to King Lear: Courage, Intellect, and strength of Character were the most impressive Forms of Power (45). Cordelias bravery in risking banishment and even death to speak her mind, her intelligence in knowing that love is not a quantifiable object, and her inner resolution to do what is right make her the strongest, most powerful character in Shakespeares tragedies.
Shakespeare creates tragic heroines who support feminism through their intelligence and observation. He does not depict them as traditional unintelligent, all-forgiving characters; instead, he gives them their own desires and wants which were denied to them by men in Shakespeares time. Though writing for a misogynistic audience, he incorporates his ideas of female power into his plays to make strong women who are courageous and intelligent enough to do what they want.
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