Essay on Hamlet and Merchant of Venice
Essay on Hamlet and Merchant of Venice

Essay on Hamlet and Merchant of Venice

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  • Published: August 1, 2016
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A Feminist Analysis of Gender Identity in Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice William Shakespeare’s diverse female characters started to revolutionize views of gender in the Renaissance, though women were not treated as equals to men until modern times because of the patriarchal views that were instilled in society. The feminist approach in this presentation works to disprove Shakespeare’s traditional critics.

I use a feminist approach to prove that Shakespeare’s representation of gender is more flexible and progressive than more traditional critics recognize as I focus on The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet. I will refer as well to other comedies such as As You Like It and Twelfth Night in which cross-dressed females can be interpreted as early feminist characters who have a strong sense of self. These strong female characters contrast with Shakespeare’


s portrayal of weak male characters in Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies such as Hamlet ,The Merchant of Venice, and As You Like It.

For instance, Rosalind, Portia, and Viola, from As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, and Twelfth Night, easily manage their versatile gender identities while Shakespeare’s male characters, both in these comedies and in his tragedies, are insecure about their weak masculine identities in a world which viewed males as the dominant gender. The irrational and feminine male characters in Shakespeare’s plays use misogynist perspectives as an attempt to hide their weak masculinity and their misogyny is frequently one cause of the tragedies.

Antonio from The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet from Hamlet, and Orlando from As You Like It are feminine male characters that viewed femininity as inferior to masculinity and they are

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portrayed as weak male characters, which contrasts with Shakespeare’s characterization of his strong cross-dressed heroines who promoted gender equality such as Rosalind, Portia, and Viola. Since Shakespeare’s plays were written in a patriarchal society, his traditional critics use male focused arguments to substantiate their claims.

Many traditional scholars of Shakespeare argue that Shakespeare’s cross-dressed females in his plays should be viewed as characters who satirize women since their masculine disguises were considered to be sexually suggestive. Another point in the masculine interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays is that since the actors were all male, the plays should be interpreted from a male perspective. Also, traditional critics argue that Shakespeare’s plays should be interpreted from a patriarchal viewpoint since the female characters remained in a male-dominated world at the ends of the plays.

Misogyny was common in Shakespeare‚Äôs time period. However, Shakespeare‚Äôs traditional critics neglect to explore the complex gender roles in his works since they use a sexist bias in their criticism. Shakespeare‚Äôs male characters‚Äô opposition to gender equality reveals the flaws in a patriarchal society, while his cross-dressed female characters in his comedies antagonized a gender controversy in Renaissance society. Androgyny is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the ‚Äúunion of both sexes in one individual.‚ÄĚ

A power shift from males to females started to occur in the Renaissance since the theme of androgyny in Shakespeare‚Äôs works influenced society. According to Michael Shapiro in Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage, ‚Äúmore economically secure women than those that appeared before the court‚Ķafter the accession of James wore ‚Äėselected articles of male attire‚Äô. ‚ÄĚ Shapiro states ‚ÄúIt also seems likely that the

large number of plays encouraged some women to use male clothing symbolically, to challenge sartorial markers of gender boundaries‚ÄĚ which was ‚Äúindeed seen in challenging traditional gender roles.‚ÄĚ

The essence of Shapiro’s view conveys that Shakespeare and his other contemporaries who wrote plays with cross-dressed female characters promoted gender equality in Renaissance society. Though there were cross-dressed female characters and some more economically secure women wore masculine attire in Renaissance society, patriarchal perspectives were sexist. The 1602 pamphlet Hic Mulier or the Man-Woman was used to objectify Shakespeare’s cross-dressed female heroines’ masculine disguises in his plays.

The men in Renaissance patriarchal society disregarded women with high intellects by attacking women’s sexuality. Patriarchal society wanted to subdue intellectual female characters to stereotypes that would be perceived as comedic to a male audience with sexist perspectives. The traditional male audience in Shakespeare’s time period rejected the notion that women could be as intellectual as men since women did not receive the same education as men and they were not allowed to have the same occupations as men in the Renaissance, despite the fact that the female characters such as Portia, Viola, and Rosalind are symbolic of intelligent women in reality.

Though the Women’s Rights Movement did not take place until many hundreds of years later, as a result of Shakespeare’s early feminist ideas that are expressed through his characterization of the cross-dressed female characters, such as Portia and Viola, who played male lawyers and pages, women have received the same education as men, they have worn more masculine clothing, and they have assumed male occupations.

Therefore, Shakespeare’s traditional critic’s sexist arguments concerning his cross-dressed

heroine’s choice of masculine attire are not coherent since they refused to acknowledge that Shakespeare’s cross-dressed female roles such as Portia, Viola, and Rosalind are characterized as highly intellectual individuals. Portia is one of Shakespeare’s revolutionary early feminist cross-dressed characters, while Antonio represents men who struggle to create a masculine identity in The Merchant of Venice. Antonio’s character is not as highly defined because he plays the part of a psychologically weak male character.

Shakespeare describes Antonio as a depressed character at the beginning of the play since he is speculated to be in love with Portia‚Äôs husband Bassanio and he suffers from a psychological crisis concerning his masculine identity. Though Portia is also sorrowful about her feminine gender role in a patriarchal world, she overcomes her depression. According to Michael Shapiro, ‚ÄúPortia invents a role that will give her authority over the men in the play‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúshe manipulates events by audacity and wit she displays in male disguise, both in her legal battle with Shylock and in the ring episode that follows.‚ÄĚ

Furthermore, Shapiro maintains that Portia‚Äôs ‚Äúscheme of a male disguise as first envisaged as the occasion to parody outrageous excesses of swaggering masculinity‚ÄĚ as she tells Nerissa, ‚ÄúI‚Äôll hold thee any wager, When we are both accoutered like young men, I‚Äôll prove the prettier fellow of the two, and wear my dagger with a braver grace, and speak between the change of man and boy with reed voice. ‚ÄĚ Antonio tries to imitate Portia‚Äôs masculine identity. He competes with Portia to win her husband‚Äôs favor.

Antonio bids ‚Äúfarewell to Bassanio‚ÄĚ and he copies her assertiveness as he states

‚ÄúCommend me to your honorable wife, Tell her the process of Antonio‚Äôs end, Say how I lov‚Äôd you, speak me fair death‚ÄĚ (Shapiro 105). However, Portia‚Äôs strong sense of self overpowers Antonio‚Äôs. Portia uses her versatile gender identity to become a strong heroine as she saves both Antonio‚Äôs life and her husband from his legal predicament. Therefore, Portia‚Äôs character is complex since she is self-sufficient, while Antonio is preoccupied with copying Portia‚Äôs masculine identity rather than becoming an original character.

Orlando from As You Like It is also another character with a weak masculine identity that is comparative to Antonio. Rosalind becomes Orlando’s other half while she is in male disguise. She satirizes his psyche. Rosalind plays his masculine rational self that he has lost touch with since he is controlled by his feminine irrational self, and she tells him how he should be like as a masculine man. Contrary to common views, Antonio and Orlando are not multifaceted characters since they do not have a stong sense of self.

Though some of Shakespeare’s traditional critics contend that his works should be interpreted from a male perspective as satires on women, a feminist analysis of Shakespeare’s cross-dressed female heroines disproves Shakespeare’s critics with more patriarchal views. According to Phyllis Rackin in Shakespeare and Women, Viola cross-dresses as a male page in Twelfth Night and transcends patriarchal society to have intellectual authority, as does Portia. Dusinberre asserts that Orsino talks to the disguised Viola as if she were a rational being.

In Act II scene IV, Orsino tells Viola as she plays a boy page, “For, boy, however we do praise ourselves, our

fancies are more giddy and unfirm, more longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn, than women are. ‚ÄĚ Viola uses her wit and intellect to befriend Olivia and she antagonizes Orsino to be jealous of the spectacle. Also, according to Anna Jameson in Shakespeare‚Äôs Heroines, Rosalind has a feminine nature equally combined with a masculine ‚Äúwit and intellect‚ÄĚ which ‚Äúgives her superiority as a woman.‚ÄĚ

Dusinberre asserts that as the cross-dressed heroines transition from the feminine to the masculine realm they maintain rather than destroy their sense of self, since the highly intelligent characters Rosalind, Portia, and Viola portray distinct concepts of masculinity and femininity that are united in their individual selves. However, Shakespeare’s male characters Antonio, Orlando, and Hamlet are weak characters since they live in a world where men resent femininity and they do not accept both gender roles within themselves as do Shakespeare’s cross-dressed female characters.

As a result, they do not efficiently perform their masculine self concept as individual male characters. Thus, these plays are more effectively interpreted from a feminist perspective. Shakespeare’s plays oppose the patriarchal view that one gender is superior to another gender, but the use of feminine boy actors also contradicts the traditional ideal of masculinity. Rackin describes the debate regarding boy actors who played cross-dressed women characters.

She maintains that boy actors were used to play women to accentuate their femininity. Stephen Greenblatt ‚Äúused Thomas Laquer‚Äôs theory that all the actors on stage were male to theorize a masculine fantasy of a world without women. ‚ÄĚ However, Dusinberre correlates the boy actors used in Shakespeare‚Äôs plays with his androgyny as a playwright because these

actors present ‚Äúsimilarities between the sexes, the way in which boyishness itself formed an element of femininity.‚ÄĚ

Feminine boy actors were used to play cross-dressed women rather than adult men, undermining Thomas Laquer’s hyper-masculine theory of Shakespeare’s theatrical world. Shakespeare’s plays deconstruct Renaissance views of masculinity, since he uses female characters that cross-dress as men and are played by feminine boy actors. Shakespeare’s influential cross-dressed female characters in his comedies are advocates of early feminist concepts, and his tragedies convey the destruction that occurs from an unequal gender hierarchy in patriarchal society.

Kahn maintains, ‚Äúthe feud‚ÄĚ in Romeo and Juliet provides a ‚Äėpsycho-sexual moratorium‚Äô for sons, an activity in which men prove themselves men by phallic violence on behalf of their fathers, instead of by the courtship and sexual experimentation that would lead toward marriage and separation from the paternal house. ‚ÄĚ Kahn‚Äôs concept of the psycho-sexual moratorium is not only applicable to Romeo and Juliet, but also to Hamlet.

Old King Hamlet’s ghost in Hamlet, is symbolic of the destructive nature of the patriarchy since he is the source that perpetuates murder and hatred of female sexuality as he guides Hamlet. Shakespeare characterizes Hamlet as psychologically the weakest character, since he is the origin of the communicable madness in the play. Hamlet’s behavior is applicable to the theory of the psycho-sexual moratorium for sons since he tries to prove himself a man by phallic violence on behalf of his father since his father tells him to avenge his death.

He pursues Claudius to murder him rather than continuing a heterosexual relationship with Ophelia. Since Hamlet does not truly love Ophelia,

he unjustly wanted Ophelia to have the burden of his conscience. In Act III scene II, Hamlet states ‚ÄúThe fair Ophelia! -Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remember‚Äôd. ‚ÄĚ Richard Levin in the article Feminist Thematics in Shakespearean Tragedy asserts that ‚ÄúHamlet's ‚Äėbanishment‚Äô of Ophelia‚ÄĚ does not have a ‚Äúdiscernible effect on his later actions. ‚ÄĚ However, Hamlet becomes a madman after he castigates Ophelia and is led by his irrational impulses.

Furthermore, as Hamlet becomes enraged at his mother’s incestuous and adulterous behavior, he accidentally murders Polonius. The tragic events in Hamlet are not extraordinary in patriarchal society since Hamlet takes his father’s place as the representation of the destruction that results from tyrannical men in patriarchal society. Hamlet’s misogynist views ironically destroy the patriarchy since he instigates the feud between his family and Ophelia’s family, which results in the deaths of both male and female characters in the play.

Shakespeare’s tragedies emphasize the destructive world in patriarchal society, while Shakespeare’s comedies repressed the sorrow that existed in his time period. The comedies allowed Shakespeare’s original audience to temporarily escape the tragic patriarchal world in which they lived through the humor in the comedies. Though Shakespeare ended his comedies with his female characters playing traditional gender roles to avoid losing his original audience, his innovative characterization of cross-dressed women can be viewed as an early feminist answer to correct the unequal patriarchal society.

Therefore, Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies present revolutionary early feminist ideas. Shakespeare’s intellectual cross-dressed female characters eventually influenced societal views of gender equality such as Portia, Rosalind, and Viola while Shakespeare’s feminine male characters in a patriarchal

world such as Antonio, Hamlet, and Orlando are portrayed as weak male characters.

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