Women have more power and agency in Shakespeare’s comedies than in his tragedies, and usually there are more of them with more speaking time, so I’m pretty sure what Shakespeare’s saying is “men ruin everything” because everyone fucking dies when men are in charge but when women are in charge you get married and live happily ever after
I think you’re reading too far into things, kiddo.
Take a break from your women’s studies major and get some fresh air.
Right. Well, I’m a historian, so allow me to elaborate.
One of the most important aspects of the Puritan/Protestant revolution (in the 1590’s in particular) was the foregrounding of marriage as the most appropriate way of life. It often comes as a surprise when people learn this, but Puritans took an absolutely positive view of sexuality within the context of marriage. Clergy were encouraged to lead by example and marry and have children, as opposed to Catholic clergy who prized virginity above all else. Through his comedies, Shakespeare was promoting this new way of life which had never been promoted before. The dogma, thanks to the church, had always been “durr hburr women are evil sex is bad celibacy is your ticket to salvation.” All that changed in Shakespeare’s time, and thanks to him we get a view of the world where marriage, women, and sexuality are in fact the key to salvation.
The difference between the structure of a comedy and a tragedy is that the former is cyclical, and the latter a downward curve. Comedies weren’t stupid fun about the lighter side of life. The definition of a comedy was not a funny play. They were plays that began in turmoil and ended in reconciliation and renewal. They showed the audience the path to salvation, with the comic ending of a happy marriage leaving the promise of societal regeneration intact. Meanwhile, in the tragedies, there is no such promise of regeneration or salvation. The characters destroy themselves. The world in which they live is not sustainable. It leads to a dead end, with no promise of new life.
And so, in comedies, the women are the movers and shakers. They get things done. They move the machinery of the plot along. In tragedies, though women have an important part to play, they are often morally bankrupt as compared to the women of comedies, or if they are morally sound, they are disenfranchised and ignored, and refused the chance to contribute to the society in which they live. Let’s look at some examples.
In Romeo and Juliet, the play ends in tragedy because no-one listens to Juliet. Her father and Paris both insist they know what’s right for her, and they refuse to listen to her pleas for clemency. Juliet begs them – screams, cries, manipulates, tells them outright I cannot marry, just wait a week before you make me marry Paris, just a week, please and they ignore her, and force her into increasingly desperate straits, until at last the two young lovers kill themselves. The message? This violent, hate-filled patriarchal world is unsustainable. The promise of regeneration is cut down with the deaths of these children. Compare to Othello. This is the most horrifying and intimate tragedy of all, with the climax taking place in a bedroom as a husband smothers his young wife. The tragedy here could easily have been averted if Othello had listened to Desdemona and Emilia instead of Iago. The message? This society, built on racism and misogyny and martial, masculine honour, is unsustainable, and cannot regenerate itself. The very horror of it lies in the murder of two wives.
How about Hamlet? Ophelia is a disempowered character, but if Hamlet had listened to her, and not mistreated her, and if her father hadn’t controlled every aspect of her life, then perhaps she wouldn’t have committed suicide. The final scene of carnage is prompted by Laertes and Hamlet furiously grappling over her corpse. When Ophelia dies, any chance of reconciliation dies with her. The world collapses in on itself. This society is unsustainable. King Lear – we all know that this is prompted by Cordelia’s silence, her unwillingness to bend the knee and flatter in the face of tyranny. It is Lear’s disproportionate response to this that sets off the tragedy, and we get a play that is about entropy, aging and the destruction of the social order.
There are exceptions to the rule. I’m sure a lot of you are crying out “but Lady Macbeth!” and it’s a good point. However, in terms of raw power, neither Lady Macbeth nor the witches are as powerful as they appear. The only power they possess is the ability to influence Macbeth; but ultimately it is Macbeth’s own ambition that prompts him to murder Duncan, and it is he who escalates the situation while Lady Macbeth suffers a breakdown. In this case you have women who are allowed to influence the play, but do so for the worse; they fail to be the good moral compasses needed. Goneril, Regan and Gertrude are similarly comparable; they possess a measure of power, but do not use it for good, and again society cannot renew itself.
Now we come to the comedies, where women do have the most control over the plot. The most powerful example is Rosalind in As You Like It. She pulls the strings in every avenue of the plot, and it is thanks to her control that reconciliation is achieved at the end, and all end up happily married. Much Ado About Nothing pivots around a woman’s anger over the abuse of her innocent cousin. If the men were left in charge in this play, no-one would be married at the end, and it would certainly end in tragedy. But Beatrice stands up and rails against men for their cruel conduct towards women and says that famous, spine-tingling line – oh God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace. And Benedick, her suitor, listens to her. He realises that his misogynistic view of the world is wrong and he takes steps to change it. He challenges his male friends for their conduct, parts company with the prince, and by doing this he wins his lady’s hand. The entire happy ending is dependent on the men realising that they must trust, love and respect women. Now it is a society that is worthy of being perpetuated. Regeneration and salvation lies in equality between the sexes and the love husbands and wives cherish for each other. The Merry Wives of Windsor – here we have men learning to trust and respect their wives, Flastaff learning his lesson for trying to seduce married women, and a daughter tricking everyone so she can marry the man she truly loves. A Midsummer Night’s Dream? The turmoil begins because three men are trying to force Hermia to marry someone she does not love, and Helena has been cruelly mistreated. At the end, happiness and harmony comes when the women are allowed to marry the men of their choosing, and it is these marriages that are blessed by the fairies.
What of the romances? In The Tempest, Prospero holds the power, but it is Miranda who is the key to salvation and a happy ending. Without his daughter, it is likely Prospero would have turned into a murderous revenger. The Winter’s Tale sees Leontes destroy himself through his own jealousy. The king becomes a vicious tyrant because he is cruel to his own wife and children, and this breach of faith in suspecting his wife of adultery almost brings ruin to his entire kingdom. Only by obeying the sensible Emilia does Leontes have a chance of achieving redemption, and the pure trust and love that exists between Perdita and Florizel redeems the mistakes of the old generation and leads to a happy ending. Cymbeline? Imogen is wronged, and it is through her love and forgiveness that redemption is achieved at the end. In all of these plays, without the influence of the women there is no happy ending.
The message is clear. Without a woman’s consent and co-operation in living together and bringing up a family, there is turmoil. Equality between the sexes and trust between husbands and wives alone will bring happiness and harmony, not only to the family unit, but to society as a whole. The Taming of the Shrew rears its ugly head as a counter-example, for here a happy ending is dependent on a woman’s absolute subservience and obedience even in the face of abuse. But this is one of Shakespeare’s early plays (and a rip-off of an older comedy called The Taming of a Shrew) and it is interesting to look at how the reception of this play changed as values evolved in this society.
As early as 1611 The Shrew was adapted by the writer John Fletcher in a play called The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed. It is both a sequel and an imitation, and it chronicles Petruchio’s search for a second wife after his disastrous marriage with Katherine (whose taming had been temporary) ended with her death. In Fletcher’s version, the men are outfoxed by the women and Petruchio is ‘tamed’ by his new wife. It ends with a rather uplifting epilogue that claims the play aimed:
To teach both sexes due equality
And as they stand bound, to love mutually.
The Taming of the Shrew and The Tamer Tamed were staged back to back in 1633, and it was recorded that although Shakespeare’s Shrew was “liked”, Fletcher’s Tamer Tamed was “very well liked.” You heard it here folks; as early as 1633 audiences found Shakespeare’s message of total female submission uncomfortable, and they preferred John Fletcher’s interpretation and his message of equality between the sexes.
So yes. The message we can take away from Shakespeare is that a world in which women are powerless and cannot or do not contribute positively to society and family is unsustainable. Men, given the power and left to their own devices, will destroy themselves. But if men and women can work together and live in harmony, then the whole community has a chance at salvation, renewal and happiness.
In the immortal words of the bard himself: fucking annihilated.
I’m going to add one more to this – Measure for Measure, one of my all-time favourite Shakespeares, which is all about female bodily autonomy. The plot in this case rests on Isabella, who is asked by the acting duke to choose between sacrificing her bodily autonomy (despite wanting to join a convent) and seeing her brother put to death for sleeping with a prostitute and having a child by her. Throughout the Old Duke, disguised as a friar, has seemed to help resolve the situation, however when he finally reveals himself at the end of the play, he chooses also to ignore Isabella’s desire for celibate convent life by getting her to marry him as part of a seemingly “happy” resolution of the multiple couples throughout the narrative.