Interestingly, Gertrude herself has little to say in defense or explanation of her decision, which has left the interpretation of her motives and even her mental state up to the judgment of readers and literary critics, many of whom have been as brutal and unforgiving as Hamlet in their condemnation of Gertrude’s behavior. An alternate reading, however, may yield other possible meanings. Regardless of whether Shakespeare intended the reader to condone or to condemn Gertrude’s decision to marry Claudius after the death of her husband, the fact that the Queen did, in fact, choose to do so, and further, that she refused to explain or defend herself and was willing to risk alienation from her beloved son all suggest that Gertrude was a bold and brave woman who was strong enough to challenge social norms by rejecting them altogether. It is not necessary to judge Gertrude’s actions, or those of the other female characters who have been examined here; rather, it is important to determine their significance as assertions of female agency, authority, and autonomy in a sociohistoric context that allowed women little of these rights or privileges. Although Hamlet does not answer the very conundrum he poses in the famous soliloquy “To be or not to be,” Gertrude does so through her actions. It is better, she seems to say, to “take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them” than to “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (III.i.55-59).
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night remain compelling plays to the contemporary reader because, among other reasons, they portray women in their full human complexity. By confronting difficult social circumstances and challenges, Shakespeare allows many of his female characters to be elevated to heroic figures, even though as heroes the women do have significant flaws, particularly for a reader who is insistent upon assessing the relative moral virtue of these characters. Shakespeare permits the women to struggle within and against inflexible social expectations in an effort to determine their own destiny and, in the process, shape the ways in which other people’s power and influence are affected. Some of the women, such as the four who were considered in this paper, are successful in challenging those expectations and traditional gender roles. Others, however, were not. Shakespeare avoids an overly facile approach to solving women’s problems, and he similarly avoids reducing women to one-dimensional characters. As Ehnenn asserted, gender roles in the environments that Shakespeare established were neither “stable nor essential” (319); rather, they were dynamic and their stability was challenged using a variety of creative and subversive strategies that were unique to each woman and her particular circumstances.
Ultimately, how can the reader come to an understanding of Shakespeare’s women and their significance? Interestingly, Ehnenn proposes that one answer to this question may be found by examining how the women who played Shakespeare’s female characters in 19th century Britain used their roles to “become critics of morality, writing character analyses that simultaneously legitimized their heroine’s behavior and their own questionably public position” (316). Shakespeare’s work, then, when understood in the context of his own epoch, was even more radical than one might understand or consider it to be. As Ehnenn writes, “female performance becomes performative, problematic, and threatens the dominant discourse when women’s actions reveal an ontological dislinkage from that discourse; it become unfixed, and threatens to expose and challenge the hegemony that previously sanctioned and enabled it” (317). The result was a curious combination of suppression of some aspects of femininity and the elevation of others (Ehnnen 318), not only in the plays as Shakespeare wrote them, but in the ways they have been performed and interpreted in the centuries that have followed. Shakespeare, by reflecting upon the limitations and opportunities available to all people in the time during which he lived and wrote, was able to create casts of characters who were authentic in their search for personal power and meaning, as well as authentic in their struggles to achieve such power and purpose. The bard did not, however, resort to didacticism to impress his own beliefs and opinions upon the reader. Rather, by creating complex and nuanced characters who were both compelling and likeable and, at times, morally questionable, Shakespeare challenged the reader to come to his or her own conclusions. This writer concludes that the four characters who were examined here contested gender norms and opened new possibilities for themselves by appropriating subversive strategies and insisting upon their right to determine their own futures.
Ehnenn, Jill. “‘An Attractive Dramatic Exhibition?’: Female friendship, Shakespeare’s Women, and Female Performativity in 19th Century Britain.” Women’s Studies 26 (1997): 315-341.
Hunt, Maurice. “The Voices of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 34.2 (1992): 218-239.
Huston, Lorna. “On Not Being Deceived: Rhetoric and the Body in Twelfth Night.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 38.2 (1996): 140-175.
Lindheim, Nancy. “Rethinking Sexuality and Class in Twelfth Night.” University of TorontoQuarterly 76.2 (2007): 679-713.
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