Throughout history different groups of people have been discriminated, but no
group has been slighted as much as women. This is true for most of history, including William Shakespeare’s era, being not only visible in his writing but actually effecting his works as well. The role women played in Shakespeare’s time were considered insignificant, amounting to little. To bear children and to keep the home (clean and cook) was considered the main tasks of the Shakespearean women, having no power in their political system and even of their own lives. The pessimistic attitude towards women can be seen in Shakespeare’s own realm, the stage. Here, women were not aloud to participate in the enactments themselves, instead young boys disguised themselves as women for the dramas.
An argument can be made that in Shakespeare’s works women were not always portrayed in a negative light. Though this may seem true, lets take into consideration his three different types of plays: the romance, the comedy, and the tragedy. Now, even though women seemed to get fair treatment in romances, this is only because it is a romance, meaning a feeling of love was present between the couple, and therefore both man and woman have to play an equal part. It is not too romantic if the woman involved is stupid or ignorant, is it? Simply put, no. Now, one must look at the Shakespearean comedies and tragedies. Though the treatment of women shares similarities, they also show stark differences, making a link apparent between the two, this being done by putting the context into which the plays were viewed, which in similarities and contrasting differences negative aspects of women can be viewed. An example can be seen within Shakespeare’s "The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice" and "The Merchant of Venice", a tragedy and comedy respectively.
In Shakespeare’s era, tragedies were thought to be the true form of theater, catering to the upper class, while, on the other hand, comedies were thought as simple and for the simple person. Tragedies were to be taken seriously, containing grave circumstances not to be taken lightly, while in a comedy, however, the situations where thought of lightly, filled with mirth, meaning little. The influence that enticed the English audience so much is that, to them, a tragedy could truly happen and each second stimulated thought. A comedy was thought of a tale that was not believable, therefore relating little to there lives, bearing the idea of spontaneous thought, were little was thought of consequences and even less was imagined about the "correct" ending.
Here is where one of the concepts comes in about Shakespeare’s attack on women. In "Othello", the women are simple minor characters playing no really significant role (in the actual story, not the plot) having all the power go to the men. In this play the men are the problem solvers while the women are the instigators. This can be witnessed when Emiliagiving the handkerchief to Iago for such a foolish reason, Shakespeare demonstrates the attitude given towards women at this time, simplicity. It is also exemplified in Desdemona’s attitude towards her husband, when here husband confronts right before her death. On the other hand, in "The Merchant of Venice", the women ended up having the superiority. When Portia rescues Antonio, she breaks the mold of the flat tragic women. She also does something that you will not see the women do in a Shakespearean tragedy, she took the initiative, she was the one to resolve the problem while the men where helpless. The point of this is simply, since Portia was in a comedy, which was to be taken lightly, she too was to be taken lightly, making it seem even more humorous having a women save the man. On the contrary, in "Othello", the true role (and thoughts) of the women comes out in a type of play that was aimed more towards humanity not humorous fiction.
Another thing that presents opposites in the play is the type of speech the women have in the comedies as a opposed to that in tragedies. In comedies the women had the sharp wit, not to mention the piercing tongue, in which they volleyed on almost anyone. With a glance at some of Portia’s first lines, a connection can be easily made. An example of this can be found in Portia’s third verbal volley. Here she states that "If to do were as easy to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages prince’s palaces" (Act I, scene ii, line 12). This obviously shows her wit, along with the satire she provides in much of her words. Like the above paragraph about women’s actions, these words can be acknowledge as being created to add even more humor to the play, with no real relation to reality. Now, obviously, this wasn’t the case in Shakespeare’s tragedies, especially Othello. Desedoma always had a subservient tone in her words, always playing the weak, helpless women. Clearly Desdemona never stood up for herself, allow everything to occur to her without a hint of struggle, including her own death.
Besides the mentioned contradictions mentioned, there is one more area where there are differences. In Shakespeare’s tragedies the women always had a downfall (namely death). This is true in Shakespeare’s plays, being also true in Othello. Here, not only was it Desdemona that met an untimely demise, but also Emilia (this happens to occurs in other Shakespeare tragedies also: Olivia in Hamlet, Duncan’s wife in Macbeth, all three of Lear’s Daughters in King Lear). Ironically, the main character of the play, Iago, remains alive, not to mention so did Cassio. Comedies, on the other hand, had, instead of deaths, marriages (in this case proposed weddings between Portia and Bassanio and between Nerissa and Gratiano). Since comedies were considered farce, the meaning of this can be interpreted as women could only end up happy in an unrealistic world.
Now come the similarities in the two types of plays, tragedies and comedies, that present a negative light about women. To begin with, in Shakespearean plays the women are the cause of the conflict (at least usually). In "Othello", Shakespeare makes Othello believe Iago that his wife, Desdemona, is unfaithful, committing adultery with his newly appointed lieutenant. In "The Merchant of Venice" he has Bassanio fall in "love" with Portia, getting into debt (and consequently getting Antonio into the same situation) to provide an image of prestige to impress his beloved Portia.
In both Othello and The Merchant of Venice, the bond formed between two males were stronger than those established by man and women, consequently man and wife. Iago’s word carried more weight to Othello’s ear than would have his wife. Would have is important here because Othello believed and trusted his "chum" Iago so much that he didn’t bother to get any input from his wife, making it clear that his relationship with Iago was more important than that to his wife. In The Merchant of Venice, the same occurrence can be observed. Here, Bassanio values Antonio’s friendship more than the wife that he risked everything in obtaining. He even states the fact in Act IV, scene I, lines 281-286, "Antonio, I am married to a wife which is as dear to me as life itself; but life itself, my wife, and all the world are not with me esteem above thy life".
The simpleness of the women in Shakespeare’s plays can be seen somewhere else in "Othello" and "The Merchant of Venice". In Shakespeare’s plays, when marriages occur, one should look at the reasons why these jointments occurred. Shakespeare, in the plays "Othello" and "The Merchant of Venice", doesn’t provide a good reason to why the women marry these men, making it occur out of a whim. He shows their naïve being by the course in which the fell in "love". In Othello, Desdemona was struck in the heart because she was enthralled in his adventures, and the results of his sojourns. Portia, in "The Merchant of Venice", fell in love with Bassanio because he picked the right casket her father decided would win his daughter. Neither of these foolish spontaneous relationships seem to be based on love, rather they do not seem to express love, only slight lust. Now the point of this is to show how Shakespeare portrays women as being fickle, making rash decisions, basically, they didn’t command the ability of thought, one of the qualities that makes man man and not beast.
Consequently, no matter how you look at Shakespeare’s work, "Othello" and "The Merchant of Venice", the actions of women in these plays turned out being unbelievable and/or insignificant. If their deeds seemed positive in Shakespeare’s comedies, this can be attributed to the way in which the comedies were viewed at this time, being thought of as fictional folly. If their actions seemed negative, which in the majority of the cases they were, they happened to be just that, showing the true nature in which women were observed and treated in Shakespearean times.