Here is my question: Is Shakespeare relevant to the lives of people living in 2013 and beyond?
It’s always been something I’ve wondered and whether or not Shakespeare’s plays still hold relevance in today’s society. I ask this question, in particular, as it is something I need to consider when writing my dissertation (me being the idiot that I am and choosing to write about Shakespeare).
Specifically, I am looking at the how the representations of femininity are complicated in his comedy plays; case studies I’ll be looking at will include The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night.
But, as I continue with my research, it always make me wonder whether the specific characterisations of the women represented in these plays – and even those of the men too – are actually relevant representations of people in the twenty-first century, or whether they are too dated and unrecognisable.
Most people will know that women were not allowed to perform on the English stage, unlike they can now; it wasn’t until the Restoration period (1700s) that female actresses were introduced, thus bringing scandal with it (but that’s another story altogether). This knowledge of no women on the stage meant that all the female roles were played by young boys who hadn’t yet gone through puberty; and in this point in history puberty often didn’t occur until much later with boys still donning a pre-pubescent (squeaky, high pitched) voice up until about the ages of sixteen-eighteen.
Additionally, this meant that true representations of women on the English stages was not available, thus the boys often giving a false representation purely down to interpretation alone. Some of the characters in Shakespeare’s plays depict women as being unruly, manipulative, weak, feeble, whores, and very often the traditional ‘goodly woman’; a woman of age ready for and seeking marriage with a man. In the three case studies I am looking at, marriage is involved in each of them, but not all follow quite the same pattern.
The fact that women were depicted as, majority of the time, undesirable is questionable but also goes in reference to the historical context in which the plays were originally written. Women didn’t have the same rights as they do now during the Renaissance, thus the characters Shakespeare wrote would more than often reflect upon this, with the rare exception.
One of the most interesting parts of my research is discovering the ethics of Katherine’s ‘taming’, in The Taming of the Shrew, from being described as an unruly woman who goes against the rules and defies her father’s wishes, to then being domesticated into a ‘proper’ wife by her Petruchio once they are married, by starving her and locking her away. Since it’s first production, this play has since become one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays in today’s society, yet the story would suggest a strong case of misogynist opinions and an outdated view of marriage – women are now more or less equal to men now and marriage has progressed accordingly.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, relationships and marriage are at the centre of the plot, with love being one of the factors in the two women in the play – Hermia and Helena – appearing to be somewhat obsessive and crazy. Helena, in particular, obsessing over Demetrius and comes across, to me personally, as being whiney and unable to live without a dominant male figure in her life. On the other hand, Hermia is willing to lose her life for the sake of love, something that is understandable but seems extreme at the same time. The fact she had a choice to marry Demetrius and be unhappy or to continue loving Lysander and die is a choice that would not occur in modern Britain. Women are allowed to marry whom they like and often don’t rely on arranged marriages from their parents.
Finally, in Twelfth Night, we see love and marriage as being something that happens quickly and fleetingly, as seen between Olivia falling in love with Viola (who is disguised as a boy called Cesario) and then marrying Sebastian, whom is Viola’s twin brother and is mistaken as being Cesario when he arrives in Illyria sometime after. Although some can fall in love quickly and marry soon after in modern society, it isn’t as common for this to take place within a matter of days or instantaneously as shown in Twelfth Night. However, some might argue that the invents within the play may happen over the course of several months but, for the purposes of performing, appear to occur much quicker. I just wonder whether people can still relate to this today.
Love and marriage are key themes within my dissertation whilst looking at the ways in which femininity is characterised (or not) within my three chosen case studies. I will also discuss whether they hold any relevancy for audiences today and whether the women in the plays are recognisable to an audience watching the plays on the stage today.