Shakespeare’s plays, written during or shortly after Queen Elizabeth’s reign arguable present women in a relatively positive light. Although they do fall into the three stereotypical types of woman (the mother, the virgin and the whore), they use these roles to their advantage in order to subvert the whims and wills of men. At a time in which women were commonly understood to be subservient to men – although there was a female monarch at this time many people were upset at her lack of a husband to guide her – Shakespeare offers up outspoken, strong-headed, powerful women in the three aforementioned plays.
Firstly, in Othello a contrast is set up between the seemingly shy, subservient Desdemona and her loud, boisterous counterpart Emilia. Desdemona is a rather passive creature throughout the play; often she is only spoken about without being given the chance to air her opinions on things herself. Moreover, she is physically and verbally abused without being able to give a reasonable response to this because of her lack of understanding regarding the irrational (and foolish) actions of her husband. However, even this passive character is introduced to the audience as one who has denied the wishes of her father in staying at home and instead pursued her love affair with a “Moor”. This defiance would have been viewed as being very serious, as, indeed, it is by Brabantio who takes the issue to the Duke. In this way Shakespeare allows his most traditionally “feminine” character to subvert masculine demands for power. Furthermore, Emilia is used to highlight far more explicitly the power women have over men as she not only is responsible for Iago’s plan working so swiftly and smoothly by handing him Othello’s handkerchief, but also reveals his treachery to Othello at the end and thus causes his downfall. It has been argued by critics that Iago’s sole downfall in this play is the fact that he underestimates Emilia’s love for Desdemona: this is what ruins him. Thus she is the real puppet-master at the end of the play which reveals man’s subservience to the power of women.
Secondly, in Antony and Cleopatra the rivalry between Antony and Caesar would be the main plot strand of the play if Cleopatra was not quite so powerful. Antony’s extreme attraction to her, which even leads him to turn his ships around during a naval battle to follow her, makes the whole war almost laughable because it exposes just how controlled men are by their lovers: he is putty in Cleopatra’s hands. Her use of messengers to endlessly find out exactly what Antony is doing at any given time again shows just how much she is controlling him; he cannot do anything without being watched by her. Moreover, she manipulates the progress of the plot in the play: she ensured that Antony was not with his wife to look after his part of the Empire, she made the ships turn around, she directly caused Antony’s suicide, she even dictates Caesar’s actions once Antony is dead and finally she decides when and how she will die. Her aversion of Caesar’s plots highlight the fact that even arguably the most powerful man in the world cannot control a woman: she can always do this herself, even if it means going to extremes.
Finally, in The Taming of the Shrew the main body of the play is a play within the play. It is easy to forget that the play itself is about Christopher Sly and those who are playing a trick on him, it is not about making Katherine more “womanly”. The play in which Katherine and Petruchio play a part is constructed from male fantasy. Shakespeare is merely showing his audience what men believe should happen to outspoken women, not suggesting that all women should be subdued in this manner. The only woman in the play is the hostess of the inn who disappears after line ten having subjected Sly to her power by throwing him out of the public house as though he were an animal. Indeed, Kate arguably never becomes “tamed” as she is given the longest speech in the play at the very end of the play within the play; excessive talking is one of the prerequisites for being classed as a “shrew”. Shakespeare highlights the fact that men believe they have power over women by controlling their marriages as Baptista suggests the marriage between Kate and Petruchio and pursues it until it is done. Petruchio also insists on the marriage occurring without giving any thought to Katherine’s negating his marriage proposal. However, the main reason for the marriage going ahead is that there are other people manipulating the progression of the plot in order that Bianca can be married off; Kate is the only person who can give them that power by being married off herself. in this way Kate directs the whole course of the play and therefore can be seen as the most powerful individual in it.