Women in Shakespeare: The Complex Culpability of Women’s Speech

By, Cara Ledwidge

William Shakespeare’s works affect not only the literary world, but also the world of women and gender studies, as seen in a lecture given by guest professor Jean Howard, Ph.D., on the speech of women in his plays.

Howard has written many works about women in history and drama, but her talk on Tuesday, Oct. 7 focused on 16th and 17th century drama by Shakespeare including “Othello,” “Taming of the Shrew,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and she briefly described a work by Thomas Heywood, “A Woman Killed with Kindness.”

Jean Howard, Ph.D. Photo by Cara Ledwidge
Jean Howard, Ph.D. Photo by Cara Ledwidge

Brian Chalk, Ph.D., who teaches a Shakespeare course at Manhattan College, as well as many other English classes, introduced Howard as “even more compelling in person” than her works on Shakespeare. These include “Shakespeare’s Art of Orchestration: Stage Technique and Audience Response” (1984), “The Stage and Social Struggle” (1994), “Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare’s English Histories” with Phyllis Rackin (1997), “Theater of a City: The Places of London Comedy 1598–1642” (2007) and “Marx and Shakespeare” with Crystal Bartolovich (2012).

Howard began her speech with the statement, “Women’s speech is a perennial problem (in 16th, 17th century)…they should be chased, silent, obedient.” But in Shakespeare’s works, many of these women are the complete opposite.

Howard asked, “What should we think? Is this progressive gender politics? Or are these women a problem? Are these talkative women in need of taming?”

Howard then warned the audience that there is a caveat to asking these questions, which is that, “We shouldn’t expect plays to be completely about teaching lessons. We all know breaking the rules makes better theatre than following the rules.”

Howard posed the questions of women’s speech as being from “different angles and different perspectives.”

Howard then went on to reference “Taming of the Shrew” and a woman named Katherine who “won’t stop talking.”

“Bertuccio, her husband, tries to mold her by a taming of her mouth,” she said.

Katherine begins her infamous speech with, “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/Thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for thee.” This speech is hotly contested by critics over the years because of how the scene can be portrayed by the actress. The actress can try to make it an ironic performance or a sincere performance, both of which mean very different things for the status of Katherine at the end of the play.

Katherine, as portrayed ironically, could be attempting to undermine the cruel way in which Bertuccio has treated her, but if she is played sincerely, the audience would believe her to be changed and fully tamed by Bertuccio’s cruelty into a woman who is “silent and obedient” as Howard previously suggested was the ideal woman of the time period.

Howard then began to speak on another of Shakespeare’s plays, “Much Ado About Nothing,” which will be staged by the American Shakespeare Company at Manhattan College on Oct. 17.

“Much Ado About Nothing” focuses on two plots. “The main plot is Beatrice and Benedict, and culturally speaking, Beatrice talks too much. This plot is contrasted with the plot of the woman character, Hero, who says almost nothing,” Howard said.

Howard used “Much Ado About Nothing” to speak on the emergence of the domestic tragedy as opposed to the tragedies like Hamlet which were much more common at the time.

“Plays exist in a force field of other plays,” she said. “What happens to Hero only happens in a domestic setting. Hero is publically and wrongfully accused of sexual misconduct on the night before her wedding by Claudio, who acquiesced without a word.”

Domestic tragedies feature women who are “bad or believed to be bad,” Howard said.

Howard then cited a play in which a wife kills her husband successfully, “embodying female unruliness,” Howard said. A character named Alice was “sexually unfaithful but goes piously to her death.”

Domestic tragedies punish women similarly to the way Alice is punished, but sometimes a woman has the opportunity to reform herself and live as Hero does in a convent in “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Photo by Cara Ledwidge
Photo by Cara Ledwidge

Howard then discussed a play entitled “A Woman Killed with Kindness” in which a woman named Anne is a “reluctant adulteress” who is put into her position by her husband when he invites a friend of his into his home while he is away. After she is discovered in her adultery, her husband sends her to a farmhouse where she slowly starves herself to death.

During Anne’s last speech, she becomes a “presentational device, a moral object, and not as a character,” Howard said, “in order to illicit sympathy for her over his cruel domestic actions.”

Another play that Howard mentioned was “Othello,” in which Desdemona, the main woman in the play, becomes an example of a woman who suffers for having done nothing wrong. Iago tricks Othello into killing his wife because he convinces Othello that she is having an affair, but she never was.

“Othello represents the dangers surrounding vocal women,” Howard said, suggesting that even a woman who did not commit a crime can still be punished for being vocal.

“Cate from ‘Taming of the Shrew’ can live because she is reformed,” Howard continued, “but Desdemona dies, despite the fact that she is falsely murdered.”

Howard later admitted that “Othello” is her favorite play because of the “incredible tragedy that is filled with such amazing imagination.”

There are two types of women that Howard explored, women who are too loquacious, and women who say close to nothing at all. Desdemona and Hero say little when their lives are on the line and women like Alice and Anne are too much for the men around them and need to be tamed to the point that they die.

However, Beatrice from “Much Ado About Nothing” seems to undermine the idea of the loquacious woman in Shakespeare’s plays by having her dialogue be witty and fun against Benedict, her lover.

“The vivacity of Beatrice makes her complicated,” because she is not treated like the other women who speak in Shakespeare’s play.

Shakespeare’s plays are so exciting “because of the theatrical pleasures of the untamed tongue,” Howard said, and the women in his plays who employ the untamed tongue are reacted to in a variety of ways.

Howard opened up the audience to questions by saying, “Comedy, unlike tragedy, can delight in breaking laws,” which suggests that the plays would not be the same if they did not break the laws of the society in which they were written.

Ashley Cross, Ph.D. and chair of the English department, asked Howard, “Lots of women attended Shakespeare’s plays, did that affect how his plays were written?”

Howard concluded her presentation with, “Shakespeare’s plays make it so that there is not one kind of reception, but rather, they are polyvocal in nature, and that is what makes them unique.”