S.A. Markham of What’s It All About, Shakespeare addresses the question ”was Shakespeare a feminist?”
Well, no. We can’t call Shakespeare a feminist, because the concept didn’t exist in his lifetime, or for approximately three hundred years following his death. On the other hand, did he demonstrate an understanding of women’s subjugation by men, a realisation that women were not necessarily the “weaker sex” and create characters that could be described as protofeminists?
Yes. However, there is a school of thought which suggests that Shakespeare’s championing of disobedient, cunning, wilful women was merely for the benefit of comic effect, just as the cruelty towards an ‘outsider’ like Shylock was all in the name of comedy. Now, you could, of course, fall on either side of this debate – because there really is no way of knowing exactly what Shakespeare had in mind. But for my money, it is the former rather than the latter.
I recently wrote in Shakespeare’s Source for Othello: Cinthio that the character of Emilia in the play Othello may have been literature’s first feminist:
Shakespeare greatly expanded the role of Iago’s wife, Emilia, and in the process created one of the great female souls of the canon. Some have called Emila the first feminist in Western literature. This is difficult to refute after reading her speech to Desdemona about the way men treat women:
But I do think it is their husbands’ faults
If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps,
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite;
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is: and doth affection breed it?
I think it doth: is’t frailty that thus errs?
It is so too: and have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.
Be sure to read Markham’s entire post and tell him and us what you think.