William Shakespeare is the most well-known dramatic of the Renaissance period. Scholars have been writing about him and his works for centuries, so there is hardly a theme, a notion, an aspect of his plays that was not commented on. His person is a different case – while there are still many unanswered questions about his life before he came to London, the scholars and critics have a large space for disputes concerning whether it was really Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon, who wrote the plays. There are many different opinions28 on this, some people think the author was Francis Bacon, others believe it was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, or that, as Sidney L. Gulick, Jr. tries to prove in “Was Shakespeare a Woman?” the plays were written by the Queen.
As much as the critics are concerned with the authorship of the plays, they are in recent years interested in analyzing Shakespeare’s female characters from many points of view – as are feminist readings or psychoanalytic readings. Kathleen McLuskie reads Shakespeare as a patriarchal author who created characters in and for the world of men. Richard Levin argues against her hypothesis that “we should not look for a sympathetic treatment” of women in the plays because women were excluded from the entertainment business – there were “no women shareholders, actors, writers, or stage hands” – he says that “if the plays are to be viewed as products of an industry (which they obviously were [...]), then McLuskie has omitted the crucial group of people who would have the greatest influence in determining the nature of those products – the customers” (Levin, Audience 165). He quotes Andrew Gurr who focused on the question of women in the audience and who proved that there were “high proportion of women at the playhouses” and they came “from every section of society” (Levin, Audience 165). Levin then supports his arguments with evidence from various prologues and epilogues, in which the authors tend to talk to the “fair” part of the audience and adds the changing tradition of addressing the readers of printed plays from “To the Gentlemen Readers” to the later “To the Readers” or “To the Courteous Reader” (Levin, Audience 173). If writing for women as an important part of the audience worked for John Lyly, who as one of the first professional playwrights publicly acknowledged them and was able to earn his living by writing for them, it is highly improbable that ten years later and in the world of public theatres, where pleasing the crowds was the main source of financing, a popular author would not care about the female part of the audience. Levin proves this by quoting the Epilogue of Henry VIII “All the expected good w’ are like to hear / For this play at this time, is only in / the merciful construction of women, / For such a one we show’d ‘em. If they smile / And say ‘twill do. I know within a while / All the best men are ours” (Levin, Audience 168) – he claims that Shakespeare thought that it “would be women’s special interest in the favourable portrayal of female characters in a play” (Levin, Audience 168).
Some critics, for example Henri Peyre, who comments on Shakespeare from the French point of view, tend to provide questionable arguments. Peyre’s arguments are almost misleading, which stems from the lack of insight into the cultural background of the era and from comparing Shakespeare with works from different countries and different centuries (e.g. with Hedda Gabler, Madame Bovary, Manon Lescaut or Nana). He quotes French critics who blame Shakespeare for “the absence of religious concern” in his plays – Paul Claudel “deplored bitterly the frightening absence of God in Shakespeare’s theatre” and called him “the genius who never found God” – without commenting on the fact that the era of Reformation was a dangerous period to write about god for the public theatre, not to mention the 1589 Act of Censorship, and the fact that critics and scholars who analyze the plays on the textual basis found religious themes hidden in some of the plays – for example Romeo and Juliet29 appears to be connected to religious matters. And if the general idea that Shakespeare’s mother was a devoted Catholic (it is mentioned in many works on the dramatist, even in Břetislav Hodek’s Příběh mladého Shakespeara, 1999), which means that he was born into a family where religious ideas clashed with the reality of public social life, it is not unimaginable that he was used to hiding his thoughts, only hinting some notions without being caught.
What is more important for this thesis is that Peyre criticizes Shakespeare also for his women – they are shallow and “with utter naiveté [they] throw themselves at the necks of the men they have decided to love – with utter abandon and not much understatement” (110). He quotes Taine, who portrayed Shakespeare’s women in his History of English Literature as “charming children, ho feel to an excess and love to the point of madness” (Ibid.) and adds that any man “wearies of having married an inconsequential prattling little girl with the head of a bird and the immutable fidelity of a dog” (Peyre 110). Sidney L. Gulick, Jr., on the other hand describes Shakespeare’s women in a different light. His hypothesis that Shakespeare was actually a woman who had to pretend to be a man to work in the patriarchal society seems to be exaggerated, yet his opinions about the female characters are quite just. He quotes Coleridge and summarizes his words saying that “the author of these plays presents women as idealized characters” (Gulick 445). Gulick divides the idealization as moral and intellectual. The women are “admirable characters, noble, loyal, and innocent” (Gulick 445). Marina from Pericles is able to protect her chastity; Desdemona is too innocent to believe there can be such evil in a man as is in Iago; Lady Macbeth “besides being more quick-witted than her husband and understanding him as he did not understand himself, had the compunction which he lacked – she could not kill [...] the king, whereas he could; he then sank into an orgy of murder” (Gulick 446) while she became mad; Goneril and Regan are “wickedness incarnate” (Ibid.), but on the other hand they are two to “balance Edgar, a man and the archfiend of the play” which means that even though the sisters are evil, they are not as wicked as a male character. Then there are female characters who are smarter than their male counterparts: Beatrice who wins over Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing; Portia, in The Merchant of Venice, who at first manages to get a husband she desires while not breaking a promise to her father, then saves Antonio by pretending to be a lawyer and “finally tricks her husband with the ring, thus making sure that for the rest of their lives she will have him safely tethered” (Gulick 446); Viola from Twelfth Nighthas a twin brother, Sebastian, nevertheless, it is her who is loved by both Orsino and Olivia (who then marries Sebastian); Helena from All’s Well that Ends Well goes through with a surprisingly bold plan to manage getting pregnant with her husband without him being aware of it; Juliet, one of the youngest characters, yet one of the most active, she “deeply in love as she is, still [...] keeps her feet on the ground, makes sure [Romeo’s] purpose is honourable, has her nurse arrange details, gets herself married, and manages her actions with intelligence as well as with courage” (Gulick 446), while Romeo falls quickly out of love with Rosalind, then in love with Juliet, behaves recklessly and without thinking, gets banished from Verona, breaks down emotionally, when he learns about her death he again acts before he thinks and then he kills himself – in this case the woman, while being much younger, operates with sobriety and were it not for him and his recklessness, her plan would work and there would be no tragedy. Cleopatra, older than Juliet, but similarly intelligent and courageous, “enmeshes one of the great men of the time” (Gulick 446) and even though she kills herself in the end, she does it in a great style. And there is also Rosalind from As You Like It, who is not afraid to leave the court of her uncle and travel, disguised as a young man, to the Arden forest accompanied by a female cousin and a clown; she is also capable of winning the man of her heart, Orlando, or better say she is able to fashion her lover according to her wishes – in a play of double cross-dressing, she, dressed as Ganymede, offers to play fair Rosalind for Orlando, so that he would be able to woo her properly.
Shakespeare’s female characters may lack depth or may seem to never experience carnal love or a sort of true love, as Peyer claims; however, they are the greatest female characters created in the Early Modern England. Dion Boucicault argues in “Shakespeare’s Influence on the Drama” that his plays became classics over the centuries mainly because they provide a challenge for the actors – that the roles of Hamlet, Othello, Romeo, Lear or Macbeth attracted actors of every period because their tragedy and great monologues were touching the audience and presented a great opportunity to start or enhance one’s acting career. But, even though that during the Elizabethan and Jacobean era there were no actresses, during the Restoration, still in the seventeenth century, first actresses appeared and it is as believable that actresses wished to prove their qualities by playing Juliet, Desdemona, Rosalind, Viola, or Lady Macbeth, as the fact that male actors preserved Shakespeare for later centuries.
In the middle of Shakespeare’s career there was a huge change – Queen Elizabeth I died and was succeeded by James I. That this change would create a difference in the society was by then probably anticipated. But the change brought more than was expected – while during the era of Elizabeth the lives of her female subjects were not really changed because she wanted to be the “extraordinary” woman, above others in virtue, intelligence and capability, the fictional lives of female dramatic characters evolved to a great extent – their stories became more elaborate, their characters more developed, their voices better heard. But during the reign of King James I all of this was about to change.