Shakespeare is being re-interpreted in newer and more dimensional perspectives by Shakespearean critics all around the world. I have tried to revisit the condition of women of Shakespeare’s time and mapped it with that of current Bangladesh. There are many similarities between the conditions of women living four centuries apart. Despite the fact that Queen Elizabeth ruled England at the time of William Shakespeare, the Elizabethan society was patriarchal. Women were considered the weaker sex and in need of being protected. As head of the household, the husband was allowed to chastise his wife, and often women were not allowed to inherit property. Though there were women who were highly educated, they were not allowed into the professions. They were permitted to write literature, providing the subject was suitable. Acting was considered unsuitable for women; for this reason, young men played roles of women in Shakespeare’s time. This was the common scenario of women in Shakespeare’s time. Though a few powerful women dominate the plays of Shakespeare as well as male domain, there is no scope to take these few powerful women in the social or political sense, but only in the personal sense. It is true that they sometimes have political influence behind the scenes, working on their husbands to bring about some political result. Though Shakespeare is also able to present some women in a way that allows them to be taken seriously, at the end of the plays, however, they always revert to their female role and the conclusion is marriage and declarations of their subservience to men and their reversion to the conventional female role. Let us have a look at a few of his prominent female character.
If we talk about the Elizabethan age, we see that Queen Elizabeth fought for women to be seen as equals to men throughout her reign. But she never allowed women to be on the stage; forcing men to play the role of men, and that makes her ideals hypocritical. She even got her cousin Mary of Scotland killed when the latter one’s involvement in the Babington plot to dethrone and kill Elizabeth was discovered. Though some men appreciated women for what capabilities they had in Shakespeare’s plays, this was not true for the rest of society. During the Elizabethan era, there were many restrictions on women in everyday life. Though women had the capability to be intelligent and make their own decisions, but it was always socially unacceptable.
Shakespeare had very modern views of women, men, and equality, believing that women are equal to men. Men posing as women was the theatrical convention. But, the fact of women posing men in some plays was a revolt against the oppression against women.
While men dominate the tragedies, Shakespeare highlights the role of women in society through his comedies. Shakespeare chose women as dominant characters in the comedies, bringing to light their role in society as `agents of happiness and order’. The fact that the comedies are resolved happily, and that women are the main characters, lends to the suggestion that women are the peacemakers in society. Further, Shakespeare does not limit his female characters to one type or class. He covers a wide range of types and classes in several comedies. Shakespeare’s indecision about the role of women, once as docile and another time as revolting reveals his conflicting standpoints.
Juliet in Romeo and Juliet
Females were deemed as commodity as they are now. Juliet though may not be thought of as a woman in our time, but at just fourteen, she is already a commodity. Her father, a rich merchant, is preparing to trade for a connection with a noble family. While Juliet is falling in love with the teenaged Romeo, her father is making arrangement to trade her off. She has only one thing in her mind – to marry Romeo, who is not her father’s choice. Without telling her father the reason, she refuses to marry the Count of Paris. This is spectacularly brave for the time, but, her father, Capulet, simply cannot understand it. He swears at her, threatens her and even strikes her. But, she does not give way. One of the most interesting things in Shakespeare’s tragedies and romantic comedies is his presentation of strong women in the face of all odds.
Gertrude and Ophelia in Hamlet
Hamlet has an interesting female character Queen Gertrude, widow of Old Hamlet. She has a type of conditional strength. When she and Claudius get married, that alone requires s a lot of guts. Her marriage so soon after her husband‘s death becomes a subject of gossip for the people she was ruling. In this play the negative view towards women is exhibited by Hamlet. He says harsh things to women and treats them as if they are inferior to him. We can remember how he treats Ophelia. In the “Nunnery Scene” he confronts Ophelia and suggests her to go to a nunnery and become a nun. “Nunnery” is an Elizabethan slang for brothel. The way Hamlet treats Ophelia by cracking sexual jokes and pretending to be an absolute mad man in order to avoid her is quite a clear- cut reflection of Hamlet’s misogynistic attitude. Quite reversely, in The Taming of the Shrew, Katherine says to her sister Bianca “thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign.” At the surface level, these lines sound misogynistic, but underneath there is a tone of irony. As Katherine is subdued by her husband, she wants liberation from it. By pretending to submit, she actually takes up the focal point of the play. So, we can find a feminist Shakespeare in The Taming of the Shrew.
This contradictory situation of women of Shakespeare’s time and plays represents to many extents the current situation of women of our society. We as a nation claim that our women are much empowered now. We have Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina serving the third consecutive tenure. We had another ex-prime Minister Khaleda Zia who also ruled Bangladesh for ten years. More and more women are becoming engaged in policy-making roles in our country. But, what is the condition of majority of women in our society, regarding their safety on road, at home and workplaces? What rights are they enjoying? Are they entitled to the same rights as men? Women in Bangladesh face various discriminations in the society. The main factor acting as a hindrance against development of the women is attributable to their limited and unequal rights and access to resources, particularly to land and other assets.
Law of Inheritance in Bangladesh
We can have a look at the practice of inheritance by women in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, the law of inheritance is based on personal law, i.e. the religious law of the individual. Existing laws related to rights of women in property are not very just and fair in our country. The proprietary rights of sons and daughters are completely different. Men inherit more than women do. Among Hindus in Bangladesh, a large number of women are also excluded from inheritance. According to Hindu law, not all daughters of a man are equally eligible to inherit. Unmarried daughters and married daughters with sons can inherit, while childless widowed daughters or daughters having no son are excluded. It would be beneficial for the women if a kind of balance between the religious law and the national civil law of inheritance can be stricken to ensure the equal rights of women in property.
What are the other areas that discriminate against women and girls in our country? The examples are plenty but there are three that are the most debated. These laws show how women are still relegated to a lower social status in a modern Bangladesh. While disposing rape cases, the rape victims, that is, the women have to undergo many hassles. A rape victim still has to prove the sanctity of her character to the suspecting eyes of law-enforcers as well as society. Women’s safety at the workplace is not that good either. Many more varieties of violence against women need no mentioning here. Domestic violence against women is a glaring example of their vulnerability.
We see that there are several points of similarities between the condition of women of England and Europe four centuries ago and of Bangladesh at present. There was the most powerful lady of the time, Queen Elizabeth has sway over the political, social, and religious life of the English people. On the other hand, women were the marginalized section of society deprived of human rights. Similarly, in Bangladesh in spite of the fact that two ladies holding the post of Prime Minister by turns, having a strong influence on the national polity, and controlling the populist psyche of our country, the establishment of gender parity in different areas of society is still a far cry. The maxim that the universality of Shakespeare permeates all ages and societies is manifest in this case too. So, our attitude to women in Bangladesh needs to be changed and we need to improve the condition of Bangladeshi women if we really mean to love Shakespeare.