Shakespeare is extremely notable and that is an undeniable fact. But it also remains true that while his works contain female main characters, something that was not common in his time, they fall short of having any substance outside of men or are portrayed as the most monstrous things known to men. In most of Shakespeare’s plays, a lot of people die in the end, to put it simply. But what makes death different for women in Shakespeare is that when it happens, it is primarily portrayed as their fault and when the men die, it somehow is still the woman’s fault.
In these plays, everything a woman does is wrong and men can do no wrong, and when they miraculously do, it’s seen as honorable.
Although it’s my personal favorite, Shakespeare manages to incorporate nearly every female stereotype in Hamlet. Gertrude is the betraying, selfish whore and Ophelia is the over-emotional and naive crybaby who ultimately commits suicide because there is no man for her. Not only are the women reduced to very crude stereotypes, but they are also portrayed as the personification of evil. From the start of the play, it’s clear that Hamlet resents his mother for remarrying to her husband’s brother but Hamlet actually directs most of his hatred toward Gertrude than Claudius, despite him being the one that manipulated the whole situation. It’s also clear that Hamlet has a general disdain for women because of how he treats Ophelia, even though she is as a woman “should” be: sensitive and submissive. Hamlet delights in tormenting Ophelia, often making blatantly sexual jokes to her that are also directed at his mother, frankly a whole other issue. Overall, it’s clear that women cannot win in Hamlet; unknowingly remarry your husband’s killer and you’re the devil incarnate, or do everything you’re supposed to but receive the most awful treatment that drives you to suicide. Take your pick?
Macbeth, another profound play does the same thing to women in Hamlet, but arguably worse. Lady Macbeth is portrayed as the opposite of what a woman should be; not motherly, cold, domineering in the marriage, and is therefore a villain. Lady Macbeth is ambitious and gets what she wants but she still kills herself in the end (what is it with Shakespeare and marrying women to suicide). In the beginning, it’s obvious that Lady Macbeth does not believe her cowardly husband will be able to pull off the task of killing Duncan so she calls upon spirits to give her the power to do it by “unsex”ing her and stripping of femininity. Enough said there. Throughout the play, she taunts and emasculates Macbeth, making her Shakespeare’s ultimate ball-buster, if you will. Even when Lady Macbeth gets what she wants, she suddenly can’t handle the guilt, which is not to say female characters can’t feel guilt for doing bad things, but Shakespeare doing that to Lady Macbeth felt cheap.
I would consider the portrayal of women in King Lear to be more of a commentary on misogyny than stereotyping of female characters but it ultimately is still quite flawed. While King Lear does a pretty good job of critiquing the way men view women in power, the way in which the story ends just falls back on what Shakespeare always does to women. Goneril and Regan, while obviously having done bad things to gain power, receive much worse treatment than their male counterparts. Though, the snide and disgusted comments from side characters do a better job as a societal critique than a writing failure. But, while the argument that the nasty Goneril and psycho Regan had it coming could be made, the same could not be said for Cordelia. Shakespeare portrays her as the perfect woman: sensitive, compassionate, emotional but not overly emotional, loves her father, blah, blah, blah been there and done that. Had she been left standing in the end, I think Cordelia had amazing potential as a character but Shakespeare effectively rendered her a useless woman by killing her off and it felt like the ultimate cop-out. Whether Shakespeare did this intentionally or not, he still heavily reinforced the notion that women cannot be in power, even if they are “perfect”.
Another awful honorable mention would be The Taming of the Shrew, aka the famous 10 Things I Hate About You, which I don’t think needs much more commentary (taming a headstrong and extremely intelligent woman because that is somehow revolting and undesirable, come on, seriously?)
So while Shakespeare wrote complex and compelling male leads, he had a nasty habit of writing his female characters as heinous bitches. Entertaining, yes. Profound? Definitely not.