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Was Shakespeare a feminist?

You might wonder what constitutes feminist theatre. According to Study.com, the main components of feminist theatre are telling stories of wrongly unjust women, critiquing systems of power that oppress women, and examining sex and gender roles, often to reverse or mock them. But, the main topical focus must be on the female experience. 

Michelene Wandor wrote in her review, The Impact Of Feminism On The Theatre, that women wished to take their stories into their own hands after male playwrights decided to capitalise on the growing phenomenon but completely exploited it. For example, David Hare wrote a misogynistic play, Slag, which used women as a metaphor for the disintegration of the public school system.  

But, how does William Shakespeare come into all this?  

Shakespeare is a huge British cultural icon, and his plays have constantly been reimagined time and time again. And the topic of whether Shakespeare’s work could be considered feminist has been explored before. However, Charlotte Ahlin from Bustle said the short answer is no since the word feminism wasn’t even around until the 1890s. 

However, Shakespeare was also known for writing about complicated and three-dimensional women aware of the systems made against them. Charlotte would call Shakespeare a ‘proto-feminist.’ But some would argue against that, as most of the time, these women would never beat the system and meet their ends at the hands of men. 

But, his plays seem to be a constant source of inspiration for feminist interpretations. So, is Shakespeare a feminist? 

The & Juliet Musical asks what if Juliet’s famous ending was just her beginning? What if she decided to choose her fate? According to the description on Shaftesbury’s website, this Juliet goes on a journey of self-discovery and second chances.  

In this iteration, spoilers, Juliet doesn’t die but lives and eventually becomes her own person, all under the guise of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, providing him with a feminist ending for the protagonist. It’s easy to write this off as a ‘woke panto’ as TimeOut writer, Andrzej Lukowski, called it. Juliet is played by a black actress, Miriam-Teak Lee, and features LGBTQ+ characters.  

But, the primary criticism of Romeo & Juliet is the blatant romanticism of it. So, it would seem like a fitting play to rework to fit a more modern era by taking the criticisms and applying them to the narrative. But, Shakespeare uses Romeo & Juliet to explore love in regards to its forcefulness, with Romeo made out to be ‘more in love with the idea of love.’ And in comparison, Juliet shows more glimpses of agency and determination.  

According to Sparknotes, Juliet can see ‘Romeo’s rash decision-making and tendency to romanticise things.’ If we were to go by stereotypes, Romeo is the one who displays more feminine characteristics about the idea of love. That’s even one reason why people complained 

about his character, according to Bustle. In contrast, Juliet appears more rational, which falls in line with the outlines of feminist theatre, to turn gender roles on their heads. 

The groundwork is ultimately there for a strong female protagonist. As a major Shakespeare buff myself, I thought about his other female characters, Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, famous for her ‘merry war of wits’ with Benedick. Sparknotes said that Beatrice’s refusal to marry comes from having ‘not discovered the perfect, equal partner and unwilling to eschew her liberty and submit to the will of a controlling husband.’ 

Or Katherine from The Taming Of The Shrew, which was made into the iconic rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You, which also turned her into a feminist icon. Unfortunately, the Taming Of The Shrew often portrays the idea that women should be subservient to their husbands, as Katherine is essentially mocked into becoming the perfect wife.  

Towards the end of the play, she has a speech about the importance of obeying one’s husband, referring to her husband’s duties as being on par with the prince. However, her ending speech has been left open to interpretation, as Sparknotes describes The Taming Of The Shrew as a play that ‘challenges stereotypes and promotes an awareness of ambiguous appearances.’ 

Katherine’s speech could be seen as her finding power and independence in her assigned role, which society had denied to her because of her anger towards her female experience in the patriarchy. She and Petruchio seemed to be on an equal playing field, though perhaps it was all an act to steal some money.  

All in all, Shakespeare didn’t explicitly make feminist theatre; how could he? But, there’s no denying that most of his female characters are just as well-rounded and complicated as any other male character and were the beacons of the female experience in their lifetime. So, they were feminist theatre in their own way.