In addition to what they suffer through jealousy, women in Shakespeare have also to cope with many other problems. The most peculiar perhaps is that of Helena in All’s Well that ends Well, who is desperately in love with Bertram, the son of the Countess of Roussilon, the patron of her father. She expresses this with astonishingly forthright passion, in the very first scene –
Carries no favour in’t but Bertram’s.
I am undone: there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away. ‘Twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star
And think to wed it, he is so above me:
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere.
The ambition in my love thus plagues itself:
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love. ‘Twas pretty, though plague,
To see him every hour; to sit and draw
His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls,
In our heart’s table; heart too capable
Of every line and trick of his sweet favour:
But now he’s gone, and my idolatrous fancy
Must sanctify his reliques.
At the end of the scene she expresses her determination to get her man
our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven: the fated sky
Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.
And in the end she succeeds. First she marries Bertram after she cures the King of France, who promises her that she can choose any husband she wants. Then, after he has abandoned her, she follows him to the wars and changes places with a girl he had tried to seduce. Since Bertram had promised to accept her as his wife if she obtains from him his family ring and gets pregnant by him, she is able to get him to accept her in the last scene of the play. But the cynicism with which he has talked about the girl he thought he had slept with suggests a less than happy ending for Helena
certain it is I liked her,
And boarded her i’ the wanton way of youth:
She knew her distance and did angle for me,
Madding my eagerness with her restraint,
As all impediments in fancy’s course
Are motives of more fancy; and, in fine,
Her infinite cunning, with her modern grace,
Subdued me to her rate: she got the ring;
And I had that which any inferior might
At market-price have bought.
Much Ado about Nothing also involves gross humiliation of a woman, when Claudio abandons Hero on their wedding day. He has been tricked into believing her to have been unfaithful, and he is soon disabused and marries her, but again the impression the play leaves is that women in love are at the mercy of their loved one’s whims. Conversely, the idea that men can freely stray is set by an early song –
Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny
But this bleak element in the play is overcome by the romance between Beatrice and Benedick, which provides a memorable foil to the storybook romance that goes wrong. This more mature couple spar with each other verbally from the very start of the play, but are tricked by their friends into believing the other is suffering from unrequited love. Here is Hero commenting that it would be useless for Beatrice to know of Benedick’s love –
I know he doth deserve
As much as may be yielded to a man:
But Nature never framed a woman’s heart
Of prouder stuff than that of Beatrice;
Disdain and scorn ride sparkling in her eyes,
Misprising what they look on, and her wit
Values itself so highly that to her
All matter else seems weak: she cannot love,
Nor take no shape nor project of affection,
She is so self-endeared.
It would be nice to think that the equality between Beatrice and Benedick was Shakespeare’s ideal, but we have also The Taming of the Shrew, which borders on perversity in its depiction of the tradition of female submission, as expressed in Katharina’s last speech –
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you froward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
But the whole play is bizarre, beginning with a scene in which a drunk is picked up by a Lord and taken to a grand house where the servants are told to pretend he is the master. A poor page is made to dress as a woman and sit with the drunk who then watches the play, which is thus presented as at a further remove from reality than any other of Shakespeare’s plays.
So the hero Petruchio at the very start proclaims himself mercenary in his search for a wife –
Signior Hortensio, ‘twixt such friends as we
Few words suffice; and therefore, if thou know
One rich enough to be Petruchio’s wife,
As wealth is burden of my wooing dance,
Be she as foul as was Florentius’ love,
As old as Sibyl and as curst and shrewd
As Socrates’ Xanthippe, or a worse,
She moves me not, or not removes, at least,
Affection’s edge in me, were she as rough
As are the swelling Adriatic seas:
I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
If wealthily, then happily in Padua.
But Katharina’s bullying of her sister makes us more than indulgent to Petruchios determination to marry her. We can discern some reason for Katharina’s harshness in her father’s obvious preference for her younger sister Bianca –
Nay, now I see
She is your treasure, she must have a husband;
I must dance bare-foot on her wedding day
And for your love to her lead apes in hell.
Talk not to me: I will go sit and weep
Till I can find occasion of revenge.
But we still acquiesce when Petruchio declares
I am as peremptory as she proud-minded;
And where two raging fires meet together
They do consume the thing that feeds their fury:
Though little fire grows great with little wind,
Yet extreme gusts will blow out fire and all:
So I to her and so she yields to me;
For I am rough and woo not like a babe.
Meanwhile Lucentio who finally wins the younger daughter does so by becoming her tutor while his manservant Tranio pretends to be the rich youngter. To complicate matters further, Tranio actually presents himself as a formal suitor, and gets an old man to pretend to be his father, so as to convince Bianca’s father.
Needless to say Lucentio’s real father also turns up, and is nearly arrested as an imposter. But all is swiftly resolved, and the play ends with Katharina totally submissive, and the other wives not – and no mention of the drunkard for whose benefit the play was staged.