argumentative essay example Literature

Women in Shakespeare

Many critics say that Shakespeare was a feminist. For instance Shapiro claims that Shakespeare was ‘the noblest feminist of them all”. I partly agree with McLuskie that Shakespeare mostly wrote for entertaining males, but I don’t think it is historically true to think of him as a feminist. To my mind, Shakespeare was an extraordinary talent in portraying human behavior, necessarily depicted the condition of women within a patriarchal system and created women characters, which in their richness transcend the limitations of his time.

In this essay I would like to point your attention to Shakespeare’s description of two women Portia and Rosalind and the way he depicted them is the most important part of his work.

When William Shakespeare wrote, The Merchant of Venice, he included a female character that influences the play dramatically. In most of Shakespeare’s plays, the women have little power and intelligence. In The Merchant of Venice, however, Portia is a woman that saves the life of a man with her wit and intelligence.

Another woman created by Shakespeare that posses qualities similar to Portia is Rosalind, from Much Ado about Nothing. Both women add to the main themes of the play because of their ability to use their intelligence and witty remarks as well as having a loving heart. The women share many similarities as well as many differences, which seem to be inevitable because Portia seems to be put on a pedestal that very few can reach.

Portia is one of Shakespeare’s great heroines, whose beauty, lively intelligence, quick wit, and high moral seriousness have blossomed in a society of wealth and freedom. She is known throughout the world for her beauty and virtue, and she is able to handle any situation with her sharp wit. In many of Shakespeare’s plays, he creates female characters that are presented to be clearly inferior to men. The one female, Shakespearean character that is most like Portia would be Rosalind, from Much Ado about Nothing. Both of the women are known for their wit and intelligence. Rosalind is able to defend her views in any situation, as does Portia.

Shakespeare gives each of them a sense of power by giving their minds the ability to change words around, use multiple meanings and answer wisely to the men surrounding them. By adding a loving heart to both of these women, Shakespeare makes their intelligence more appealing.

Even though Rosalind hides the loving side of her character for most of the play, she still expresses her kindness and love in other ways. Like Portia, she is a dear friend and an obedient daughter. In the fourth act, after Portia has saved the life of Antonio, she uses her wit, just as Rosalind does to test Benedict’s love, to convince Bassanio to surrender the ring that he vowed he would never part with.

After simply asking for it and being unsuccessful, she decides to use her intelligence and says, “I see sir, you are liberal in offers. / You taught me first to beg, and now methinks / You teach me how a beggar should be answered.” The only main difference between the two women is the way they are perceived by the other characters.

Portia is thought of as a perfect angel possessing no flaws, which is shown when Bassanio describes her to Antonio and says, “In Belmont is a lady richly left, / And she is fair and, fairer than that word, / Of wondrous virtues. Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth, / for the four winds blow in from every coast / Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks / Hang on her temples like a golden fleece, / Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchis’ strong, / And many Jasons come in quest of her”.

Portia displays all the graces of the perfect Renaissance lady. She is not ambitious, she is quiet rather than restrictive. She is modest in her self-estimation. Her generous spirit makes her wish she had more virtue, wealth, and friends so that she can better help those she loves. Rosalind, on the other hand, is not described as beautiful and even though she is well liked in her society, she is not thought of in the same godly way as Portia is.

Besides saving the life of Antonio, Portia is also used to convey the theme of deceptive appearances. Throughout the play, Shakespeare uses his characters to show the audience that a person cannot be judged by how they appear to the eye and that a person can truly be identified by their inner soul. Bassanio chooses the lead casket and proves that even though the other caskets appeared to be beautiful and trustworthy, the treasure was found in the casket of lead.

Shakespeare foreshadows the theme of appearances when Portia says to her new husband, “You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand, / Such as I am┘ But the full sum of me / Is an unlesson’d girl, unschool’d, unpractic’d, / Happy in this, she is not yet so old / But she may learn; happier than this, / She is not bred so dull but she can learn”. After saying this to her husband, she later dresses up as a man and finds a way to release Antonio from his bond with Shylock, when no one else is able to. She proves to the audience and to her friends that even though she might have been perceived as an unschooled, unpracticed girl, her inner self, posses the strength, intelligence and experience that enables her to do what she did. When Shakespeare created Portia’s character, he contributed the likeness of Rosalind and added the elements of a perfect Renaissance woman. Even though Portia is a woman, she still posses the intelligence to use and manipulate words, the beauty to woo men, and the soul that stands above many others. Her appearance adds to her angelic reputation and her wisdom allows the audience of the play to acknowledge the theme of deceptive appearances.

Portia is one of Shakespeare’s best parts for an actress as, apart from being one of the central characters within the main plot of the play; she displays great wit and intelligence. These are assets which none of Shakespeare’s other female roles ever had as women who lived around the same time as Shakespeare, were not considered to have such honorable traits.


Lodge, Thomas. Play Rosalynde (1590). Oxford protege; Euphuist style

Munday, Anthony. The Merchant of Venice (1580). Oxford protege/secretary

Josephus Flavius, Antiquitates Judaicae in Greek (ed. B. Niese) and English

Gilbert, Sandra M.; Gubar, Susan. Shakespeare’s sisters, feminist essays on women poets.
Bloomington, London: Indiana University Press, 1979

Looser, Devoney. British women writers and the writing of history, 1670-1820. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000

William Richardson, Essays on Some of Shakespeare’s Dramatic Characters to which is added an Essay on the Faults of Shakespeare (London : J. Murray and S. Highley, 1797), 5th edition, pp. 338-363

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