Shakespeare and feminism1





By examining Shakespeare’s treatment of familial ties in his plays The Life and Death of King John and The Winter’s Tale, we can see how his attitudes and opinions towards family relationships evolved. In King John (written between 1594 and 1596), Shakespeare adopts what was then a fairly conventional attitude towards family relationships: his characters never question the highly patriarchal family hierarchy. They also assume that the majority of wives will be unfaithful, simply because they are female—however, they take the charge of adultery rather lightly. By contrast, in The Winter’s Tale (written between 1610 and 1611), he adopts a much more progressive, feminist view of family relationships. Women have a higher standing and more power in The Winter’s Tale than they do in King John. Also, Shakespeare mocks and punishes husbands that assume their wives are unfaithful without sound evidence. In both plays, he criticizes power-based and political relationships, albeit in two very different ways. In all probability, Shakespeare’s increasingly radical thinking changed Elizabethan society.
The family relationships in King John are unquestionably male-dominated. All of the men have some sort of power over their female relatives. Constance’s life is ded⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪ ⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪ ЄAȁerful male characters, apparently unable to improve her own situation.
Lady Faulconbridge must also rely upon the men in her life. Her honor rests in the hands of her sons, Robert and Philip. Robert calls her honor into question by claiming that Philip is King Richard I’s natural son in order to secure his own inheritance (1.1.111). Philip supports this claim, renouncing the name of Faulconbridge and adopting that of Plantagenet. When Lady Faulconbridge realizes that she’s been discovered, she immediately explains and makes excuses for herself to Philip (now Richard), and receives his absolution (1.1). Their conversation disturbingly resembles a sinner’s confession to her priest. She tells Robert, “Heaven lay not my transgression to my charge!” (1.1.256). He replies by assuring her, “And they shall say, when Richard me begot,/ If thou hadst said him nay, it had been sin./ Who says it was, he lies; I say ‘twas not” (1.1.274-76). This obviously highlights the power differential between the Lady and her son.
The most vivid example of King John’s patriarchalism is found in the character of John’s niece Blanche. Her entire life rests on the men in it, namely, King John and Lewis the Dauphin. King John marries her to the Dauphin, because, as Eleanor advises him,

For by this knot thou shalt so surely tie
Thy now unsured assurance to the crown
That yon green boy shall have no sun to ripe
The bloom that promiseth a mighty fruit (2.1.471-474).

After Blanche’s marriage, Lewis uses her claim to the throne as a⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪ 팀 Ó
팀 Ó 팀 Ó 쨀 Ä 숀 A Ԁ 萎U葝Uࠀ 萘￸萙 ☛⍠Ȥ܀ ␃ሃa愀̤଀ ␃ᄃ킄ሂa怀킄愂̤଀ ␃༃䲄ዿa帀䲄懿̤଀ ␃༁䲄ዿa帀䲄懿Hᘀ⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪ ܀ ␃ሃa愀̤A Ԁ 萎U葝Uࠀ 萘￸萙 ☛⍠ȤԀthe fault was hers—/ Which fault lies on the hazards of all husbands/ That marry wives” (1.1.118-20). No one contradicts either of them. Additionally, when Constance and Queen Eleanor begin to argue, they accuse each other of infidelity and call each other’s sons bastards. All of this shows that in King John, women were assumed to be less faithful than men.
Despite the fact that wives’ adultery undermines the entire family structure by calling a man’s heir’s legitimacy into doubt, the main characters in King John seem to take it in stride. This is concurrent with prevailing attitudes in early modern times. Elizabethans regarded women as weak creatures, unable to deny either their baser instincts or their persuasive lovers. In fact, the Bastard uses this logic when he exonerates his mother. He tells her,

Needs must you lay your heart at his dispose,
Subjected tribute to commanding love,
Against whose fury and unmatchèd force
The aweless lion could not wage the fight,
Nor keep his princely heart from Richard’s hand.
He that perforce robs lions of their hearts
May easily win a woman’s (1.1.263-69).

The characters’ rather lenient attitudes towards adultery can also be seen in King John’s ruling. He proclaims that although Philip is not Lord Faulconbridge’s son, he is still legitimate because he was conceived in wedlock (1.1.116-7).
None of the characters in King John ever protest, or even question, this male-dominated family hierarchy. Constance uses it, and the men in her life, to fulfill her royal ambit⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪ 』၊洀H渄H甄C〄၊ ̍j ၊唀C䌄ᑊ 㘆脈࡝ᆁ⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪⨪