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Richard Laws

Washington State University


Dutiful Daughters, Willful Nieces:

The Empowerment of Women in Shakespearean Comedy

In Shakespeare's comedies, many – possibly even most - of the female characters are portrayed as being manipulated, if not controlled outright, by the men in their lives: fathers, uncles, suitors, husbands.  And yet, there are women inhabiting Shakespeare's comedic world who seem to enjoy a greater degree of autonomy and personal power than one would expect in a patriarchal society.  Superficially, therefore, Shakespeare's comedies appear to send mixed signals regarding the notion of female empowerment.  Some women are strong and independent, others are completely submissive, and the behavior of either seems to be influenced more by theme or plot than by any qualities within the characters themselves.

A closer look, though, should make it evident that this is not the case; as in many of Shakespeare's plays, appearances can be deceiving.  In some cases, the exterior behavior is a deliberate façade to mask the character's real feelings; in others, it is an acculturated veneer that is burned away as a result of the play's events.  Despite their outward appearances, though, most of these comedic women belong to one of two opposing archetypes.  An examination of these archetypes allows the reader to see past such deceptions to the real personality beneath.


The "Daughter" and "Niece" Archetypes

Within Shakespeare's comedies, many of the female characters are portrayed as submissive and easily controlled.  Like dutiful daughters, these women submit to patriarchal repression with little complaint.

Perhaps the best example of a "daughter" character in Shakespearean comedy is the role of Hero in Much Ado About Nothing.  Hero is completely under the control of her father Leonato, especially with regard to courtship.  When, in Act Two, Leonato believes that Don Pedro may seek Hero's hand in marriage, he orders Hero to welcome the prince's advances despite the difference in their ages: "Daughter, remember what I told you.  If the Prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer" (II.i.61-3).  Thus we see that Leonato controls not only Hero's actions, but even her words as well.

In fact, Hero is so thoroughly repressed by the male-dominated society in which she lives that she submits not only to her father's will, but to that of nearly every other man in the play.  She is easily wooed and won by Don Pedro posing as Claudio (II.i.80-93).  She is just as easily undone in a single speech when Claudio pronounces her an adulteress (IV.i.30-41).  Even Don John, through his nefarious schemes, is able to manipulate Hero, very nearly to her death.  Despite the influence of the more liberated Beatrice in her life, Hero shows no sign of acting under her own volition anywhere in the play.

Unlike Hero, however, other female characters in Shakespeare's comedies do not submit easily to the will of a patriarchal character, or indeed, that of any man.  Just as Much Ado About Nothing presents us, in Hero, with the very model of a dutiful "daughter" character, so it delineates the archetypical "niece" character, the quick-witted Beatrice.  The "merry war" (I.i.58) she wages with Benedick may showcase her character to best advantage, but it is clear from the first scene of the play that Beatrice does not easily submit to the commands or beliefs of any man.

In fact, it often seems that Beatrice would liberate her cousin Hero from patriarchal repression as well.  While virtually every main character in the play is conspiring to arrange Hero's marriage, Beatrice counsels Hero to follow her own desires, despite contemporary custom:

[I]t is my cousin's duty to make curtsy and say, "Father, as it please you."  But yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say, "Father, as it please me" (II.i.49-52).


Beatrice's willfulness continues even through the final scene of the play.  Despite her earlier vows to requite Benedick's love (III.i.109-16), when he at last proposes, she makes sure to emphasize that they are to be married only because she agrees, not because he wills it (V.iv.72-95).


The "Daughter"/"Niece" Binary in The Taming of the Shrew

Although Kate is (literally speaking) a daughter to the patriarchal figure Baptista, she seldom submits to her father's authority, in matters of behavior or of courtship.  She therefore fits better with the willful "niece" characters than she does with the obedient "daughter" types; the archetype is informed by the behavioral, not familial, relationship.  It is Kate's disobedience – her "niece" behavior - that provides the impetus for the play's action.

By contrast, Kate's sister Bianca is presented as a "daughter" character throughout most of the play: "[W]hat you will command me will I do/So well I know my duty" (II.i.6-7).  Even the play's minimal stage directions emphasize Bianca's submissive nature: Bianca enters and exits scenes only at the behest of a male character (or Kate, in Act II and again in Act V).  Her subjugation to her father is especially evident with regard to her potential suitors: Baptista proclaims in his first lines that Bianca may not be courted until Kate is married (I.i.49-51).  Bianca, in fact, is outwardly so submissive that she even professes to be willing to stand aside and allow Kate her choice of Bianca's many suitors (II.i.10-18). 

The final scene of the play, however, reverses these archetypal characterizations completely.  Once married to Lucentio, Bianca immediately becomes willful and disobedient, refusing to respond to his summons (V.ii.79-85).  Kate, on the other hand, comes dutifully when Petruchio calls for her (99-104).  At his request, she fetches Bianca, and delivers her long speech regarding wifely duty (140-183).

This final scene demonstrates that the "daughter" and "niece" characterizations are actually masks that each sister has used to obtain the sort of husband each desires.  Bianca poses as a dutiful, obedient "daughter" to attract a husband of means; once she has done so, she can drop the façade and become the pampered, petulant child she has always been.  Kate, on the other hand, wields her "shrewishness" to rid herself of suitors whom she cannot respect.  When Petruchio resolves to wed her anyway, she realizes that he is just the sort of husband she can be happy with, and so becomes a loving, obedient wife (whether to please him, or because that is the sort of relationship she desires).  It is fitting, in a play so concerned with disguise, that both Kate and Bianca exercise power by exploiting the guises provided by their respective archetypes.


The "Daughter"/"Niece" Binary in As You Like It

The "daughter" and "niece" archetypes, of course, are not universally applicable to all women in Shakespeare's comedies.  In As You Like It, there are other female characters which defy such classification.  Phoebe, for example, exhibits traits of both "niece" (in her willful pursuit of the erstwhile Ganymede) and "daughter" (as when she readily submits to Ganymede's stipulation that she marry Silvius), while the country wench Audrey cannot easily be assigned to either category.  Still, the archetypes once again prove useful in an examination of the relative empowerment of the play's central female characters, Rosalind and Celia.

On the surface, Rosalind appears to be one of the most independent, and thus empowered, women in any of Shakespeare's works.  Like Beatrice with Benedick, Rosalind is able to dictate completely the terms of her relationship with Orlando; throughout most of the play, he obeys her every whim – and this despite his belief that she is only a simulacrum of Rosalind.  In a time when marriage was customarily (judging by the texts) a business arrangement between the groom and the bride's father, Rosalind actually arranges her own union with Orlando, albeit in disguise (V.iv.5-10); further, she even arranges the marriage of Silvius and Phoebe (V.ii, V.iv.11-25).  The dramatic irony of this chain of circumstances, in fact, is the basis for the play's comedic action: Ganymede, who exerts such control over the lives of others, is really a woman.

It may be contended that Rosalind gets what she wants not because she is a truly empowered woman, but because she poses as a man, and that before adopting this disguise, she has no agency.  Duke Frederick, to whom Rosalind is a literal as well as archetypical niece, robs her of control over her own fate when he summarily banishes her from his court (I.iii.39-87).  Yet even here we can see that Rosalind already possesses the potential to become empowered.  When asked why she is sentenced to exile, the duke replies, "Let it suffice thee that I trust thee not . . . Thou art thy father's daughter" (I.iii.53, 56).  The duke, rightly or wrongly, views Rosalind as a threat, and only an empowered woman would pose a threat to him.  Viewed in this light, the masculine disguise only unlocks the latent power that the "niece" archetype already possesses.

Celia, on the other hand, is clearly a "daughter" character.  Her sole act of volition in the entire play comes when she determines to join Rosalind in exile (I.iii.83-103), and even this one act of defiance is motivated more by Celia's loyalty to her cousin than by any desire of her own.  When, in the play's final act, Oliver determines to marry Celia, only Orlando is given any right of decision over her lot (V.ii.1-15); Celia has apparently consented to be wed (l. 7), but is not really a party to the negotiations.

Thus, even while presenting a strong, independent female character, As You Like It seems to reinforce the patriarchal notion of women as subjugated beings.  Rosalind exercises some control over her own destiny, but only after she disguises herself as a man; lacking such a guise, Celia is virtually powerless to determine her own fate.  But this superficial view is an inadequate interpretation.  The Ganymede disguise – indeed, the entire journey to Arden – is the crucible that releases Rosalind's latent personal power, but the power has always been there; like Kate and Bianca, she has always been a "niece."  Celia remains subjugated not because she chooses to travel as a woman, but because she is, at heart, a dutiful "daughter."

Works Cited

Bevington, David, ed.  The Complete Works of Shakespeare.  4th ed.  New York: Longman-Addison Wesley Longman, 1997.

Shakespeare, William.  As You Like It.  Bevington 288-325.

---.  Much Ado About Nothing.  Bevington 216-51.

---.  The Taming of the Shrew.  Bevington 108-46.

How to cite this article:
Laws, Richard. Dutiful Daughters, Willful Nieces: The Empowerment of Women in Shakespearean Comedy. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < >.