The ideal and real roles of women depicted in the plays The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare and The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Women have been the subject of greater literary interest since times immemorial. They frequently serve as the means to replicate contemporary society. During the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, women were largely portrayed as the victims of a patriarch society. Modern feminism was nonexistent until the 19th century and female voice was completely subdued. “Feminists’ scholars regarded the 18th century author Mary Wollstonecraft as the original harbinger of feminism, a term not coined until the 19th century” (web.clark.edu, n.d.). While a few adopt a realistic approach to the replication of female state of affairs in literature, others follow idealism building a rather illusionary world of ideas. Literary realism is a style in literature that reflects real life situations. The characters and their situations as well as the society in large are depicted as they originally are without being influenced by emotions or false hopes. “Because of the realistic impression of the characters, a sense of personal relationship was frequently experienced by spectator, reader, and critic” (Lovett, 1935, 280). Idealism, on the other hand, establishes the optimistic facets and endeavors to bring out the spiritual values which lie beneath the surface. “It is an optimistic interpretation of life, looking for what is good and permanent beneath all the surface confusion” (Fletcher, 2002, 4). Idealists often live in a world of illusion envisaging what ought to be. This paper is an attempt to explore ideas of realism and idealism in the selected renowned works of literature through an intensive analysis of female protagonists in these literary works.
Another great author whose work is being discussed here is Richard Brinsley Sheridan, an author often criticized for the use of language, gesture and image in his plays. Sheridan’s ‘The Rivals’ has been selected for this paper which in the words of Louis Kronenberge (1986, 76) is "theatrical coat of many colors . . sometimes ridiculing sentimental comedy, sometimes echoing it." The statement in itself reveals the ideas of idealism and realism in the novel.
The commonality in the selected novels lies in the authors’ brilliant utilization of the concept of mistaken identity and portrayal of female protagonists to satire on the societal views of the time. The novels selected here present a timeframe that ranges around two centuries yet overall status of women in society remains largely unchanged. Whether one talks about Shakespeare’s Olivia and Viola, Luciana and Adriana or Sheridan’s creations Lydia and Julia, the women in these plays have always reflected the biased societal mindset where men are the masters of their fate and women are compelled to live upon their mercies.
Commencing with Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, an outlandish comedy play, also accredited to be the shortest play written by the novelist. The play is staged to depict bewilderments that arise due to erroneous individuality which shape farcical comedy thus entertaining its audience. “The tragicomedy of the Egeon frame, the romantic comedy of S. Antipholus‟s love for Luciana, the predominant farce of a mistaken-identity plot with its knockabout humor” (Kehler, 1987, 229). With aggressive use of puns Shakespeare has very beautifully narrated its characters and the story. The story is centered to depict love and bliss, perceptible since the opening of story. Comedy of Errors is story about a father in search of his lost wife and one of the sons. During the search, Shakespeare has brilliantly created plot of confusion infusing comedy into the play which ends with happy reunion of family. The female protagonists in this novel are two contrasting characters Adriana and Luciana.
Adriana in this novel is characterized as an unconventional wife who is submissive, docile and hushed. She mourns regarding freedom of men and questions why should men enjoy greater freedom than women when she says,
“Why should their liberty than ours be more?”(2.1.12)
Adriana is a noteworthy character who is discontented and feels gloomy with the thought that men are liberal to the extent that they can womanize and thus have sexual relationships. This is not considered to be a disgrace to their name and fame. Adriana opposes this male characteristic and mourns over this heartbreaking reality.
“His company must do his minions grace,Whilst I at home starve for a merry look.Hath homely age the alluring beauty tookFrom my poor cheek” (2.1.85-88)
Adriana also desires to be more than just a measly housewife and is vocal about the same. She feels dejected and desires to overcome such social barricades that suppress women in society. This suppression is also the result of age old economic, political, and social dependency on men who have been ruling the society. She desires to break free from such ties and thus gain liberty of being equal to men. She charges her unmarried sister Luciana for not marrying as Adriana unveils her belief that once a woman is married her status is equivalent to a servant in the eyes of men.
“This servitude makes you to keep unwed”(2.1.28)
On the other hand, Adriana’s sister Luciana is a completely contradictory character. She strongly believes in the disparity that exists between men and women within the society. She has accepted that men are bestowed with greater power and freedom in the society and they are free to come and go whenever they feel like. She asserts that men are their own masters and she even counsels her sister Adriana to remain patient.
“A man is master of his liberty:Time is their master, and, when they see time,They'll go or come: if so, be patient, sister.”(2.1.9-11)
Luciana believes that a woman should appease her men as they are destined to do so and thus should be patient. Her convictions and ideas are articulated in the fact that she is pretty comfortable when women are treated as a rug within the social setup.
“Men, more divine, the masters of all these,(2.1.22)Are masters to their females, and their lords:Then let your will attend on their accords.”(2.1.26-27)
Realist trait of Luciana is envisaged when she dismisses romantic advances made by Adriana’s husband out of sheer concern for her sister. In the real world family values and ties play a dominant role which is respected by Luciana. She in true sense tries to comfort her sister after revealing facts about proposal made to her. Luciana promises to help her sister and stand by her against all odds even if it is about disentangling mischievous sprite of Adriana’s husband she says,
“That love i begged for you he begged of me.”(4.2.13)
No evil lost is wailed when it is gone.” (4.2.23-24)
The discussion leaves no doubt that Adriana is an idealist while Luciana is the realist. Adriana is the woman who keeps lamenting upon what ought to be and is not present in her reality. On the other hand, Luciana being a realist understands the bitter facts of life and accepts the life as it is.
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, alternatively titled as What You Will, written about 1600 but first came in print in 1623 is an extraordinarily bold play, a replicate of human self-centeredness and a brilliant satire on the idea of love. This transvestite comedy of the Renaissance period portrays the vacillation of different characters in love and establishes the notion that one should not consider the romantic passions of these characters too seriously as they keep changing over the time. The novel proves that real attraction or pure love is nothing but another name of self-indulgent emotionalism. Love is the basic theme of the novel and is apparent from the beginning, but as the story progresses, the shades of egotism, desire, agony, treachery, seduction, melancholy, and vacillation appear in the forefront. The novel is also a marvelous depiction of various facets of womanhood. William Shakespeare, the legendary playwright, actor and poet is often criticized for the way he portrays women in his works. Shakespeare envisages women as beautiful love interests but not as protagonists, rather as antagonists. This makes Shakespearean works not only a subject of criticism but also of wide scholarly interest. The way Shakespeare has carved out the characters of Viola and Olivia, and presented the similarities and contrasts in their personality traits reveals the range of womanhood. Let’s analyze the two characters in the light of idealism and realism.
Olivia’s personality in the novel is that of a melodramatic Countess who had lost her father and now brother as well and decides to mourn over the death of her brother in a way acknowledging the contemporary Elizabethan funeral rituals of wearing the veil and restraining from worldly pleasures. She decides to choose the tough path of mourning over her misfortune for seven long years and instead of finding out ways to revive herself from sorrows, she decides refraining herself from even contemplating about marriage during this period.
“Give me my veil. Come, throw it o'er my face.
We'll once more hear Orsino's embassy.”(1.5.15-151)
Orsino, Olivia’s passionate lover, recognizes the idealist constitution of Olivia along with the intricacy in Olivia’s decision. He appreciates that Olivia is paying tribute to his brother but probably not the way she has chosen it to do. Orsino even raises doubt on Olivia’s decision that how would she refrain from other form of love during this period of mourning when he says,
“How will she love, when the rich golden shaft
Hath kill'd the flock of all affections else
That live in her” (1.1.34-36)
As the novel progresses, Olivia fails to stand upon her decision and again being unrealistic or idealistic, she hastens up her decision of tying the nuptial knot with Sebastian, identical twin brother of Viola withdrawing her original contemplation of refraining from marriage for seven years. Olivia asks Orsino to assure her of love and faith and immediately follow the priest to get married.
“Blame not this haste of mine. If you mean well,
Now go with me and with this holy man
Into the chantry by”(4.3.23-25)
Another instance of Olivia’s idealism is her love for Cesario, actually Viola in disguise. Olivia is the daughter of a Count bestowed upon with wealth and power while Cesario is a commoner in the service of the Duke. Cesario acting as the messenger of Orsino charmed Olivia so much that in spite of the contrast, Olivia falls for Cesario so much so that she didn’t even wait to marry him until the mourning period of seven years is over.
The contrast of idealism and realism is well represented in the personalities of Olivia and Viola in the way they handle their melancholies. Both were separated from their brothers; Olivia by death and Viola by shipwreck; but where Olivia chose to mourn for his brother and stay away from worldly matters like marriage, Viola instead of lamenting for her misfortune like Olivia preferred to show strength, disguises herself as a man and moves ahead by falling in love with Orsino. Viola understands the fears of a single woman landed accidentally at an unknown land therefore does not hesitates violating societal gender roles as she disguises herself as a man. This is apparent when she says to the Captain,
“Conceal me what I am, and be my aid
For such disguise as haply shall become
The form of my intent. I'll serve this duke:”(1.2.50-52)
Unlike Olivia, Viola does not take it too long before she realizes her love for Orsino is true. She does not wastes time waiting for the perfect man but rather being a realist grabs the opportunity in hand. When in the climax Orsino expresses his love and proposes for marriage, Viola accepts the same without impediment.
“Give me thy hand,
And let me see thee in thy woman’s weeds.” (5.1.266-267)
The kind acts of Olivia about disregarding social systems of wealth and power are exemplified only by the idealists. Had Olivia been a realist, she would have accepted the proposal of Orsino, a Duke, a person of authority and power.
Sheridan’s The Rivals had all the commendable features of a comedy play like the comedy through characters, humorous situations and plotting, witty dialogues, satirical bend and an underpinning tranquil love story. The plot pivots on two young protagonists in love, Lydia and Jack. Lydia is “awestruck” by the fictional love stories and desires a chastely romantic love affair. Jack, son of a wealthy baronet feigns to be a poor officer “Ensign Beverly” to court Lydia. Lydia was beguiled by the mere thought of eloping with a poor soldier rejecting all niggles of her “moralistic” guardian, Mrs. Malaprop. Malaprop is the dominant character of the play who is an elderly widow who unswervingly exterminates the English language (Wiesenthal, 1992).
The Rivals is a “comedy of manners” showcasing the contrasting behaviour of the women during those times. The playwright beautifully juxtaposes the attitudes of young and elderly women in the purview of intelligence, philosophy of life, independence and sexuality. Women have been given equal consideration in the story, however, due respect has been given to the societal moral codes and values of the time when play was transcribed. The women have been portrayed as with a lot of poise, grace and they easily supersede the male characters with their conviction and strength.
Lydia is a merry-go-lucky young beautiful lady who is enamoured with romantic novels and high society fashion. She is extremely maudlin, melancholic over the blues of her life and the romantic delights she receives from her young suitors. Her obsession with novel-like romance is to the extreme that she deliberately impersonates the dialogues and gesticulations used in the novels. As an idealist, she goes to the extent of creating fictitious conflicts which can be resolved romantically as in the novels. She confides in her friend, Julia that she was sceptical that she will ever have a romantic squabble with her beau, Beverly, so she contrived one:
“I wrote a letter to myself showed it to Beverley, charged him with his falsehood, put myself in a violent passion, and vowed I'd never see him more.” (1.2)
Apart from being whimsical and impractical, Lydia endured high intensity of rigidity and stubbornness which strained her relationship with her guardian Mrs. Malaprop. Lydia was so obsessed with story- like romance that she is ready to let go her huge inheritance to pursue adventurous romance of eloping with a commoner. On the revelation of the real identity of Beverly, she rejects him as it is forfeiting her idea of “romantic elopement”.
The second female protagonist in the novel, Julia, is the only rational and sensible character in the entire play. She is the sole “torch bearer” of logical behavior in the play. Her character is very strong-headed and she is a loyal and devoted lover. When Lydia discusses about the jealousy Faukland harbours, she shields him by saying
“No, Lydia, he is too proud, too noble to be jealous; if he is captious, 'tis without dissembling; if fretful, without rudeness.”(1.2)
Julia genuinely loves Faukland and this is indicated from the fact that she tends to overlook his faults of the past and is able to accept him again with same love and devotion. She forgives Faukland for his mistakes in past and asks for a new beginning.
“Let us be free as strangers as to what is past: my heart will not feel more liberty!”(3.2)
The discussion of these two characters Lydia and Julia establish Lydia as the idealist while Julia as a realist in approach. The way Lydia rebels and rejects pure love just because one is not poor is nothing else but an example of unrealistic idealism. In contrast to her, the way Julia agrees to accept Faukland back once he realizes his mistakes and pleads Julia to accept him is a gesture of realism.
An analysis of female protagonists in these novels as idealists and realists may not essentially prove to be true in modern times but rather based upon contemporary notions of idealism and realism. Twelfth Night, portraying the renaissance version of romance in which marriage was considered to be the ultimate goal of love is a brilliant sarcasm of how vacillation rules romance during the age. Unlike contemporary Elizabethan female protagonists Viola and Olivia are not mute and open for male pursuance. In ‘The Comedy of Errors’ also, Shakespeare challenges his contemporaries like Plautus who treat females merely like objects of pleasure, more like prostitutes and slaves. In Adriana and Luciana, Shakespeare establishes women as intellects and symbols of strength who strongly hold their opinions. Sheridan on the other hand, brings contrast in sentimentalism and romance through Lydia’s irrational sentimentalism to marry a poor man no matter it deprives her of love. The overall analysis depicts that women were probably more strong-minded in 1600s than in the eighteenth century but the contemporary patriarch society with their false notions of idealism and realism somehow turned women into more submissive personalities by 1775. Das (2012, 51) is not wrong in her analysis that “women, perhaps even Elizabeth, cannot acceptably overcome the patriarchal system. The state of women in power is not the way things “ought to be.”
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