The Defiant Woman
In light of the previous discussion, it appears that something is rotten not only in the state of Denmark, but in the social order when the male ego becomes too inflated and extreme. Having examined the effects of verbal violence, we turn now to portraits of women who defied the masculine code and exposed the male ego, when excessive, as a destructive force. In Shakespeare's canon, no play more successfully portrays such women than the late romance, The Winter's Tale ( 1610-11). In his introduction to the Arden edition, and speaking of the romances in general, J. H. P. Pafford says:
The young men in Cymbeline, Pericles, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, and particularly in the first three, achieve a new spirit largely by the influence of the young women: indeed the influence, with a power almost divine, of Feminine Beauty and Purity, particularly of the young, is strong in all the plays. In Cymbeline and in Pericles the young women have to undergo the harshest trials and suffering, comparable with that of the older women in The Winter's Tale, whereas the young women in that play and The Tempest have no comparable trials and dangers in their adult lives: but Resolute Womanhood, the trials and fortitude of women of noble character accused unjustly and made to suffer unjustly, is a marked theme of every play except The Tempest.1
It is curious that Shakespeare should show a repeated interest in the plight of "women of noble character accused unjustly and made to suffer unjustly" in the last plays. One wonders, why the recurring interest? Surely it is not to offer that sadistic delight in the suffering of the helpless, which seems all too often to be the contemporary craze. Again and again Shakespeare's sympathies appear to be with the mistreated women, as when Cordelia speaks for truth and Desdemona shines as the ideal, if maligned, wife.