Student Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award

Fall 12-2-2019

Document Type


Degree Name


Honors Designation


Program of Study




First Advisor

Laura Kolb

Second Advisor

Jessica Lang

Third Advisor

Steven Swarbrick


Unlike the stereotyped image of women in the Elizabethan era, in which women should submit to men’s control, Desdemona in Othello, Isabella in Measure for Measure, and Marina in Pericles present their powerful and brave characteristics when facing male dominance. More specifically, all three young women — Desdemona, Isabella and Marina — negotiate sexual and marital arrangements with their language intelligently, despite the fact that they sometimes lack self-determining power in the plays. That is to say, Shakespeare gives women rhetorical power while in certain circumstances, men cannot be persuaded. Such contradiction within how Shakespeare depicts his female figures leads to the question this thesis explores: whether Shakespeare’s plays are pro-feminist or tools of patriarchal oppression. I would argue that he treats the three women in both advanced and patriarchal ways. Desdemona displays her autonomy on the matrimony; Isabella and Marina use silence to express their unwillingness to men’s proposal. Instead of submissive behavior, kneeling for them is a measure to defend their reputation and rescue the life of others as well as themselves. On the other hand, Shakespeare weakens their rhetorical power when women face a man with desire for them, valuing men’s honor more than women’s honor. In his plays, the honor of women can be challenged in public while the honor of men is worthy of defending, even if at the cost of their life.



1. Introduction
2. Historical context
3. Shakespeare’s advanced thinking

3.1 Choosing and resisting marriage

3.2 The power of kneeling

4. Shakespeare’s patriarchal thinking

4.1 Rhetorically gifted women fail to move men

4.2 Men’s honor is more precious than women’s honor

5. Conclusion


To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.