Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Semester of Degree Completion


Thesis Director

Robert W. Funk


The central examination of this thesis concentrates on the essential contributions of the female characters in Shakespeare's major tragedies--Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. Without the women's conflict with the patriarchal order, the males would be unable to recognize and combat the corrupt elements in their society. The awareness of the female characters allows them to perceive the tainted patriarchal atmosphere they dwell in and operate within it as best as they can.

In short, each woman's individual field of awareness allows her to act as the executor of the dénoucement in the tragedy. Even those women with limited or inconsistent awareness of their realities play a significant part in exposing the contaminated deeds of the guilty. While Gertrude and Ophelia may not always be aware of the dire circumstances that surround them, both shift the balance of power from Claudius's hands to Hamlet's. The sacrifices of both women provide Hamlet with the opportunity to punish Claudius for his crimes. In a similar fashion, the inconsistent perceptions of Desdemona and Emilia provide Othello with the means to uncover Iago's malicious nature. In standing up for one another, the women lose their lives; however, their atonement paves the way for Iago's punishment.

With a greater field of awareness, the women of King Lear and Macbeth contribute to the downfall of the corruption in the patriarchy. Cordelia and Lady Macduff directly confront the patriarchal neglect of the feminine Other, while Goneril, Regan, and Lady Macbeth reflect the need for women to sacrifice their femininity in order to wield authority in their lives. Even though these alert females die as a result of their stances, their actions create the necessary elements for the dénoucement in the tragedies to occur.

Although the main female characters die in Shakespeare's major tragedies, their deaths do not make them any less important than their male counterparts. Besides allowing the male protagonists to fulfill their roles to the greatest degree possible, the women deserve major attention because they challenge the patriarchal restraints imposed on their existence. In attempting to defy a world that supplies little chance for advancement, the female characters of the major tragedies generate hope for women that did not exist previously.