Shakespeare and the Gender-Based Stereotypes.
ESSAY I : SHAKESPEARE AND GENDER-BASED STEREOTYPES. “I could find in my heart to disgrace my man’s apparel and cry like a woman” (II. Iv : 3) is undoubtedly a statement that would make the feminists react strongly nowadays. In a society trying hard to maintain and preserve a certain equality of treatment between men and women in every aspect of everyday life, the author of such a sentence would surely be regarded as highly misogynous. But one must bear in mind that in a twenty-first century society, people are taking for granted that men and women should be treated on an equal footing, which was clearly not the case about 400 years ago.
The Renaissance was a time where a woman was expected to be a docile and naive person, who bent to the will of her male superiors. Qualities such as chastity, obedience and submissiveness were greatly promoted whereas wittiness was not particularly appreciated in a woman. As for the role of men, it is showed in the following quote from Introduction to Speaking of Gender, by Elaine Showalter : “Gender is not only a question of difference, which assumes that the sexes are separate and equal; but of power, since in looking at the history of gender relations, we find sexual asymmetry, inequality, and male dominance in every known society”.
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We can therefore assume that men were supposed to be the pillar of the community, both physically and mentally stronger than women. Using in his plays a wide variety of what one might call today gender- based stereotypes, Shakespeare gives us a good insight into what the male-female interactions looked like at the time. The question that arises is the following : to what extent did Shakespeare want to convey his own ideas on gender through his plays ?
By exploring a few Shakespeare’s plays, we are first of all going to focus on the difference of treatment between men and women in tragedies and in comedies, which will bring us to deal with the cross-gender costumes. Eventually, we will see Shakespeare ambiguous position on women. It goes without saying that tragedy and comedy have different purposes and different structures. The Shakespearian tragedy usually follows a typical scheme : a tragic hero of noble birth whose tragic flaw leads to his demise (Macbeth, King Lear,… ).
Blood, violence and revenge are often part of the picture. On the contrary, a comedy has a happy ending, most of the time with a marriage. A lighthearted style prevails in the entire play. Thus, it can be argued that the question of gender is not treated the same in Shakespeare comedies and tragedies. As shown in Shakespeare, Feminism and Gender1, women in tragedy are “strong because they are coherent [… ]and the attacks which are made on them are the product of male resentment at this strength”. They usually are honest,naive and devoted to a male character.
In King Lear for example, Cordelia dares distinguishing herself from her sisters by refusing to take part in King Lear’s love test. She is asserting herself and one cannot help but noticing that she is a prevailing character in the play. However, she will face an unfair death because of Edmund’s betrayal which will lead to her needless execution in prison. In comedies, women are often “opposed to men but to a reified ‘society’ [… ] they either rebels against restraining social”. In As You Like It, Celia does not agree with her father’s decision to bannish Rosalind and as a result, she decides to flee with her.
It is a very bold and brave decision2. In comedies, Shakespeare seems to be more free to allow his female character to express themselves more. A possible explanation for this will be found in the next section. It can be noticed that the use of cross-gender costumes is frequent in Shakespeare’s comedies. Transvestitism is evident in two ways. Firstly, all women’s parts were played by boys. Their role were often long and demanding, such as Rosalind in As You Like It. She, like other heroines of the romantic comedies, is disguised as a boy for much of the action and starts to woo the man she loves3.
She tries to instruct him in how to be a more accomplished lover, a tutorship that would not be welcome from a woman. It appears that, for a woman, dressing up as a man allows her to go beyond the limitations that society is inflicting on her. Hidden behing a costume, their male qualities can be appreciated. For example, when Portia makes a decision to disguise herself as a man, she does it in order to save Antonio’s life, but at the same time it offers her opportunity to feel and act like a man. The costumes can also be seen as a way to make to audience accept a woman’s masculine characteristics.
At the time, a strong woman might have been a source of anxiety. In Shakespeare and Masculinity, Bruce R. Smith explains that there were a few roles that Renaissance men were expected to have, the most obvious ones being the chivalrous knight and the herculean hero. They “exemplifies the highest masculine ideals of his society, [… ]behave according to a code of ethics. ” Obviously, this is quite a heavy burden. Consequently, a female figure, supposed to be weak and feeble and actually being brave and witty appears as a threat for their masculinity. : Collection of essays, example of contemporary criticism. 2 : Women at that time usually had few resources of their own, they could easily be pictured as helpless. 3 : It was considered as a dishonor for a woman to woo rather than being wooed. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Helena : “Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex/ We cannot fight for love as men may do” Helena (II. 1) If the woman is dressed up as a man, the audience might think that the costume is the reason why she is strong.
As a result, it may be asserted that Shakespeare never goes beyond the bounds of what an Elizabethan audience would have found acceptable. The audience is the censor. In order to curb any anxiety feeling among men, Shakespeare opted for the following solution : no matter how rebel or how strong a woman was, she is always going to get back to a more ‘traditionnal’ behavior at the end. This point is very clearly illustrated in A Midsummer Night’s Dream : Hippolyta was the Queens of the Amazons1 and she will eventually be Theseus nice and obedient wife.
William Shakespeare was a great observer of his time and he managed to raise the right issues concerning women and gender ideology. Although Shakespeare sometimes supports the English Renaissance stereotypes of women and men and their various roles and responsibilities in society, he is also a writer who questions, challenges, and modifies those representations. Portia in The Merchant of Venice is a prime example of Shakespeare’s dual position on gender roles. At the beginning of Act 1 Scene 2, Portia is introduced as an almost fairytale princess.
Her father decided on his death bed that Portia could only marry a suitor who correctly picked one chest from a choice of three. Even in death, Portia’s father controlled her life and decisions. This example illustrates perfectly how women and especially daughters were considered as mere possessions, easy to control and to manipulate. And yet we see Portia as a strong heroine as she controls the final scene of The Merchant of Venice by bringing about the downfall of Shylock through her tempering of justice with mercy and by controlling the forces which enable her to live happily ever after with Bassanio.
In this way, she is a dual character and represents the two ways Shakespeare represents women. Like Portia, Rosalind dominates the action in As You Like It. She is intelligent, strong of character, patient, and demonstrates an unshakable integrity. Furthermore, she is strong and able to defend herself when falsely accused of treason. But at the same time, she can be considered as weak and inconsistent, as she falls in love with Orlando almost immediately. She is not able to control her feelings. Celia even says to her “Come, come, wrestle with thy affections. ” (I. iii).
One could say that not only was Shakespeare giving a testimony of what society was like around him but he was also using gender-based stereotypes on purpose to subtly denounce society conception of the relationship between men and women. 1: The Amazons are a nation of all-female warriors in Greek mythology and Classical antiquity, who do not need the presence of men. To conclude, one might say that gender is a constructed role rather that a biological given. It is something people make rather than just a fixed binary opposition of male and female. Shakespeare moulds and creates these roles with careful intellect and planning.
The multiple roles of men are quite fascinating. Men could play men, women, and women dressed as men. In one sense, Shakespeare follows Renaissance stereotypes and writes roles for his women which are suppressed and confined by men. Transvestitism allowed females to ‘appear’ on stage but also disguised female characters as men. However, Shakespeare also allows women to rise above the stereotypes at times and permits them to surpass their male counterparts. This may be due to the influence of the Queen at the time, who was as strong and as noble as any King.
There is an urban myth, which declares that Queen Elizabeth was actually a man, hence her king-like qualities. Because of her love of the work of Shakespeare, she told him her secret, and to pay homage to her extreme honesty to him, Shakespeare had his characters cross-dress within the plays themselves. But that is only a myth based on nothing more than the musings and speculations of idle scholars. One would hope. > BIBLIOGRAPHY CALLAGHAN, Dympna, “Shakespeare Without Women, representing gender and race on the renaissance stage”, Accents on Shakespeare, Routledge, 2000.
Contemporary Critical Essays, “Shakespeare, Feminism and Gender”, Plagrave Macmillan, 2001. CRAWFORD, John W. , “The Learning, Wit, Wisdom of Shakespeare’s Renaissance Women”, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997. LENZ, Carolyn Ruth Swift/GREENE, Gayle/NEELY, Carol Thomas, “The Woman’s Part, Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare”, University of Illinois Press, 1983. SHAKESPEARE, William (ed. WELLS, Stanley and TAYLOR, Gary), As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, The Merchant of Venice in The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Shakespeare, An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1945-2000″(ed. MCDONALD, Russ), Blackwell Publishing, 2004. SHOWALTER, Elaine, “Speaking of Gender”,Routledge, 1989. SINFIELD, Alan, “Shakespeare, Authority, Sexuality, Unfinished business in cultural materialism”, Accents on Shakespeare, Routledge, 2006. SMITH, Bruce R. , “Shakespeare and Masculinity”, Oxford University Press, 2000. WAYNE, Valerie, “The Matter of Difference, Materialist Femnisit Criticism of Shakespeare”, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991. WELLS, Stanley/ORLIN, Lena Cowen, “Shakespeare, an Oxford Guide”,