In today’s feminist movement, the statement “I could find in my heart to disgrace my man’s apparel and cry like a woman” would elicit strong reactions. In a society that advocates for gender equality, the author of this sentence would be seen as highly misogynistic. Nevertheless, it is crucial to acknowledge that around 400 years ago, men and women were not treated equally.
During the Renaissance, women were expected to embody qualities of passivity and naivety, conforming to the desires of their male superiors. Characteristics such as purity, obedience, and subservience were highly valued for women while intelligence and wit held little importance. In contrast, men had a position of authority and control in society.
Elaine Showalter’s Introduction to Speaking of Gender explains that gender encompasses not only the distinction between the sexes as separate and equal entities but also power dynamics evident throughout history’s gender relations. These dynamics include sexual asymmetry, inequality, and male dominance prevailing in all societies.
In his plays, Shakespeare portrays men as the foundational members of society, expected to possess both physical and mental strength superior to women. By employing gender-based stereotypes, Shakespeare provides valuable insights into the dynamics between males and females during that era. Consequently, it becomes essential to explore Shakespeare’s intention in regard to conveying his personal notions on gender through his theatrical works.
When examining several of Shakespeare’s plays, our main focus will be the contrasting treatment of men and women in tragedies versus comedies, which will lead us to discuss cross-gender costumes. Ultimately, we will explore Shakespeare’s ambiguous stance on women. It is evident that tragedy and comedy serve different purposes and have distinct structures. Typically, Shakespearian tragedies follow a set pattern: a protagonist of high social status whose downfall is caused by a fatal flaw (such as Macbeth or King Lear).
Blood, violence and revenge are often present in tragedies, while comedies typically have a happy ending, often involving a marriage. Comedies generally have a lighthearted style throughout. This suggests that the treatment of gender differs in Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies. In Shakespeare, Feminism and Gender1, it is argued that women in tragedies are “strong because they are coherent […], and the attacks made against them arise from male resentment towards this strength.” These female characters are usually portrayed as honest, naive, and devoted to a male character.
In King Lear, Cordelia stands out by refusing to participate in King Lear’s love test, establishing herself as a significant character in the play. Unfortunately, she meets an unjust death due to Edmund’s betrayal, resulting in her needless execution while in prison. In comedy, women tend to resist societal restrictions rather than directly opposing men. In As You Like It, Celia disagrees with her father’s choice to banish Rosalind and chooses to run away with her instead.
Shakespeare’s comedies showcase a remarkable and courageous decision. Specifically, in these comedic plays, Shakespeare grants his female characters more autonomy, enabling them to openly express themselves. The subsequent section will delve into the rationale behind this choice. It is important to mention that cross-gender attire is frequently utilized in Shakespearean comedies. Transvestitism can be observed from two perspectives: firstly, all female roles were traditionally performed by boys. These roles often required extensive and demanding performances, such as Rosalind in As You Like It. Similar to other heroines found in romantic comedies, Rosalind disguises herself as a boy for a significant part of the play and even proceeds to court the man she loves.
By assuming the guise of a man, she endeavors to educate him in order to become a more proficient lover. This mentorship, typically forbidden for women, enables her to surpass society’s imposed restrictions. Concealed behind their costumes, their male characteristics are perceptible. For example, when Portia decides to disguise herself as a man, it is primarily to save Antonio’s life; however, it also grants her an opportunity to adopt and exhibit masculine behaviors. Furthermore, these costumes may serve as a means of encouraging the audience to accept and appreciate feminine traits with masculine qualities.
According to Bruce R. Smith in his book Shakespeare and Masculinity, men in the Renaissance were expected to fulfill specific roles such as being a chivalrous knight or a heroic figure. These roles represented society’s highest ideals of masculinity and required adherence to a strict code of ethics. However, when women displayed strength and courage that went against societal expectations of weakness, they were seen as a threat to male masculinity. This is evident in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Helena laments the fact that women cannot fight for love like men can.
During this time, women had limited resources and were often portrayed as helpless. Additionally, it was considered dishonorable for a woman to pursue a man instead of being pursued by him. If a woman dressed as a man, the audience might attribute her strength solely to her costume rather than recognizing her own abilities.
This theme is exemplified in this collection of essays focusing on contemporary criticism.
Shakespeare’s plays always conformed to the expectations of an Elizabethan audience. The audience served as the censor, and in order to appease any apprehension among male viewers, Shakespeare devised a tactic: regardless of how defiant or influential a female character might be, she would ultimately conform to conventional roles by play’s end. A clear illustration of this phenomenon is evident in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Hippolyta, formerly the Queen of the Amazons, eventually becomes a submissive wife to Theseus.
William Shakespeare was adept at portraying the nuances of women and gender ideology in his time. He skillfully depicted the traditional roles and responsibilities of women and men in society during the English Renaissance, while also offering a critical perspective that questioned and challenged these stereotypes. The character of Portia in The Merchant of Venice exemplifies Shakespeare’s complex portrayal of gender roles. In Act 1 Scene 2, Portia is initially presented as a princess straight out of a fairy tale.
Even on his deathbed, Portia’s father maintained control over her life and choices. He determined that she could only wed a suitor who could select the correct chest from three options. This serves as a prime example of how women, particularly daughters, were viewed as possessions to be easily controlled and manipulated. Despite these circumstances, Portia emerges as a powerful heroine in The Merchant of Venice. She assumes control over the play’s final scene, orchestrating Shylock’s downfall by balancing justice with mercy and manipulating the forces that ultimately allow her to live happily ever after alongside Bassanio.
Rosalind is depicted as a two-fold character in As You Like It, embodying two distinct portrayals of women akin to Portia. She assumes control and commands the story with her cleverness, resolute personality, endurance, and unyielding honesty. Moreover, when unjustly charged with treason she demonstrates her ability by defending herself. However, Rosalind also reveals instances of susceptibility and incongruity when she rapidly falls in love with Orlando and finds it difficult to manage her emotions. Even Celia advises her to “wrestle with thy affections.” (I. iii).
Shakespeare’s depiction of society and deliberate utilization of gender-based stereotypes can be seen as a commentary on the relationship between men and women. The Amazons, a collective of female fighters in Greek mythology, exemplify a society that functions independently from men, thereby questioning the notion that gender is solely determined by biology and suggesting it is influenced by societal factors. Shakespeare demonstrates his skill in carefully constructing these gender roles.
Shakespeare’s plays showcase the intriguing and diverse roles of men. They not only depict male characters, but also women disguised as men. Shakespeare adheres to the societal norms of the Renaissance era, where women were oppressed and limited by male dominance. However, cross-dressing offers an avenue for women to appear on stage while assuming male identities. Despite these stereotypes, Shakespeare allows women opportunities to surpass their male counterparts. This deviation from gender norms may be influenced by the powerful Queen of that time who possessed strength and nobility comparable to any King.
There is a well-known urban myth alleging that Queen Elizabeth possessed masculine characteristics and was covertly a man. According to this legend, she shared her true identity with Shakespeare because of her admiration for his plays. In recognition of her candor, Shakespeare included characters who dressed as the opposite gender in his theatrical works. Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that this account lacks any foundation and is purely conjecture from idle academics. It exists solely as a myth, and ideally, it will continue to be regarded as such.