In this essay I wish to investigate Shakespeare’s approach to women’s roles. My question is how does Shakespeare demonstrate the complexity of gender roles in society? By gender I am referring to the norms of feminine and masculine that the author provides. In order to resolve this, I will be analyzing his characterization of the “ideal woman” and the “rebellious woman” in patriarchal society within two of his plays. This topic is worthy of investigation, as though the literature on Shakespearean themes is very expansive, the overarching significance of comparable characters on themes of gender roles remains obscure to the average reader.
In his work, Shakespeare draws up a society where gender roles are rich in plurality, yet it is assumed that women suffer solely for reasons of sex. He achieves this through exploring female characters that are deviant and rebellious as well as showing the entanglements of women who are ‘supposed’ to be virtuous. Desdemona and Emilia from Othello as well as Hero and Beatrice from Much Ado about Nothing are exemplary of this, we can compare and contrast their significance through the scope of female roles, and apprehend the significance of Shakespeare’s archetypal representations. In the plays, the notion of the woman’s role is centered on issues of maintaining honor to their patriarch, the husband. Though we must note that decorum is not enough to prevent a woman’s demise. Distinctly stronger and weaker personal characters are used by Shakespeare to create a nuanced depiction of male and female nature, and how that affects one’s life in society.
In this research, my methodology consists of a contextualization of gender roles, followed by identifying them in the texts, to then comparatively analyze their significance in relation to the question. I hypothesize in this essay that through his dramatic juxtapositions of weak and strong, Shakespeare demonstrates the indefinable nature of the woman, whilst also commenting on Elizabethan society in regards to women’s duty, the impact of their social class, personal strength, and ultimately the ability of men to use them. Overall, I identify Shakespeare’s displays of the patriarchal society in the play, where men’s loyalties were governed by established orthodox codes and superiority to women, but also asserting that Shakespeare destabilizes of traditional notions gender through his multifaceted application of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’.Contextualizing Gender roles:The women’s movement was a social movement that demanded equal right between men and women. It caused reforms in issues such as equal voting rights, rights in the workplace, in education, equal pay, and issues of sexual violence.
The roots of the feminist movement, which can be detected as early as 1759, when Mary Wollstonecraft published Vindication of the Rights of Woman, brought to the forefront feminist issues. In the 20th century, in Europe and America, during the wartime in which all men were called upon to fight, and women had to replace men in their jobs, a massive shift of women into the workforce began. Prior to this movement, women were viewed as property, their main purpose was to give birth to a son and carry on the family name. They were expected to take care of the children and the household but not live a life on their own. Shakespeare, an English playwright who is widely regarded as the greatest English writer was a forerunner in the exploration of strong women. His view on women’s roles is discrete, yet can be perceived throughout his plays.
He acknowledges how complex women roles in a male-dominant society are. Both plays I intend on investigating have two distinct leading female characters; one is thought of as the virtuous good woman and the other as a rebellious one. This already alludes to the complex spectrum of female personalities and roles; it shows that not all women behaved in what was thought of as the proper manner, but also suggest that they face oppression in society.
Furthermore, Shakespeare elevates this complexity as he hints that even the “virtuous women” did not always adhere to the principles laid out by society. Gender roles Othello:Othello can be viewed as a play about race, however once analyzed there are other key aspects relating to gender. The play is set in a men’s world where women are disregarded and thought of as inferior. It explores the idea of complex gender roles and shows how females are turned victims by men in the male dominant society. Desdemona and Emilia are two female characters that contain love and respect towards their partners yet undergo this victimization.
Othello is set in Venice around 1560, during this time Venice was known to be a city of trade; merchants traded all sorts of goods as well as women. During this time women were objectified, and demeaned in the men’s society. Iago and Rodrigo come to Brabantio’s house claiming that he was robbed, “thieves, thieves, thieves! Look to your house, your daughter and your bags!” (I.i.78-79). Iago exclaims this when he finds out about Desdemona’s elopement with Othello. This line demonstrates how women were objectified in the male society. Firstly, Iago says that “thieves” took Brabantio’s daughter, completely disregarding free will.
This alludes to the reality that a woman would be incapable of leaving on her own at this time. Secondly, Iago categorizes Brabantio’s daughter, Desdemona, with bags of money. Listing Desdemona with materialistic objects shows how objectified women were. This line shows that in this society women were considered objects that could be traded, taken and stolen. However Shakespeare adds aspects in the play to show how women showed character in the male society. Desdemona a young and virtuous Venetian of rich family, who is referred to as “the darling of Venice”, flees with a Moore named Othello.
Desdemona is characterized as an “ideal woman”, in fact she is referred to by Cassio as “The divine Desdemona” (II, i, 73). However her elopement is a sign of rebellion towards her father. It must be noted that during that time interracial marriage was looked down upon. She was aware that her marriage would be disapproved by her father yet she still continued being with Othello, ultimately leaving to Cyprus despite the disappointment of her father. When in court Brabantio says, “She has deceived her father”( I.
III. 289). Family was a critical value in the time the play was set in, Desdemona’s actions show that even the ideal women did not act in the way she was expected to. Desdemona is the protagonist yet Shakespeare portrays her to disobey her father, through this he demonstrates that even the most virtuous, upper class lady, did not oblige to what people assumed was the right way for a women to behave.
This could essentially hint to the public, mostly the women, that they had their own rights and did not have to abide to what the society set for them. Throughout the play Desdemona is loyal to her husband, she leaves Venice for Cyprus where she continues to fulfill her domestic duties. She does not rebel against her duty and performs her role well, nevertheless Shakespeare unveils that her role does not satisfy her. Whilst Othello is explaining to the court how he wooed Desdemona he says ” she wish’d That heaven had made her such a man”(I.iii.
165-166). This line has a double entendre to it, on one hand he could mean that Desdemona was hoping to find a man like Othello for her to marry. However, on the other hand, the line can be interpreted as Desdemona wishing that she were born a man, so that she would have the opportunity to experience the same adventures as her husband. This double entendre suggests that although Desdemona is fulfilling her role in the society as a good wife she furtively desires more out of her life.
By characterizing Desdemona as pure and loved, Shakespeare ensures that the public adores her sympathizes with her. Then through her actions and words he hints that women roles are complex and women desire more than what society has laid out for them. Emilia is another significant female character in Othello. She is Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s servant.
In contrast to Desdemona, Emilia is not of high status and does not have a virtuous reputation. It is implied that she has committed adultery and slept with many men, while speaking about Othello and Emilia, Iago says “I hate the Moor And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets He’s done my office”. Iago is hinting that Othello has been in his bed and with his wife. Further characterization of Emilia can be seen through her speech to Desdemona; “But I do think it is their husbands’ faults If wives do fall.
Say they slack their duties And pour our treasures into foreign laps; Or else break out in peevish jealousies, Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us, Or scant our former having in despite, Why, we have galls: and though we have some grace Yet have we some revenge.” (IV.iii.85-92) In her speech, Emilia justifies adultery and claims that if the husband does not behave correctly, committing adultery is a natural reaction.
She rejects the cultural norm that women are lesser than men and that their purpose is solely to please men. Previously in the play she states what she believes a man to woman relationship is like, “They are all but stomachs, and we all but food: They eat us hungrily, and when they are full They belch us.” (III.iv.104-107) This rebellious character shows strength in women, through her speech and actions Shakespeare demonstrates that women could have opinions that differed from society’s norms. These two characters are from different social classes; they are of different age and have different reputations. Yet, both share a common point, they both attempt to not adhere to gender norms to a partial extent. While Desdemona does this implicitly by rebelling against her father and admitting that she wished for a different life, Emilia is open about her contempt towards male superiority.
Gender roles Much Ado about Nothing:Much Ado about Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most well known comedies written during Elizabethan times. The play is set in Messina in the 16th century, the renaissance times. During the renaissance period, women rarely expressed themselves publicly in these times, not even the upper classes. Men had more sexual liberty as circumstances were very different for women, a woman had to preserve herself until marriage or else she would not be worthy of a husband. Women were not considered capable of looking out for themselves and were looked after by their father, brother, husband, or son.
Women were not allowed to attend university and jobs for them were very limited. Most jobs consisted of staying in the household and taking care of the children, cooking and cleaning. Evidently, and as Mazzocco asserts in his work on ‘The Role of Women in the Italian Renaissance’, it was an overall “marginal existence”. Yet Shakespeare paints the two female protagonists, cousins Hero and Beatrice, both of aristocratic background, as drastically divergent. Hero as the representation of an ideal woman in society, she is characterized as courteous, respectful, obedient and elegant.
Accepting the patriarchal views and submits to the men in her life. Beatrice is conversely totally rebellious to the male status quo.The evidence of Beatrice’s attitude towards the established patriarchy in Shakespeare’s work is abundant. In Act 2 Beatrice denounces the institution of marriage. She further attacks, and feminizes her hypothetical husband stating: “What should I do with him? Dress him in my apparel and make him my waiting gentlewoman?” (II.i.27-39) This becomes clear early in Act 1 when she criticizes Benedick, a sort of behavior that is seen as malign coming from a woman in the play, and alludes to the greater social context of the time.
Also notable, is that it is clear throughout portrayals of her character that she is independent, specifically in regards to men, holding animosity towards the male character. This is clear, when even at the apex of the play, once Benedick has first declared his love for her, she does not confess love back, rather professing her worry and concern. “As strange as the thing I know not. It were as possible for me to say I loved nothing so well as you, But believe me not, and yet I lie not, I confess nothing, nor I deny nothing. I am sorry for my cousin.”(IV.i.283-287) It was very atypical for a romance as such in a comedic work to portray the rejection of a man on the basis of the woman’s self-pride.
In fact, in Act 1, Scene 1, Page 6, Beatrice asserts a sort of female empowerment towards the male-dominance: “A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours”(I.i.111) she says to Benedick. Beatrice is unwilling to give up her self determination for a man, this is clear, and remains a revolutionary concept for a work of this time, furthermore, it gives us great insight on the nature of gender relations in this era as well, it is also clear that this was not the norm. In many senses, the other side of the juxtaposed main female leads, Hero, portrays the norm of Enlightenment. Firstly through the mythological reference to the Greek story of Hero, a virgin priestess of Aphrodite, who was convinced to make love to a young man named Leander, ultimately leading to her death as she killed herself to die with him. This mythological allusion to archetypal consequences for a woman is contrary to Shakespeare’s Hero, who remains chaste. In act 4, when she publicly condemned for impurity by Claudio, and denounced by her father even though the accusations were untrue.
Unlike the virgin priestess of Aphrodite, her purity saves her as her death is only faked in the play. This shines a light on gender roles as she responds to the fake allegations angered: “O that I were a man for his sake!” “I cannot be a man (…) I will die a woman with grieving.” (IV.
i. 312-318) It can be said that her purity ultimately, saves her from the plot of a man whose sole purpose as a character, which is his function as a plot-device, is his self professed “evil” nature. I will discuss the significance of this further in subsequent section. ‘Twas the boy that stole your meat, and you’ll beat” says Benedick to Claudio regarding Don Pedro’s scheme for example (II. i.
198), this implies an equivalent role of the woman to that of a meat-good, to be bought and sold, and used to one’s own pleasure. This is furthered whereby the allegations I mentioned before lead to Leonato, Hero’s father stating: “Do not live, Hero, do not open thine eyes…” (IV. i. 120-123) suggesting she should be shamed for her alleged actions. Adding to this is Don Pedro’s statement, “I stand dishonored, that have gone about To link my dear friend to a common stale” (IV, i. 61-63), a common ‘whore’.
The sexualized language implies a further degree of shame, not solely from her father, but from her entire community and a society at large. This issue of language is supported by Heilman’s thesis in “The Economics of Iago”, that asserts that both female sets of characters, in Othello and Much Ado About Nothing” find themselves in a marketplace of women, whereby the language of “sexual commodities” (sell/buy) central to the male-dominant narrative. Analysis of the “Common Narratives” in the two works:I have so far argued that women’s identities in Othello and Much ado About Nothing are diverse, but that the running threads of societal gender repression plague both stories.
In the Comedy, it is found that Hero’s real chastity and purity saves her from being shunned, excommunicated, possibly killed by her community, whereas Beatrice’s more masculine attitudes largely prevent objectification, she is still a subject of men’s deceitful trickery. In the Tragedy, Shakespeare inverts this to a saddening dimension; whereby the complex Desdemona, portrayed as obedient and faithful to her husband and of “Devine” beauty, yet bold enough to runaway from her patriarch, still suffers demise due to the evils of men’s envy. Whereas Emilia, who is depicted as less obedient and more independent from her husband, is fatally deceived and betrayed by Iago’s spiteful games. Ultimately being unknowingly part of Desdemona’s murder, as upon she finding Desdemona’s handkerchief she presents it to Iago, not realizing the calamity of this action. I conclude therefore, regarding specifically Shakespeare’s gender roles in society in Elizabethan era that the outcomes of a woman’s life are not always based choice, (regardless of socio-economic background). Furthermore, that characteristically ‘weaker stronger or feminine masculine’ dichotomy of understanding sexes existed amongst the public, hence creating a link between the victimization of the masculine (also found in women) and feminine (also found in men) in the greater society. Two common thematic elements create this ‘grand narrative’ by Shakespeare on complexity of gender roles in these two plays. The set of main characters have a weak/strong relationship encompassed by narratives of objectification, and Shakespeare’s depiction of the spiteful Male Ego provides the driving force for the plot of both plays, dictating the narrative.
The first element which makes up the overall picture painted by Shakespeare centers on the notions of weak and strong characteristics, ultimately affecting a woman’s life, still, even the most independent characters can not truly escape from men’s oppression and deceit in this epoch. For example, Kathleen Mulpeter states “Hero visibly buys into the female economy with her simple nature, compliance and even acceptance of the way men barter her” whereas, Desdemona has to marry illegally, due to Othello’s race, a true sign of personal dissent in contrast to the male “barter economy”. This narrative of weak strong is also present when looking at both plays. Mulpeter in fact argues that “Desdemona and Hero have personalities that are characteristically weaker than those of Beatrice and Emilia”, this is directly linked to the conclusions of the plays, the stronger heroine’s survive whereas the weaker suffer men’s murderous attitudes and their irreparable destructive deceit. Even the stronger characters, Desdemona in comparison to Hero for example, is nonetheless abused, “as in fact that she is unwittingly being traded and sold amongst men” (her father and Othello). The author In the case of Much Ado About nothing reinforces these claims: “Beatrice largely escapes this objectification”, “stereotypically more like a man than she does a woman.
” Beatrice escapes from such oppression due to her masculine personality, which allows her to even mock male characters; unusual for the time the play is set in. On the other hand, Hero who is by her nature the virtuous ideal is still almost completely shamed by Don John, like Desdemona, who out of jealousy wanted to destroy Claudio’s wedding with her. Emilia, adds a narrative of social class, as Desdemona’s maid, suggesting that this is an inter-class problem for women. Ultimately, though “she often acts submissive to Iago, on other occasions she asserts her sense of self and independence”, also aimed at assessing the personality of women from different backgrounds. Yet this cannot prevent Iago’s plot, she is oblivious to the world of manipulation men take part in, and suffers consequences.Secondly, it must be noted that the author’s representation of men can also give us insight on the gender roles of women. To reinforce these notions of gender discrimination, objectification and oppression, we can look at the Male ego and Male feminizations in the text, which imply men’s behavioral standards as a consequence of the societal position of women. This is important and has a clear and direct effect on the plot, and implicitly expresses the author’s view of the ‘man’ and the ‘woman’.
Even Beatrice, who represents the ‘masculine’ characteristics in the female character, still states “(I) Heigh-ho for a husband!”(II. i. 272) Suggesting the importance of marriage institutions even if Beatrice was earlier establishing her independence and bold persona. In the opposite case, a man with feminine qualities, such as Roderigo, led him becoming the pawn lago’s game.
“I have no great devotion to the deed And yet he hath given me satisfying reasons”, (V. i. 11) Roderigo asserts as he decides to act out Iago’s mischievous plan. This evidences the interesting juxtaposition of male and female qualities; this suggests Shakespeare shows plurality of gender personalities, but also that these pluralities often led to subjugation and deceit from the masculine egos. Iago and “the Bastard”, John Don, function as plot-devices, of almost self-professed “evil” nature. The aspects of masculine gender roles are what bring them to creating extreme deceitful plots.
Even Othello, the hero, is overridden by masculine pride and suffocates Desdemona. These common threads create symbiotic relationship between Beatrice and Hero and Emilia and Desdemona, I contend that Shakespeare has functionally juxtaposed the two; they are characters that reciprocally offset the image of the women but exist simultaneously in this. By creating a tempered and ‘rebellious’ against the ‘virtuous’ ideals as paramount, showing the real complex nature of women, yet shows how they are held at a default position by a patriarchal society. Conclusion:In conclusion, Othello and Much Ado About Nothing, explores gender roles through female characters that are deviant and rebellious as well as showing the entanglements of women who are ‘supposed’ to be virtuous.
Shakespeare creates this dichotomy of feminine and masculine qualities that affects the plots of the two plays in drastic ways. In this sense, Shakespeare was revolutionary in his portrayal of women, as his female roles portrayed a various types of women. Nevertheless, it is also found that “Heroism is inspiring in Shakespeare’s men” whilst “it is touching in his women”, therefore women are the ones that ultimately suffer the consequences when men’s heroism turns envious. In my literary analysis, I also found that the terminology of buying and selling in relation to women, as well as the language used by men, exposes men’s view of women as goods, to be bought and sold, and objectified. In conclusion, two common thematic elements create a ‘grand narrative’ on women’s roles in Shakespeare.
Shakespeare portrays the complexity of gender roles and the woman’s experience with a great deal of complexity and nuance. Whilst setting his society’s main characters in a weak/strong relationship dictated by his depiction of the spiteful Male Ego which is the driving force of conflict in Shakespeare’s society.