Female Sexuality in Shakespeare

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Compare and contrast the representation of female sexuality in Cymbeline, the Sonnets, and one of the plays: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard II, Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, Measure for Measure or King Lear.  

 
Both Cymbeline and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (AMND) are both set in a patriarchal environment where both genders grapple for control. Valerie Traub defines the distinction between gender sex and gender behavior as “Sex refers to the . . . biological distinctions between male and female bodies. Gender refers to those meanings derived from the division of male and female . . . the attributes considered appropriate to each: ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine.’” (Valerie Traub, “Gender and Sexuality in Shakespeare” p129) Patriarchy indirectly opposes this source of the meaning with male leaders moderating their control with their own male qualities. However, this thinking needed a stern control over the attribution of suitable behavior for each sex, signifying that gendered meanings “exist primarily as constructions of particular societies.” (Valerie Traub, “Gender and Sexuality in Shakespeare” p129)One display of this control contained in both plays is the orderly arrangement of female sexuality, a classification distinguished from the sexual characteristics of connecting explicitly to “erotic desires and activities.” (Valerie Traub, “Gender and Sexuality in Shakespeare” p129) Margreta de Grazia claimed “nothing threatens a patriarchal and hierarchic social formation more than a promiscuous womb,” (Margreta de Grazia, “The Scandal of Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” in Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Critical Essays,p106)  and pivotally, both plays examine the supposed risk of unrestrained female desire. Also, the sexual relationships existing in the Sonnets appear to subvert  stereotypical gender ideas founded in the initial poems. A view held in Cymbeline by both Posthumous and the king was that the appealing neutrality of the speaker's master-mistress questions the idea that male and female qualities function as opposites. Within each play, the existence of a foreign "otherness" can be seen as another attempt to question the widely considered assumptions that societies are ruled by patriarchs.    It is within the combination of these challenges to gender stereotypes , we can find recurring themes of procreation, forgiveness and androgyny throughout each unique text.  This suggests Shakespeare’s deliberate intention to challenge and reconstruct the conventions of gender relations.  Within the opening scenes in both Cymbeline and AMSND a patriarchal context is created by the setting of the authoritative courts of the ruling men and establishes the patriarchal stereotype of renaissance literature.   In AMSND, Egeus’ superiority over Hermia is highlighted by his detailed knowledge of Lysander's romantic gestures and with his continued belief that “she is mine.”  He claims that by being supported by the ruling powers, he can claim that her refusal to obey him would result in death as is set in “the ancient privilege of Athens” (William Shakespeare, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Act 1, Scene 1, 42, 97.) [Subsequent references to this work will be cited within the text as AMSND, followed by act, scene and line number] through his repeated insistence that “she is mine.” This is confirmed by Theseus but he also offers an alternative punishment where she must: . . . be in shady cloister mew'd,

To live a barren sister all your life
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.
Thrice blessed they that master so their blood,
To undergo such maiden pilgrimage
(AMSND 1.1.71–5)

 Theseus indirectly goes against his own sexual drive with a pilgrimage that ascribes to the female “maiden” but the male superiority over the blood needed to satisfy the end, reflects the males power to uphold female chastity, which controls the right to reproduce.  His claim that nuns are “thrice blessed”...
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