Gender in Shakespeare's Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and Twelfth Night

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Becca Griffing
Shakespeare in Love

Analyze the representation of gender in two or more plays and/or films

When reading literature from the Renaissance period, it is clear to see male and female characters were thought upon as two completely different types of people. By following what the bible told them about the opposite sexes, writers in this time were able to set specific gender norms for both men and women. However, when reading the works of William Shakespeare, one can sense a riff in the norms of either sex. With characters such as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, we can see a character that possess qualities that do not necessarily belong to their gender. However, with a character like Desdemona in Othello, we can see that Shakespeare could also write characters who fall victim to the gender roles of society. Also, with a character like Viola in Twelfth Night, we can see a character who becomes stuck in the middle of following the gender norms and making their own choices in life. By looking at these three unique characters, we must wonder what Shakespeare was trying to say about the ways that men and women were perceived at the time. Did he agree with the rules that society made for them? Or, was he trying to change the way we thought about the opposite sex?

When a person thinks of a devoted female character, Desdemona from Othello is the first that should pop into mind. While Desdemona is perceived as a one of Shakespeare’s brightest and most loyal female characters, she is also a clear victim of the gender stereotypes of the time. One of the first things that we know about Desdemona and Othello’s relationship was that they were not brought together necessarily her sexuality, but by Othello’s interest in her mind. In fact, the first time that Desdemona is introduced in Act 1, scene 3, she is presented as strong, independent, and capable of making her own decisions. In her first lines of the play, she says;

I do perceive here a divided duty.
To you I am bound for life and education;
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you: you are the lord of duty,
I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband;
And so much duty as my mother showed
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord. (I,iii, 180-188)

To make such a statement like this one while being the only female character on stage is quite a feat, and would be considered an act of great bravery. Also, by saying this directly to her father, Desdemona proves herself to be virtuous and intelligent. Not wanting to insult Brabantio, she persuades him to think on her as he thought on her mother; that she was not choosing to marry Othello in spite of him, but because she wants to share her proper upbringing that he was able to give to her with her husband so that she may start her own family and perform her womanly duties.

Unfortunately, this proclamation becomes her undoing. At the time, this unwomanly characteristic of bravery is attractive and compelling to Othello. However, once the false seed of her infidelities is planted in Othello’s thoughts by Iago, he begins to wonder what other manly qualities she is able to posses (such as adultery). By turning Desdemona into a villainous character (at least in Othello’s mind), Shakespeare is able to show the readers that a women who challenges authority would most likely be punished for it.

This plot of Desdemona being unfaithful is just one of the ways that Shakespeare brings up the subject of male anxiety towards the erotic power of a female. Othello believes that Desdemona has seduced her way into another man’s heart, In retrospect, the only person to be seduced in the play is in fact Othello himself, who falls for the lies that Iago has told him. In Act 3, scene 3, now believing women to be deceptive creatures, he curses them and the institution that they so heavily rely on;

She’s gone, I am abused,...
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