Gender Roles in Shakespeare
It is a peculiar feature of Shakespeare's plays that they both participate in and
reflect the ideas of gender roles in Western society. To the extent that they reflect existing
notions about the 'proper' roles of men and women, they can be said to be a product of
their society. However, since they have been studied, performed, and taught for five
hundred years, they may be seen as formative of contemporary notions about the
relationships between males, females, and power.
Derrida was right in asserting that "there is no 'outside' to the text." His claim is that every text is
affected by every other text and every other speech act. As an instance, most of Shakespeare's
plays have traceable sources for their central plots. Representations of gender in Renaissance
drama are tied to their original presentation: "bearing the traces of their history in a theatrical
enterprise which completely excluded women, (these texts) construct gender from a
relentlessly androcentric perspective" (Helms 196). It is the ways in which these texts
reflect or distort the gender expectations of society, either Elizabethan or contemporary,
that is so important.
Comedy that centers on the relationship between conventional couples rather than
on resolution of the situation that keeps them apart is really quite difficult to find in
Shakespeare. Ferdinand and Miranda are so uninteresting as a couple that their chief
function seems to be as an excuse for Prospero to exhibit his art. The lovers in Midsummer Night's
Dream are certainly at their most entertaining when they're in love with the wrong person. It is the
exaggerated character--Falstaff, Petruchio, Paulina, or Cleopatra--or those who step
outside the borders of their assigned gender roles--Rosalind, Portia, Viola--who generate
the greatest theatrical and critical interest.
Elizabethan society had a loosely determined set of normal behaviors that are frequently
linked to gender. Despite diffusion of these gender expectations in both time periods (see
Dollimore, Traub), there are definite behaviors that either lie within the constructs of gender or
exceed/transgress patterns accepted as conventional. Through the mechanisms of exaggeration or
transgression, Shakespeare's comedies focus attention on the matter of gender and derive comedy
from the situations created. Characters that are natural representations of their gender do not
contain the same possibilities for comedy.
Beatrice says "O, that I were a man" (Much Ado About Nothing, IV.i.303), implying in
context that her gender has made it impossible for her to act. Other female characters in
Shakespeare do take on male roles, and whether it is because their true identity is hidden or simply
by virtue of their acceptance as non-female, they are able to function in the text in ways
that an undisguised female character could not. Rosalind/Ganymede instructs Orlando in the ways
of love. Viola/Cesario enters Orsino's house and, consequentially, his heart. Portia argues a case
at law; actually serving as a judge in a dispute involving her new husband's best friend. In
assuming a man's role, these women overcome the limitations to which Beatrice finds her sex
When male characters assume feminine characteristics these are seen as an
impediment to action (or inaction is seen as womanish). In Tro. act I, Troilus has not
taken the field because he is hopelessly in love with Cressida. He describes the experience as
unmanning, as depriving him of his masculinity. When Aeneas asked why he is not in the day's
battle Troilus identifies himself as "this woman . . . / because womanish it is to be from thence"
(I.i.106). He finds he cannot behave as a man should, because a...
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