Shakespeare and the Gender-Based Stereotypes.

Topics: William Shakespeare, Gender role, Gender Pages: 5 (1826 words) Published: November 12, 2012

"I could find in my heart to disgrace my man's apparel and cry like a woman" (II. Iv : 3) is undoubtedly a statement that would make the feminists react strongly nowadays. In a society trying hard to maintain and preserve a certain equality of treatment between men and women in every aspect of everyday life, the author of such a sentence would surely be regarded as highly misogynous. But one must bear in mind that in a twenty-first century society, people are taking for granted that men and women should be treated on an equal footing, which was clearly not the case about 400 years ago. The Renaissance was a time where a woman was expected to be a docile and naive person, who bent to the will of her male superiors. Qualities such as chastity, obedience and submissiveness were greatly promoted whereas wittiness was not particularly appreciated in a woman. As for the role of men, it is showed in the following quote from Introduction to Speaking of Gender, by Elaine Showalter : "Gender is not only a question of difference, which assumes that the sexes are separate and equal; but of power, since in looking at the history of gender relations, we find sexual asymmetry, inequality, and male dominance in every known society". We can therefore assume that men were supposed to be the pillar of the community, both physically and mentally stronger than women. Using in his plays a wide variety of what one might call today gender- based stereotypes, Shakespeare gives us a good insight into what the male-female interactions looked like at the time. The question that arises is the following : to what extent did Shakespeare want to convey his own ideas on gender through his plays ? By exploring a few Shakespeare's plays, we are first of all going to focus on the difference of treatment between men and women in tragedies and in comedies, which will bring us to deal with the cross-gender costumes. Eventually, we will see Shakespeare ambiguous position on women.

It goes without saying that tragedy and comedy have different purposes and different structures. The Shakespearian tragedy usually follows a typical scheme : a tragic hero of noble birth whose tragic flaw leads to his demise (Macbeth, King Lear,...). Blood, violence and revenge are often part of the picture.On the contrary, a comedy has a happy ending, most of the time with a marriage. A lighthearted style prevails in the entire play. Thus, it can be argued that the question of gender is not treated the same in Shakespeare comedies and tragedies. As shown in Shakespeare, Feminism and Gender1, women in tragedy are “strong because they are coherent [...]and the attacks which are made on them are the product of male resentment at this strength”. They usually are honest,naive and devoted to a male character. In King Lear for example, Cordelia dares distinguishing herself from her sisters by refusing to take part in King Lear's love test. She is asserting herself and one cannot help but noticing that she is a prevailing character in the play. However, she will face an unfair death because of Edmund’s betrayal which will lead to her needless execution in prison. In comedies, women are often “opposed to men but to a reified 'society' [...] they either rebels against restraining social”. In As You Like It, Celia does not agree with her father's decision to bannish Rosalind and as a result, she decides to flee with her. It is a very bold and brave decision2. In comedies, Shakespeare seems to be more free to allow his female character to express themselves more. A possible explanation for this will be found in the next section.

It can be noticed that the use of cross-gender costumes is frequent in Shakespeare's comedies. Transvestitism is evident in two ways. Firstly, all women’s parts were played by boys. Their role were often long and demanding, such as Rosalind in As You Like It. She, like other heroines of the romantic comedies,...
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