Gender Roles in Shakespeare

Topics: Gender role, Gender, William Shakespeare Pages: 8 (1834 words) Published: April 29, 2003
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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