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The Women in Literature and Life Assembly
of
The National Council of Teachers of English
Editor:  Patricia Kelly kellyp@vt.edu
Volume 5
Fall 1996


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Revisiting Shakespeare and Gender

Jeanne Gerlach, Rudolph Almasy, and Rebecca Daniel

William Shakespeare is a rich and suggestive author in terms of alerting students to issues in women's studies and gender ideology. Although Shakespeare reflects and at times supports the English Renaissance stereotypes of women and men and their various roles and responsibilities in society, he is also a writer who questions, challenges, and modifies those representations. His stories, as we all know, are used in secondary and college classrooms even today and, thus, afford opportunities not only to understand Renaissance culture better but also to confront our own contemporary generalizations about gender, especially what it means to be female. In his own time, Shakespeare seems to have been raising questions about the standard images of males and females, about what the characteristics of each gender are, about what is defined as masculine and feminine, about how each gender possesses both masculine and feminine qualities and behaviors, about the nature and power of a hegemonic patriarchy, and about the roles women and men should play in acting out the stories of their lives. Since feminist criticism today focuses on many of these same issues, we can bring such critical inquiry into the classroom by asking straightforward questions of and about Shakespeare's stories.

Defining what a female was supposed to be and do was an act of Renaissance culture, as it has been for other times. For Shakespeare, as well as for most of Renaissance society, women as the feminine represented the following virtues which, importantly, have their meaning in relationship to the male; obedience, silence, sexual chastity, piety, humility, constancy, and patience. However, gender characteristics were socially constructed and there was an easy cross-over of masculine and feminine traits to both genders.

Defining masculine and feminine characteristics allowed writers like Shakespeare to draw males with certain "feminine" characteristics and females with certain "masculine" characteristics. This merging of masculine and feminine in both males and females might help to explain how easy it was for the Elizabethan stage to employ and accept all male casts and utilize men to play strong female characters like Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, and Kate, the Shrew. Contemporary audiences, so set on separating female from male, would have great difficulty returning to this standard practice of the Renaissance.

Indeed, both masculine and feminine characteristics were parts of what the Renaissance considered "human nature" and each gender participated in both sets of characteristics to varying degrees. For example, take the act of weeping. Although both

genders cried and were "allowed" by the culture to weep (think of all the tears men shed in Julius Caesar over the deaths of other men), tears were thought of as "feminine" but not exclusively female. In Hamlet, when Laertes learns of the death of his sister Ophelia, he weeps in sorrow, with genuine feeling, but exclaims, "The woman will be out," meaning his tears represent his "womanly" part that cannot be suppressed (or repressed) by his masculine strength."

Just as the Renaissance defined female roles, it clearly delegated certain behaviors to males. Theirs was a patriarchal society. We catch a glimpse of this patriarchy in a play like Romeo and Juliet with the power of Lord Capulet. It's easy to see that the male had a place and a role to play, just as the female had a lesser place and a role. The woman is either in the house of her father as Juliet is or in the house of her husband as Lady Macbeth is. Notice in Macbeth that Lady Macbeth is observed only within the castle at Enverness, and it is her duty to make "preparations" for the arrival of King Duncan. Lord Capulet underscores this female responsibility when he announces, in anticipation of the marriage of Paris and Juliet, that he will "play the huswife for this once." In Macbeth, as in Renaissance society, men were expected to engage in public affairs (as soldiers, politicians, leaders), to be talkers, make decisions, move events forward. They led lives which were duty-bound (mostly to the state), aggressive, and self-satisfying. On the other hand, women were expected to assume a more passive role. For example, at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet when the boys are milling around the streets of Verona and talking dirty about girls, Sampson (one of Capulet's servants) remarks, "And therefore women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall; therefore I will push Montague's men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall." The passage is ripe with stereotypical Renaissance thinking: women are weaker (physically, emotionally, intellectually, morally), and they exist for male sexual gratification-they're only good for "thrusting" to the wall. When Lady Macbeth decides to become an "active" partner in her husband's deadly mischief, she needs to pray "Come, you spirits ... unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe topful / Of direst cruelty," which suggests that it is not "natural" for a woman to be cruel.

Yet, as is often the case, these ideological statements, often placed in the mouths of minor characters, are questioned, proved false, reversed in the telling of the story. Shakespeare rises above the stereotypical views of Renaissance society as he portrays women as more than passive vessels. For example, the love of Romeo and Juliet is an equitable experience. Each assumes responsibilities for making their relationship work. Lady Macbeth goes beyond Juliet's collaborative nature and takes charge of her relationship with Macbeth. When Macbeth sends his wife a letter relating all the strange happenings and prophecies so that she may know all-know that what is promised is promised not only to him but to her, he calls her "my dearest partner of greatness." Perhaps she sees herself more "manly" than her husband, for she fears his kindness and passivity, calling him to her-"Hie thee hither."

Certain characteristics were associated with the male and a different set with the female. Shakespeare reflects this Renaissance distinction between, and joining of, the masculine and the feminine, a juxtaposition which is also apparent in the female monarch of his day, Queen Elizabeth. The chief worry of Elizabethan males was to get the Queen married off to someone so she could produce children. Surely she knew that if she had done just that, she would have lost the great power she had as an unmarried Renaissance female prince. Elizabeth, of course, was not above playing with gender distinctions when it was to her advantage. In her famous speech to the troops at Tilbury who had gathered for the landing of the Spanish Armada, Elizabeth played both the female and the male role: 'I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too ... I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field."

Like Elizabeth, the wonderful heroines of the romantic comedies-Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Viola in Twelfth Night-reflect this blend of feminine and masculine attitudes and behaviors. Although they are women, subject at some point in each play to the care of fathers, brothers, and/or husbands, each is also "masculine" in her actions. As "strong females," they demonstrate more self-awareness than the men; they use their reason, they talk, they are mobile, often found in the out-of-doors rather than inside their fathers' or husbands' houses. They control the action. Portia, for example, controls the final scene of The Merchant of Venice by bringing about the downfall of Shylock through her tempering of justice with mercy and by controlling the forces which enable her to live happily ever after with Bassanio. Viola, too, earns marriage with the man of her choice by acting literally as both male and female, and cleverly manipulating the Duke's relationship with Olivia. Like Portia, Rosalind dominates the action in As You Like It. She is intelligent, strong of character, patient, and demonstrates an unshakable integrity. Furthermore, she is strong and able to defend herself when falsely accused of treason.

We need to bring these issues of gender roles into the classroom. There is clear argument for the validity of this line of study in a high school or college setting. It can be observed that students

themselves are concerned about their roles as male or female as they make educational and vocational choices which will affect the rest of their lives. It is important that all students be given a sense of pride in who they are, whether they be a female or a male. Researchers have shown that it is essential that students examine male and female role models to assist them in better understanding themselves and in making unrestricted decisions about their future. Literature which appears to stereotype them sexually and, consequently, to limit their options for further education and career choices can be very detrimental to these students. Females, especially, have been subject to these kinds of limiting roles. Connie Schmitz and Judy Galbraith see this problem in gifted girls: "Gifted girls continue to face special conflicts in resolving society's expectations of them as women as gifted people ... The question is how to be talented and feminine at the same time" (Schmitz 32-33). Emily Hancock refers to the "Renaissance girl," whom she says adult women need to recover and retain within themselves, describing her through the eyes of an eight year old: . . . "I was good at absolutely everything. I was interested in almost everything I knew about" (Hancock 16). This confidence and interest needs to be kept as this child moves toward adulthood, and literature needs to show girls, in particular, how this can be done. Hancock continues: "Much has changed and is changing for the girl of eight or nine. But the most important change is yet to come, the retrieval of such a partnership-without domination-between men and women ... Too much cultural change ... has turned us toward applauding in females the "masculine" qualities they display" (259). Clearly there is much interest in a dialogue about what the role of females ought to be. The study of gender roles in Shakespeare's plays provides an excellent vehicle for that discussion. Questions to begin such discussions might include the following: How many males and females are there? Who are the main characters? Are they predominantly male or female? Which characters are stronger, smarter, wiser, more sensitive? What characters did you particularly admire? Who is most like you? Most different? Who irritates you and why? What would you have changed about the story if you had been the author? How would the characters of your play fare in out society? Some issues to consider are:

  • father/daughter relationship
  • use of disguises/masks
  • marriage customs
  • acceptable speaking versus expected silence
  • comparisons to Queen Elizabeth
  • nunneries
  • female/male education overheard conversations/deceit
  • traditional behavior
  • characters' actions when with others of same or opposite gender

In addition to the merit in examining literary characters totally within the context of the work in which they appear, a teacher using Shakespeare's plays for gender study in the classroom and the students doing the study should have some background knowledge of the time in which the works were written. This reading and discussion could limit the outcome of the study by defining the Renaissance woman used as a model for Shakespeare's work and, therefore, making these heroines predictable in behavior and restricted to Renaissance standards only. Quite the opposite happens, however, because of the disagreements which appear in research on gender defined roles of that period. Scholars are not in agreement as to whether Shakespeare's women and men reflect his time or defy his time, whether they reflect society's attitude or only the author's attitude, whether they are women and men for all ages or the Renaissance only, and whether the Renaissance man and woman were really liberated thinkers or people tightly restricted by their society. Ironically and delightfully, the more reading one does about the period, the more unclear the issue becomes. What a wonderfully fertile base for study which encourages diverse thought about sexually defined roles of modern young adults.

Works Cited and Recommended Reading

Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. London: MacMillan Press, 1975.

Hancock, Emily. The Girl Within. New York: Fawcett Columbia, 1989.

Jardine, Lisa. Still Harping on Daughters. New Jersey: Barnes & Noble, 1983.

Lenz, Carolyn, Ruth Swift, Gayle Green and Carol Thomas Neely. The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism ofShakespeare. U of Illinois, 1983.

Papp, Joseph, and Elizabeth Kirkland. ShakespeareAlive. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.68-102.

Rose, Mary Beth, ed. Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Syracuse Press, 1986.

Schmitz, Connie C. and Judy Galbraith. Managing the Social and Emotional Needs of the Gifted: A Teacher's Survival Guide. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing Company, 1985. 32-33.


Jeanne Marcum Gerlach is an Associate Professor of English Education/ Curriculum and Instruction at West Virginia University where she has also served as Interim Director of the Center for Women's Studies and Special Assistant to the Provost.

Rudolph Almasy is Interim Dean of the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences and Associate Professor of English.

Reference Citation: Rebecca Daniel is an English teacher at Parkersburg South High School, Parkersburg, WV and a recent graduate of the English Education doctoral program at West Virginia University.


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