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The Forms Of Femininity In Shakespeare English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3832 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Many modern critics claim that Shakespeare was a pioneering feminist. Shapiro claimed that Shakespeare was “the noblest feminist of them all” (Shapiro,1994,p111). Whilst this claim is supported by various Shakespearean works, this essay will consider that whilst his works can be interpreted as displaying feminist attitudes, whether these females are punished for displaying this transgressive behaviour.

Over the centuries various empires and societies, such as classical Rome and ancient Egypt, were been built upon the foundation of a patriarchal society. These societies were sustained through the oppression of women, as they were continually treated as second class citizens, which pushed women towards acts of rebellion when they felt particularly mistreated. These settings therefore made an excellent backdrop for Shakespeare to project the attitudes of a male-dominated seventeenth century society.

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This technique occurs throughout Shakespeare’s plays, but is particularly evident in Titus Andronicus, where Tamora is motivated to act against a patriarchal society by the restrictions that she is forced to adhere to. Her actions are then punished by further repression, depicting the infectiveness of her actions against the dominant patriarchal order. Antony and Cleopatra also illustrates this battle of femininity against a patriarchal society, using Romans once again to represent the domineering male force. Shakespeare allows both Antony and Cleopatra to break free from their stereotypical roles by inverting their genders, to create two characters that possess traits from both sexes; so they refuse to fit into their traditional roles. Lastly I will look at Gertrude in the Hamlet, where Shakespeare depicts the effects of one woman’s transgressive actions on the patriarchal order.

To appreciate why the actions of women in these plays are so subversive, and to comprehend the reactions of the male characters in the plays, it is vital to understand the position of women in Shakespeare’s society. Despite that both of Shakespeare’s plays were not set in the seventeenth century, his depiction of women would have been influenced by the society in which he lived. The general view was that there was a hierarchy of genders, with males at the top, in Milton’s words “Not equal, as their sex not equal seemed” (Milton, 2008, p41). Society established woman as “weaker, inferior and in need of masculine guidance” and this was voiced “as firmly by women, as by men” (Keeble,1994,106). This essay will portray how the female characters transgressed from their stereotypical roles, and consider how and more intriguingly, why, these characters were punished for their perceived transgression.

Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is believed to have been written in 1606 after a distinguished sequence of tragedies including Othello, King Lear and Macbeth (Farrell, 2004, p23). Shakespeare uses the play to consider the effects of a patriarchal society, and skilfully inverts gender roles so that it is the male, Antony, that is the victim. The patriarchal society of Rome expects Antony to only display his masculinity, and not to succumb to feminine qualities such as passion, feelings and love. When he develops a powerful love for Cleopatra, Antony is no longer able to abide by the stifling society, where the role of lover is considered inferior to a man’s political responsibilities.

The opening lines of the play demonstrates the rising disapproval of Antony’s unconventional, or feminine, behaviour which is not confined within the measure of patriarchy, “Nay but this dotage of our General’s / O’erflows the measure” (Shakespeare, 2001,1.1.56). The males view Antony’s dedication to Cleopatra as disgraceful, “‘His captain’s heart … become the bellows and the fan / To cool a gipsy’s lust” (Shakespeare, 2001, 1.1.22). Antony also occasionally judges himself by these standards of patriarchy, such as at the end of the play where he is miserable and shamed by his reduced political power. He then becomes envious and irrational and claims that Cleopatra has emasculated him, “O thy vile lady, / She has robbed me of my sword” (Shakespeare, 2001, 4.14.2). Eventually Antony chooses love over political power, as Antony is not debased by his loss of power, but rather, through his love of Cleopatra develops a stronger sense of manhood, ran “alternative masculinity”(Woodbridge,1994,p34). However the reaction of the males within the Roman society shows that this feminine transgression is not suitable for a male in a patriarchal society.

Whilst Antony display’s feminine characteristics, Cleopatra transgresses her female role by exhibiting masculine virtues to counterbalance Antony and provide a relationship of surprising equality. Cleopatra, and the relationship, does not abide by the restrictions of a seventeenth century, patriarchal society. Their relationship blurs the roles of male and female by inverting gender roles, Cleopatra embraces masculine features, as Woodbridge states, “Antony and Cleopatra can cross gender boundaries without losing their sex roles as man or woman” (Woodbridge,1994,p45). This gender inversion is physically depicted in the scene where Cleopatra, “wore his sword Philipan”(Shakespeare, 2001, 2.5.30), this displays how Shakespeare clearly identifies masculine qualities within a female. Unlike many of Shakespeare’s female characters, Cleopatra dominates the play in terms of individual presence and theme. Also Shakespeare provided the audience with a real woman, as opposed to a stereotype, Velma Richmond claims further that in Cleopatra we can find Shakespeare’s “finest embracing of the feminine”(Richmond, 1991, p139). Cleopatra is a mixture of political prowess and sexual power; however this sexuality is condemned by the males in the play as she is referred to as a “whore” (Shakespeare, 2001, and a “strumpet” (Shakespeare, 2001, throughout the play. However this sexual power is presented positively on occasion, such as Enorbarbus’s description of her:

“Age cannot wither her, 

Nor custom stale her infinite variety. Other women cloy 

The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry

Where most she satisfies. For vilest things 

Become themselves in her, that the holy priests

Bless she is riggish.” (Shakespeare, 2001, 2.2.43).

Cleopatra declines to obey to the stereotype of a woman created by a patriarchal society, and uses her natural sexuality to gain power rather than allow it to be detrimental to her character. She also is intent on accomplishing a political role, despite the objections of the patriarchal men. This is clearly depicted when Enoebarbus attempts to stop her from carrying out her political role, and Cleopatra responds in a furious tirade:

“A charge we bear i’th’war,

And as the president of my kingdom will

Appear there for a man. Speak not against it.

I will not stay behind” (Shakespeare, 3.4.44)

Cleopatra therefore forces her admittance into the male arena against the wishes of the patriarchal society. Obedience and silence were very much part of the patriarchal conception of femininity, a conception of which Cleopatra refuses to adhere to. She contrasts the traditional silent woman; Cleopatra ensures that her voice is heard. She mocks Antony and quarrels with him. Challenging him with a masculine aggression when they argue “‘I would I had thine inches. Thou shouldst know/ There were a heart in Egypt”(Shakespeare, 2001, 1.3.10). Spirited and passionate, such displays of assertion as her physical attack on the messenger informing her of Antony’s marriage to Octavia are a far cry from the passive silent role of the feminine in patriarchal society. In passionate disbelief and anger, she draws a knife on the messenger and strikes him with her bare hands. Charmian tries to appease her by telling her “Good madam keep yourself within yourself” (Shakespeare, 2001, 2.5.55), but Cleopatra escapes the bounds of self-composure and the repression of self-hood.

Shakespeare uses Cleopatra’s death to portray her final act of disobedience against the patriarchal society, as she emphasizes her individual identity. Her death develops into a victory over Caesar, who symbolises patriarchal Rome, as when the guard is confronted with the sight of her death he exclaims “Caesar’s beguiled”(Shakespeare, 2001, 5.2.33). Cleopatra’s death allows her to rise above the repression of society; she embraces her death as positive rather than with sadness:

“My desolation does begin to make a better life

. . . And it is great 

To do that thing that ends all other deeds,

Which shackles accidents and bolts up change” (Shakespeare, 2001, 5.2.76)

Even in death Cleopatra merges both feminine and masculine features, as she declares to take on male qualities of rationality and strength, “I have nothing of woman in me. Now from head to foot/ I am marble constant” (Shakespeare, 2001, 5.1.22). She chooses to reject the traditional feminine qualities of “water and the changeability of the moon” (Ott,2001,p21) and changes herself into “air and fire” (Shakespeare,2001, 5.1.43). Therefore she embraces masculinity and Rome by dying in the “True Roman fashion” (Ott,2001,p20). However Shakespeare is also able to illustrate her portrayal of the power of womanhood, by adapting the image of death into a portrait of sensuality and motherhood. The pain that she suffers is described as ” a lover’s pinch” (Shakespeare, 2001, 5.1.10) and the asp is depicted as a “baby at my breast/That sucks the nurse asleep” (Shakespeare, 2001, 5.1.9). Her death is so poignant that even Caesar, the symbol of patriarchy, acknowledges her valour and the irrefutable dignity of the woman who “Took her own way” (Shakespeare, 2001, 5.1.68). This representation of womanhood shows how Cleopatra transcends the stereotype of women in Shakespeare’s time. Despite that she meets her death at the end of the play; Shakespeare ensures that her mixture of masculine and femininity is ultimately respected by Caesar. She escapes punishment for displaying masculine traits, and hence transgressing her role of female, by having the power to take her own life. The respect shown by Caesar is perhaps Shakespeare’s own view, that this woman, who refuses to abide by the role that a patriarchal society has given her, should be admired. The description throughout the play of Cleopatra shows her in a strong and positive light

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In Titus Andronicus, the character Tamora does not abide by the role of a proper woman in a seventeenth century society. Tamora feels as though she has been ill-treated and repressed by the acts of a patriarchal society. Her actions in the play are an attempt to gain some kind of equality, however ultimately she meets her death as a consequence, perhaps proving the futility of such resistance in a male dominated landscape.

The death of Tamora’s son Arlarbus, “we have performed/Our Roman rites: Alarbus’ limbs are lopped/And entrails feed the sacrificing fire’ (Shakespeare, 2001, 1.1.145) serves as the basis of the plot, as Tamora plots her revenge on Titus for this act of barbarity. However Tamora must establish herself within the patriarchal society to gain the necessary power to exact her revenge. This movement corresponds to the masculinisation of her character; as Lavinia says to her “O Tamora, thou bearest a woman’s face”, before being interrupted (Shakespeare, 2001. 2.2.135). This disruption of normative gender traits in part relates to the threat Tamora poses as a sexually experienced woman, compared to the submissive Lavinia. This factor, combined with her visibly feminine position as a mother, leads Titus to form his unique, cannibalistic strategy for revenge. The insult that Lavinia throws at Tamora is based upon the “presumption of a binary system” (Ott, 2001, p77). Lavinia is the obvious stereotypical female; this is evident from the beginning of the play where she is the victim of a patriarchal struggle and “the bargaining chip” (Ott, 2001, p77) in a matrimonial dispute. Tamora contrasts Lavinia, in that she possesses the sexuality and body of a woman, but as revenge consumes her she abandons the restrictions placed upon her and transgresses her feminine role. Tamora and Lavinia serve as polar opposite representations of women, the active Tamora and the passive Lavinia.

Shakespeare effectively gives a platform to question gender identity within the play:

When agreed-upon identities or agreed-upon dialogic structures, through which already established identities are communicated, no longer constitute the theme or subject of politics, then identities can come into being and dissolve depending on the concrete practices that constitute them (Butler,2004, p28)

This is relatable to Tamora as her character is a stereotypical woman that has been unhinged by her vengeful actions. The obedient identities, which “come into being and dissolve”(Butler, 2004,p28), rely upon the supposition of other characters; most strongly in the character of Tamora, as the volatile nature of her character is shown to be based upon her visual female features, and the performative expectations set upon her as a woman.

According to Butler’s theory the continuing violence and vengeance compromise the “concrete practices” that create identity. The incessant compliance to the female role shown by Lavinia, after her rape and maiming, seal her fate as she is killed by Titus at the end of the play. Whilst Tamora’s choice to refuse the female role ensures that she meets a similarly grisly fate. Shakespeare uses both female characters as bodies on which he can project the power of a patriarchal society upon, as Tamora’s rejection of it is contrasted to Lavinia’s acceptance of it.

Tamora’s clearest rejection of the patriarchal society is her sexual freedom, as Renaissance society “viewed women as possessed of a powerful, potentially disruptive sexuality” (Henderson, 1985, p66). An example of this disruptive power is when she gives birth to a child fathered by Aaron, the child is described as “as loathsome as a toad/Amongst the fair-faced breeders of our clime,” (Shakespeare, 2001, 4.2.59). This suggests that the child has a mixed ethnicity; her transgressive actions are damned by the patriarchal society:

DEMETRIUS: By this our mother is for ever shamed.

CHIRON: Rome will despise her for this foul escape.

NURSE: The emperor in his rage will doom her death.

(Shakespeare, 2001, 4.2.111)

Society may have had a different reaction if Saturninus had been culpable of having a secret child, however as Tamora has shown her sexual freedom through her actions, she will be condemned. Her promiscuity marks her as a threat to the male controlled society as it signifies that she will not allow a man, or society to control her. Her control over men is demonstrated repeatedly as she manipulates Saturninus, Aaron and her sons. Her affair with Aaron is a direct attack against the oppression the Romans would attempt to force on her. Tamora’s reaction to her newborn son is a fascinating example of female independence; she realizes the danger that giving birth to a mixed race, bastard child will place her in and she refuses to be caught in this trap. Tamora instead opts to save herself, by sacrificing her child, “The empress sends it thee, thy stamp, thy seal/ And bids thee christen it with thy dagger’s point” (Shakespeare, 2001,4.2.61); while this action seems cruel and heartless it is still a self-governing move. Women were expected to be wives and mothers, and a woman’s child should be her most cherished possession

In Titus Andronicus Shakespeare uses both of the main female’s bodies as physical metaphors for the dominance of males in society. Lavinia’s body is used as an inscriptive site; Titus asks Saturninus “Was it well done of rash Virginius/To slay his own daughter with his own right hand/Because she was enforced, stained and deflowered?” (Shakespeare, 2001, 5.3.25) before carrying out the duty of Roman patriarchy. The laws of men are written upon Lavinia, with her stumps, disfigured mouth and knife wounds. Tamora’s body effectively transforms into a vessel, as when she dies her stomach is filled with her son’s remains, the punishment that Titus finds compulsory for transgressing against the patriarchal law. Whilst Tamora is punished harshly for her transgression, Lavinia also suffers despite fulfilling her role.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, there are two main female characters. Ophelia embodies femininity, as she obeys the patriarchal society that cares for her and flourishes within its strict boundaries. Gertrude juxtaposes Ophelia, as Shakespeare uses the same technique found in Titus Andronicus, whereby he uses Tamora and Lavinia as a binary pair to highlight the effect of patriarchy on both the passive and active. Gertrude is negating to the traditional standard of femininity, her rejection of her gender role eventually leads to the collapse of the patriarchal ordered power structure as well as her own demise.

Ophelia is shown to be willing to comply to the patriarchal society, for example when Polonius instructs her not to see Hamlet anymore, she replies “I shall obey, my lord,” (Shakespeare, 2003, 1.3.139). Gertrude contrasts her attitude and defies the expectations of her role as a woman; she is not admired for her beauty, and most importantly she does not attempt to hide her sexuality. When she marries Claudius, Hamlet accuses her of living in “in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed” (Shakespeare, 2003, 3.5.91). Whilst Gertude may be hurt by these words, she does not deny his accusation. She recognises her identity and does not attempt to lie and conform to what society and Hamlet wants her to be. Gertrude shows more transgression from her feminine role as she rebels against religion by marrying her own brother as this was considered incestuous as Claudius marries his “sometime sister”.

Gertrude is duly punished for her transgressive actions at the end of the play ,as she insists upon drinking poisoned wine despite her husband informing her “do not drink”(Shakespeare, 2003,5.3.122). It is fitting that her final act of defiance leads to her downfall. She falls dead, revealing Claudius’ plan and assuring his death. Her disobedience is responsible for causing the death of the king and the collapse of the patriarchal hierarchy. Because of her powerful political position, Gertrude’s refusal of her prescribed role has grave consequences.

The patriarchal nature of the social order emphasizes and rewards the obedience of women. Butler’s theory can again be applied to Ophelia, as she commits suicide when she loses her father, as he is the source of both order and authority. Her identity ‘dissolves’ when he is gone as his patriarchal views where the ‘concrete’ in her life, and her personality. Gertrude meets her death as she refuses to bow to authority. She transgresses from her role as a woman by rejecting it and openly exuding her sexuality, similarly to both Tamora and Cleopatra, and is punished for her continued disobedience when she accidentally poisoned.

Shakespeare’s punishment of female transgression is a complex subject to surmise. Whilst the three transgressive female characters in the three plays all meet their death, and hence can be considered to be punished by Shakespeare for transgressing their feminine role, it is not that black and white. Cleopatra’s death differs from both Tamora and Gertrude’s death as she retains the power that she exhibits throughout the play, by taking her own life. Whilst Tamora and Gertrude are punished for transgressing their female role, Cleopatra escapes this fate Caesar, and shows respect for the woman who “Took her own way” (Shakespeare, 2001, 5.1.68). This could be construed as Shakespeare implying that women should not be chastised for not conforming to the standard female role, but instead be respected. This creates an intriguing dilemma when reading Hamlet and Titus Andronicus as Tamora and Gertrude death’s are not of their own will, and it can be interpreted is their punishment by society for their overt sexuality and disobedience to the patriarchal order. However both women are joined in death by their polar opposites in Ophelia and Lavinia, two women who complied implicitly with the rules of society, and fulfilled their expected role.

This essay has considered that by applying Butler’s theory, it can be concluded it is because of Tamora and Gertrude’s transgression that women who obey society are harmed when it is brought down by others. This makes the two women culpable for their deaths, and adds another dimension to the debate as these women have been punished, yet they did not transgress from their prescribed role. This leads me to conclude that whilst some critics may laud Shakespeare as the first feminist, his ultimate stance is one of confusion. Whilst Cleopatra is presented as a woman able to embody both male and female attributes, she ultimately dies, even though it is by her own hand. Tamora and Gertrude also meet their death for transgressing their role; hence my conclusion is that Shakespeare displays the punishment of these women to show that their society is not ready to accept a woman like Cleopatra who is shown to be equal to man, as seventeenth century society is still stuck in the same rigid, patriarchal power structure as depicted in ancient Egypt. His presentation of her is undeniably one of admiration, which leads me to conclude that his punishment of women, innocent or guilty of transgression, is a depiction of a society not yet ready for a trasngressive woman, equal to man and that in seventeenth century society “Women who comply with the social order are lost without it; those who defy it can know no other fortune than to be lost within it”( Dollimore, 2003, p211).


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