Last Updated 08 Jan 2023

An Analysis of Gender Roles in the Two Works of William Shakespeare

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The concept of gender is a predominate theme throughout many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. In some of his works, Shakespeare supports the derogatory stereotypes and limited roles that women served in early society. In other plays, he challenges and reinvents those gender roles; something rarely seen and publicized for an audience in the early 1600s. When comparing the components that define these gender roles at the time the plays were written to the much more diversely accepting age of the 21st century, the differences are profound. The presence of courageous, blood-thirsty warriors seems to perfectly capture the true essence of a man, while women represent more subservient virtues such as obedience, chastity, and silence. Defining the distinct characteristics that cultivate masculinity and femininity can be evidently seen throughout many of Shakespeare’s most notable plays, including the timeless works of Coriolanus and Troilus and Cressida. In both the text and film versions of Coriolanus, Volumnia challenges the stereotypical archetype of a woman, as well as a mother. “To a cruel war I sent him, from whence he returned, his brows/ bound with oak. I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child/ than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man.”

In the eyes of Volumnia, Coriolanus truly becomes a man only once she has sent him to face the “cruel war” where he can prove his valor and bravery on the battlefield. Similar to the perspective of the male gender as a whole, she equates the essence of a man exclusively with the violence and brutality of war. This theme is originally emphasized by Volumnia throughout Coriolanus’s childhood, which likely left a perpetual mark on his psychological development. “When yet he was but tender-bodied and the only son of my womb, when youth with comeliness plucked all gaze his way. I, considering how honor would become such a person… let him seek danger where he was like to find fame. To a cruel war I sent him”.

She not only embraces, but applauds herself for sending her only son off to war while he was still young, which in turn sculpted him into one of the deadliest warriors in all of Rome. Her notion of men being defined by their military accomplishments was embedded into the mindset of Coriolanus from his youngest years, and likely contributed to his strong-willed and unyielding sense of character as an adult. Volumnia abandons her role as a nurturing and assisting mother in the beginning acts of the play, while relying on the scars of her son to solidify his stance in society. She no longer fulfills the task of a caretaker, but embodies a driving force that perpetually pushes Coriolanus towards opportunities that will only enhance his masculinity, regardless of the potential risks that he may encounter. Coriolanus blindly follows his mother’s perspective on the significance of warfare relative to masculinity, and solely relies on violence to be the distinguishing factor that separates a man from a boy. His automatic and absolute loyalty to Volumnia’s expectations and influence, with complete disregard towards the anxiousness and concern constantly experienced by his wife, could be due to the absence of a father figure.

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With a natural longing for a dominate male presence throughout his childhood and adolescence, he instinctively clings to any sliver of an assertive, masculine aura; one that is conveniently and significantly embodied by Volumnia. According to the stereotypical gender roles created within this play, men should rely solely on their machismo and masculinity to guide their actions, as they are perceived as the ones who dominate the many realms of society. A man who has earned his name through violence and courage on the battlefield should never depend on the expectations of a woman to construct his next move—the inferior status of women as a whole simply does not warrant such relevance. The fact that Coriolanus values Volumnia’s influence and validation so intently defies the typical relationship between the two genders, as well as introduces a weakness within his character. A sense of vulnerability becomes apparent when analyzing the ultimate power that Volumnia holds over her son, which can be evidently seen in both her commanding dialect, as well as Coriolanus’s recognition and adherence towards her principles. Volumnia: “Away, you fool! It more becomes a man.

Than gilt his trophy. the breasts of Hecuba. When she did suckle Hector, looked not lovlier. Than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood At Grecian sword, contemning.” Volumnia states that violence, bloodshed, and carnage are far more beautiful and pure than a mother nursing her own child. “Volumnia thrills with pride when she learns that her son has been victorious against the Volsces and has singlehandedly taken the city of Corioli. But she delights even more in the news of her son’s wounds and conceives of them as stepping stones to further public glory.” These radical viewpoints once again align with the childhood that she gave Coriolanus, or lack thereof. This excerpt speaks volumes towards the mental and psychological state of Volumnia, and could even allude to the notion that she withheld basic means of nurture, even nursing, during Coriolanus’s childhood. Volumnia is the main driving force behind her son’s many achievements, and constantly pushes him to attain perfection. Although her reinforcement is relentless and inspiring, she sometimes blurs the lines between inclination and personal accreditation. She says to Coriolanus, “Thy valiantness was mine, thou suck’st it from me”.

As a woman living in a man’s world, she is constantly surrounded by the prevalence of war and combat, with no opportunity to participate simply due to her gender. War is seen as far too dangerous, hazardous, and unpredictable for a fragile woman to engage in, and should ultimately be left to the men to address. With the value of one’s status and prestige being completely reliant on their involvement in these violent acts, Volumnia has no realistic opportunity to earn her societal status through a victorious combat, and is forced to remain socially stagnant along with the other women. Her relentless ambition for warfare, politics, and leadership unfortunately cannot be used to benefit her in any way, which leads to the conveyance of these bold traits onto her only son. She lives vicariously through Coriolanus’s achievements due to the restraints that accompany her gender, which can be clearly reflected in her incessant drive to transform a valorous Roman soldier into an affluent politician, despite Coriolanus’s lack of intrigue towards the position. Valeria states, “ my word, the father’s son! I’ll swear tis a very pretty boy. My troth, I looked upon him Wednesday half an hour together. H’as such confirmed countenance. I saw him run after a gilded butterfly, and when he caught it, he let it go again, and after it again, and over and over he comes, and up again, catched it again. Or whether his/ fall enraged him or how ‘twas, he did so set his/ teeth and tear it. I warrant how he mammocked it! Volumnia: One on’s father’s moods. Valeria: Indeed, la, tis a noble child.”

In this excerpt, Valeria introduces another layer to the perceived image of masculinity, aside from the reliance on brutality within the battlefield. Masculinity can also be associated with something as insignificant as a state of vexation, impatience, or small everyday acts of violence. The act of young Martius becoming “enraged” and crushing a delicate butterfly between his teeth is not only encouraged, but praised with the title of “a noble child.” From a young age, these small yet violent acts are considered to be conventional and commended, and only progress with time and severity to form a man that embodies the ideal essence of masculinity. A contrast to the presence of strong women that defy quintessential feminine stereotypes is Virgilia. Evidently seen in both the original text and the film by Ralph Fiennes, Virgilia places the safety and well being of her husband above all else, and never equates his masculinity to his victories or triumphs on the battlefield. Unlike Volumnia, Virgilia detests seeing Coriolanus leave for war, but never vocally expresses her disapproval due to her mother-in-law’s overwhelming authority within the family. Valeria: “You would be another Penelope. Yet they say all the yarn she spun in Ulysses’ absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths.”

Valeria mocks the mental anguish and stress experienced by Virgilia during Coriolanus’s absence by referencing the iconic literary character Penelope, wife of the daring, adventurous, and audacious Odysseus. While patiently awaiting the arrival of her husband, Penelope pretends to spin yarn to pass the time while Odysseus is out enjoying an exhilarating adventure. Penelope and Virgilia feel lost and subdued without the presence of their husbands, for they both represent the perfect example of a subservient housewife, and they both live to solely benefit their partners. Similar to Penelope, Virgilia is confined within the borders of her home and procrastinates with a tedious hobby to distract herself from the unbearable distress caused by Coriolanus’s absence. Valeria, an assertive woman who perceives men in the same fashion as Volumnia, sees Virgilia’s worrying as pathetic, pitiful, and as an interference towards the righteous duties of her husband. The women in Coriolanus present two juxtaposing archetypes; they either embody the aggressive, outspoken, direct nature of Volumnia, or act as the silent, obedient, ideal house wife represented by Virgilia. During the time that this play was originally written and performed, a woman who is chaste and obedient towards her husband would have been seen as the typical representation of femininity, while any female who deviates with vigor and force is seen as defiant and extremely rare. These stereotypes have vastly progressed with time, and are almost elusive when placing them within the 21st century. Although Coriolanus offers two polarizing representations of women, there seems to be only one socially acceptable archetype of a man; one that is sculpted with savagery and bloodshed, both in and out of combat.

“When Coriolanus returns from the wars “man entered,” it is because his once blank body now bears on and about it perceptible marks of masculinity: oaken garlands, noble titles, fresh wounds, unfeeling scars. Ostensibly, these superficial inscriptions are only tokens, externally representing a reality within, but the determinative value they acquire over the course of the play indicate that they are more than just symbols of manhood. They might be the thing itself.” In the film version of Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes did an outstanding job of embodying these gender roles, specifically through the physical portrayal of his actors. Set in a modern rendition of a crumbling Rome, Fiennes perfectly captured the twisted expectations of masculinity and femininity. Opening with Aufidius aggressively sharpening a knife on a wet stone, the mere sound of the metal sliding with forceful rage as he intently focuses on an image of Coriolanus creates an unmistakable tone of violence, power, and vengeance. The actresses that played Virgilia and Volumnia flawlessly personified their juxtaposing attitudes, mannerisms, and characteristics. Vanessa Redgrave, who played Volumnia, utilized an unwavering and relentless wave of authority with her monotonous speaking, limited movements, and obstinate actions. Jessica Chastain, who played Virgilia, acted in a much more frantic, emotionally driven fashion throughout the film, especially when in the presence of her husband.

Coriolanus, played by Fiennes himself, and Aufidius, performed by Gerard Butler, both embody the picturesque image of masculinity—both are valiant, decorated warriors in impeccable shape, with a thirst for bloodshed and vanquish. While watching these actors interact and perform, it truly brought to life not only the original text of the play, but also the conflicting gender roles originally intended by Shakespeare. Another play that I found to reinforce, challenge, and reinvent the concept of gender is Troilus and Cressida. Similar to Coriolanus, both the men and women in this play are expected to act in mannerisms that align with the stereotypical nature of the two genders; men should revel in their successes within combat, politics, and power, while women should remain subservient and effeminate towards their partners. Although the gender roles constructed within this play have seemingly limited room for public deviation, many characters seem to drift from these strict roles within the confines of their own personas. “If there be one among the fair’st of Greece That holds his honour higher than his ease, That seeks his praise more than he fears his peril, That knows his valour, and knows not his fear, That loves his mistress more than in confession, With truant vows to her own lips he loves, And dare avow her beauty and her worth In other arms than hers, to him this challenge. Hector, in view of Trojans and of Greeks, Shall make it good, or do his best to do it,/ He hath a lady, wiser, farier, truer, Than ever Greek did compass in his arms, And will to-morrow with his trumpet call/ Midway between your tents and walls of Troy, To rouse a Grecian that is true in love.”

In this excerpt, Hector initiates a virile, rugged, testosterone-fueled brawl with a Greek soldier, and asserts that the victor’s prize is simply the privilege of claiming that his woman is superior. This directly challenges the perceived reason for combat within Shakespearian plays; to prove one’s power and masculinity, supposedly with no incorporation or influence from the female gender whatsoever. This poses the question of Hector’s subconscious motives when we remove the enticement of establishing personal masculinity through brutality, and replace it with an emphasis on the seemingly irrelevant female gender. His actions and suggestions completely contradict the expected male conduct that revolves around and revels in violence, and implies a possible outlet that socially masks his underlying intrigue towards homosexuality and homosociality. “ Whereas in the modern context nonpublic but non-dangerous sexual relationships might simply be located in a private sphere characterized by intimacy, Shakespeare presents sexuality as a category of unique public relationships that are neither social nor antisocial, but which proceed at a tangent to normal social conventions, including homosocial ties.”

“The great Achilles, whom opinion crowns The sinew and the forehead of our host, Having his ear full of his airy fame, Grows dainty of his worth, and in his tent Lies mocking our designs. With him Patroclus Upon a lazy bed the livelong day.” Throughout Troilus and Cressida, there is a constant pressure on the male gender to engage in battle whenever and wherever possible. “The great Achilles,” an icon of exceptional strength and force, is criticized by Ulysses for not fulfilling the typical representation of a man when he refuses to rise to action for the Trojan war. Ulysses claims that he “grows dainty of his worth” when the powerful soldier chooses to be with his lover, rather than fight on the battlefield, which ultimately leads to the degradation of his character as a whole. Gary Spear, author of Shakespeare’s “Manly” Parts: Masculinity and Effeminacy in Troilus and Cressida states, “The play repeatedly challenges our notions of masculinity and draws attention to the effeminacy and emasculation of nearly every male figure.” The presence of an overpowering patriarchy accompanies the standard gender roles associated with masculinity. Shakespeare repeatedly references the concept of using and selling women as commodities, rather than referring to them as individuals with social and civil rights. In the Greek Camp, Cressida’s father, Calchas, asks the Greek General, Agamemnon, to exchange Antenor for Cressida so that he may be reunited with his daughter. Calchas explains that the Greeks “shall buy my daughter; and her presence/ Shall quite strike of all service I have done/ In most accepted pain”. The Trojans take Cressida from her husband to return her to her father, but in its bare essence, this exchange simply represents business and satisfying the desires of men at the expense of the degradation of women.

The gender roles and themes incorporated within this dialogue and transaction are represented by the concept of marriage as well. Once Cressida is in the presence of the Greeks, Troilus vulnerably professes his undying love for her, although he is unable to regain her love and devotion. Earlier in the play, Shakespeare alluded to the notion of marriage between a man and a woman as purely being a representation of contractual ownership. Hector asks, “Nature craves All dues be rendered to their owner. Now, What nearer debt in all humanity Than wife is to the husband?” Not only is love and affection completely detached from the sacredness of marriage, but a level of infatuation that is so deeply rooted and vivid is seen as a threat to the law of marriage. “this law Of nature be corrupted through affection”. Love is seen as being too delicate and frail when placing it within the ventures of men—the ultimate law of nature. Shakespeare is undoubtedly one of the most influential writers in history, and has set a permeant precedent for all writers that follow him. Coriolanus and Troilus and Cressida are two of his most prominent plays that not only represent the brilliance behind his work, but also deconstruct the concept of sexuality and gender within Elizabethan society to its barest form; one that is malleable, impressionable, and can in fact be broken.

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