"Shakespeare's Feisty Women Challenging Gender Roles in English"
1 Shakespeare’s Feisty Women: Challenging Gender Roles in English Society The age of Shakespeare was characterized by an overwhelming tendency for women to be looked down upon as the inferior gender. Women of the time were expected to be submissive, dutiful, obedient, and predominantly silent. The idea of an independent, out-spoken woman would have challenged all of the societal values of the time. Shakespeare, however, challenged the traditional patriarchal values of his time by introducing powerful and highly influential female characters in some of his most memorable plays. Lady Macbeth and her earlier counterpart, Volumnia, both serve pivotal roles as dominant and commanding mother figures and also challenge the traditional role of the dutiful wife. Both of these independent, strong-willed women are far ahead of the times in their approach to marital, maternal, and societal involvement. Shakespeare successfully portrays his women in a new light, very different from the perspective with which women were viewed at the time. Both women challenge traditional patriarchal values of English society and establish the female character as a significant and heroic figure among Shakespeare’s prominent male figures. Lady Macbeth, perhaps the most famous of these spirited women, is a particularly prominent character in Shakespeare’s tragic Scottish play, Macbeth. Her decisive and determined mentality serves as the driving force in Macbeth’s journey toward tragedy. It cannot be mistaken that Macbeth’s own desire for greatness is motivated in large part due to his wife’s passionate influence. Lady Macbeth appears to be the dominant partner in the twisted and power driven relationship between herself and Macbeth. She demonstrates her great concern with her husband’s weak countenance saying, “Yet do I fear thy nature; / It is too full o’th’milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way” (Macbeth 1.5. 16-18). Lady Macbeth recognizes that her husband’s impressionable nature leaves him vulnerable. His inability to withstand the pressures 2 of his conscience presents Lady Macbeth with the difficult and irritating task of convincing him to perform the actions which could provide him with lasting success. In her own mind, there is no question as to the necessity of carrying out such actions; the only difficulty lies in emboldening her hesitant spouse. Her own husband recognizes her overwhelming intensity as being more attributable to males saying, “Bring forth men-children only! / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males” (Macbeth 1.7. 73-75). In this instance, Macbeth is facing the realization of his wife’s strength as well as his own weakness. Lady Macbeth is effectively challenging his manhood by employing traditional male attributes better than he. Macbeth realizes that his wife’s nature is undesirable in terms of societal expectations for a female. The traits which his rambunctious wife possesses are, in reality, suitable only for males. As William Hazlitt suggests, “…obdurate strength of will and masculine firmness give her the ascendancy over her husband’s faltering virtue” (Hazlitt 14). Whereas Macbeth appears to be the more impressionable character who is easily swayed, Lady Macbeth is portrayed with the traits of a more traditional male character. She recognizes her own strength and power over her husband and uses this knowledge in order to manipulate Macbeth in hopes of attaining greatness for them both. The intensity with which Lady Macbeth pursues her goal and her determination in persuading her husband would have been atypical of women in English society during the mid to late sixteenth century. Her characteristics seem to cross the gender barrier and, therefore, present her as being almost inhuman. As she calls forth evil spirits to assist her in her pursuit, one cannot help but think that she has not only crossed the gender barrier, but transcended into the realm of the unnatural. 3 Come, you spirits That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood; Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse, That no compunctious visitings of nature Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between Th’ effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers, Wherever in your sightless substances You wait on nature’s mischief! (Macbeth 1.5. 40-50) It would have been difficult for audiences of the time to imagine a woman who could be so cold, calculating, and, in terms of her female characteristics, inhuman. Lady Macbeth is surrendering all of the characteristics which distinguish her as a female and, subsequently, make her feel weak. The difficulty presented to the audience, however, is the idea of a woman who could embody such masculine traits. In this instance, Lady Macbeth becomes a sort of supernatural being—a woman who has challenged gender roles to such an extreme that it becomes unclear as to her own gender. Lady Macbeth continues to defy the traditionally prescribed female roles by demonstrating her own motherly character. The horror with which the audience reacts to her description of killing her own infant illustrates the major conflict of her own attitudes with traditional maternal roles. The idea of a woman who is willing to murder her own innocent child challenges all notions of maternal instinct and female compassion. I have given suck, and know How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me; I would, while it was smiling in my face, Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums And dashed the brains out, had I sworn as you Have done to this. (Macbeth 1.7. 55-60) This portrayal of Lady Macbeth further suggests the idea of inhumanity by placing her outside of the traditionally female realm. In this case, the audience has a greater tendency to group Lady 4 Macbeth with the witches rather than viewing her as a woman who lacks feminine qualities. She has effectively become an incomprehensible being who cannot possibly be viewed in terms of the traditional female. Shakespeare has successfully created a female character who is independent, passionate, and highly influential. The difficulty with which audiences view her lies with the imposed gender roles and the expectations of a female character. Shakespeare has not only suggested that such a woman could possibly exist, he has created her. In Shakespeare’s time, a husband such as Macbeth, who allowed his wife to “scold” him, was looked down upon and even laughed at (Fletcher 118). A husband’s role in the household was to “treat their wives as a ‘yokefellow and companion’ and yet at the same time to rule them” (Fletcher 113). Clearly, Macbeth would not be an acceptable example of such a husband. Lady Macbeth, instead, takes on the role of head- of-household as she directs her husband toward a “path of greatness.” She cannot, however, be viewed simply as a domineering, insane wife who rules her husband by force. Her own rational response to Macbeth’s removal of the daggers from the King’s chamber suggests her sanity and level-headedness. Lady Macbeth, in this instance, has transcended the gender roles of the time period in order to establish herself as equal to, if not superior to, her male counterparts. She has become the female version of a man seeking greatness. Her fiercely independent nature allows her to make rational decisions concerning her future and the future of her husband. Shakespeare has created a violent, yet admirable female role model through the portrayal of Lady Macbeth. Although she may be willing to murder her own child, she is also able to realize the necessity of brutal acts such as this in order to accomplish what is best for her family. 5 Volumnia, in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, takes on a similarly disturbing motherly role as she describes her desire to see her son attain great honor, although his life may be at peril in pursuit of this honor. The contrasting portrayal of Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother, with Virgilia, Coriolanus’ wife, allows the reader to gain a better understanding of the type of motherly figure Shakespeare was attempting to create. Virgilia is presented as the more dutiful, submissive, frail wife who cannot bear to see her husband wounded, whereas Volumnia not only wishes to see her son wounded but “thank[s] the gods on’t” (Coriolanus 2.1. 120). VOLUMNIA. Methinks I hear hither your husband’s drum, See him pluck Aufidius down by th’ hair; As children from a bear, the Volsces shunning him. Methinks I see him stamp thus, and call thus: “Come on, you cowards! You were got in fear, Though you were born in Rome.” His bloody brow With his mailed hand then wiping, forth he goes Like to a harvestman that’s tasked to mow Or all or lose his hire. VIRGILIA. His bloody brow? O Jupiter, no blood! VOLUMNIA. Away, you fool! It more becomes a man Than gilt his trophy. The breasts of Hecuba, When she did suckle Hector, looked not lovelier Than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood At Grecian sword, contemning. (Coriolanus 1.3. 30-44) It is evident that, just as Volumnia takes pride in being Coriolanus’ mother, she takes pride in his actions as well. Since Volumnia is a woman herself, it seems unlikely that she could gain fame and glory through her own actions. Instead, she relies on her son’s valorous battle victories in order to establish her own honorable position in society as the mother of a great military leader. This character trait, in which a woman is relying on the men in her life in order to secure her own position, is directly in line with gender expectations of the time. The difficulty with which the audience views Volumnia’s attempt at greatness, however, lies in the complete 6 reversal of motherly conduct. The manner in which Volumnia attempts to achieve her own greatness through the military prowess of her son is evident as she explains: when for a day of kings’ entreaties a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding, I, con- sidering how honor would become such a person— that it was no better than picturelike to hang by the wall, if renown made it not stir—was pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame. 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. (Coriolanus 1.3. 8-17) In this instance, the audience is presented with the prospect of a mother who would rather see her son in great danger, in hopes of bringing him honor, than care and nurture for her child. She explains how she has not even given her son the chance to grow and feel the pangs of motherly affection; instead, she has sent him off to war and takes pride in his battle wounds. The apparent lack of motherly instinct carries more weight with the audience than does the idea of a mother who wishes to see her son achieve greatness, simply because of the challenge presented toward traditionally held gender expectations. Volumnia’s strange desires seem strikingly familiar in comparison to the character of Lady Macbeth. In the case of Lady Macbeth, however, the dutiful son becomes Macbeth himself. In both cases, the dominant female characters of Volumnia and Lady Macbeth are driven toward a path of violence in hopes of achieving greatness for their “sons.” Janet Adelman suggests that, “the hero’s stunted growth [is] directly related to the monstrous nurturance of his mother, who values nothing but Roman military victory and its accompanying violence, whether or not that violence will destroy her son” (Rose 21). The difficulty in viewing Volumnia simply as an overbearing mother living through her son to the point of endangerment, lies in the complicated character of Volumnia herself. Shakespeare has 7 again created a highly independent female who is not afraid to do what she deems necessary in order to protect her family. Volumnia’s apparent disinterest in the possibility of her son being in grave danger has only to do with her ability to accept the hazards of her job as mother. This dispassionate and unemotional response suggests more manly qualities than a female who would have been expected to shelter and nurture her child. Volumnia, unlike Virgilia, cannot accept a menial place as a mother who only provides for her child’s care at home; she wishes to build a great leader and, therefore, provide for her own honor and glory. The challenging of gender roles that takes place with the character of Volumnia presents the audience with the difficult task of determining how to view Volumnia’s unique motherly character. As in the case with Lady Macbeth, since many of the qualities which Volumnia possesses would more likely be attributed to a male character, the instinct of other characters in the play, as well as the audience, is simply to label her mad (Jardine 119). Shakespeare effectively demonstrates, however, that Volumnia is not mad and instead provides her with eloquent speeches that help to bring the plot to its final conclusion. If I cannot persuade thee Rather to show a noble grace to both parts Than seek the end of one, though shalt no sooner March to assault thy country than to tread— Trust to’t, thou shalt not—on thy mother’s womb That brought thee to this world. (Coriolanus 5.3. 120-125) Without the eloquent speech given by Volumnia at the end of the play in hopes of convincing her son of the rightful action, the play would not have been as tragic as expected. Coriolanus recognizes his mother’s superiority of character and decides to give up his attack on Rome although this decision entails his own destruction. Volumnia, in this instance, has become a truly admirable motherly figure. She has not only raised her son in such a way as to establish him as a prominent member of Roman society, but she has also taught him magnanimity and 8 loyalty to his mother. Although it may be difficult for audiences to perceive such a mother who could endanger her own son on many occasions in order to do what she deems best, Volumnia no doubt has her son and her family’s best interests at heart. She is in pursuit of greatness and will not yield to societal expectations in order to achieve her goal. At this time in England, women were looked down upon as the sex who could be manipulated and impressionable and therefore required strong men in order to protect them and their chastity. The role of the wife entailed a great deal of responsibility including rearing the children, keeping the house in order and, above all, maintaining their inferior status. The patriarchal order of society made it clear that the man was the leader of the house and the woman was only meant to be supportive, submissive, and attentive to the needs of the men in her life. Lady Macbeth and Volumnia challenged these traditionally prescribed values and were chided for their controversial take on motherhood and femininity. As Mary Prior explains, “The woman heading her own household contradicted the patriarchal theory; the ungoverned woman was a threat to the social order” (Prior 55). An independent, outspoken, and determined woman was simply unheard of and completely unnatural. Society was unwilling to accept such “unnatural” females whose behaviors contradicted all that was deemed acceptable. Both of these female characters play extremely pivotal roles in the development of their respective plots. Although women may have had a lesser role in English society, Shakespeare places his female characters at the center of the action, making them equally important, if not more important than their male counterparts. These women, especially, allow the audience to view gender roles and gender restrictions imposed by society in a new light. Perhaps women are not as frail, dim-witted, and incapable as once thought. Shakespeare seems to lead us to the idea of women holding significant yet distinctive roles in society. He has effectively created strong, 9 independent women who do not accept traditionally prescribed gender roles, but instead speak what they will, when they will, and do what they deem best. Through their distinctive actions, each of these women presents alternatives to the traditional patriarchal values of the time period as they establish themselves as thinking, feeling, and essential members of society.