Issues relating to gender in Shakespeare's dramas have inspired critical interest for centuries, but in the late twentieth century gender has become of tantamount importance to many Shakespearean scholars. Modern commentary has focused on a variety of issues related to gender, including relations and conflicts between the sexes, the concept of what it means to be masculine or feminine, and the ambiguous ground where differentiation between the sexes blurs. Additionally, many critics have taken an interest in the historical component of gender on the Elizabethan stage, noting, for instance, the fact that female roles were originally performed by young boys. Also, scholars have explored Shakespeare's ideas about gender identity as they evolved over time in the different dramatic genres he produced, from the early comedies to the histories and later tragedies and romances. Taken as a whole, these studies portray the dramatist's highly complex and varied approach to the question of gender as an evolving personal, social, and cultural phenomenon.
Critics note that the nature of gender identity in Shakespeare's plays is generally portrayed from the perspective of the male, and, as a result, women are almost invariably seen as archetypal figures. Paula S. Berggren (1980) has explored Shakespeare's mythic and supernatural approach to women and finds that they are often viewed as having innate energies of rebirth and renewal—energies which the men do not possess. Femininity is further explored by Linda Bamber (1982), who has noted how frequently women are defined only in their relation to the actions or perceptions of men. Female roles, she observes, are notably downplayed in the histories, which generally deal with masculine power struggles. In the comedies Bamber contends that women are largely static creatures characterized by their avoidance of decision-making. In contrast, men in Shakespeare's plays tend to take a more proactive stance toward their fates. Coppélla Kahn (1981) observed, however, that this attitude can produce negative results, as in the cases of Macbeth and Coriolanus. Both use violent means, at the bidding of influential female figures—Lady Macbeth and Coriolanus's mother, respectively—to prove their manhood, but only succeed in bringing about their own destruction.
Shakespeare's exploration of androgyny is also of interest to many critics. The intersection of the male and the female appears most frequently in his romances, and it is in these works that commentators find some of the dramatist's strongest heroines—who often make their mark while disguised as men or boys. This device of a woman assuming the guise of a man has interested many feminist writers, such as Juliet Dusinberre (1975), who argued that it allows Shakespeare the means to present the strengths and weaknesses of his feminine characters more fully, as well as an opportunity for the critique of gendered social mores. Jean E. Howard (1988), in contrast, viewed the process of gender inversion through disguise as potentially radical, but ultimately unable to effect social change. She argues that though female characters such as Rosalind and Viola assume a masculine gender for a time, they eventually return to their proper positions in society as (married) women.
Still other critics see Shakespeare's attitude toward gender as a function of genre that changes from the comedies and histories to the tragedies and romances. Barbara J. Bono (1986) has focused on Shakespeare's As You Like It and finds an intertwined masculine and feminine discourse; the latter she describes as "doublevoiced"—that is, simultaneously adopting and deriding the conventions of the male-dominated culture. Carol Thomas Neely (1985) looked at Antony and Cleopatra as a special case among Shakespeare's plays which, with its relationship to the comedies, tragedies and tragicomedies, offers new considerations on gender. The genre of the tragicomedy is of particular interest to Helen Wilcox. Unlike many critics before her, Wilcox (1994) viewed the tragicomedy as not exclusively malefocused, but equally concerned with rendering the nature of its feminine characters.
Overviews: Gender In Shakespeare's Plays
Paula S. Berggren (essay date 1980)
SOURCE: "The Women's Part: Female Sexuality as Power in Shakespeare's Plays," in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, University of Illinois Press, 1980, pp. 17-34.
[In the following essay, Berggren surveys the woman 's role in Shakespeare's plays as an archetypal figure of innate power that elicits both fear and adoration in men. ]
Despite all the ink spilled on inventing fanciful histories for Falstaff with Mowbray, Hamlet at Wittenberg, and the like, it is Shakespeare's women, rather than his men, who have most consistently moved his readers to a peculiarly cloying, gossipy condescension. No one, after all, has written a book on the boyhood of Shakespeare's heroes, complete with illustrations, nor have critics ritually agonized over who deserves to be hailed as the manliest of Shakespeare's men. Even worse, the contagion spreads from contemplation of his female characters to fatuous musings on their creator himself: we are invited to ponder not only Rosalind's happy hours in her forest of Arden, but Shakespeare's in his. A positively unwholesome curiosity about the author's erotic predilections springs naturally, it would appear, from a study of his women: we read of his "feminine" imagination, his bisexual tastes, his relations with his mother, his...
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Linda Bamber (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "The Comic Heroine and the Avoidance of Choice," in Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare, Stanford University Press, 1982, pp. 109-34.
[In the following essay, Bamber studies the role of the feminine "other" in Shakespeare's comedies as a figure that avoids change, development, and decisionmaking. ]
In Shakespeare's comedies, and only in the comedies, we see the feminine Other face to face. In the tragedies we respond to the women characters very largely on the basis of our interest in the hero; our vision of the feminine is mediated by our desires on behalf of the men. Our strongest feelings for Cordelia, for instance, come when we see her feelings for Lear; Cleopatra, for another instance, is never quite free from our hopes of her on Antony's behalf. In the histories we see the feminine primarily in relation to the masculine struggle for power. In the romances the loss and recovery of the feminine is experienced through our sympathy with the male Self who has lost and found his feminine Other. Miranda and Marina are most moving as figures that may be lost to Prospero and Pericles; Hermione is most important as a figure who may be lost and found by Leontes. But our response to the comic heroine is direct and unmediated by her father, lover, or husband. We do not judge Rosalind by her loyalty to Duke...
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Coppélla Kahn (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "The Milking Babe and the Bloody Man in Coriolanus and Macbeth" in Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare, University of California Press, 1981, pp. 151-92.
[In the following essay, Kahn examines the false attempts of Macbeth and Coriolanus to become men through violent action.]
Bring forth men-children only!
A paradox of sexual confusion lies at the heart of these two plays. Their virile warrior-heroes, supreme in valor, are at the same time unfinished men—boys, in a sense, who fight or murder because they have been convinced by women that only through violence will they achieve manhood. Their manhood, displayed in the uncompromisingly masculine form of bloodshed, is not their own, not self-determined nor self-validated, but infused into them by women who themselves are half men. These women, seeking to transform themselves into men through the power they have to mold men (the only power their cultures allow them), root out of themselves and out of their men those human qualities—tenderness, pity, sympathy, vulnerability to feeling—that their cultures have tended to associate with women. In the intensity of their striving to deny their own womanliness so as to achieve transcendence through men, they create monsters: men like beasts or things, insatiable...
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Androgyny: Crossdressing And Disguise
Juliet Dusinberre (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: "Androgyny: Crossdressing and Disguise," in Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, 2nd Edition, Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996, pp. 231-71.
[In the following excerpt originally published in 1975, Dusinberre discusses Shakespeare's use of women in male disguise as a means to more fully explore the nature of femininity. ]
The boy actor had a special affinity with those women who offended Elizabethan and Jacobean society by wearing men's clothes. Condemned by opponents of the stage for dressing as a woman, he was often also guilty of disguising that woman as a man. Viola's melancholy reflection when she sees Olivia's ring fell on well-tuned ears:
My master loves her dearly
And I (poor monster!) fond as much on him.1
Viola was a monster on two counts: a man acting a woman and a woman in breeches. The woman in theatrical disguise aroused the same fear in moralists as the masculine woman in breeches. When Greene's Dorothea in James IV asks her dwarf whether she looks like a man in her disguise as squire, he retorts: 'If not a man, yet like a manly shrew.'2 Trousers on a woman, whether on the stage or off it, spelled insubordination. . . .
The masculine woman and the woman in disguise are both disruptive...
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Gender And Genre
Carol Thomas Neely (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "Gender and Genre in Antony and Cleopatra" in Broken Nuptials In Shakespeare's Plays, University of Illinois Press, 1994, pp. 136-65.
[In the following essay originally published in 1985, Neely argues that in Antony and Cleopatra "genre boundaries are . . . enlarged" to include "motifs, themes, and characterization "from Shakespeare's comedies, tragicomedies, and tragedies. Likewise, she contends that "gender distinctions . . . are expanded, magnified, and ratified" in this work as in no other Shakespearean play.]
Here I am Antony
Yet cannot hold this visible shape.
No more but e'en a woman . . .
It is shaped, sir, like itself.
Critics have long found Antony and Cleopatra a peculiar play whose genre is problematic. It has been viewed as an anomaly among the tragedies, a Roman play, a problem play, a precursor of the romances, and, most commonly, a blend of comedy and tragedy.1 Recently, psychoanalytic and feminist critics have likewise found in the play the dissolution of gender boundaries, a dissolution variously interpreted—as a regression to infantile modes of awareness in which self and other are undifferentiated; as a transcendence of gender oppositions allowing for interpenetration and metamorphosis;...
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Brown, Steve. "The Boyhood of Shakespeare's Heroines: Notes on Gender Ambiguity in the Sixteenth Century." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 30, No. 2 (Spring 1990): 243-63. Discusses Elizabethan notions of male sexuality and homosexuality.
Fiedler, Leslie A. "The Woman as Stranger: or 'None but women left...'." In The Stranger in Shakespeare, pp. 43-81. New York: Stein and Day, 1972.
Surveys Shakespeare's use of women as types or fictional "others"—foreigners, whores, and witches.
Jardine, Lisa. "'As boys and women are for the most part cattle of this colour': Female Roles and Elizabethan Eroticism." In Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, pp. 9-36. Brighton, Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1983.
Examines the eroticism and homoeroticism elicited by Shakespeare's transvestite heroines.
Maguire, Laurie E. "'Household Kates': Chez Petruchio, Percy and Plantagenet." In Gloriana's Face: Women, Public and Private, in the English Renaissance, edited by S. P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies, pp. 129-65. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992.
Suggests Shakespeare "takes a middle-of-the-road position in negotiating the tension between feminism and chauvinsim."
Orgel, Stephen. Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England. Cambridge:...
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