William Shakespeare Gender Identity - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Gender Identity

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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 wife, his daughter, his mistress.1

In the wake of these deplorable critical fallacies, it takes some temerity to reopen the question of Shakespeare's characterization of women. Yet in the past few years a number of scholars have returned from the blameless consideration of rhetorical and structural elements in Shakespeare's dramatic poetry to a newly sophisticated investigation of his dramatic characters. While the time has happily passed when such a study must wallow in an evocation of the "real lives" of what J. Leeds Barroll has called "artificial persons," microscopic examinations of individual personalities may still profitably be undertaken.2 It is not my purpose to do so, however, but, risking some broad generalizations, I propose to take a synoptic view of feminine character development through Shakespeare's plays, arguing that underlying his detailed, idiosyncratic portraits of women is one constant that unites them all: the central element in Shakespeare's treatment of women is always their sex, not as a focus for cultural observation or social criticism (though these may be discerned),3 but primarily as a mythic source of power, an archetypal symbol that arouses both love and loathing in the male.

To begin, certain facts seem clear: although Shakespeare's women "live" on stage as the women of his immediate predecessors do not, they never achieve the grand and tragic dominion of the seventeenth century's heroines, French as well as English. In Shakespearean comedy, it is true, the heroine dominates; in Shakespearean tragedy, she most emphatically does not. Moreover, the women in tragedy seem to split into two basic types: victims or monsters, "good" or "evil." While Shakespeare drew on conventional sources for almost all of his characters, male and female, we need a fuller range of categories to group the men adequately: not just heroes and villains, but warriors, princes, courtiers; Machiavels and Vices; braggart soldiers, clowns, fools. Despite the fertility of local, imaginative touches that beggar our attempts to delimit, we can nevertheless perceive a fundamental distinction along sexual lines. The women in Shakespeare remain the Other; there are fewer of them, certainly, and they seem more regularly than the fuller array of male characters to bear heavy symbolic burdens. Furthermore, I would suggest, they become more or less crucial to the dramatic proceedings by virtue of the one act of which women alone are capable. The comic world requires childbearers to perpetuate the race, to ensure community and continuity; the tragic world, which abhors such reassurance, consequently shrinks from a female protagonist.4 Such women as exist in tragedy must make their mark by rejecting their womanliness, by sublime sacrifice, or as midwives to the passion of the hero. We wonder how many children Lady Macbeth had only because she has dismissed them as an irrelevance in her life. The curse of the tragic world is to be barren; the salvation of the comic is fecundity.

It is a paradox, therefore, that the romantic heroines so frequently disguise themselves as boys, thus denying the procreative function that makes them undisputed rulers of their terrain; but like all paradoxes, upon examination this one reveals more than it obscures. At first glance, the male disguise acknowledges the shortcomings of the female: in virtually every instance in Shakespeare, the heroine changes clothes because she needs to present herself in circumstances where a woman would be rebuffed or, more typically, subjected to injury. Traditional female fashions are designed to hamper movement as traditional female roles hamper mobility; only an exceptionally gifted woman will dare cross the boundaries defined by both fashion and role. The disregard for these limitations underscored by the change in costume might suggest a radical criticism of society, but while the wearing of pants allows expression of a talent otherwise dampened by convention, it does not, in Shakespeare, lead to a direct challenge of the masculine order. Portia does not take the bar exam and Viola does not organize a search party; they are content to reassume their womanly duties (but we must ask neither how their husbands coped with them nor how many children they had).5

Yet it would be foolish to see the male disguise merely as an indication of the female's infirmity; clearly derived from the romance tradition, the assumption of masculine garb creates no lady knights in Shakespeare's scheme of things, but rather celebrates a flexibility and responsiveness that few men, in comedy or tragedy, can match.6 Shakespeare's boy-heroines move effortlessly through their impersonations, despite—and because of—the encumbrance imposed by an actual change of costume. The disguises taken up by Shakespeare's men, on the other hand, are more often psychic than physical, demanding relentless concentration if they are to be sustained. The heroine, who can rely on her outfit to shroud her true identity, dresses up with amused nonchalance, innocent of the calculation typical of the master-disguiser, the Machiavel. Disguise remains incidental, though useful, for Shakespeare's women; for his men, it is the very core of experience.

So extensive a topic as disguise in Shakespeare cannot, of course, be adequately dealt with simply as a sex-linked phenomenon, yet I think one can see easily enough that the woman's disguise alters her far less than that undertaken, for very different reasons, by either the plotting villain or the alienated hero. Richard of Gloucester sets the pattern of the Shakespearean villain's reliance on disguise. Like the chameleon, like Proteus, he cannot exist without it: when he is finally stripped of disguise, the Machiavel has no form and disintegrates, deflated, silenced, insubstantial. The tragic hero, who rarely initiates his "disguise," must yet endure the profoundest crisis on its account. At once self-revelation and self-betrayal, his false identity goes deeper than the consciously contrived dissimulations of the heroine or the villain, yet the full achievement of tragic stature depends on his return to the original heroic self, leaving the audience to wonder whether the insight gained through the tragic disguise continues to inform the mind restored to greatness.7 Only the heroine seems to emerge from disguise enriched, however momentary our final view of her as woman once again may be.

The aimless and impromptu nature of the heroine's transformation confirms her identity instead of shattering it. Bent on neither devious manipulation of others nor frenzied interrogation of self, she simply activates the masculine resources within the normal feminine personality without negating her essential femininity. Thus she manages to absorb and retain what she has learned about being another sort of creature, for the female self in Shakespeare's plays rests on a foundation of purposes understood and accepted, a feature I would attribute to the sexual nature that gives her both roots and limits. The heroines are personally vulnerable, as are any of the non-villains who take up disguises, but they have a kind of faith—in time, in themselves, in biology—that anchors them, making the existential plunge into the self a short one. Where the tragic hero discovers quicksand, the comic heroine finds solid rock instead.

In the painful pursuit of self, Shakespeare's heroes may dress in borrowed robes, but they never assume a woman's garments. We can deduce a certain insecurity in this fear of seeming feminized; significantly, Antony, sexually the most mature of Shakespeare's men, is alone among them in having worn woman's dress. Still we never see him so attired, but learn from Cleopatra's recollection of their love games that she once decked him in her "tires and mantles" (11.v.22).8 Nor can we explain the general failure of Shakespeare's men to dress themselves like women by citing their tragic seriousness, for a man in woman's clothes need not be embarked on mere frivolity. Euripides' Pentheus demonstrates how devastating an avenue for self-examination such costume provides. For Anglo-Saxon audiences, however, a man in travesty, as the term suggests, remains an instrument of farce. In a society where men are ashamed to weep, to appear womanly can only be a humiliation, but in avoiding any semblance of the opposite sex, Shakespeare's men cut themselves off from an understanding of the fullest range of human experience. Thus, while women have the power to confound men, the masculine world holds little sway over a female who has walked around in trousers (or doublet and hose) unchallenged.9

Whether they have dressed like men or not, Shakespeare's women as a rule maintain a remarkably disinterested view of the masculine physique. In private his women may laugh at the expense of ungainly men, as Portia does, leaving no doubt in the reader's mind that they will choose good-looking husbands, but Shakespeare rarely writes a scene that explicitly delineates female sexual longing. The awkwardness of charging a boy actor with material of this sort has often been cited, but, as usual, Shakespeare capitalizes on a technical stricture. The heroine in disguise is more likely to admire herself in her boy's costume than she is to praise her lover's bodily attributes. In this complacency, she wittily remarks the superficiality of physical attractiveness. Similarly, when a Phebe or Olivia makes a sonneteer's inventory of the beloved's attractions, the joke lies in her misapprehension of externals: the man she admires is a woman. No woman in Shakespeare, not even Cleopatra, thirstily catalogues a lover's parts as Romeo and Troilus do in their poetry of frustration, the last gasp of Petrarchan worship of the unattainable.10 Shakespeare's women have it within their means eventually to fulfill their sensual needs and act rather than moon over rejection. As early as The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Julia, the first of the heroines in pants, deflates the pomposity of phallic show. If she must wear a codpiece to guarantee her disguise, it is no more absurd a sartorial note for her than for the upto-date males who affect the style in order to stick pins on it (II.vii.56). She settles for what is "most mannerly" (58) in a pun that reminds us how often Shakespeare's women prove more "manly" than their lovers.

By obscuring their own sex, the heroines gain extraordinary access to the men they love, with the result that friendship validates marriage in Shakespeare's comedies. Consequently, when his heroines cease to adopt men's clothes, they forgo the rewards of friendship as well, and the comic world darkens. Helena's disguise as a female pilgrim rather than an adventurous boy signals a momentous shift in Shakespeare's treatment of women: "realistic" psychological development takes second place to a determined reification of gender. Because intellectual compatibility in sexual relationships becomes a luxury they can dispense with, the heroines of All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure shock some sensibilities. Shakespeare does not impede their already tortuous route toward consummation by dressing Helena, Isabella, and Mariana in masculine garments, but seems perversely to force a showdown between holiness and lust by clothing them instead in pilgrim's gown and nun's habit, cloistering them (like Mariana in her moated grange) from physical contact. This apparent perversity, however, brilliantly exposes the shallow religiosity that presumes chastity can be achieved simply by hiding all evidence of sexuality: both All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure insist that body as well as spirit may serve the divine plan.

The early comedies generally culminate in the ceremony of marriage or its promise; with All's Well and Measure for Measure, the ceremony itself does not suffice, for it threatens to become an empty legalism.11 Helena and Bertram, like Angelo and Mariana, are not truly married, while Claudio and Juliet, anticipating their rites, assuredly are. The problematic nature of these plays can be sensed in their demand for physical confirmation of relationships to which they fail to lend psychological credence. Helena finds that she must draw on her womanhood where the earlier heroines are free to release their boyishness; the image of ideal love enshrined in the universally appealing Ganymede and Cesario12 yields to the proof of physical encounter that only childbirth can give.

Like Helena, Rosalind boasts the twin advantages of disguise and an undefined personal magic, a source of power she must tap if a satisfactory conclusion to the riddles of As You Like If s antepenultimate scene is to be found (V.ii.82-125). Even in this most confidently artful of the great comedies, an increasing sense of strain begins to tell. On her wedding day, as Rosalind conjures Hymen's presence to bless a series of unions arranged on an ascending scale of mutual devotion, a new physical urgency bids farewell to games. The intensity of Celia's and Oliver's passion for each other compounds Orlando's despairing inability to live by thinking: Ganymede the artificer must vanish so that Rosalind the woman can supply the fleshly solution the lovers long for.

As You Like It alerts us to the supernatural admixture that strengthens the Shakespearean heroine, but neither Ganymede's glib invention of an old magician friend nor the last-minute introduction of an actual god should deceive us into thinking that she needs outside assistance. Rosalind's sexuality endows her automatically with the magic she requires: Hymen does not condescend to save an impossible situation, but merely enhances a foregone conclusion. If anything, Rosalind uses him to cover her tracks, manipulating a minor deity as skillfully as she has everyone else. While the men with magic power in Shakespeare need external aids, the women need only be themselves to become conduits of extraordinary forces. In reaffirming their sexual natures they exercise the most potent magic of all: Ganymede must become Rosalind; Cesario, Viola; the Pilgrim, Helena. Disguise provides the opportunity for, but not the substance of, their authority.

After Helena, disguise rarely aids Shakespeare's women, since the creative sexuality it fosters no longer enchants, but repels, the masculine protagonist. A man who doubts the very value of existence cannot spare the energy required to appreciate delicate ambivalence. The loathing of the flesh variously spat out by a Lear, Hamlet, Timon, or Posthumus represents a coarsened sexual sensibility that blames life's ills on a force outside oneself and beyond male comprehension. The same drive toward procreation that enriches female personality in the comedies expunges it in the tragedies: "Down from the waist they are Centaurs, / Though women all above" (Lear, IV.vi.126-27). Precisely their lack of clear motivation points to the importance of these woman-hating speeches of disgust. In a malign world, the perceived source of life best deserves to be attacked.

The climate of masculine prudery which seeks to deny male complicity in the "act of darkness" is inhospitable to nubile women, accounting in large measure for the powerlessness of the female in Shakespearean tragedy. As Barroll points out, even romantic heroines like Juliet and Desdemona are really "well-behaved ingenues";13 young women in these plays must be desexualized. Cordelia (whom one might call the ultimate "ingenue" of Shakespeare's middle period) is never allowed the seductiveness that leads Ophelia to an equivocal madness and Desdemona to the double entendre of death between her wedding sheets. In a way, Desdemona's progress through Othello is a more leisurely and explicit version of Cordelia's virtual canonization. The full-blooded, courageous bride of Act I, the witty yet reserved Venetian lady of Act II, flowers into the womanly warrior who greets Othello after the storm but then must slough off her joyous sensuality to become the naïve innocent who counters Emilia's worldly veniality in Act IV: rather than temper her husband's fury with a sexual invitation in Act V, Desdemona prays. Cordelia's womanliness, totally stylized, finds its only expression in her disembodied voice, "soft, / Gentle and low" (v.iii.272-73).

Lear's three daughters in effect sum up the Manichaean view of female sensuality in Shakespeare's high tragic world: if not Cordelia, then Goneril and Regan. After blessing them at first with the natural abundance embodied in "plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads" (I.i.65), King Lear reverses his promise to Goneril and Regan, bidding Nature instead "dry up [their] organs of increase" (I.iv.288). They consequently manifest that depraved and nonprocreative lasciviousness that the sonnets attribute to the Dark Lady; indeed, evil in Shakespearean women seems to grow from a sexuality so out of tune with its procreative potential that it breeds villainy rather than children. When female lechery is not actually sterile, its progeny is malignant: from Tamora to Cymbeline's Queen, the impulse to destroy passes inevitably from dissatisfied mother to dissatisfied son. Even the complex women of the major tragic phase suffer from an excess of libidinal energies that neither marriage nor motherhood can channel. Purgative transvestism might have done wonders for Goneril, Lady Macbeth, and Volumnia, but no outlets for safety-valve experimentation of this sort exist in the rigid masculine world of Shakespearean tragedy.14

Only Cleopatra relaxes this rigidity, symbolized in Antony and Cleopatra by the cold calculation of Rome, because she can put on Antony's sword, experience the trials of the masculine ruler, and renew her femininity at the last—the formula for the comic heroine restated in grander terms. Like the comic heroines, she enters a maternal phase in her final moments. Antony's botched suicide, his suggestive inaccuracy in the placing of his sword, is redeemed as Cleopatra takes the asp to her breast, mothering it like the stupendous vision of Antony to which she gives birth in her dialogue with Dolabella. She augments the imaginative generosity of the Desdemonas and Cordelias who, cherishing a vision of the men they love at their best, have died to perpetuate it; the "ingenue" tragic heroines spur on the men who survive them to a glory of self-delivery (Hamlet leaping into Ophelia's grave, Othello pulling out his weapon, Lear with his looking glass), while Cleopatra encompasses both the ultimate death and the glorification. In an important anticipation of the matriarchal final romances, Antony's fourth-act death leaves to Cleopatra the heretofore masculine prerogatives of the fifth.

In his last moments, the flawed Shakespearean protagonist converts himself into the tragic redeemer by sheer will; whether we call it self-realization or cheering oneself up, his transformation remains solipsistic, its price being death. The final plays enlarge this movement toward salvation by removing the sting: in place of the tragic sacrifice that leaves the world as much impoverished as redeemed, they substitute a promise of cosmic regeneration. Like Rosalind (and all the disguised heroines) a forerunner of the openly magical conciliators led by Prospero, Cleopatra, the first of Shakespeare's characters to be freed from the restraints imposed by the material world, prefigures a great aesthetic shift.15 Nursing the asp, voluptuous even as she prepares to die, Cleopatra assumes a posture that apparently was a medieval emblem of the dull earth.16 Yet at the last this enchanting queen triumphs over physical nature, readjusts the elements themselves, and sublimates herself into fire and air (v.ii.288-89).

Although Cleopatra sits grandly in maternal posture as she dies, performing a rite of translation to a higher realm, a ritual rebirth like that of her gods, this rebirth remains metaphor. Rebirth as miracle and as physical accomplishment becomes the frank subject matter of the last plays, which reinstate maternity as the primal fact that justifies the ways of God to men.17 The late plays confront again the misogynistic fears that cloud the tragedies, but resolve them with their paired mothers and daughters. The victim's death endured by Cordelia and Desdemona is here undergone by Thaisa and Hermione, but only provisionally, while their daughters clarify the merits of the mothers and prepare the repentant husbands and fathers for their return.

Incest, which haunts the fathers in the last plays, is the obverse of misogyny: it reveals the narcissism underlying the vilification of the female that Shakespeare's tragic heroes so arbitrarily indulge in.18 When men revile women, they cry out against their own failures, hating themselves for what women "tempt" them to; women, by contrast, curse men for external, verifiable wrongs against them. Women resent men for oppressing them, while men despise women for reminding them that they are creatures of the flesh. If a man can accept himself in this state, the false reassurance of personal worth that incest seems to promise holds no power over him. Thus, in refraining from the incestuous coupling with his own child, the Shakespearean father reestablishes his own sense of dignity and restraint, so that he once again deserves the company of his wife. This chastening process makes possible in turn the refreshing of the species by the next generation and weds the comic insistence on sheer physical continuity to the tragic achievement of self-purification.

In the tragic heroes, often uneasy about their sexual appetites, there is occasionally an anticipation of the riddle of incest which Pericles dares to understand. Thus the Fool castigates Lear for the obscene reversal of his relationship with his daughters; Hamlet, of course, transfixed by his mother, copes more directly with a confusion of idealism and desire. The women in the tragedies seem often to excite illicit responses, yet even the most treacherous among them do not nourish incestuous longings of their own, perhaps because even the troubled women in Shakespeare accept their bodies' limits and claims more easily than do men. As the heroines in disguise are never physically aggressive, so Lady Macbeth and Volumnia, who might profit from disguise and chafe against the constraints of their womanly roles, personify them in their final appearances. In her nightgown, with her hair loose, Lady Macbeth resembles not only an undisciplined madwoman, but a frightened innocent child, or a seductive unsatisfied wife; she is caught in the web that cripples women in a paternalistic society and is doomed to frustration in any case, for the husband who is neither father nor lover is beyond helping her. More secure in her social niche, more massive in her presence, Volumnia may want her son's opportunities, but not (at least consciously) his body. Indeed, she throws her motherhood up to him almost savagely, equating herself with Mother Rome in an exaltation of the womb to which the bewildered boy-hero can only yield.

The mature heroines of the last plays, on the other hand, represent an ideal, curative maternity. Loved by fathers, husbands, and friends till a great crisis deprives them of all three, in serene self-knowledge they survive, ultimately to be "resurrected," not merely by reproducing themselves, but also by enduring tragic disharmony to emerge the more beautiful for having undergone it. The quasi-religious retirement they enter into does not disqualify them from returning to the living world of bodies. While this movement back into family life recalls the prophetic frame of The Comedy of Errors, only the final romances give us this expansive view of married women. Domesticity in Shakespeare's earlier plays bears out Millamant's sad recognition in The Way of the World that witty ladies dwindle into wives. One thinks, for example, of Kate Percy's carefully rationed outings with a husband she can still charm if only she gets the chance. The full equation of wifehood with heroism begins with All's Well; unfortunately, the Shakespearean husband seems the last to know it.

If Helena in her mysteriously sanctified determination looks forward to the fruition of the maternal type represented by Hermione, Imogen's career explicates the transition from the comedies' resourceful virgins to the romances' beatified mothers. The nineteenth century preferred Imogen to the earlier heroines because her male disguise discomfited her, but if she lacks their high spirits, she has good cause. Even before Posthumus casts her off, in the simple act of marrying him she has set herself within a framework none of the boy-women had to cope with. The tomboy vivacity of the unmarried woman does not become the wife, who has already narrowed her choice of the options that a Rosalind is free to explore. Nevertheless, Imogen's change in clothes prompts her to the insight implicit in Rosalind's and Viola's bemused appreciation of their androgynous powers, as all three learn that being a man is not as easy as it looks. When the disguises donned for protection expose them instead to unexpected danger, the heroines stand their ground as males despite the onrush of that stereotyped "feminine" apprehension with which Shakespeare seems to signal their forthcoming return to their true selves. More sorely tried than Viola faced with a duel or Rosalind with a bloody handkerchief, Imogen more generoysly expresses the sympathy for men that all gain through imposture: "I see a man's life is a tedious one" ( Cymbeline, III.vi.1).

Posthumus, thinking himself betrayed, has sought to eradicate "the woman's part" from his being; Imogen, knowing herself wished dead, worries not only for herself but for the male reputation for honor as well. Throughout these last plays, the tragic predicament afflicts male and female protagonists equally, but the men remain more comfortably self-indulgent in their pain. Here too Shakespeare's works ask more resilience of women, and the women are able to supply it. Thus with marvelously egotistical humility, Posthumus suggests that "every villain / Be call'd Posthumus Leonatus," and keens: "O Imogen! / My queen, my life, my wife, O Imogen, / Imogen, Imogen!" When the disguised Imogen makes so bold as to answer his cry by identifying herself, the hero turns on this impudent "page," furious at the interruption of his...

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Feminine Identity

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 15756 words.)

Masculine Identity

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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!

Macbeth, 1.7.73

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...

(The entire section is 14960 words.)

Androgyny: Crossdressing And Disguise

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 20423 words.)

Gender And Genre

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 366 words.)