Sexuality, gender, and patriarchy are all common themes in many of Shakespeare’s plays. Both gender ambiguity and sexual stereotypes are used as a means of character manipulation and plot development in several of his plays. During the Elizabethan Era, Shakespeare was influenced by social norms regarding gender, sexuality, status, etc.
Both men and women accepted their roles according to the society that they lived in; which is why many of Shakespeare’s references to gender and sex were admissible in the 16th century. It is important to understand why Shakespeare took a patriarchal approach to theater and how he displayed it through an all-male cast. Understanding the context of his writing allows for a more accurate interpretation of gender ambiguity and references of sexuality in plays such as Othello, Twelfth Night, and Macbeth.
In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare's use of gender ambiguity is seen in the character of Viola. Viola’s master plan to ensure her own safety in Illyria is to serve the Duke Orsino. “Conceal me what I am / I’ll serve this duke. / Thou shall present me as a eunuch to him” (1.2.50-53). While Viola does not directly state her desire for a masculine appearance, it can be inferred from the lines “present me as a eunuch to him,” that her intentions were just that. In the Elizabethan era, the roles of women in society were very limited and men were considered to be the ‘leaders’, which explains Viola’s decision to become ‘Cesario’, a servant.
In the Elizabethan era, women were forbidden to be casted in plays, which further proliferates the intense ambiguity of Viola’s character. Most if-not-all of Shakespeare’s plays were performed by an all-male cast. However, this arrangement would make a play like Twelfth Night quite confusing. Viola would have been played by a male actor, that looks like a woman, dressed as a man. The gender ambiguity had a greater impact on the live performance much more than script itself. A new school of thought has emerged that evaluates Shakespaere’s approach to gender roles in relation to modern movements and stereotypes.
Many ideas regarding Shakespeare’s use of female characters as propaganda and manipulation have been misinterpreted by modern critics. Shakespeare was not a misogynist for having female roles played by men, nor by conforming to the patriarchy of his time period. In fact, William Shakespeare would be considered a modern Elizabethan feminist. Shakespeare was doing the very thing that feminist today are doing, deconstructing social and gender normalities. By having an all-male cast, the ambiguity of gender forces the audience to deconstruct their own stereotypes about gender to thoroughly understand the play.
While this theory does have its flaws, it’s very insightful to view the atmosphere of Shakespeare’s work through a modern lens. Today, many of Shakespeare’s plays could very well be categorized as misogynistic or heavily prejudice by some. An all-male cast four hundred years ago would certainly not have produced the same public response that it would today. Much of society during Shakespeare’s time had revolved around the idea of men being the ‘superiors’; this notion had become second nature in both society and theater.
Shakespeare’s play Macbeth demonstrates how William Shakespeare fused the idea of male superiority and manifested that into the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Throughout the play, Shakespeare made it clear that being a woman meant being weak, frail and emotionally unstable. Contrarily, being a man meant being strong, forceful and strict. Macbeth’s lack of ambition and ruthlessness prevents him from fulfilling his plan to kill King Duncan. However, Lady Macbeth, devoted to becoming queen, questions her own sexuality upon hearing of Macbeth’s inability to seize the throne. “Unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty!... Come to my woman’s breasts, And take my milk for gall''(1.5.30-38). Lady Macbeth wants to get rid of her womanhood to replace it with steoretypical manlike qualities that would make her powerful enough to commit the murder of King Duncan. In this famous quote, Shakespeare makes reference to Deuteronomy where the term ‘gall’ refers to the venom of a poisonous snake. This biblical allusion indicates not only the desire, but the temptation of Lady Macbeth to be stripped of her woman-like qualities. Shakespeare’s reference to the bible shows just how much both religion and social norms influenced his plays.
Shakespeare’s expressions of gender-ambiguity and sexuality through characters such as Viola and Lady Macbeth both magnify the societal norms during the Elizbethan era. Lady Macbeth’s plea to be stripped of her physical sex is fueled by her obsession with power. Her calls for “direst” cruelty only implies her desire to be cruel enough, or man enough, to conduct the plan. It was often believed that a woman who refused to behave like one was possessed by a demon. This idea of women believing in changing their sex was considered so far beyond rational that they were deemed ‘sick’, which foreshadows the latter events in Macbeth. Thus, after examining both Viola and Lady Macbeth, two characters that demonstrate Shakespeare’s transgender motifs and use of gender ambiguity, it is only fair to analyze a character that suffers from the product of patriarchy itself.
Shakespeare’s Othello was strongly influenced by the patriarchal conditioning and culture of the Elizabethan Era. Othello allowed for a setting that portrayed women as inherently promiscuous, due to the time period that it was set in. Throughout the play, all three women, Desdemona, Emailia, and Bianca, all fall victim to the man they commit themselves to. Desdemona is arguably the character that is most affected by the ‘social conditioning’, that is domestic abuse. Having been told that Desdemona had an affair with Cassio, Othello verbally abuses Desdemona by calling her a whore, a commoner, and a devil. Othello made violent threats to harm and kill Desdemona, which gradually escalated throughout the play until he murders her.
When Emilia asks Desdemona after she has been fatally wounded, “Oh, Who hath done this deed?”--she responds “Nobody. I myself. Farewell” (5.2.136-138). Desdemonna herself struggles to identify her abuse out of fear and inferiority. Her response is a measure of how subordinate women had become during this time to their husbands, despite their innocence. Shakespeare’s portrayal of this domestic violence from Othello taps into the dark reality of what some women face today. This enforces the idea that women were constantly targeted and victimized regardless of their innocence.
The way that Shakespeare portrays the typical 16th century woman holds similar truth to what we experience today. Analyzing this particular scene from a modern perspective, the resemblance between a play written nearly four centuries ago to modern reality is uncanny to say the least. Shakespeare’s themes of abuse and objectifying women in Othello is present in our world today. Much like Twelfth Night and Macbeth, the victims of the story are those subject to the products of patriarchy.
In conclusion, Shakespeare viewed the social normalities of sexuality and gender in a new light and sought to deconstruct them in his plays. Shakespeare’s writings were influenced by a patriarchy that controlled the roles in society for both men and women, but rather than accepting those stereotypes he exposes the truth of a culture enveloped in masculine superiority. His method for deconstructing social norms allowed plays like Othello, Macbeth, and Twelfth Night to be light-hearted plots with emotionally captivating characters.
Shakespeare will continue to be studied because his plays are constantly reinterpreted from a contemporary perspective as society evolves. Shakespeare’s patriarchal approach to theatre is what allowed him to interpret the society that he lived in, expose its flaws, and remain loved for his gift of storytelling.
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