Gender Roles in Shakespeare

WORDS  362

Gender Roles in Shakespeare

Gender Roles in Shakespeare
It is a peculiar feature of Shakespeare's plays that they both participate in and

reflect the ideas of gender roles in Western society. To the extent that they reflect existing

notions about the 'proper' roles of men and women, they can be said to be a product of

their society. However, since they have been studied, performed, and taught for five

hundred years, they may be seen as formative of contemporary notions about the

relationships between males, females, and power.

Derrida was right in asserting that "there is no 'outside' to the text." His claim is that every text is

affected by every other text and every other speech act. As an instance, most of Shakespeare's

plays have traceable sources for their central plots. Representations of gender in Renaissance

drama are tied to their original presentation: "bearing the traces of their history in a theatrical

enterprise which completely excluded women, (these texts) construct gender from a

relentlessly androcentric perspective" (Helms 196). It is the ways in which these texts

reflect or distort the gender expectations of society, either Elizabethan or contemporary,

that is so important.

Comedy that centers on the relationship between conventional couples rather than

on resolution of the situation that keeps them apart is really quite difficult to find in

Shakespeare. Ferdinand and Miranda are so uninteresting as a couple that their chief

function seems to be as an excuse for Prospero to exhibit his art. The lovers in Midsummer Night’s

Dream are certainly at their most entertaining when they're in love with the wrong person. It is the

exaggerated character--Falstaff, Petruchio, Paulina, or Cleopatra--or those who step

outside the borders of their assigned gender roles--Rosalind, Portia, Viola--who generate

the greatest theatrical and critical interest.

Elizabethan society had a loosely determined set of normal behaviors that are frequently

linked to gender. Despite diffusion of these gender expectations in both time periods (see

Dollimore, Traub), there are definite behaviors that either lie within the constructs of gender or

exceed/transgress patterns accepted as conventional. Through the mechanisms of exaggeration or

transgression, Shakespeare's comedies focus attention on the matter of gender an...

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