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 ffected 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 Nights 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 he 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 and derive comedy from the situations created. Characters that are natural representations of their gender do not ontain the same possibilities for comedy.
Beatrice says “O, that I were a man” (Much Ado About Nothing, IV. i. 303), implying in context that her gender has made it impossible for her to act. Other female characters in Shakespeare do take on male roles, and whether it is because their true identity is hidden or simply by virtue of their acceptance as non-female, they are able to function in the text in ways that an undisguised female character could not. Rosalind/Ganymede instructs Orlando in the ways of love. Viola/Cesario enters Orsino’s house and, consequentially, his heart.
Portia argues a case at law; actually serving as a judge in a dispute involving her new husband’s best friend. In assuming a man’s role, these women overcome the limitations to which Beatrice finds her sex subjected. When male characters assume feminine characteristics these are seen as an impediment to action (or inaction is seen as womanish). In Tro. act I, Troilus has not taken the field because he is hopelessly in love with Cressida. He describes the experience as unmanning, as depriving him of his masculinity.
When Aeneas asked why he is not in the day’s attle Troilus identifies himself as “this woman . . . / because womanish it is to be from thence” (I. i. 106). He finds he cannot behave as a man should, because a woman exerts an authority over him. Troilus’ weakness is paralleled and emphasized in Ulysses’ figuration of Achilles who “Grows dainty of his worth, and in his tent/ Lies mocking our designs. With him Patroclus/ Upon a lazy bed the livelong day/ Breaks scurril jests” (I. iii. 145-148). Both men are warriors, both are unmanned by affection.
Achilles’ dalliance with Patroclus carries with it the additional “signifying burden of the unnatural'” (Traub 73), but the trope remains the same. Achilles and Troilus are neglecting their duties as warriors because of a physical attraction, and in each case it is seen as ‘womanish’ or ‘dainty. ‘ Patroclus himself tells Achilles “A woman impudent and mannish grown/ Is not more loath’d than an effeminate man/ in time of action” (III. iii. 217-219). Achilles is slow to be moved, however; when he expresses a desire to see the Trojan heroes it is “a woman’s longing . . .
To see great Hector in his weeds of peace” (III. iii. 237,239). It is only when their objects of desire are emoved that Troilus and Achilles resume their ‘manly’ duties; Achilles upon Patroclus’ death, and Troilus after the trauma of seeing Cressida with Diomede. Neither Helen nor Cressida live up to the expectations forced upon them, but they do not fail to fit the stereotypes of femininity that the Elizabethan stage forces upon women in general. Cressida has by that point in history become synonymous with female infidelity, while Helen’s status has been more privileged.
However, “the Elizabethan theater characteristically calls idealization into question and foregrounds excess” (Belsey 92). Helen is both idealized and the pursuit of her excessive; hence she is unlikely to escape unscathed in a satirical treatment of the Trojan war. The contrast between the empowering masculinization of female characters and the paralyzing feminization of males make the latter more appropriate to a tragedy or a satire, the former more useful in comedy. Rosalind speaks several times in ways that display an awareness of her (doubly) altered gender, for instance linking boys and women as “cattle of this color” (III. i. 414).
In a more radical maneuver ‘she’ addresses the audience as a male epilogue. “If I were a woman … (AYLI epilogue) not only calls attention to the gap between the gender of the performer and the gender of the actor, but demands that the audience recognize of the actor as actor. The tensions set up in the play remain in suspense until Ganymede disappears and Rosalind reappears near the end of Act V. All the complications surrounding Orlando, Phebe, and Silvius are resolved as Rosalind gives up her assumption of a man’s prerogatives.
It is easy to assume that dominant males in Shakespearean comedy conform to norms of expectation and behavior, but it is more difficult to determine what those expectations may have een in the Elizabethan era. Psychologists have examined the development of sexual awareness as part of identity. Much psychological theory holds that the male child’s initial awareness as Other (than Mother) has to do with a recognition first of separateness and then of difference; arguably sexual difference. If “the awareness of being a man or a woman–gender identity–coexists with the awareness of being a separate individual.
Part of making that separation is denying the authority of the females who raised male children during the English Renaissance, and as a onsequence abrogating authority to women in later life would represent a challenge not only to a man’s sense of power, but to his very sense of male identity. (Kahn 9) If it is the man’s part to swagger, roar, thunder, boast, and swear, then Petruchio is the perfect type of the male. But these behaviors are excessive and “farcical exaggerations of normal masculine behavior” (Kahn 109).
We are encouraged to understand Petruchios behavior as a performance. His initial scene with Kate establishes a basis for understanding his excesses throughout acts II-IV as part of an act. Later, Petruchio speaks of his acts as performance (IV. . 188- 211), perhaps to assure the audience that they are indeed witnessing a comedy and not something worse. Barton (in Evans107) argues that this performance is designed to show Katherine the folly of her excesses, demonstrate to her how shrewishness is intolerable.
Petruchio’s several allusions to his military past “bespeak a lifelong acquaintance with masculine violence as a physical vocation” (Kahn 109). Petruchio’s actions are part of a performance but the underlying truth (for Petruchio) is not that this excessive behavior is undesirable, but that it is undesirable in a woman. Behavior suited to a man is prohibited in a woman, since she must be complementary to him, not competitive with him. Petruchio goes too far, to make a point with Kate, but it is because Petruchio’s assertion of his dominance is excessive that an audience is allowed to find it comedic.
The best example of a Shakespearean comedy which depends on the success of a cross- gender disguise is As You Like It. In order to escape the restrictions of Duke Frederick’s court, Celia declares that she will accompany the banished Rosalind out of the court. They resolve to join Rosalind’s father in the Forest of Arden. Fearing molestation should they travel as two women, Rosalind proposes to disguise herself as a man because she is “more than common tall” (I. iii. 115).
Realizing that more than cross-dressing is necessary to make her disguise convincing, she determines to assume “a swashing and a martial outside,/ As many other mannish cowards do” (I. iii. 120-121). Imogen (in Cym) is told by Pisanio that she “must forget to be a woman; change . . . fear and niceness . . . into a waggish courage,/ Ready in gibes, quick-answerd, saucy, and/ As quarrelsome as the weasel” (III. iv. 154-159). Imogen hardly has an opportunity to perform her role, ut Rosalind, who has made many of the same choices, maintains hers for the better part of her time on stage.
Not only are male disguises for female characters exploited for ironic humor and for the curiously compounded sexual tensions they make possible, they bring to the fore all the conventional expectations of masculine performance implied by Elizabethan society. Male disguise for a male character–for such is the over determined performance of masculinity displayed by Petruchio–similarly highlights those aspects of behavior that are taken for granted as ‘male’ when exaggeration does not make them obvious; and funny.