Patriarchy and the Shakespearean Woman

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William Shakespeare writes during a time when patriarchy was prevalent. Shakespeare includes these personas and attitudes within his plays to illustrate how these ideals played out. He works also to create female characters that hold their male counterparts accountable.

In this paper, there will be a review of patriarchal patterns within A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Henry IV, Macbeth, and King Lear but additionally how the female characters counteract the hegemonic masculinity. Because patriarchal patterns were prevalent in the time that Shakespeare wrote his plays, he created female characters that help to balance their male counterparts, offer insight to men, and to watch over and care for them. Social structure of the sixteenth century allowed women limited opportunities for involvement. Education was rarely advocated for and it was thought to be detrimental to the traditional female virtues of innocence and morality.

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Women who spoke out against traditional gender roles and the patriarchal system were punished. (Williamson 32) Patriarchal society had gender roles that were clearly defined in which the females would manage household duties and the men would go out of the home to work. Patriarchy is defined as a system of society or governance in which the men hold the power and women are largely excluded from the narrative. Women during this time were expected to provide a dowry, which could be any amount of money, goods, or property that was to be their contribution to marriage. For a long time, women in plays were cast and actually played by young boys and there was little exposure to job

ENG 209 Critical Essay Carter 2 opportunities. Relationships between men and women were written to be the in the middle of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare introduces a consistent theme of love as a disease, being something that plagued characters (especially younger characters). Also incorporated in his plays was the theme that love should be avoided, that it only brings bad things (but not for all characters). We see these themes constant throughout the following plays: Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Henry IV, and King Lear. Shakespeare uses the rigidity of the patriarchal society from the Elizabethan era. He frequently uses the tension between female desire and male dominance to help narrate the dialogue between the characters. Along the way he celebrates the boldness of women. (Das 37) From the beginning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream the play opens with two women being told to marry men they don’t want to marry. Their fathers have set up these marriages and the two women are supposed to fall in line but are not happy with these decisions.

(Williamson 16) Women are looked upon as objects who deserve death before free will and they cannot convince their fathers otherwise. The female queen in this play, Titania, is a seemingly autonomous character and does not listen to what King Oberon tells her to do. The joke that becomes the center of the play is Oberon taking advantage of Titania and tricking her into falling in love with Bottom. This served as Oberon’s way of “putting her back into her place.” (Williamson 16) Another relationship that is exhibited through this play is between Theseus and Hippolyta. Before Theseus “won” her in battle, Hippolyta was Queen of the Amazon. “Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword / And won thy love doing thee injuries” (1.1.16-17) This example of an unwanted relationship is the premise of this play. Hippolyta is introduced as a character that was strong, powerful, and a warrior. She already existed in conflict with patriarchy. Her desire after being “won” in battle by Theseus is to be independent but it is written as defiance of her partner.

ENG 209 Critical Essay Carter 3 We see men and women pledged to marry but one person does not desire for it to continue or become permanent. In multiple cases throughout this play the woman does not want to marry the man she is pledged to. She wants to be in a relationship of love and not of necessity. Lysander and Hermia plan to do just that. They want to escape away together so that they can live their lives in passion with one another and love. Helena’s betrayal of their plot to Demetrius is a form of deception as well; Hermia and Lysander implicitly place in her the trust of silence and secrecy, and she disregards that to gain Demetrius’s favor. Egeus, Hermia’s father, would rather see his own daughter die than for her to not follow his command.

Theseus provides Hermia with three options as punishment for her desire and try to run away with Lysander. He says “Examine well your blood—Whether, if you yield not to your father’s choice, You can endure the livery of a nun, For aye to be in shady cloister mewed, o live a barren sister all your life…” (1.1.67-74). Theseus even continues to emphasize that Hermia should look to her father as a God. The patriarchal patterns here start out in the beginning with the pledged marriage by a father and then continue to exemplify themselves in how the male characters act towards their female counterparts. (Williamson 16) This theme continues on to the play of Hamlet in which the patriarchal society is reinforced through the characters and their actions. Shakespeare implicitly suggests the danger of women’s involvement in politics at the sovereign level. Through Gertrude’s marriage to Hamlet’s uncle. This union subsequently throws the power of the crown in dispute between Hamlet, the King’s son, and Claudius, now spouse of the Queen. (Das 38) In both of these plays, women’s actions lead to political instability, and a disruption of natural harmony occurs because of their involvement in the political processes. In the characters, Shakespeare reflects political gender anxieties; in the themes, he develops a schema of conflict and chaos erupting from such anxiety, and in the plays’ contextual resolutions, he fulfills the desire for a return to state stability through a solidification of the patriarchal system. Hamlet does not make an explicit political argument regarding Elizabeth’s monarchy, but in these plays, Shakespeare does invoke the tensions of the day as related to female leadership. Here the patriarchal patterns are exemplified in the doubt of a female ruler and females in leadership positions. The patriarchal society is also depicted in the characters and how they interact with one another. Hamlet on the one hand is a character who is undecisive when making impactful decisions. (Das 38) This creates a masculine and a feminine side to his character which essentially goes against the ideas of what a patriarchal society is meant to be. The typical gender roles are given to Claudius, Polonius, Laertes, Ophelia, and Gertrude.

The first identifiable masculine characters are Laertes and Polonius as they are introduced in the play conversing with Ophelia. In this scene they tell Ophelia what she is allowed to do and command to her to not be with Hamlet, “For Hamlet and the trifling of his favor, Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood, A violet in the youth of primy nature, Forward not permanent sweet, not lasting…” (1.3.5-9). In Act one scene three, Ophelia is having to do exactly what her father and brother tell her to. Ophelia is the one who embodies the essential definition of femininity. (Das 39) She refuses to accept the gender-based expectations with defiant actions. Gertrude is the one who is responsible for the diminishing ordered power structure. In the culture and society that Shakespeare creates the woman is loved for her youth and beauty. “Ophelia, I do wish that your good beauties be the happy cause of Hamlet’s wildness: so shall I hope your virtues will bring him to his wonted ways again,” (III.i.39-43). Ophelia is consistently praised for her beauty and it is believed by Gertrude that her virtue can bring her son back again. Gertrude is the character in which Shakespeare creates the most defiance. (Das 38) Because of her actions, there are consequences though. This is a consistent theme throughout other plays as well.

Once a woman becomes defiant, the patriarchy comes back and reels them in and they get punished for standing up for something they believe in. The nature of the patriarchy written in Hamlet rewards compliant women. Ophelia dies because she lost her father and the source of her authority and power. Gertrude dies because of her defiance an unwillingness to back down. She rejected her role as a female and therefore destroyed herself in the confines of a male-dominated society. Women who comply with the social order are lost without it; those who defy it can know no other fortune than to be lost within it. Defiance is another way that Shakespeare creates a common theme within his plays. This idea continues in Henry IV. Henry IV focuses on masculinity and men being honorable as well as relationships between men; whether that be fathers and sons, uncles and nephews, or brothers, cousins, male colleagues, etc. The story is basically one of how a prince will get (inherit) his crown from his father. The female characters in the play are made to seem slightly insignificant but they are overly dramatized. (Williamson 147)

Again, we see that women in Henry IV are linked to rebellion and defiance. Most of the derogatory discussion about women in this play specifically is outlined by the description of masculinity. For example, when Hotspur says “By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap, To pluck bright honor from the pale-faced moon, Or dive into the bottom of the deep, Where fathom-line could never touch the ground, And pluck up drowned honor by the locks, So he that doth redeem her thence might wear Without corrival all her dignities. But out upon this half-faced fellowship!” (1.3.206-213), he is describing that he was honorable when he rescued a maiden from the water who was drowning. While this does not explicitly put the question of how women are portrayed, it shows how men actively work to tell everyone about their honor and valor and do not care if the woman wanted them to intervene or help. (Williamson 148)

Hotspur seems to be the character who says things the most about honor and how he describes men to be so much “better” than women. Social and Racial inferiors to the white men are represented to be depriving the man of his rightful property. (Williamson 57) The roles of women in Shakespeare’s plays have become interesting to look at and have caught the attention of many people in academia. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth disrupts the political culture because of her ambition which is made to seem unnatural because of her gender. (Das 45) She believes that only her convincing Macbeth and enlightening him with the idea of being King will help his eyes to open and become ambitious. “Hie thee hither, That I may pour my spirits in thine ear; And chastise with the valor of my tongue All that impedes thee from the golden round.” (I.V.25-28) She is confident and claims that she will be the only one with the power to perform this task. (Das 45) She abandons her being classified as feminine so that she can be seen as powerful. Interestingly enough her male counterparts would not have had to do the same if they were to announce their power.

They would not have to abandon their masculinity for being powerful because being powerful is a “masculine” quality. (Das 46) Lady Macbeth oftentimes in the text would reprimand Macbeth for his weakness and unmanliness. Instead of being known for her leadership qualities, she is seen as sinister which exemplifies the idea of women being punished when they try to become ambitious. Lady Macbeth’s reign over Macbeth reflects the issue of female involvement in the political structure and a woman’s possible dominion as monarch over man. The point in which her character takes a turn for the worst is when she begins to sleep walk and exhibits qualities of lunacy. She has a fixation with bloodied hands and her suicide shows an inner conflict between personal trial and conviction. (Das 47) This play was able to focus more on how a female would have been portrayed in a time when males dominated. It gives a female character the chance to shine but ultimately leads to her downfall because she is concluded to be controlling and a lunatic.

The self-destructive patriarchy is created in King Lear. The characteristics of what makes a masculine man a ruler often lead to the downfall of a character within this play. King Lear’s absolute patriarchal power leads to violence, banishment, death, and also exemplifies the characters’ negative feelings/hostility towards women. (Das 52) Kent is one character who pledges to serve Lear by describing his immunity from women. He says “Not so young, sir, to love a woman for singing, nor so old/to dote on her for anything” (1.4.34-35). Kent continues to insult other characters for simply serving a female master or for being “too feminine.” Cordelia is one of Lear’s daughters who is seen as not loving her father because she tells him the truth. His other two daughters lie to him and he ultimately believes them over her. Cordelia feels as though her father should see her love for him through her actions and her love should be self- evident.

For his wellbeing he wants his daughters to express their love in words and Cordelia does not want to do that. She loves her father according to her bond. This bond is what Cordelia sees as a natural relationship between father and daughter and that is the purest form of love because it “has no cause.” (Das 53) Lear has a deep anxiety that his daughters will betray him. In this scene and Lear and his daughters’ actions, patriarchy is distinguished by the love the father expects because he knows his daughters should obey him. As soon as Cordelia says the statement about her bond, he jumps to call her a “degenerate bastard.” (1.4.229) This is King Lear ignoring the reasons behind her behavior might just be his fault. The kingdom is already divided but Lear wants to demonstrate control over his children (another patriarchal quality). Lear always loved Cordelia more and had planned to give her a bigger share but when she disappoints him he jumps to distribute the land to the two other lying daughters. The degradation of the other two sisters also examines how women are treated when they are tricksters or liars. (Das 53)

The creation of two evil characters further writes the narrative that women cannot be trusted and reinforces the cultural norms during this time period. Lear embodies a torn patriarchal power. Patriarchy and masculinity have been the common themes between all of the above plays. (Williamson 12) How Shakespeare goes about it in every play initially looks as though it is going to differ but constantly reinforces the same ideals. Throughout A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Henry IV, Macbeth, and King Lear Shakespeare reinforces the definition of patriarchy which is that of a male dominated society often excluding women. He introduces characters that are strong and note-worthy and often seen as warriors. In the development of these female characters, however, he reiterates the narrative of them being illegitimate, powerless, or even crazy. They are punished for actions in which they defied these masculine norms. (Das 38)

Patriarchal patterns were prevalent in the time that Shakespeare wrote his plays, he created female characters that help to balance their male counterparts, offer insight to men, and to watch over and care for them. These characters are developed and almost climax, typically, in the middle of the play and turn downhill from there. Hermia wants to be in a relationship of love and thus plans to run away from her life to live far away with Lysander. Gertrude is defiant of the power structure and ends up dying because of her want for independence. Margaret shifts from passionate to inconsolable after the death of her lover. Lady Macbeth tries to take control over her husband and in the end is made to be a lunatic and commits suicide.

Cordelia does not show her father the kind of love he wants to hear about and instead is killed because of this defiance. These dynamic characters were a lot more than the conclusion of their stories. Something that was discovered in research and re- reading of these plays was that there was a false sense of hope for these female characters. It would be interesting to see how if these plays were written now their characters would be described. In this paper, there was a review of patriarchal patterns within A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Henry IV, Macbeth, and King Lear but also the female characters counteracting the hegemonic masculinity.

Works Cited

  1. (Das) Das, Pragati. “Shakespeare’s Representation of Women in His Tragedies.” Prime University Journal, vol. 6, no. 2, July 2011, pp. 37–56. (Chedgzoy)
  2. Chedgzoy, Kate. Shakespeare, Feminism and Gender:Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. (Demetrakopoulos) Demetrakopoulos, Stephanie. “”The Patriarchy of Shakespeare’s Comedies by Marilyn L. Williamson (review).”” Comparative Drama, vol. 22 no. 1, 1988, pp. 89- 91.
  3. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/cdr.1988.0000 (Williamson) Williamson, Marilyn L. The Patriarchy of Shakespeares Comedies. Wayne State University Press, 1986.”
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Patriarchy and the Shakespearean Woman. (2021, Feb 24). Retrieved from