Gender Nature VS Nurture: Analysis of Shakespeare's Works

Gender nature vs nurture: essay where the role of gender and its power in Shakespeare's works are discussed.  The worlds William Shakespeare portrayed in his plays vary widely in their levels of realism. From the pastoral bliss of the Green World in As You Like It, to the more grounded Illyria of Twelfth Night and the mixture of both ends of this spectrum in Winter’s Tale. These worlds, regardless of how magical, realistic or dark they may be, and the wide array of characters that populate them, also serve to portray underlying issues in society and human nature and how people are shaped by them. One of these issues, and the main focus of this essay, is gender, and more specifically how it is intertwined with power and status in many of these comedies. I will discuss this relationship between power and gender, and delve into how Shakespeare’s witty and unruly female characters are able to evade this patriarchal system or, most interestingly, play it to achieve power and accomplish their own goals.

Firstly, I will focus on the crowd pleaser pastoral comedy As You Like It, and its most interesting take on issues such as gender, identity and human interaction. I will start with the main male lead and love interest: Orlando. The younger sibling of Oliver, from the household of the deceased Sir Rowland de Boys, he resents his older brother for his mistreatment of him. He is denied his share of the inheritance and education, which he believes will prevent him from becoming truly gentle. This, in on itself, sheds doubt over the notion of blood as the determining factor in one’s virtue and identity. He fancies himself a true gentleman, a true renaissance man of arts and weapons, of courage and tenderness, and repeatedly calls attention to his birth right and his noble blood. Yet he is missing, he feels, the proper education that will make him a true gentleman. When he nails passages of his poetry on trees in an attempt to captivate Rosalind, he is mocked for his lack of poetical skill, and his poor impression of Petrarchan poetry only reinforces his failure as a true man of the renaissance. He is, in short, a man of noble blood that is being held back by his older brother, in a way not dissimilar to how a female sibling would be denied said education and inheritance in the same situation. When he gets expelled from court by his older brother Oliver, he takes to the forest of Arden, where he meets our next subject: Rosalind.

The main character and female lead of the play, Rosalind displays a wit and initiative uncharacteristic of a traditional female lead and love interest. When she is forced to leave court, she is joined by her friend Celia and Touchstone the court Jester. They then agree to dress in peasant clothes to avoid assailants and, in a stroke of genius, she comes up with the idea of dressing as a man, for safety. Up until this point, Rosalind has been a subservient character, stranded in a court ruled by the wicked duke Frederick and only allowed to stay because of her friendship with the duke’s daughter, Celia. Then, upon deciding to take the appearance of a man, she is hit by a sudden burst of confidence and initiative. We see two noblewomen’s fear of traveling without escort disappear the moment one of them sheds her female identity to “suit herself all points like a man” and, with a martial and male appearance, “lie there what hidden woman’s fear there will”. We are presented with the power associated with men in society, and how women can achieve this same power by shedding their female identity. Thus, Rosalind becomes Ganymede.

This transformation is then further explored when, upon meeting Orlando, Ganymede decides to help him in his efforts to court Rosalind. “He” helps him with his love troubles by posing as Rosalind so he can act his relationship with him. In this conversation, Ganymede embodies a stereotypically female attitude and counsels the gentleman on how to properly court Rosalind when he finally finds her. This situation involves a complex layering of gender, identity and power that is owed as much to Shakespeare’s original play as it is owed to the specific production of the play and the actor’s take on the character. Orlando, the nobleman in love, nominally holds power in this scene, but he is being played by Rosalind, playing Ganymede the shepherd, who is appropriating male power, and using her newfound authority and confidence to lecture Orlando and covertly get a deeper understanding of him. She lectures him bout female cunning, how a smart woman like Rosalind would always stay ahead of him and play him whenever and however she pleases. She tells him that Rosalind will outwit him and that, no matter how much he tries to prevent it, he will be inevitably outsmarted by her and made a cuckold. This unnerves Orlando and ties into the theme of male fear of female sexuality and their attempts to control it by any means.

This façade, however, cracks towards the end of the conversation. After Ganymede’s assertions on cuckoldry, Orlando needs to depart and meet the duke, hearing which Rosalind momentarily breaks character and proclaims that she cannot lack him for two hours. Shortly after, she regains her confidence and simply tells him to go his ways, but then follows this by warning him not to be late to their appointment. It is up for debate just how visible these subtle changes in attitude reflect the layering of identities, power and gender in this play and character, but the influence of this power relations remains. Rosalind, in her tutoring of Orlando, is both playing the patriarchal system to her own ends by appropriating male power and, ironically, assisting Orlando in his quest to become a true gentleman, helping him achieve that which neither his noble blood nor his own will could accomplish.

Moving on, now, to the topic of male anxiety over female sexuality, it is worth noting that the aforementioned conversation was interrupted precisely when Rosalind was playing into Orlando’s and, by extension, men’s fear of the power that women wield. In this patriarchal society, where marriage is effectively a means to an end and husbands exercise such power over their wives, the lingering threat of cuckoldry remains as one of the main obstacles for uncontested male domination of women. Rosalind, whom has never before expressed these thoughts in the play, uses her newfound authority to blatantly tell the nobleman that he will never be able to outwit his beloved wife if she sets her mind to play him as she pleases. This theme is most relevant in one of Shakespeare’s later plays: The Winter’s Tale.

The spark that ignites conflict in this play is king Leontes’s fear of betrayal by his wife and his best friend. The king of Sicilia, Leontes enjoys the company of his friend Polixenes, king of the neighbouring Bohemia. When the latter expresses his wishes to leave for his home, the worried ruler asks his wife to talk Polixenes into staying with him longer, since he has failed to make him stay. The loyal wife Hermione does as he commands, and the ease with which she convinces Polixenes makes Leontes suspicious of her and his friend’s faithfulness, ending with Polixenes escaping and Hermione facing a humiliating public trial, accused of adultery. This is, as argued by Valerie Traub in her work Jewels, Statues and Corpses; Containment of Female Erotic Power in Shakespeare’s Plays, an expression of male anxieties over female power, concretely over the psychological power accredited to women by men. Female sexuality has been both dangerous and incontrollable, with many of Shakespeare’s plays involving complex plots concerning the need to prove chastity and the threat of adultery.

The concern over a lover’s, wife’s and, most singularly, mother’s sexual conduct is commonplace in many of the songs, jokes and plots, and this concern is reinforced by the fact that, regardless of how much power men exercise over women in this system, they only have a woman’s word as evidence of their faithfulness. In the case of this play, fear of cuckoldry reaches its highest expression, since it is a queen that’s being accused of it. A queen committing adultery is a matter of high treason, since it inevitably casts doubts over the legitimacy of any potential heirs to the throne. This threat looms over the king’s legacy, and jealousy and fear of betrayal influence the whole story and all the characters in it. Thus, Hermione is tried and, allegedly, driven to death by her grief. Her presence is limited, then on, to a statue made in her dead likeness. The female voice in this whole ordeal, argues Traub, is confined in a stone statue that metaphorically preserves her in stasis, pure and ageless, until Leontes’s repentance finally comes.

Also worthy of note is, however, that this play combines two instances of women’s disruptive power into one. Firstly, the myth of Hermione’s adultery, fabricated by Leontes and, secondly, the power of women to disturb male bonding. Male on male bonding and variations of it are commonplace in Shakespeare’s plays. The most common subversion of this friendship between men is making one of the parts involved a crossdressing woman posing as a different character. This is the case, for instance, in As You Like It, which allows women to interact with men, usually their love interest, on a different level, but also displays how, the moment the spell is broken and the crossdressing ends, the friendship is quickly replaced by romance. In The Winter’s Tale case, the cased presented is a woman stepping in between to friend’s relationship. Leontes’s anxiety over his wife’s sexuality makes him resent his previously trusted friend. Women’s interference with male friendship inevitably shatters it, be it through their own actions or through the fear men feel for their supposed power over them.

08 December 2022
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