Women's roles In Anglo Saxon's Literature

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Women’s roles in literature has varied greatly throughout history. The roles of women were insignificant compared to their male counterparts. The biggest contributor to their minuscule role in literature is primarily due to their inferior position in society. Women’s role both in literature and society has evolved to the present day where women now hold important, major roles.

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The Anglo-Saxon period spanned over six hundred years from the fifth to the eleventh century. The woman’s position in society was similar to literature in this period, seldom being recognized for importance. However, this era was unusual in the level of respect and rights most women possessed. During this period, women ultimately made the decision on whether or not to wed and with whom. A woman’s properties were hers no matter her marital status (Ross). Many writers wrote about women with a critical, gloomy tone.

Beowulf, an epic from the Anglo-Saxon Era, has males as the main antagonists and protagonists. The roles of women in Beowulf were microscopic compared to the men. Throughout the whole epic novel, there are only six named female roles. One female character Grendel’s mother is portrayed as an unflattering beast of a woman, overcome by emotion and motherhood. Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother and flaunts that no woman could ever hurt a man exhibiting the superiority of men. “No female, no matter How fierce, could have come with a man’s strength, Fought with the power and courage men fight with…” (Beowulf Poet 45). These lines help to show the superiority men felt they had over woman.

“The Wife’s Laments” speaks of a wife who obeys her husbands commands but lives in agony. “My lord commanded me tome my dwelling here.” (“The Wife’s Lament” 94). The treatment this woman has received fills her with resentment and anger. The poems allows you to vividly feel how much pain and suffering she has gone through with being a women who holds little importance. “I a woman tell what griefs I had since I grew up new or old never more than now. Ever I know the dark of my exile” (“The Wife’s Lament” 94). “The Wife’s Lament” is a heartbreaking poem that displays the harsh treatment women were subject to and the lasting affects it had.

Following immediately after the Anglo-Saxon period came the Medieval Ages, which extended from the eleventh to the fourteenth century. In the Medieval Ages, also known as the Dark Ages, women’s lives took a step backwards. Throughout literature, it was prominent that women were considered to be inferior to men and couldn’t indulge in the simple liberties known today. Once a woman was married, she was expected to be submissive to her husband.

Men enforced laws restricting women’s rights. Women could not be involved in any type of trade other than being a seamstress, and if women were able to go into the workforce, they were paid substantially less. A man could get paid 8 pence a day for reaping while women would make only 5 pence; this held true for most other jobs as well. It was against the law for women to marry without a parent’s consent, get a divorce, own a business, own any land unless she was widowed, and to inherit land if there was a brother (Trueman). These laws and standards frequently influenced the literature.

The tale “Federigo’s Falcon”, from The Decameron, displays how these laws affected women of the time. Monna Giovanna was the wife of a wealthy noble who did love her dearly. However, no matter the emotional attachment his land would only be granted to her if their son passed with no male heir. “…it happened that the husband of Monna Giovanni fell ill, and realizing that death was near, he made his last will: he was very rich, and he left everything to his son,…and since he had also loved Monna Giovanni very much, he made her his heir should his son die without any legitimate children; and then he died” (Boccaccio 172-173). Once Monna’s husband and son pass, she is pushed by her brothers to remarry for the sake of her land. Monna desired to grieve her losses and remain alone, but due to society’s standards she was pressured into remarrying. Forcing women—no matter their class— to make decisions was not rare and showed how little all women’s voices were heard.

In “The Prologue” from the Canterbury Tales, the journey is made up primarily of males with only two female travelers being named. The lack of females demonstrates how little women were thought about. Both women on the pilgrimage excerpts were full of sarcasm and belittlement. “Her forehead, certainly, was fair of spread, Almost a span across the brows, I own; She was indeed by no means undergrown” (Chaucer 117). It was not considered disrespectful for men to speak of women in such an uncomplimentary, sarcastic tone, which is evident by how popular these stories.

After the dark Medieval Ages, the Renaissance brought a new lively, spirited sense of exploration in the fourteenth century. This era was the rebirth of society that put more emphasis on the arts, literature, sciences, and human life (Applebee, et al). It’d be expected with the shift in ideas, philosophies, and studies that women’s oppressed, disregarded portrayal would change as well. This was not the case: men were still considered to be the superior race with women being not “sufficiently valued” and only a “half-man” (Gail 40). During the Renaissance, marriage was merely a business transaction: families would have to offer a payment to the man their daughter was to marry which pushed many fathers to send their daughters to convents. A woman would always be property to a man, who held power over her to do anything that he desired or felt necessary (Gail 40).

During the Renaissance, women were typically portrayed driven by their virtues and morals rather than knowledge or strength. Shakespeare’s plays Macbeth and Hamlet display how sensitive women were thought to be. Both plays have lead male roles that are dominant over woman. The women are timid creatures who cannot withstand the same pressures as men. Hamlet and Macbeth depict females conflicted by their virtues and driven to decisions.

Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is a prime example of a woman who plays an emotionally driven role. She fiercely pushes her husband to commit murder in order to become Queen, showing she does have an influence on a man. Lady Macbeth goes as far as to say she herself could assassinate people. “Had he not resembled My father as he slept, I had done’t” (Shakespeare Macbeth 2.2.12-13). Once irreversible, gruesome deeds are committed her mentality changes completely. The play depicts how her mental health diminishes quickly, due to her personal virtues. Lady Macbeth cannot escape the moral guilt she feels and crumbles to an extremely vulnerable figure. “Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!” (Shakespeare Macbeth 5.1.39-42). Overall, Lady Macbeth is shown to be a fragile, faint-hearted lady who cannot seem to keep up with the men.

In Shakespeare’s novel Hamlet, women play incredibly compliant roles. In this novel, men frequently looked down upon women. Hamlet, the main male role, expresses his disgust with his mother by saying, “frailty, thy name is woman!” (Shakespeare Hamlet 1.2.150). Gertrude relies heavily on having a man make the decisions in her life. In Hamlet, Gertrude betrays her husband by remarrying his brother almost immediately after her husband passes. Her quickness to marry a man who was once her brother-in-law depicts how weak and reliant she is. Once she is remarried, she allows her husband, Claudius, to do what he pleases. Gertrude does what she is told to do by the men in her life, whether that is talking to Hamlet while Polonius spies or allowing her son to get shipped off to England. These few instances intensify her helpless appearance. However, Gertrude is not the only female role in Hamlet who plays a delicate character. Gertrude is under the complete control of her brother Laertes and father Polonius. Laertes and Polonius demand she stops showing affection to Hamlet and she follows orders immediately. Once Polonius is killed, she goes into a heartbroken daze illustrating she is fragile and male-dependent.

The Renaissance consisted mainly of portraying women as soft, meek individuals, but the Enlightenment started to usher in the idea of women having their own ideas. The Enlightenment Era was a time women started to challenge their personal roles in society pushing to be equal to men (Mian). Women still faced social and work-related discrimination. They were still expected to run the household and take care of the family. The jobs women could hold were typically of a lower status and pay with fewer responsibilities and skills compared to men. Most of the women’s jobs were extensions of domestic duties such as nursing, teaching, or sewing (Emsley). However, women were starting to be portrayed more as individuals with their own mind. The women started to gather more in salons, “venue for intellectual sociability” (“Salons”). These social gatherings allowed women to converse more freely and intellectually while helping to heighten their knowledge. The Enlightenment was the start of the shift of women’s duty from care-taking and household maintaining to important roles in society (Mian).

A Tale of Two Cities explores the groundbreaking change in women’s role in literature and society. Throughout the novel, Dickens intertwines different types of powerful, independent women. Dickens goes as far as having two of the strongest female characters, Madame Defarge and Miss Pross, physically fight against each other, which was a very unusual scene in literature. In the novel, Lucie is the calming character to everyone including men.

One of the most prominent strong female characters is Madame Defarge, who is ruthless, raging, and determined. Dickens chose to display her as a primary leader behind French Revolution, by keeping track of victims and gathering devoted followers. She is both feared and obeyed by both men and women. Her independence is obvious when she outwardly tells her husband to not tell her when enough is enough. “Then tell the Wind and Fire where to stop, returned Madame, but do not tell me” (Dickens 419). Madame even creates a meeting to make secret plans without her husband’s consent.

A Tale of Two Cities Miss Pross is another strong female role. Miss Pross fulfills the typical domestic duties, but does not bow to fellow male peers. No man or woman will ever impose a threat against her beloved Lucie. Lucie has an aura that can sooth everyone’s worries, especially her father who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Her strength is especially noticeable when her husband is sentenced to death, but she puts on a brave face and doesn’t allow her emotions to be shown even though she is aching inside. “The wretched wife of the innocent man thus doomed to die fell under sentence, as if she had been morally stricken. But she uttered no sound; and so strong was the voice within her, representing that it was she of all the world who must uphold him in his misery…“ (Dickens 410).These few characters show how the role of women was starting to change for the better; they were now recognized as powerful, tough, and, most importantly, as individuals.

The role of women in literature and society has evolved immensely. There were times when it seemed women’s roles were progressing, but times their rights and position took steps backwards. As the rights and recognition of women grew so did their roles in literary works. Women and their literary characters went from being disregarded and rarely praised to strong and important.  

29 April 2022

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