Elizabethan Gender Perception in Shakespeare


Though Elizabethan rule in England was novel, it was not unprecedented, nor was it the frail and timid administration of a weaker sex. Unlike her father, who shifted from his defense of papal doctrine against the heretical Martin Luther, full-swing across the continuum into absolving England of all fealty to the Roman Catholic church, Elizabeth used her authority to marginalize the radical elements on both sides of a religious civil war in favor of all the normal, more tolerant people in the middle. Bards like William Shakespeare, with a keen eye on the dispositions and tendencies of the human character, from prince to pauper, would have been very well attuned to this counter-intuitive shift in the winds of social change.



Shakespeare would also have been keenly aware of the prejudice it engendered, having at once his eyes on the pulse of the nobility, who were often the principle patrons of art, and also his ear to the ground in the streets, where the crisis of autocratic succession filtered through myth and rumor and tradition, churning waves of strife and hostility. As a consequence of Shakespeare's intimate familiarity with each of these vastly different social strata, his stage productions afford modern audiences a rare glimpse into the England of the past, where all of the ancient conventions of decorum are being weighed and measured against a rising tide of innovation and change. His Athenian characters in “A Mid-Summer Night's Dream” embody the English attitudes and opposing interests of his own stratified audience, but the play itself is evidence of the changes along the boundaries of those contentious factions, and demonstrates the equality in the capacity of men to exhibit the very behavior for which they so readily demote the fairer sex.
Consider the character of Theseus, the Athenian king who is not disposed to assent to Hermia's own sovereign wishes until it is clear that doing so will serve his interests with his captive bride-to-be. Like Henry VIII, his view of his authority to take or leave a spouse proceeds from the luxury (and necessity) of his office, to which the oath of marriage itself even before God is subordinate. His relationship with Hippolyta, of master and slave, is set to transform, as if by magic, to that of husband and wife upon the pretense of marriage, but it is clear in the first scene that she is to him a prize he has rightfully won first, and a potential companion and mate second, provided she does not try to flee or kill herself or kill him or otherwise condemn herself to the gallows: “I woo'd thee with my sword,/ And won thy love doing thee injuries;/ But I will wed thee in another key,/ With pomp, and triumph, and with reveling” (1.1.16-19). This chauvinist irreverence is reenforced by his redress of Hermia's indignation, when by casual decree he reduces her prospects in life to the choice between monasticism and arranged matrimony. As Louis Adrian Montrose observes, “Theseus represents paternity as a cultural act, an art: the father is a demiurge [who] imprints himself upon, what is merely incoate matter”
The characters Egeus and Puck provide an interesting, if obscure, contrast. Egeus is an old man appealing to archaic custom to impose his will upon his rebellious youth: “As she is mine, I may dispose of her;/ Which shall be either to this gentleman/ Or to her death, according to our law” (1.1.42-44). This metaphor for divine-right monarchy must not be overlooked. As an old man, one must appreciate the length of life and tumultuous changes he endured to live long enough to see himself the head of his family, only then to see that role deflated by liberalization and progress. He represents the monolithic impenetrability of a dying autocratic culture. He is IBM to Steve Jobs, or Ben Stein to Ferris Bueller, living in the twilight of his own fading empire. Puck, on the other hand, defies even the laws of nature as a matter of sport. No institution of love, honor, or duty will subordinate his primal need for brevity and irreverence. His loyalty to Oberon seems secure, and even intimate, but his role is antithetical: Oberon appeals to him to manipulate and deceive. His court is the forest, which is, as reviewer David Bevington describes it, “potentially a place of violent death, or rape” and Puck himself “frightens many of the people he meets”
Oberon can see the fate of his fairy crown hinging upon the nature of a woman he can not bend to his will. Without him, his wife has produced an heir to his throne. Though this conflict is not an overt element of the play, its inherent unspoken implication in early 17th century Europe would have been universally obvious. What is clear in the play, however, is Oberon's unwavering dedication to removing that child from her charge, thereby removing a threat to himself as old as Zeus and Chronos. His hap-hazard decision to punish her with “hateful fantasies” (2.1.228) reflects his reactionary posture, echoing a kind of core impotence against her refusal that underpins his passive-aggressive scheme. The chaos that ensues between lovers in the wood comes as the unintended consequence of his ill-thought and hasty rashness. He is reduced from barrel-chested king to spurned child, and his incantation isn't intended to persuade her, as she wakes, as if from a dream, not in revelation but in a fog. His intent is self-gratification, he is lashing out at her for the sake of seeing her wounded, as if to counter-balance his own wounded ego. Like Theseus, he will not see her eye to eye until he has first pissed on her fire hydrant. He is not opposed to cheating (in any context) to achieve his ends.
Beneath royalty (both secular and mystical) on the social ladder lies the aristocracy. Unlike the Mechanicals, the characters Lysander and Demetrius are not presented with the titles of laborers. The occupations of the young elite in Shakespeare's time consisted primarily of courting politically advantageous mates and waiting impatiently for opportunities to seize a throne. Presumably, each of these men were landed gentry, or heirs of such. Egeus' determination to see his daughter wed within his carefully considered consent or to see her condemned to death implies much more at stake in their union for family interests than for the interests of his offspring. Hermia's dissent is typical, as is the rivalry between her suitors. One is to assume her own estate to be of some considerable influence if her father has the ear of a king in such matters.
Shakespeare is clearly aware of the vivid distinction between the ruling class and what Marxists would come to call the proletariat. This is evidenced by the callous dismissal of the Mechanicals in Philostrate's appraisal of their character to the king: “Hard men that work in Athens here,/ Which never labor'd in their minds till now” (5.1.72-73). Theseus meets his captive fiance's consternation over the exploitation of faithful subjects with his own auto-erotic self-justification: “The kinder we, to give them thanks for nothing” (5.1.89). Hippolyta's arrow has missed him entirely. His focus is upon the image he presents, which facilitates his function and station, a lesson later taken to the extreme in the case of Lenin, and dogmatized under Reagan. Again, he can not see her directly. Her compassion for the plight of the peasantry is as lost upon him as is her own unenviable plight, which is to be suddenly and forcefully propelled from confidence and optimism into humiliation and dependency, on the whim of a God-king.
The New World was still a long way off on the Athenian watch, but already its shores tugged the European spirit by Shakespeare's time. The Mechanicals pine for opportunity in the emergent industrialist enthusiasm. These were not actors, but tradesmen long disillusioned with their arduous career commitments. The character Bottom presents an intriguing insight into the tenacity that would mark the age of colonialism to follow. His willingness to be any character, to play any role, along with his appointment to the lead role speak volumes of the surfacing perception of compatibility between adaptability and success in the world of meritocratic commerce (which, of course, all art is fated to become.) In stark contrast to this brash, brass-balled confidence, Shakespeare casts the antithetical counter-role of Flute, who must play Thisby, because, in the age of discovery, women playing female roles would have been tantamount to impropriety at best, scandal at worst. Another fine point the reader must not miss in this vein is that for Shakespeare's own productions, eight men and boys must have played the roles of four fairy servants, their queen, two love-struck tarts, and Theseus' captive bride-to-be. What makes Flute so special, aside from the suggestive name, which probably elicited even more giggles and snickers back then than now, is his unique task of being a man playing a man playing a woman in a cast with seven other men simply playing women. To aggravate matters, she (he) must grieve for Pyramus convincingly, and slay herself as a natural consequence of his foolish haste. Pyramus, who sees the object of his affection only through a hole in the wall, fails to evaluate what he perceives as evidence of her demise. Perhaps his love is sincere, but his vision of Thisby can be no more credible than the tattered cloth he finds after her flight from the Lion at Ninnies tomb.
With the exception of Hippolyta, who ironically enough was involuntarily imported, every female character in this play is displayed at one point or another in a state of vulnerability or compromise. Hermia is controlled by her father, condemned by her king, and scorned by her lover. Helena is broken by her affection for Demetrius, who treats her with contempt. Titania is effectively date-raped by an unsuspecting abomination for the amusement of her husband and his curiously close and notoriously deviant personal assistant. Opposite Pyramus, ill-named Flute must appear first as man, bright eyed and eager to make the cut, then as woman, against the taunts and jeers and age-old prejudices and sophomoric jokes, first from the actor's family, then from the actor's fellow actor's, then from the actor's audience, then on into perpetuity as long as the character lives. Directors do not neglect the opportunity to capitalize on this natural, historically reliable hive-reaction. They use the laugh to soften the audience to harden the moment of catharsis. She must kill herself. As must Juliet and all the rest. Her pain must seep through the folds of Greek Myth into Athenian mouths wagging English tongues on American VHS. She must upon her lover's corpse and weep such tears as none alive may doubt, and strike her mortal breast in grief, because to go on about her life and recover from this folly would be to leave Pyramus on the stage alone with the audience, pointlessly dead, without purpose or value or heroic valor. Just dead. For no good reason at all. But if she kills herself as well?
That is romance. Two stupid decisions equal romance.
The Aristotilian view of women in Shakespeare's day held that women were “more envious, more querulous, more slanderous, and more contentious” than men. For each of these qualities, the examples offered by the male characters in the play outnumber the female. Lysander is quick to defame Demetrius in the presence of the King. Oberon and Egeus are equally contentious. The former orchestrates a perverse and humiliating scheme against his wife, who favors her changeling child over his royal edict. The latter would kill his own daughter for depriving him the opportunity to chose his next son. Theseus kidnapped a trophy wife! The only inferior quality the women seem to possess is the physical inability to defend themselves against these men. Morally speaking, every female character is an innocent victim of some man's conspiracy, and this, under a compassionate king! From this vantage, Whatley's furious sermon, which narrowed the roles of the wife to two distinct obligations, the first being “to acknowledge her inferiority, the next to carry herself as inferior” , should serve as a reminder that, like the role of Thisby, decisions concerning the role of women remained the rigid prerogative of men, even during the height of the Elizabethan era. Thomas Smith is less forceful, conceding at least that of the two naturally separate offices, “it is reason that each should govern” . Such an arrangement, however, in the words of Calvinist John Knox, “should so astonish [as to judge] the whole world transformed into Amazons”  What perhaps Shakespeare sensed that others very clearly did not was that the authority of both the church and the crown, in the hands of men, had peaked. James I would soon print the Bible in English. American shores would soon teem with disaffected Catholics and Calvinists alike, and though still deeply patriarchal in culture, there would be no place on those shores for a king. The absolute power of Man had crested, and already had begun to recede, and in His wake, women would slowly find valid roles for themselves in religion, law, science, and art, heretofore unprecedented in history.

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