Shakespeareand the Place of Women in his Work
During his time, Shakespeare wrote numerous plays and literatureworks that continue to influence the modern literary and art world.His plays were inspired by different things and covered many themesand issues in society during his time. Among his famous plays includeTroilus and Cressida and Anthony and Cleopatra.Although the two plays share a common nomenclature in that they aretitled after couples, they have both convergent and divergent viewspertaining gender roles and place of women in society. In both plays,women are widely portrayed as “whore” and Anthony andCleopatra women are portrayed as sinister and manipulative butinside all these are some trace positives about women.
In the play Anthony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare presents analternative society in which women live beyond societal expectationsand gender roles. Under Roman rule and Roman values, women weresupposed to be the huge players in the domestic arena andnon-participants in the political arena. By presenting Cleopatra asfeminine in her features and a politically strong woman, Shakespearetoys with the ideas of the behavior of such a politically powerfulwoman unheard of before in Rome. At first, he portrays all manner ofways that women can employ their sexuality to manipulate men and howmen can lose their place in society. In so doing, Shakespeare makes aprediction about a future where women will occupy more positions ofpower politically and sexually. In both plays, Anthony andCleopatra, and Troilus and Cressida and, predictions of thefuture and omens feature strongly. Thus, by portraying characters ofwomen who possess more political and sexual power than was customthen, the writer was toying with the ideas of all possible outcomesand appeal to pathos in a way that would trigger debates on the placeof women in society.
To capture the differences, Shakespeare elected to juxtaposedifferent characters in the plays as opposites of each other. InAnthony and Cleopatra, Anthony is illustrated as man whosemasculinity is on the decline. He has given his man-role in hisrelationship to his woman whilst he assumes the role of a woman. Thisexchange is captured as a joke In Act 2, Scene 5 Cleopatra says thatthey once exchanged their dressing when Antony was drunk. Incontrast, Octavius is depicted as an upright man who lives up to hismanly role. His sister Octavia is depicted as a paragon of virtue andbeauty who understands her place as a woman is supporting her man.Meanwhile Cleopatra is depicted as a woman of loose morals who hastaken over the masculine role in her relationship. By contrastingOctavia and Cleopatra, Shakespeare intended to show what women shouldaspire to be (Octavia) and what not to be (Cleopatra). In Antony, menwould learn what to avoid and in Octavius they would learn what topursue.
Women use theirfeminine nature to control men and gain power. This is the mostrecurring theme in Anthony and Cleopatra. Anthony, a recognized andrespected soldier among his people, is powerless in the face of awoman. His fellow soldiers are worried that the man has lost hisinfluence and the control of Cleopatra who used her sexuality andbeauty to control Anthony. His soldiers believe that Antony isconfused by her beauty which Enorbarbus described as “O’erpicturingthat Venus, where we see/The fancy outwork nature” (Act 2 Scene 2,44).
Again, she ispersistently referred to as whore simply because she is way toobeautiful and in control of her sexuality. Under Roman values, womenwere not expected to be dominant sexually and the fact that Cleopatraconstantly uses her sexuality to control Antony, she is referred toas a ‘whore’ and a ‘slave’ as she was from oriental east.
Similarly, the main female characters in Troilus and Cressida areportrayed as being whores for being in control of their sexuality andsexual desires. Cressida, as the main female protagonist, is depictedas a woman of loose morals and several scenes in the play highlighther behavior. To start with, she thinks highly of Pandarus though shelater falls for Troilus and Diomedes. Although this might beperceived as being in control of her sexuality same as Cleopatra, thecharacters in the play highlight and interpret their actions as equalto prostitution which was highly discouraged. Again, Ulysses acts ina manner that confirms that Cressida’s behavior was interpreted asprostitution. Ulysses embarrasses her by demanding that all men inhis court to kiss her but he himself does not indicating that heconsiders her vile and dirty (Kemp 18). This highlights the lowestmoments of powerless women who are abused by men in power and alsoshows the power of perseverance among women (Herzog) In some waytherefore, it can be presumed that in Cleopatra, Shakespeare shows towhat extent women can abuse power while in Ulysses and Caesar, heshows to what extent men can abuse power. Therefore, both plays showthat power corrupts in both genders hence the need for balanceddistribution of power.
Another character in the Troilus and Cressida who is depicted as aprostitute is Helen. She is accused of leaving Menelaus for Paris andcausing the two men to fight for her an act Diomedes callsfoolishness (4.1.54-56). It can be assumed here that Shakespeare isnot overlay drumming support for loose morals among women. He seemsto have been illustrating all things that women should be and whatthey not. In the case of Cressida, it was not much about her moralsbut her weakness and inability to speak for her rights. Her plightencourages women to learn to stand up and speak for themselvesotherwise they will be misused. In the case of Helen, Shakespeareseems to be warning women against dating multiple men as such casescan yield wars and conflict. In short, women should not takeadvantage of their sexuality to control men, who are depicted assexually weak and easy to manipulate sexually.
The highlight of the women using their beauty and sexuality tocontrol men lies with Cleopatra. Enorbaus portrays Cleopatra not onlyas a woman from the east but one creature from another world. Shegoes against all what is considered as virtuous among Egyptian womenand Roman culture. Her morals and looks are highly compared toOctavia and in particular the fact that Cleopatra used make-up orpainted her face. In Cleopatra’s court, there is discussionregarding this
SOOTHSAYER.You shall be yet far fairer than you are.
CHAIRMAN.He means in flesh.
IRAS.No, you shall paint when you are old.
CHAIRMAN.Wrinkles forbid! (1.2. 18-21).
The use of make-upin this case is comparable to sexual promiscuity and Cleopatra isconsidered a whore while Octavia is portrayed a modest, virtuous andbeautiful (2.2.244). Furthermore, Cleopatra’s evil nature and lowmoral standards are captured in act two scene two:
Becomethemselves in her, that holy priests
Blessher when she is riggish (2.2. 243-245).
Besides the negativeside of women, Shakespeare has illustrated women as helpers to men.In particular, the portrayal of Cleopatra is very interesting. Whileshe is depicted as the one who has consumed Antony’s masculinityand replaced with it with femininity in such a way that their genderroles are interchanged in the relationship, it is the same Cleopatrathat restores Antony’s masculinity. This is made possible throughtheir sexual relationships as a couple. Additionally, Cleopatra has avision of Antony’s “heroic manhood” which she connects to hissexual manpower. She says “But since my lord / Is Antony again, Iwill be Cleopatra" (3.13.186-87). This is at a timewhen Caesar seeks to belittle and destroy Antony. As such, despiteher evil nature, Cleopatra has some positive traits.
Again, after the defeat by Caesar, Cleopatra chooses to commitsuicide and be enjoined in matrimony in death with Anthony as opposedto being captured alive. According to Roman tradition, a woman wasexpected to commit suicide as a testament of her love for her husband(Randazo 20). The same commitment to the male characters is evidentin Troilus and Cressida. In particular the case of the Trojanprincess and prophetess, Cassandra, who warns her brothers of overthe fall of Troy by saying “Cry, cry! Troy burns, or else let Helengo” (2.2.112). She again warns Hector, the great Trojan warrior,about his death which she had dreamt about. Through these cases,Shakespeare portrays a man and a woman as a team that can achievegreat things by working together.
The two plays clearly do not have a common agreement on the place ofwomen in society. The author has used different characters both maleand female to show that the place of women in society is clearlysubject to the control of men. As the same time, the Anthony andCleopatra play samples or even predict a different scenario wherewomen are in power. Thus this essay acknowledges that women arewidely depicted negatively by Shakespeare in the two plays but adeeper analysis reveals their positive sides.
Herzog, Kelly,Feminist approaches when viewingCressida’s character.2011. Web.
Kemp, Theresa. Womenin the age of Shakespeare, New York ABC-CLIO, 2010. Print.
Randazo, Gelsey,Cleopatra: The Defiance of Feminine Virtue. English Senior SeminarPapers.
Paper 8. 2012. Web.
Shakespeare,William, Antony and Cleopatra, London, Penguin, 1997, Print.
Shakespeare,William, Troilus and Cressida, London, Penguin, 1967. Print.