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Female Gender Roles in Literature

William Shakespeare paid much attention to different issues connected with gender roles in many of his plays. This essay will focus on the analysis of female gender roles and stereotypes in Twelfth Night (1601-02) and The Taming of the Shrew (1590-92). It will also explore how these aspects influence the concepts of courtship and marriage and how they stipulate a person’s behavior in the society. The two aforementioned plays demonstrate how gender was treated in Shakespeare’s time and how typical stereotypes regulated all aspects of societal life.


The works of William Shakespeare offer a wide range of materials useful for the study of gender ideology. Gender issues are especially evident in the playwright’s comedies, where everyday interpersonal relations usually become the focal point of performances. Both plays mentioned above feature the stories of several couples who after overcoming a variety of difficulties are united in marriage. In Twelfth Night, these couples are Duke Orsino and Viola, and Sebastian and Olivia. In The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare also describes the relations of two couples, namely Petruchio and Katherina, and Bianca and Lucentio. Each play ends in a double marriage, and this type of the ending is important for the depiction of gender roles in the aforementioned works. In the two plays, marriage is seen as the top priority for female characters, although they may seem to be disinterested in it at first. In Twelfth Night, for instance, Olivia mourns her brother and father, and in The Taming of the Shrew, Katherine does not see herself as a wife because she prefers not to be limited by a husband’s will. However, at the end of the plays, these characters find themselves happy to be married to the men they love. Consequently, the plot of the plays proves that in the Elizabethan society, the institution of marriage was treated as the maximum possible development for a woman. Besides, in those times, marriage was seen not as a union of two people who love each other but as a socially and legally approved beginning of a new family that will give birth to children. For example, when talking to Olivia, Viola says, “Lady, you are the cruell’st she alive, / If you will lead these graces to the grave / And leave the world no copy” (Twelfth Night). Thus, the stereotyped ideal of a woman in the plays of William Shakespeare is a woman who wishes to marry and have children, even though such characters are rarely found in his other plays.

Since gender is a socially constructed notion, it is important to understand what processes influence the formation of gender roles among men and women. Both plays feature quite atypical women, namely Katherina and Olivia, who, due to different reasons, distance themselves from the traditional Elizabethan female ideal. However, through the course of the plays, the women mentioned above are gradually subdued to submissiveness. This means that in that time, the society did not want a woman to violate traditionally established gender roles since that could ruin the social order. This is especially obvious in the case of Katherina, who has a strong personality that defies all rules and stereotypes. It is evident that Shakespeare makes her smarter and more sophisticated than her sister Bianca, who embodies the traditional understanding of a perfect Elizabethan woman. Katherina does not want to accept marriage as a financial transaction between men, in this case, her father and her would-be husband. Instead, she is more inclined to see marriage as a spiritual union of two lovers. However, being a realistic person, she understands that Petruchio’s attitude, “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua,” is a too widespread notion (The Taming of the Shrew).

Olivia, in her turn, is also aware that she is a rich woman without a husband. Therefore, she realizes that she will be courted primarily because of her money. As a result, she becomes irritated with Malviolio’s attempts to court her because she understands that a man from a lower social class is interested in her status and wealth, and not in her as a person. When Olivia understands that she is interested in Cesario, she tries to make him understand her feelings. However, she is punished for those attempts because Cesario, who in reality is Viola in disguise, refuses Olivia’s favors and makes her suffer.

The plays demonstrate various social limitations that were imposed on women in the Elizabethan period. For example, when Bianca’s father tells her that she will not get married before Katherina, Bianca has no other option but to obey his will. Besides, she cannot tell him everything about her feelings because she is a woman, and she is supposed to be submissive to the decisions of men. Similarly, when Katherina is engaged to Petruchio, she is deprived of her right to have her own opinion and disagree with him. By making her suffer without proper food and new clothes, Petruchio turns her into a dull person who agrees with everything he says. For instance, when he claims that the sun is the moon, Katherina agrees, saying, “if you please to call it a rush-candle, / Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me” (The Taming of the Shrew). However, even despite the fact that Shakespeare pays more attention to the analysis of female gender roles in The Taming of the Shrew, the restrictions imposed on women are better explored in Twelfth Night in the character of Viola, who is able to speak freely in her disguise as a man. She can allow herself to talk without any social restrictions with Duke Orsino and tell him everything she thinks of love and gender roles.

Even despite the fact that Shakespeare, in most cases, supports Elizabethan gender stereotypes related to women and their roles in the society, he questions them and asks thought-provoking questions regarding their necessity and effectiveness. In some episodes of his plays, he allows female characters to express masculine features, either due to their own personalities (as in the case of Katherina) or when they are in disguise (as in the case of Viola). These aspects make the works of Shakespeare even more complicated in terms of gender analysis. Besides, in the Elizabethan theatre, all female roles were played by men. Thus, such cases as Viola dressed as a man became complex and multidimensional. However, it is not appropriate to analyze all interpretations of gender roles in these two plays from the perspective of a modern reader because the cultural and social standards of the English Renaissance were significantly different from the contemporary ones. Consequently, the traditions that may seem discriminatory to a modern person may have been treated as an absolute norm in the sixteenth century.

In conclusion, William Shakespeare thoroughly explored female gender roles in the plays Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew. Although he depicted some strong female characters who did not agree with the social stereotypes of his times, at the end of the plays, they got married and became more subservient than at the beginning. The playwright also showed a variety of limitations that were imposed on women in the society. However, it would be a mistake to argue that the plays under discussion are feminist, since Shakespeare seems to prefer either to tame or to punish women for being strong and defying the social regulations.