Gender Roles In The Tempest Essay Example

Gender Roles in The Tempest: Essay Introduction

The works of William Shakespeare have received a lot of attention throughout history. His works have been analyzed by themes, line by line, or the characters he invented. His works can be interpreted one way or another, and as such, Shakespeare seems to have gained immortality. The Tempest has been identified as one of the greatest plays written by the literary master and the last play he ever wrote alone (Tillyard 98).

The Tempest was first performed before King James I and again during the marriage festivities of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth. Scholars have endorsed that the source of the play was the 1609 shipwreck of an English ship in Bermuda and the various reports of the island by survivors. The Tempest has been widely accepted as Shakespeare’s most mature comedy (Faucet 17).

The play was written during the Elizabethan era and was thus influenced by some social beliefs. One issue that has always been of interest to scholars was his portrayal of women in his work. Throughout his plays, Shakespeare uses strong-willed women with certain weaknesses that mirror Victorian era society. At times, Shakespeare develops his women characters as vicious, evil, and spiteful. Although some feminist critics have labeled Shakespeare’s presentation as misogynistic and sexist, it can be seen that the gender roles in The Tempest present a platform for the author’s plot.

The Tempest has little progressive action throughout the plot. The union of Miranda and Ferdinand is settled at their first interview. Prospero throws constant obstacles in their way. The shipwrecked individuals move freely about the island, the assassination attempts of Antonio and Sebastian, and the plot of Caliban against Prospero are nothing but a ruse as the magical skills of Prospero will outmaneuver them. The main characters in the play have been developed with remarkable strength. The Tempest gender roles reflect beliefs in the Elizabethan era and help build the platform for the plot.

Gender roles in The Tempest

To understand gender roles in The Tempest, one should look at how Shakespeare presented his characters. The Tempest has only one main female character, Miranda. The other women are only mentioned and include Miranda’s mother, Caliban’s mother, Sycorax, and Alonso’s daughter Claribel (Chedgzoy 42).

Miranda’s mother is only mentioned once in the play when Miranda questions Prospero whether he is her father. Accordingly, Prospero tells Miranda that her mother was a woman of virtue who told him that Miranda was his daughter and his only heir (Shakespeare 112). The wording used by Prospero indicates that although his wife was virtuous, women as a class have no virtue. In the Elizabethan era, women were supposed to follow several social rules and be submissive to their husbands.

Infidelity was highly frowned upon and was very dangerous for married women. If a husband doubted his wife’s virtue, her children’s legitimacy would be in problem, and she may find herself and her children cast away. In the play, Shakespeare uses Prospero’s wife to legitimize Miranda as Prospero’s heir. It is her world that Prospero accepts, and once assured, he turns his attention to himself and his succession.

Apart from this instance, Miranda’s mother is absent throughout the play from the memories of Prospero and Miranda (Orgel 8). Miranda can recall being attended by several women but not her mother. This also shows the attitudes of the time in which women were required to give birth to children, and for those in nobility, children had little contact with their parents as they engaged with other social issues leaving their children under the care of servants. This can also be confirmed when Prospero narrates the crimes committed by Antonio, to whom Miranda answers:

“I should sin
But to think nobly of my grandmother:
Good wombs have borne bad sons”
. (Shakespeare, 113)

Miranda is a sweet, well-spoken character. In the play, she is deprived of freedom by Prospero. The only duty given to her is to remain chaste. Thompson (168) argues that Miranda, in a manner typical to the Elizabethan era, has fully internalized the patriarchal order of society. She views herself as totally subordinate to Prospero, accepting his views as the only correct views. Shakespeare’s presentation of Miranda in this way may be an attempt to bring forth Prospero’s part in the play.

Critics have argued that Prospero is the only dominant character dominating both the narratives and the characters in the play (Thomson 53). Therefore, Miranda’s submissive nature only helps Prospero reach his goals and communicate his ideas to the audience.

During the Elizabethan era, colonialism was also an important topic in society. Shakespeare then uses Miranda as a victim of an attack from Caliban’s brute nature when he attempts to rape her, forcing her father to protect her and turn the brute into a slave (Woolf 1241). Shakespeare uses Miranda to moralize the act of colonization, i.e., Caliban was the only native on the island.

The relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand is only a means to bring out the plot. Miranda is submissive to Ferdinand and, at one point, offers to carry logs for him. Ferdinand falls in love with Miranda’s playful character. Shakespeare presents Miranda in this manner to develop Ferdinand’s character in the play.

Shakespeare also uses The Tempest gender roles to present the theme of magic. In the Elizabethan era, magic was frowned upon, and it was common for people to be persecuted on suspicions of witchcraft (Loomba 82). To develop the plot of Prospero as a powerful magician who uses his powers for good, he presents Sycorax, who defies all the social norms of women in the Elizabethan era. Sycorax is a non-white woman who has no virtue, as evidenced by her illegitimate pregnancy (Chedgzoy 64). She uses black magic for evil means spreading suffering to others. She is also the mother of Caliban, a character of questionable morals. Shakespeare makes Sycorax go against all social norms.

Apart from the presentation of women, Shakespeare also uses male gender roles in The Tempest to bring out his plot. Prospero is a respectable man, a prince of considerable power, and a loving father. Shakespeare presents Prospero as protective towards Miranda and a man who is not afraid to face danger to carry out his duties. He controls his daughter giving her no freedom not to be corrupted (Thompson 169). He protects her from the attack from Caliban, thereby enslaving him. He is also interested in the relationship between his daughter and Ferdinand, which mainly progresses according to his wishes.

Caliban, on the other hand, is present as a wild man who has questionable morals. He is not honorable as he attempts to rape Miranda. Due to his weak nature, he is forced into slavery by Prospero. Caliban is unkind and a child of an immoral woman and, as such, serves as a perfect tool for Shakespeare to present the theme of good versus evil in the play. Finally, Shakespeare uses Ferdinand to present the aspect of romantic love in the play. Ferdinand is the prince of Naples and is quite honorable. He falls in love with Miranda, and Prospero uses this relationship to regain his position as the Duke of Milan.

Ferdinand is later accused and imprisoned, forced to arbitrary move logs. Miranda, however, is still in love with him and continues to interact with him despite her father’s wishes. Prospero notices their desire for each other and allows them to interact and marry after Ferdinand proves he is worthy, respectable, and honorable. The Miranda-Ferdinand plot is one of love, and as Faucet (102) notes, the play ends beautifully with the final happiness of a pair that has captured the interest of the audience from its beginning to the end.

Gender Roles in The Tempest: Essay Conclusion

Shakespeare presents his characters in very different ways and for very different purposes. He utilizes various The Tempest gender roles to meet specific goals related to the final plot. Of significant interest are colonialism, magic, love, and duty. The male characters are heads of their homes, dictators of women, and fighters for honor and duty. Women characters are submissive and good (Miranda) or independent, non-virtuous, and evil (Sycorax).

Works Cited

Chedgzoy, Kate. Shakespeare, Feminism, and Gender: Contemporary Critical Essays. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. London: MacMillan, 1996.

Faucet, Helena. On Some of Shakespeare’s Females Characters. New York: AMS, 1970.

Loomba, A. Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama. Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Orgel, Stephen. “Prospero’s Wife.” Representations 8.10 (1984): 1–13.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest: With New and Updated Critical Essays. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.

Thompson, Ann. “Miranda, Where’s your Sister: Reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest.” Kamps 1 (1995): 168-177.

Thomson, Peter. “The Comic Actor and Shakespeare. In Wells, Stanley and Sarah Stanton” The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Tillyard, E. M. Shakespeare’s Last Plays. London: Chatto and Windus, 1938.

Woolf, Virginia. “A Room of One’s Own.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Second Compact Edition: Volume B. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Pearson, 2004. 1240-1242.

Elizabethan Era Gender Roles In Shakespeare Plays

Interested in Elizabethan era gender roles in Shakespeare plays? Check out this essay! It analyzes gender roles in Elizabethan society and the importance of marriage and gender conformity during the Elizabethan era. Here, we explain why some scholars believe that Shakespeare promoted feminism and how gender roles in Elizabethan England were presented in theatre, especially in Shakespeare’s plays. Keep reading to learn more!

Gender Roles in Shakespearean Times: Introduction

Gender roles are a collection of behavioral and social norms that are acceptable for people of a particular sex in the framework of a specific culture (Dusinberre 12). Gender roles change widely between different cultures and periods. To better understand gender roles in Shakespeare’s plays, it is crucial to understand gender-based roles in the Elizabethan Era.

Elizabethan Era Gender Roles in Shakespeare Plays: Analysis

In the Elizabethan era, gender roles were clearly defined. Elizabethan England was highly patriarchal in attitudes and structure. Women were not allowed to claim any independence but were considered subservient to their male relatives, whether husbands, brothers, or fathers. During this era, social advancement for women was almost impossible. They were denied access to literary rhetoric, an essential linguistic and intellectual tool for social promotion (Emmison 36).

During this era, Men were granted dominion over women, and it was expected that they were the heads of the household and demanded obedience from their wives and children. Men arranged marriages for the daughters and women’s relatives to suitable suitors. Bravery and intellect were expected of all men. The service to the crown and the church was required for all.

On the other hand, women were expected to be submissive to their male counterparts. They had to be respectable, obedient, and knowledgeable of domestic issues. A woman’s duty was to obey her husband and make him proud (Loomba 16). From birth, women were taught how to carry out domestic tasks and govern the household, such that when they were married, regardless of their class, they would make their husbands proud. In marriage, a woman was supposed to provide a dowry to the man. Once married, she passed her material wealth to her husband.

Education during this time was only granted to women from noble families. Education mainly included knowledge of several languages, such as French, Latin, Italian, and Greek. Throughout their lives, women of the Elizabethan era were made to become highly dependent on their male husbands, and deviance from this would constitute a social crime. It may have led to a woman being socially shunned and labeled a witch or other inappropriate titles (Emmison, 45).

Shakespeare’s great works have been recognized mainly because of the reality check that they had in the society of the time. However, having examined Shakespeare’s works, one cannot help but notice how he firmly emphasizes the place of each gender in society. According to Shakespeare, it is a man’s world, meaning that it is the male gender that has got the upper hand in society over their female counterparts. In almost all his books and poems, Shakespeare depicts women as being submissive to men, not having the same opportunities and freedom as their male counterparts, and giving up a lot for the male figures in society.

In the book The Women of Richard III, Shakespeare brings out another side of women. Shakespeare depicts a woman as one who will not tolerate the oppression and inequality in society. She is ready to raise her voice to speak against the unfairness and injustices in society. Therefore, in Shakespeare’s world, women are victims of their male counterparts, who are always sidelined and who must constantly complain and protest to have their grievances addressed.

It is as though they are not part of society, and they have to sort of struggle to fit in a male-dominated society. Shakespeare depicts a chauvinistic society where the male gender occupies the entire society, oblivious to the existence of their female counterparts.

Women have played various roles and characters in the plays and poems written by Shakespeare. However, they are weak and inferior to men. This is so evident, even in the manner that Shakespeare chooses his characters. For instance, in The Tempest, there is only one female character, Miranda, while the rest are male. This deliberate choice of fewer female characters in comparison to the male characters sometimes makes the female character have a minimum impact. By the end of the play, the reader may have disregarded or forgotten about the existence of the female character.

It is important to remember that when William Shakespeare came up with his creative pieces of writing, it was the Elizabethan era. This was when Queen Elizabeth of England was reigning. During this era, women were highly looked down upon, and men heavily dominated their women to the extent of oppression. Therefore, Shakespeare’s depiction of women was just a reflection of what was in society at the time. However, he was, on several occasions, accused of exaggerating the demeaning of women in society. Some of his critics even argued that he was a male chauvinist. Scholars, however, argue that William Shakespeare was a feminist.

One of Shakespeare’s greatest plays that received worldwide acrimony is Romeo and Juliet. Like many other of his works, one of the loudest character traits of all the females depicted in these works is silence. Women are almost afraid of complaining or protecting the situation of their lives in society, yet it is evident that they are not content with their situations.

In Romeo, there are only a few women who can be noted. They include Juliet, her mother, and Juliet’s nurse. Throughout the play, it becomes evidently clear that these women have little control or none at all on their lives and even on the lives of others. Juliet’s mother, for instance, does not have any influence on Juliet, the kind of influence that a mother would be expected to have on her daughter. The manner in which the play ends with Juliet being silenced to death is parabolic, showing the loud silence among the women in Shakespeare’s world.

The aspect of silence can also be seen in Othello, where the wife of Othello is a good Christian wife who knows nothing else but to remain submissive to her husband. She does not ask any questions but rather follows instructions from her husband without fail. Hamlet, another great work of Shakespeare, features two key women who also portray a great deal of silence. One cannot help but notice that in all works of Shakespeare, the main women characters are finally sentenced at the end of the play or poem. They are actually silenced practically through death as a result of the actions of their male counterparts.

While William Shakespeare may have been accused of being a male chauvinist by his critics, the truth of the matter is that Shakespeare helped the rest of the world know what was happening and especially as far as the oppression of women was concerned. It is perhaps due to such works of William Shakespeare that women came together and protested. The world today has no comparison with the society back then. Women have now risen to positions of power, and now they have equal and similar opportunities as their male counterparts. The oppression is now an issue of gone days. Women are now enjoying just as much freedom as the male gender.

Shakespeare’s Description of Gender Roles in Elizabethan Society: Conclusion

Shakespeare was able to forge the relationship between the different gender roles to bring out different plots in a manner acceptable to the audience in the Elizabethan era. He uses the gender roles defined at the time to develop his characters. He presents how various characters meet their gender roles to complete a given role as required by the plot of the play. Although modern critics may deem Shakespeare, a sexist, it is essential to remember that gender roles are defined by the moment they are applied and that Shakespeare utilized his gender roles in an exemplary manner to meet his objectives.

Works Cited

Chedgzoy, Kate. Shakespeare, Feminism, and Gender: Contemporary Critical Essays. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. London: MacMillan, 1996.

Faucet, Helena. On Some of Shakespeare’s Females Characters. New York: AMS, 1970.

Loomba, A. Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama. Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Orgel, Stephen. “Prospero’s Wife.” Representations 8.10 (1984): 1–13.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest: With New and Updated Critical Essays. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.

Thompson, Ann. “Miranda, Where’s your Sister: Reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest.” Kamps 1 (1995): 168-177.

Thomson, Peter. “The Comic Actor and Shakespeare. In Wells, Stanley and Sarah Stanton” The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Tillyard, E. M. Shakespeare’s Last Plays. London: Chatto and Windus, 1938.

Woolf, Virginia. “A Room of One’s Own.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Second Compact Edition: Volume B. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Pearson, 2004. 1240-1242.

Annotated Bibliography: Shakespeare Studies

Chedgzoy, Kate. Shakespeare, Feminism, and Gender: Contemporary Critical Essays. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Recently, feminist criticisms of Shakespeare’s works have greatly expanded. Chedgzoy notes that the modern field of feminist criticism is not as obsessed as it once was on whether Shakespeare’s works were feminist or proto-feminist, or in the very least compatible with feminism. Chedgzoy notes that contemporary female scholars are concerned more than ever with class, racial, political, cultural, and historical issues of disempowerment. In her book, the intersection of gender with other varying political and historical issues is explored. She looks at the various instances where women characters in the Shakespearean world are disempowered due to gender.

Orgel, Stephen. “Prospero’s Wife.” Representations 8.10 (1984): 1–13.

Orgel’s main intention in this article is to investigate why Prospero’s wife never appears in the story and why she lacks even in the memories of Prospero and Miranda throughout the play. Orgel discusses various issues that include psychoanalytic paradigms, power and authority, Prospero’s wife, and Ferdinand’s praise of the Masque. Orgel tries to find out why Prospero’s wife seldom appears in the play and looks at the various instances in which she and other female characters were mentioned.

Orgel notes that Prospero views women as a whole lack virtue. He only knew that Miranda was his heir after her mother assured him. Orgel analyzes how Shakespeare paints his women characters and finally concludes that women in Shakespeare’s play only exist to meet a specific need and are usually subordinate to their male characters. Miranda is utterly under the control of her father, and her subsequent marriage to Ferdinand will most likely lead to a situation of subordination. Orgel uses a Freudian approach and investigates why Prospero’s wife and almost all motherly figures lack in the play.

Thompson, Ann. “Miranda, Where’s your Sister: Reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest.” Kamps 1 (1995): 168-177.

The article by Thomson is a critical feminist essay on The Tempest. Thompson focuses on the absence of female characters in the play. She embarks on discovering the ideology of femininity in the play, which paradoxically rejects the importance of female characters despite attributing massive power to female fertility and purity. Thomson notes that despite Miranda being a subordinate character, her role is crucial for developing events in the play.

Munoz, Sophia. Double Erasure in the Tempest: Miranda in Post Modern Critical Discourse. Sederi 9(1998): 299-305.

Munoz looks at the paradoxical nature in which Miranda has been portrayed in the play and the manner in which modern scholars have interpreted her character in the play. She notes that although Miranda is a dependant female whose whole life seems to be controlled by Prospero, she is essential for the play’s dynamics of power. She looks at the new paradigm of Shakespearean studies and presents several views from different writers on the aspect of feminism and the Tempest.

Munoz explains that the double erasure of Miranda in the play denotes how Miranda’s character has been neglected in modern political readings of the play, which have mainly focused their attention of the play’s power scheme on the issue of colonialism. She argues that modern studies mainly focus on Caliban as a symbol of the exploited native while ignoring the definite repression of Miranda.

Cygan, Lauren. Sexist Themes in Othello, Taming of the Shrew, and The Tempest. Shakespeare Studies 24 (1998): 134-143.

Cygan looks at how sexism themes exist in these three plays by Shakespeare. He notes that although Shakespeare used strong-willed women characters in his plays, he endowed them with several weaknesses that made it easier for people to relate to them. He also notes that Shakespeare had the habit of presenting his women characters as vicious, malicious, or spiteful. Cygan chooses three female characters: Desdemona, Kate, and Miranda, to determine how feminism and sexism can be found in Shakespearean works. Cygan argues that Shakespeare only developed two types of women: virtuous subhuman and deceiving subhuman characters.

He also notes that although female characters in his plays can shift from virtuous to deceiving, the opposite never happens. When Cygan looks at the character of Miranda, he notes that Shakespeare has been identified as a primary force behind the feminist movement, with some writers going as far as accusing Shakespeare of raping the identity of women. He notes that Miranda is too child-like and humanistic, sweet and well-spoken. According to Cygan, Miranda is inexperienced in world views but is not reserved; hence she can communicate with the male characters without being subservient.

Barbour, Kathryn. “Flout ’em and Scout ’em and Scout ’em and Flout ’em: Prospero’s Power and Punishments in The Tempest.” Shakespearean Criticism 94 (1998): 285–290.

In this article, Barbour explores how Prospero punishes those responsible for the loss of his title as the Duke of Milan and the way he tries to regain his position. In the article, the terms punishment and power are used in many instances, and Barbour exposes the relationship in which Prospero inflicts emotional punishment for those people in higher ranks like Alonso and the physical punishment he inflicts on lesser beings like Caliban. The thesis of the article is that The Tempest is one of the several plays to explore the relationship between the a visibility of a ruler, his wish to be a compassionate ruler, his ability to retain power, and the means with which that power can be achieved and maintained (p.286).

Renes Cornelis. Whose New World? Derek Jarman’s Subversive Vision of The Tempest. Universitat de Barcelona (2006): 36-48.

The article re-examines Derek Jarman’s film The Tempest (1979) against modern progress in film adaptation theory to understand the film’s controversial handling of the Shakespearean play source material. The film is analyses by examining the film’s protagonist in terms of gender and plot. The article looks at the film presentation of Miranda’s relationship with Prospero and Ferdinand within a gendered context of geopolitical conflict. Next, the article looks at the characterization of Caliban as a non-threatening human. The author notes that the film was a victim of fidelity criticism and can serve as a subversive deconstruction of Shakespearean.

Slights, Jessica. Rape and the Romanticization of Shakespeare’s Miranda. SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.2 (2001): 375-379.

In this article, Slight embarks on establishing that political criticisms of Shakespearean plays lack a concrete theoretical basis from which to study female characters as active participants in the fictional worlds in which they inhabit. The article specifically looks at challenging Miranda’s omission from critical discourse. The author explores what happens when Miranda is portrayed only as a symbol of the Elizabethan ruling class rather than an active participant in the life-world of the play. The author notes that modern discourse usually misses on Miranda’s important strengths and characteristics as they never dig deeper to understand her as an individual character.

Leininger, Lorrie Jerell. The Miranda Trap: Sexism and Racism in Shakespeare’s Tempest. in Eds. Lenz, c. Green, G, and Neely, C. The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1980: 285-294.

This article looks at the two major themes in the Tempest: feminism and slavery. According to the author, the play was written fifty years after England openly entered the slave trade. The author notes that the native of the Island that Prospero colonizes has been presented as the embodiment of irredeemable evil, lust, and disobedience. In contrast, his enslaver is presented as a god-figure. This presentation makes a significant difference in the expectations raised as to the moral obligations of Prospero as a slave owner or a god-figure. The article also looks at the presentation of Miranda and presents her as a counterpart to Queen Elizabeth.

The author looks at the social classes that existed in England by looking at how Miranda was presented in the play. The article notes that although Miranda is wealthy and learned, she belongs to a lower class than her father. She is presented as chaste and virtuous, which was a common requirement for unmarried women. She is seen as a prize and a material possession both by Ferdinand and Prospero, respectively. The author comments that some of the symbolism used in the play is damaging as it deflects real attention to the issues facing the society at the time, such as the slavery issues where natives were viewed as being savages who were created to serve others and that women were lower beings under the dominion of man.

Fox-Good, Jaquelyne. Other Voices: The Sweet, Dangerous Air of Shakespeare’s Tempest. Shakespeare Studies 24 (1996): 241-274.

This article looks at the musical metaphors used in the play and how they help bring out essential themes in the play. The author seeks to disapprove of two modern trends of the critical discourse of the play. The two trends include the humanism trend of fusing music with social unity and the historicist readings that make the same conflation. She argues that the two trends make a naïve claim and fail to realize that music exists free of its historical context. It is transcendent and trans-historical. She argues that many people do not appreciate and understand Shakespeare’s music because the songs are mainly treated as poems, and some critics assume songs are music.

She presents several differences between music, songs, and poems and how these distinctions can be applied to The Tempest to understand several themes. The various relationships between the principal characters are investigated according to the multiple songs and music in the play.

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