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William Shakespeare’s plays are among the best in literature focusing on several themes during the era of Elizabethan England. Shakespeare’s interest in social issues which continuously embraced England inspired his artistic works. He attempted to present the commoner’s pledges through play writing, by touching on the various crucial aspects within the society. He wrote the King Lear around 1606, Antony and Cleopatra 1607, Measure for Measure 1605, Othello 1605 and The Tempest 1611. The five plays look at several settings, themes and other artistic features showing their similarities and differences. This essay will examine the philosophical, psychological, social and theatrical gender issues raised by the five plays identifying the similarities and differences in the plays on gender issues.
The play, King Lear portrays women as disloyal, promiscuous; she appeared to be “root” of all the world’s problems (Shakespeare and Orgel, 16). In this respect, Shakespeare instills the perception that women are immoral in their ambitions thus causing the problems in various societies. The play does not include female characters implying Shakespeare’s emphasis on the roles played by women. In contrary, the play Antony and Cleopatra depicts women as significant personalities in various civilizations. Cleopatra, a queen who ruled over ancient Egypt, is seen as a fully established female character in the play. Her leadership role reflects on the importance of women towards the realization of societal goals through the alleviation of various problems. The strong bond between Cleopatra and Antony shows the essence of companionship and faithfulness in that is required for productive interaction considering the leadership aspect. Also, the play, Antony and Cleopatra bring about the aspect of gender erosion as Cleopatra and Antony turn out to be masculine and feminine respectively. Therefore, Shakespeare utilizes the female character in the play, Antony and Cleopatra to address the theme of gender by showing the strength that women poses. On the other hand, the play, King Lear perceives women as detrimental to society’s success.
The play, Measure for Measure also unmasks the dark side of women considering the roles they play in survival. Shakespeare uses three active female characters to depict their questionable roles in a bid to stress the theme of gender. A prostitute who is arrested for operating a brothel in the play unmasks the immoralities that are spearheaded by women in various societies in a bid to achieve financial gains. Additionally, Shakespeare intends to reflect on the society’s stereotype towards women. A corrupt deputy blackmailed a wannabe nun to hinder her ambitions thus regarding women as lesser humans who could be used for intimate gratification. However, Shakespeare limits the roles played by women in the play evoking the need to question their overall roles in society. Similarly, in King Lear, the roles played by women in the play were narrow since no female characters were used (Shakespeare and Orgel, 18). The sexual immoralities practiced by women were revealed in both plays through attributes like promiscuity and disloyalty.
Shakespeare’s play, Othello, unmasks gender relations in the form of the misogyny of men and women’s roles. The misogyny of men towards women is evident in various scenes of the play as it evokes female fury. Desdemona regularly uses her independence to portray her power over her husband, Othello to forgive Cassio. The rebellious Emilia goes against her husband’s will thus depicting the need for women’s independence as shown in the furious scenes. The aspect of prostitution is also brought up as Bianca engages in promiscuity despite her love for Cassio. Gender roles, as seen in the play, were also meant to differentiate the position of both men and women in the society. Emilia and Desdemona were expected to play the household roles as ‘housewives’ thus they were not required to seek formal employment. In comparison to the play, The Tempest, oppression of women and gender inequalities is also evidence of the gender issues (Shakespeare, Vaughan, and Vaughan, 24). Miranda and Prospero facilitate the depiction of gender inequalities as Elizabeth ascended to the throne. Prospero shows his authority and dominance over women as he states his authority. Therefore, Othello and The Tempest shows the various roles that women play and how men contribute to their behavior in areas like politics, economics, and social issues.
Shakespeare in trying to identify who women are looked at what are the traditional virtues women have in relation to men. These traditional virtues include submission, quietness, sexual chastity, self-effacement, tolerance, piety and faithfulness to men. All these virtues together portray an image of a woman traditionally only meant to be ruled or subject to men. Further, according to Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra there is a total disagreement on the traditional virtues regarding what a woman is to a man. In the play, Cleopatra is strongly developed as a woman ruler despite the limitation that men want her to portray the traditional character like submission, silence among others as seen above. This is similar to the play The Tempest where we have Sycorax although at the stage is a man, in her act as woman develops Sycorax as a strong woman leader (Shakespeare, Vaughan, and Vaughan, 26). Prospero understanding with only the traditional conception of a woman calls her “a witch” and “a whore." In the continued trying to diminish Sycorax, Prospero only builds a woman who goes against restriction leveled against her as a woman. In the play, Measure for Measure, Isabella wants to leave to go and join a convent. This shows the desire to exercise self-will without men having a say on what she does (Shakespeare 23).
The subject of gender is focused on across the five plays. In Othello, unmarried women are considered as their father’s property. The male gender is characterized by cruelty and jealousy as seen in the case where husbands kill their wives in the play. In the play King Lear, women are labeled as promiscuous, disloyal and the source of problems in the kingdom. King Lear starts a diatribe against the female gender after his daughters, Goneril and Regan, betrayed him. Measure for Measure focuses on three women who fall victims to the cruelty of patriarchal authority. The roles of women in the play are few, therefore, shedding lights on the fact that society did not give much significance to the female gender. Antony and Cleopatra view women as leaders in contrast to the other plays, Cleopatra are the Egyptian Queen. It is, therefore, clear that women were considered as a weaker gender except in the play, Antony, and Cleopatra.
The theme of contrasting regions is featured in the plays The Tempest and Antony and Cleopatra. The Tempest is set entirely on an island but still illustrates the differences between the wilderness and the courtly worlds. It is clear that the shipwreck survivors have to let go of courtly rules since they are not applicable outside the courts, “when the sea is, hence! What cares these roarers for the name of the king” (Shakespeare and Orgel, 4). In the drama, Antony and Cleopatra, the topic of contrasting regions is seen through the setting in Rome and Egypt. Shakespeare takes the reader through the changes in areas, values, and morals in the different settings. Caesar criticizes the kind of life Antony leads in Egypt, which is contrary to Romanian ways, “he fishes, drinks and wastes, the lamps of night in ravel, and is not manlike” (Shakespeare and Everett, 34).
The play The Tempest is the odd one out. In the other four plays, Shakespeare describes the fact that humans act through their conscious and motives. However, in The Tempest there are incidences of supernatural influences to man’s life throughout the play. The conflicts and solutions in the play are greatly influenced by the deity. It seems like the whole story is centered on a magical island full of wonders that are beyond human intelligence. Prospero uses magic to control several situations such as reversing Sycorax’s spell, “it was a torment to lay upon the damned, which Sycorax could not again undo,” (Shakespeare & Brandes, 54). Therefore, the use of the supernatural as a theme in character mediation points out the unique nature of the play, The Tempest.
Shakespeare addresses gender issues unambiguously, philosophically, psychologically, socially, and theoretically. There is consistency in the idea that women struggle against all odds to become strong leaders through independence seeking strategies. The plays show women taking up men’s roles like in the case of Cleopatra and Antony. In this regard, Shakespeare comprehensively addresses the theme of gender with the aim of showcasing the similarities between women’s struggles to rule and become independent which was contrary to the expectations of men.
Shakespeare, William, and Stephen Orgel. King Lear. New York, N.Y: Penguin Books, 1999. Print.
Shakespeare, William, Ed. by Barbara Everett. The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. New York: Signet, 1988. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. Irvine: Saddleback Educational Publishers, 2010. Print.
Shakespeare, William, Virginia M. Vaughan, and Alden T. Vaughan. The Tempest. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2000. Print.
Shakespeare, William, and Georg Brandes. Measure for Measure. Heinemann Favorite Classics. 1904. Print.
Shakespear, William. Measure for Measure. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Print.
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