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Discuss the treatment of gender politics in Romeo and Juilet(TM) and Antony and Cleopatra(TM)

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Discuss the treatment of gender politics in ‘Romeo and Juilet’ and ‘Antony and Cleopatra’

The issue of gender politics has always been a prevalent theme for the basis of Renaissance literature with the traditional roles of men and women often being challenged.  The Renaissance era held strong ideals of how men and women should behave strongly defining the differences between the sexes; ‘history, society and culture shape though not entirely determine the ways in which men and women perceive themselves and are perceived by others[1]’. Gender politics it could be argued bleeds into social construction which can be defined as ‘any institutionalized entity or artefact in a social system ‘invented’ or ‘constructed’ by participants in a particular culture or society that exists because people agree to behave as if it exists or follow certain conventional rules’. The study of Shakespeare can be described generally as a consideration of individual and society in the plays, but this is a clearly too vague a formula to stand by itself without close analysis. Focusing on Shakespeare’s, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ I am going to explore the notion that men and women’s gender roles is often shaped by the society in which they live and examine whether these publications challenge traditional gender roles.

Throughout Shakespeare’s plays the roles of the female protagonists varies greatly. In Elizabethan society the transcendental ideology of love was that women should remain passive whilst men actively pursue their hand in marriage. The patriarchal society in which they lived also meant that the father, head of the household, had the authority to choose the woman’s husband and ‘the Elizabethan elite marriage was marked by a protracted series of public rituals and social transactions[2]’. Desire and sexuality was also frowned upon before marriage with shame framing the concept of erotic desire reinforcing the belief that women were not even in control of their own sexuality. Therefore through subconscious attribution women became morally defined by their sexual status. In Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the powerful control of the patriarchal society is clearly identified in the character of Capulet. In act 1 scene 2 he refers to Juliet’s inability to choose a husband for herself when he states ‘my will to her consent is but a part’ (i.ii.15). He appears to be offering Juliet some leeway with her choice of husband but his power to force her into a marriage if he feels necessary is implicitly present which is revealed when he later states ‘as you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend’(3.5.191).  This emphasises the commanding force over women by the social structure of the family were ‘considering gender reveals critical differences in the family foundations of societies – varying from how marriages were contracted and ancestry calculated to how property was transferred and classes formed[3]’. This paramount control by the head of the family is embellished further by the setting in Verona, Italy, where desires, rebellions and restraint are magnified by the exotic setting. In Renaissance society the head of the household was believed to know best, however, in many ways Shakespeare reveals Capulet to be indecisive character therefore contradicting his own authoritarian rule. This is exposed in Capulet’s wavering ideas of when Juliet should marry; he initially tells Paris ‘My child is yet a stranger to the world’ (1.2.8) but then contradicts himself by enforcing Juliet’s marriage to Paris. As argued by Coppelia Kahn ‘ by introducing the arranged marriage at the beginning , and by making Capulet change his mind about it, Shakespeare shows us how capricious patriarchal rule can be[4]’, consequently revealing the irresolute divide between men and women in patriarchal society.  By defying the household authority figure Juliet seems to distort the traditional ideals of how a women should behave in Renaissance society.  Carolyn Brown argues that ‘Shakespeare reverses the gender roles, as he does in other parts of the play, and has Juliet assume behaviour typically assigned to men[5]’. It could be argued that the play is based on a battle of wills between Juliet and her father which could be seen as resembling a duel normally associated between two men as in ‘the context of Shakespearean drama, moreover, female characters have been recognized as strong willed[6]’. Although, their duel is not physical, (despite Caplet threatening Juliet with physical violence), it is based on domination and rebellion, with Juliet successfully evading her fathers authority.

In many ways it could also be asserted that Juliet dominates, to a certain extent, Romeo, again challenging the ‘traditional view of Juliet as Romeo’s passive beloved by arguing that her languages and actions contain a deeper level of meaning[7]’.  In Renaissance society a woman was required to take their husbands name yet Juliet asks Romeo to make this sacrifice required of a women when she asks him to ‘deny thy father and refuse thy name’. She is asking him to separate himself from his father, and base his identity as her husband. Therefore meaning that their marriage was based on equality in an orthodox society which ‘commands wives to ‘obey your own husband’, ‘cease from commanding and perform subjection’[8]’. It seems in many ways Juliet is attracted to Romeo because he is controllable. This can be identified when Juliet uses the metaphor of a bird to describe Romeo, ‘and yet no farther than a wanton’s bird, that lets it hop a little from his hand’ (2.2.177). She appears to view Romeo as a possession and ‘reverses orthodox patriarchal relations by imagining herself in control of a man’s movements[9]’. Therefore, Juliet has moved away from being a submissive female and become the controller.

 In many ways, Romeo is also alienated from the gender role assigned to him by appearing to lack many male qualities. In act 1 scene 1 Romeo is missing from the brawl between the Capulet’s and Montague’s which is based on masculine honour; ‘is the law on our side if I say ‘Ay’ before insulting the Montague’s’ (1.1.42). In stark contrast to the physical bravado the scene also introduces us to whimsical Romeo, who is lovesick over a girl called Rosaline. Romeo’s absence from the opening brawl runs parallel with his general detachment from the traditional masculine identity that men recognise in each other. ‘It is not achieved in isolation. A solitary man is either a beast or an angel[10]’. Romeo seems to be ridiculed by his peers suggesting that they find his isolation from masculine tendencies amusing rather than threatening.  Robert Appelbaum envisions the family rivalries as a violent and masculine assertion of the patriarchal symbolic order to which Romeo offers an alternative; ‘this argument see’s Romeo as having two obvious choices; he can make war on behalf of the father or make love, in effect, on behalf of himself[11]’. It seems from the onset that Romeo has chosen to do the latter. Romeo’s opposition to the gender stereotype in society is magnified further by his refusal to participate in Mercutio’s misogynist jokes in scene 1 act 4, ‘Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down’ (1.4.27). This reference links sexual intercourse with stabbing, revealing how sex and aggression were linked to many men in Renaissance society. However, in contrast, Romeo appears to connect sex with love and romance, ‘That fair for which love groaned for and would die/ with tender Juliet is now not fair’ (1.5.44). Romeo’s diversion from what was traditionally thought to encompass masculine ideals seems to show that ‘early modern men do testify to a central essence in personhood, to something that they feel makes them unique. They call that something ‘soul’.[12]’ Perhaps reflecting Shakespeare’s desire to steer away from traditional gender stereotypes and reveal a diverse group of characters instead.

Likewise, the character of Cleopatra in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ embodies many traits proclaimed to be shameful in question with ‘the idea of gender since the representation of gender is bound up with the cultures ambivalence about sex, that powerful and unpredictable force[13]’. It is clear from the beginning that the main protagonists reverse the preconceived gender roles when Antony immediately surrenders the power in the relationship to Cleopatra: ‘Upon her landing Antony sent to her invited her to supper. She replied it would be better her became her guest’ ( 2.2.225). In a Roman society based upon male honour Antony’s reluctance to try and put Cleopatra in her place enraged fellow Roman’s who thought that ‘even the most manly of men was susceptible to becoming a woman[14]’. Therefore Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra, where much of the power was equal meant, in the Romans eyes, he was compromising his own masculinity. Cleopatra’s sexuality is also revealed to be a threat to the Romans. Cleopatra’s unashamed sexuality throughout the play is in opposition to the idea of shame which is a gendered concept; ‘Other women cloy The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where most she satisfies’ (2.2.240).  Cleopatra’s sexuality is linked with her power which is a source of distress for the Romans who constantly refer to her as a whore or enchantress. This reveals, within the gender politics of the play, how power can frame gender identities and the consequences when the balance is tipped in favour of the woman. Cleopatra’s aggressive sexuality and power is in contrary to the traditional passive Renaissance woman, and seems to transcend gender ideals. There is an indication that Cleopatra does embody many female tendencies when she states ‘my resolution’s placed, and I have nothing of woman in: now from head to foot I am marble –constant: how the fleeting moon no planet of mine’ (5.2.238-41). She seems frustrated by her own feminine wiles and desires to surpass her qualities which define her as a female.

However the character of Cleopatra’s may have more to do with ‘deeply embedded racial assumptions and expectations[15]’, than an exploration of the sexuality of women in general. Geraldo de Sousa argues that ‘cross –cultural encounters in the play lead to an intermingling and exchange of identities and gender roles that dissolve the accepted dichotomies[16]’. He explores the notion that Shakespeare did not differentiate just the male and female characters, but envisioned a divide between Rome and Egypt, hence viewing Cleopatra as an ‘other’. Therefore the notorious openness in the text serves as a barometer of society’s attitudes toward sex and gender.  

Throughout the text of Antony and Cleopatra strong emphasis is placed on the Roman ethos of being upholders of masculine ideals: ‘identifying Roman values with the masculine ethos, valorizing power, hierarchy, ownership, war and rivalry[17]’. As Antony was once a great soldier who won his position as one of the three leaders of the world he seems to be a symbol of heroism to many of the Romans meaning the concern surrounding his relationship with Cleopatra is only magnified. As Janet Alderman notes “Antony himself is the primary absent object of desire for all the major characters” connecting his absence with “the relocation and reconstruction of heroic masculinity[18]”. Antony seems to encompass the established behaviours of a military leader and appears distressed himself at the prospect of losing his honour when he states ‘If I lose my honour/ I lose everything’ (3.4.22). The idea of honour is directly linked with masculinity; this can be seen in Philo’s past description of Antony as Mars who had dedicated himself entirely to ‘the scuffles of great fights’ and Philo’s present impression of Antony as Cleopatra’s slave. Mars has long been thought to be the god of war therefore now Antony has exchanged war for passion he has lost his sense of honour. With the word honour being ‘in connection with men having to do with social rank[19]’ he has also lost his place in Roman society. Antony and Cleopatra seems to be a text concerning the clash between masculinity and femininity, with Rome incorporating all ‘masculine ethos, power, hierarchy, ownership, war and rivalry’ and Egypt embodying ‘values with the feminine principle[20]’. As Antony was a military hero who abandoned his reason in order to pursue passion, ‘let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall’ (1.1.35) it appears that with Antony’s death passion triumphs over strict military order and the power is left with Egypt and its femininity. However the final scene Ceaser takes charge and orders that Antony be buried alongside Cleopatra, causing Antony to become a figure of pity within the Romans, hence perhaps the power is now left with the stoic Romans.

 In Antony and Cleopatra the blame of a soldier’s downfall is often laid with the woman. Woman are therefore saddled with both the responsibility for men’s political alliances and the blame for their personal failures, this is clear when Ceaser and Antony expect Octavia to ‘Knit their hearts with an unslipping knot’ (2.2.132). Although Cleopatra refuses to conform to the masculine stereotype of how a woman should behave in both texts there are female characters to encompass these characteristics. The character of Lady Capulet represents the traditional passive female and abides by her husbands authority. Despite having more power as a mother than wife Lady Capulet responds to Juliet’s pleas with an impassive; ‘Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee’ (3.5.203). Revealing her reluctance to rebel against any male hierarchy.  Likewise the character of Octavia embodies the traditional passive female. However in both texts the main protagonists seem to transcend the traditional gender roles revealing that the plays are more based on the individual rather than gender politics.


[1] William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Sasha Roberts

[2] William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Sasha Roberts

[3] http://uk.jstor.org, Gender at the base of world history,  Sarah Huges

[4] William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Sasha Roberts

[5]http://uk.jstor.org/search/, the taming of Romeo, Carolyn Brown

[6]http://uk.jstor.org/search/, the taming of Romeo, Carolyn Brown

[7]http://uk.jstor.org/search/, the taming of Romeo, Carolyn Brown

[8] William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Sasha Roberts

[9] William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Sasha Roberts

[10] Shakespeare and Masculinity: Bruce R. Smith, Oxford University press, 2000

[11]http://uk.jstor.org/search/, the pressures of masculinity in romeo and Juliet, Robert Applebaum

[12] Shakespeare and Masculinity: Bruce R. Smith, Oxford University press, 2000

[13] Shakespeare’s unruly women, Penny Gay, Routledge, 1994

[14] Shakespeare and Masculinity: Bruce R. Smith, Oxford University press, 2000

[15] Shakespeare and race: Catherine Alexander, Stanley Wells, Cambridge press, 2000

[16] Antony and Cleopatra: New critical essays, Sara Munson Deats, Routledge, 20005

[17] Antony and Cleopatra: New critical essays, Sara Munson Deats, Routledge, 20005

[18]http://www.jstor.org,  Man of steel done got the blues: Melancholic subversion of presence in Antony and Cleopatra, Cynthia Marshall

[19] Shakespeare and Masculinity: Bruce R. Smith, Oxford University press, 2000

[20] Antony and Cleopatra: New critical essays, Sara Munson Deats, Routledge, 20005

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