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Females in the 16th and 21st Century: Gender Perception in Literature

llim's picture

Females in the 16th and 21st Century: Gender Perception in Literature

It has been argued that stories serve as a representative of the era in which it was conceived. As such, it serves as a reminder of the ideals of its particular society, including those directed towards gender. Through literature, one can gain insight as to what was expected of a males and females during a particular era and how it has (or has not) changed over time. The Renaissance was a time where to be a woman brought about images of a meek person who bent to the will of her male superiors, whereas in the modern day, this image is not necessarily true.

During the English Renaissance, which included the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, such feminine ideals as chastity, obedience, and submissiveness were promoted. These qualities of females were seen in some way, shape, or form in the characters of many Renaissance authors, including such notables as William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser. Chastity is a virtue very much so prominently present in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. Here, nearly all the females who appear are chaste, including the protagonist Britomart, who is the champion of Chastity. There is Belphoebe, who avoids her suitors before falling in love with a squire (Timias), and Amoret, who is kidnapped and imprisoned by Busirane on her wedding night. Of course, this is not to say there is not the occasional Malecasta (who one could argue is very much so a daughter of Eve by her representation as temptation), who, thinking Britomart to be a man (as Britomart dresses up as a Knight and many believe her to be male), attempts to seduce Britomart in bed. It is no coincidence that only when Britomart's chastity is called into question is another knight able to injure her (almost as if to warn that an unchaste woman is a fallen woman).

Obedience and submissiveness, one could argue, is evident in, amongst others of his works, Shakespeare's comedy, The Taming of the Shrew. Here, Bianca, the favored and younger daughter of the wealthy Baptista Minola, is the silent and obedient daughter, as opposed to her sister, Kate, the shrew. It is Kate's temper, loose tongue, and failure to submit and obey her father, as well as society's expectations, that earns her the title of shrew and chases away many of her suitors. This indicates that an opinionated woman was not a particularly well thought of woman during the Renaissance. That it is a comedy could be symbolic as well-to have such a woman appear in anything but would threaten the idyllic image that the era's society had constructed, perhaps leaving some in the audience troubled. There are, of course, other Shakespearean works, each of them with women in the passive role-there is Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, and a host of others.

Although gender ideals of the Renaissance indicated that more passive qualities were feminine qualities, that is not to say that they were qualities all women naturally possessed. However, women who possessed more masculine qualities appeared only to be acceptable in some circumstance-for instance, although Shakespeare's Kate inspired those around her to shun her, Spenser's heroine, Britomart, though chaste and beautiful, was masculine (as represented by her crossdressing as a Knight and her magic spear) in her adventure, a strong character who very actively fought as a knight and saved lives. Of course, not all female characters holding masculine qualities are male-Shakespeare's infamous Lady Macbeth (who is not chaste) is ambitious and driven, convincing her husband to kill the king even after he had convinced himself not to. That she cannot bring herself to do the deed herself in indicative of the "weakness" that comes with her being a woman-she can instigate the action, but is unable to follow through with it.

This is quite different from works in the 21st century. Women in works of the modern day are not necessarily portrayed as particularly chaste or submissive. Although characters like Lady Macbeth surely continue to be conceived and born, it is not particularly a feminine trait that such a character is associated with. The character is not necessarily thought of as either being either male or female, but simply as someone who represents the adage of, "It is easier to say than to do."
As in the Renaissance, what is considered "masculine" and "feminine" traits still exist and are able to coincide in one character. However, being feminine is no longer indicative of the submissiveness seen in Juliet or Bianca. Gender perception has changed since the 16th century, and in today's modern world, although there unquestionably remains certain societal expectation based on gender, to break away from such expectations need not be portrayed merely in a comedy. The character of a strong woman is no longer limited to be only an occasional occurrence-for every Bianca, there is Kate (albeit a Kate more accepted by society) and the Britomarts of the modern day is not necessarily so chaste (although, there is still a preference for her to be so). Kate, in today's world, is no longer a shrew (and Petruccio, in fact, is a chauvinistic pig).

All in all, literature has allowed its readers a glimpse of what societal expectations, including towards gender was like during the time of the literary work. In the past, there was the passive Biancas that reigned through society's ideal image of woman, eclipsed by the occasional Kate or Britomart. In modern days, whereas continues to exist, the Kates and Britomarts (perhaps altered as modern day Kate's do not necessarily capitulate to their husbands in the end and modern day Britomarts need not be the champions of Chastity) have gained an increasing amount of acceptance as well. It is not necessarily that society itself has done away completely with the gender stereotypes that existed in the past-rather, the stereotypes has merely become less obvious and society in itself has become more accustomed to seeing the Kates (and perhaps to a lesser degree) the Britomarts of the world.

Works Cited
"Revisiting Shakespeare and Gender." Almasy, Rudolph. Daniel, Rebecca. Gerlach, Jeanne. 1996. <>


Eva's picture


This is just a suggestion for the writer. Chose your wording wisely.

"The Renaissance was a time where to be a woman brought about images of a meek person who bent to the will of her male superiors, whereas in the modern day, this image is not necessarily true."

For purposes of merit, it is always preferable to state things so that someone cannot argue its validity. You could chose stating this in a way that addresses the confinement of women as daughters and wives, the illusion/image of women and the expected subordination to males. Your wording does not clarify whether women were seen as a meek person who were expected to view men as superior OR if women were seen as a meek person who served their male superiors.

Period or semicolon " ;whereas, in contemporary..." so on.

Last part of criticism, "not necessarily true". Just simply state that this image has evolved. You can bring awareness to the fact that some people still have the ignorant desire to control women OR that some women still fit the paradigm WITHOUT using arbitrary statements.

Carol's picture

I found you looking for

I found you looking for examples of strong women characters in 20th/21st century literature. I am planning a program on the women in the plays of Shakespeare and I wanted some contemporary comparisons. I enjoyed the information and it was helpful.

Laura1's picture

I am doing a dissertation

I am doing a dissertation looking at women characters in Literature. I was wondering what contemporary comparison you found as this would be extremely useful.