Threat of Female Sexuality

for Men in Selected Shakespeare Plays


Dieses Manuskript habe ich vor einiger Zeit verfasst und bisher nie veröffentlicht. Hauptsächlich deshalb, weil das Thema spannender ist, als es klingt. Nun möchte ich es der Welt aber auch nicht länger vorenthalten und empfehle Euch, zu dieser Lektüre ein Glas kühlen trockenen Weißwein zu genießen. Außerdem freue ich mich über Euer Feedback!  


Kurzfassung (oder Klappentext)

Die Bedrohung der Männer durch weibliche Sexualität in Shakespeares Stücken resultiert aus dem Drang der Männer Macht auszuüben und patriarchalische Strukturen zu schützen. Daher liegt die Bedrohung, die hinter dieser zerstörerischen sexuellen Macht der Frauen steckt, in der Projektion männlicher Ängste und Unsicherheiten. Strukturen, diese potentielle Macht der Frauen einzudämmen, können in Shakespeares Stücken nachgewiesen werden.

Im ersten Teil der Arbeit wird die Herleitung der These beschrieben. Es gibt in Shakespeares Stücken sehr selbstbewusste Frauen, die aber immer wieder durch die Männer unterdrückt werden. Die Frage stellt sich, warum den Frauen in den Stücken die Möglichkeit genommen wird, sich zu entfalten. Der Grund ist, dass Männer sich durch diese Frauen bedroht fühlen. Im zweiten Teil werden die Arbeiten von French und Ortner herangezogen, die die Entstehung solcher Ängste herleiten und diese in einem soziokulturellen Kontext erklären. Diese beiden Werke werden aufeinander bezogen. Im dritten Teil wird auf die Rolle der Frau in der Renaissance eingegangen und anschließend wird die Bedrohlichkeit der Frauen in Shakespeares Werken aufgezeigt. Im vierten Teil wird anhand der ausgewählten Stücke, Othello, Hamlet, A Winter’s Tale, Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure und Romeo and Juliet, gesondert auf die jeweiligen Bedrohungen, wie sexueller Betrug, Zerstörung der bestehenden patriarchalischen Machtverhältnisse und Effemination eingegangen und an den Charakteren demonstriert. Im Fazit wird der Bezug des Erarbeiteten zur Theorie von French und Ortner hergestellt und der Schluss gezogen, dass die sexuelle Bedrohung der Frauen in Shakespeares Stücken nicht nur eine Projektion der Männer ist, sondern auch, dass sich in den Stücken reale Ängste der Menschen widerspiegeln.





"Give not thy soul unto a woman to set her foot upon thy substance."

(Apocrypha, Sirach 9:2)



1. Introduction


In Shakespeare’s plays a lot of self-conscious women are depicted. They are clever and know how to assert themselves. What inspired this paper was the fact that these women’s self-consciousness is deplored and eventually restricted. They are tamed, married or even killed. The question emerged why these women are hindered to develop themselves. The quest for an answer lead to the following thesis: Women in Shakespeare’s plays are considered as sexually threatening to the men. This threat of female sexuality emerges out of the male need to exert power and to protect the patrilineal structures they erected. Thus the threat behind the disruptive sexual power of women is a projection of male fears and insecurities. These structures of containment of female sexuality can be traced in Shakespeare’s plays which are also a mirror of what is valid in real life.

The second part of this work deals with Marilyn French’s work Shakes-peare’s Division of Experience that maintains that human tradition classifies gender principles and that these principles are related to nature. The most “realized expression, the most complete awareness”1 of these principles can be discovered in Shakespeare. Starting at these gender principles the deduction of the threat women pose to men is depicted. In agreement with Sherry B. Ortner’s Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?2 the link between this threat and nature will be illustrated. Ortner is an addition to French and both theories are compared.

The third part is dedicated to women. The chapter “Women in the Renaissance” deals with the cultural conditions between the sexes and their deve-lopment in that time with regard to the threat. This is necessary to understand different aspects of the plays that will be examined later in this work. Since a lot of those aspects have a basis in real life, the knowledge of those backgrounds is important. Juan Luis Vives, a pamphlet writer, who will be introduced below. His views shaped the attitudes towards women. Reflecting on the plays where a woman triggers male jealousy, it is important to know that there was the common belief that there was no conception without orgasm of the woman. In the chapter “Threatening women in Shakespeare’s plays” follows an overview of how those gender-related problems are transferred into the fictional world of the plays and how they are depicted on stage and in the plays in general.

The fourth part will discuss in detail the selected plays3 Hamlet, Othello, A Winter’s Tale, Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure and Romeo and Juliet and explore how the threat of female sexuality act on the men, the plays and the plot. And in the end the link to French who is the inspiring source of this paper will be established.



Short overview


The problems between men and women are not only a matter of psychological studies and many scientific disciplines. They are also reflected and portrayed in literature. Relationships between the two sexes have provided distinctive material since the emergence of the first literary works (epos) in the Middle Ages until today. Especially Shakespeare seemed to be a playwright who was preoccupied with the man-woman-problematic.

It is conspicuous that so many strong and self-conscious women are depicted in Shakespeare’s plays. His women rebel against conventions of a patriarchal world: Kate wants to choose a husband on her own, Cleopatra asserts herself by living in adultery with Antony and Isabella refuses to sacrifice her virginity. These women know what they want, they decide for themselves, they are eloquent and brave, they are wise and witty, intelligent and sophisticated und they are so clever to use a bit of cunning to achieve their required aims and in some cases they are even dwarfing the men. In addition they have an air of mystery and deviousness; they are sexually self-conscious and independent and know how to assert sexual power over men. They know how to seduce and how to transform the forces of lust into forces of evil.

This self-conscious behaviour and their eloquence seems sooner or later to be criticized in the plays because they are eventually forced to submit to men’s will. They are tamed, married, or worse their behaviour leads to death. Women in Shakespeare’s plays seem to be allowed to be self-determined, but only to a certain point.

Reading Shakespeare’s plays one may find that many of the female characters “provide prototypes for modern emancipated young women.”4 Regarding the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays we find very liberated, witty, educated and sophisticated women who are able to assert themselves against men also in a very eloquent way. Considering the battle of wits, that is the battle of the sexes that takes place, for example, between Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing5 Beatrice often wins the “fight”:


Benedick: I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way, o’God’s name. I have done.

Beatrice: You always end with a jade’s trick. I know you of old. (Much Ado About Nothing I.i.135-39)


Here Benedick gives up because he does not know what else to reply to Beatrice’s witty remarks. There are also very sexually self-conscious women, like Cleopatra to name but one of many examples.

Shakespeare’s women had a mind of their own whereas reality looked somehow different in those times: compared to other European countries women had relative freedom but they did not have a voice in public debates or even the opportunity to utter their opinions in a conversation. “Women who asserted their views too vigorously risked being perceived as shrewish and labelled ‘Scolds’. […S]uch women came to be regarded as a threat to public order” and were better ”to be dealt with by the local authorities”. They were punished or exposed to public humiliation.6 These attitudes are vivaciously reflected in Shakespeare’s plays for example in The Taming Of The Shrew. Women who are too self-conscious are tamed and restricted, their behaviour does not seldom lead to death or submission to the man. Shakespeare’s plays are neither reactionary nor revolutionary; they rather reflect the attitudes towards women in Elizabethan society. The self-consciousness of women then seemed to constitute a threat to men and this threat is explored in the last years by a variety of critics.7

Marilyn French illustrates in her book Shakespeare’s Division of Experience men’s relentless attempt to control. Since female sexuality poses a threat to men they try to control it because it is a natural force and this force has to be dominated. The fear of female sexual power and their containment go hand in hand. That means not only women must be contained, but also – and this is very important – their sexuality, because this is a power women can exert on men. French is not the only critic who dedicates herself to this subject, also Traub observes in Shakespeare and Gender: “It is by now a commonplace that Shakespeare was preoccupied with the uncontrollability of women’s sexuality; witness the many plots concerning the need to prove female chastity, the threat of adultery, and, even when female fidelity is not a major theme of the play, the many references to cuckoldry in songs, jokes, and passing remarks”. 8 Female sexuality and the danger that is unconsciously connected with it, dwells under the surface of many of the plays. It is thus very important although sexuality in Shakespeare’s plays is not always evident.9

The culturally constructed gender role of women is determined by their biological sex. Shakespeare represents gender norms and reflections of differences between men and women and the patriarchal society which emerged out of the conditions of the sexes. Because men are afraid of female sexuality – which is correspondent with power – they have to create structures which prevent the exertion of female power. Something that is so naturally forceful like the sexual power of women is threatening and has to be controlled. Marriage is one structure to contain women because marriage requires faithfulness of women. Values, like virginity and chastity, are created. All these structures constitute a society which is male centred. It can be questioned if women’s oppression is a cause of the male fear of female sexual power.

The term sexuality “refers to erotic desires and practices, including but not limited to the direction and scope of erotic preferences (i. e. object choice)” (Traub, 21) and to the means women use to achieve their goals or to strategies they use. It is not restricted to the physical presence of a woman and her attractiveness and impression on men, her sexual desires or practices, it is more. It’s her power which comes mostly from the way men perceive women: as something bad, sinister, witchlike, betraying, seductive, in short the outlaw aspects, French describes in her chapter on Gender Principles that are projected on them. These outlaw aspects will be described in detail below. Female sexual power consists of all these aspects, the physical attraction, their self-consciousness and their associations that are put on them by men.

Women’s sexuality necessitates their subordination to fathers and husbands, because men feel threatened by women’s sexuality. Women are limited, subordinated and even killed by these anxious men. The founding of equality between men and women is hindered by these power structures. This becomes clear in Shakespeare’s plays and traces of those structures leave their marks until today. It is thus no accident that Shakespeare’s plays have such a great relevance today not only because of the subject of the problems between men and women. The male urge to control women played an important role in the life of Renaissance men and their fears had genuine basis which are reflected in the plays. Social circumstances have changed but not the structures of human sexuality,10 this could therefore be an explanation why women are suppressed to men - or tried to be suppressed - even today.

Men fear women’s sexual power. But women do also fear male sexual power. The difference is the reaction – that is how they cope with it – of each of the sexes: men cope with their fear by control, e.g. through marriage or killing. Women, like Beatrice, do fear male social and sexual power as well,11 as it is granted through marriage for example. Their only possibility is to resist marriage by being shrewish. Women’s fear of male sexual power is not opposed by exerting power in the plays. They rather react shrewish (Kate in The Taming Of The Shrew or Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing), break the bonds with the men (Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra), or use bed tricks (Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well). Men are the ones in the play who react in a more rigorous way to the threat. Is that possibly a sign that they are more afraid? Have they perhaps more to lose when they give in to female seduction? If these questions can be answered in the affirmative, then it is an indication for the fact that men have anchored themselves more profoundly in the world and in culture that they have created as well as left more tracks. They built up a social, economic and cultural scaffold that must not be destroyed by something so trite as sex. They view the woman as a natural force who is able to endanger their whole work of social, cultural, interpersonal, inter- and intrasexual, genderrelated constructs. On women the fantasy of the sexual threatening, evil deceiver was imposed only to stabilize patrilineal forms of power. Women became the scapegoats to the power-obsessed men – men who are only interested in investing in blood, inheritance and power. The current discussion on the independence of women and the consequences in our society mirror this difficulty. Not only in Shakes-peare’s time has this been an extremely explosive subject and even today it has not lost its significance.

The personal interest in the problem is to develop a sense to these structures and – with regards to the plays - to make the reader sensitive for these structures and to make visible that what dwells under the surface of cultural constructions. It is important to become aware of our thinking of today and its derivation. When we understand how particular cultural traditions developed, one may better realize in what a world we live today. Thus it is necessary to become sensible for the concepts that underlie social structures and the thinking especially concerning gender, women and men, concepts that are too often accepted without inspecting them more closely.



1 Marilyn French, Shakespeare’s Division of Experience (New York: Summit, 1981) 16. All further references to this work are cited in the text as (French, p).


2 Sherry B. Ortner, “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?,” Woman, Culture and Society, ed. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1974) 67 – 87. All further references to this article are cited in the text as (Ortner, p).


3 It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine all of Shakespeare’s plays in detail, though it would be interesting and challenging. That is why a selection of plays are discussed which are considered as the richest in content regarding the thesis.


4 Hugh M.Richmond, Shakespeare’s Sexual Comedy: A Mirror for Lovers (Indianapolis, New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1971) 81.


5 William Shakespeare, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Oxford: Wordsworth, 1996). All plays are cited from this edition and will be referred to in the text as the following example shows: (Much Ado About Nothing III.ii.36-37).


6 Stephen Greenblatt et al. eds., The Norton Shakespeare. Based on the Oxford Edition (New York, London: Oxford University Press, 1997) 9f.


7 Apart from the critics that are cited here Susan S. Blaha (Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 1995) and Susana Powell (New York: The City University of New York, 1988) contributed to the discourse. These works are not cited here but inspired the development of the idea to this paper. Next to these critics Kirstie Gulick Rosenfield (Mosaic, 2002) focuses to female sexuality in connection with witchcraft which is definitively interesting but does not provide appropriate material for this paper. It rather conveys an impulse for further investigations on the topic of female sexuality and witchcraft.


8 Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (London, New York: Routledge, 1992) 181. All further references to this work are cited in the text as (Traub, p).


9 There are many puns that aim on sexuality, they are rather indirect than direct and thus often not visible on the first sight. Sex is also referred to metaphorically: The donkey in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a symbol for potency and thus for sex.


10 Human sexuality is subject to the change of evolution. Evolution needs hundreds of thousands of years to reach a developmental step whereas social changes can happen within a few years.



11 Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare’s Plays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985) 46. All further references to this work are cited in the text as (Neely, p).




2. The deduction of the female sexual threat


In the following chapters it will be explored where the threat female sexuality poses on men comes from on a sociocentric basis. Marilyn French who created the Gender Principles – which will also be illustrated because they are helpful to understand the problematic – contributed to the understanding of how culture developed and what constitutes gender. Sherry B. Ortner then is compared to her text because interestingly they both share the same idea but they never refer to each other. Both authors will be linked and their opinions described while opening a field of investigation to a further work through their findings.



2.1. French’s Gender Principles


Gender is the basic distinction in human social order. Gender determines role and function; determines the “division of labor, value, the structure of our language and the structure of our lives. Above all, gender difference has influenced the way we think, the way we perceive reality” (French, 11).

The divisions of masculine and feminine are considered natural and divine, according to the respective social or cultural context. This division of labor what we call natural is not fundamental. It is a matter of determination. What is considered as natural division of labor in the Western world is rather a matter of conditioning and training.

The fundamental split in human thinking is not gender, but a perception of humans as separate from, different from nature” (French, 12). Humans had their roots in nature and were – to the same degree as animals – subordinated to their natural environment and natural processes. But humans had a larger brain than animals and they could walk on their hind legs and they possessed a retractile thumb which enabled Man to gain skills typical for the human race. With these physical and perceptual equipments they were enabled to survive other species that lacked those abilities and, what is more important, they became able to control their “environment they were not especially adaptable to” (French, 12). In contrast to other animals, like bees or beavers that tried to control nature or alter it, humans were the most successive ones and they managed to reduce their vulnerability and subjectivity to nature to the lowest level with sustainability in fact. This process lasted hundreds of thousands of years and more and it was made by both females and males as well. Humans became superior to nature to a large extent, except natural catastrophes. “They domesticated earth through farming, domesticated or hunted animals, fish and birds, domesticated themselves with clothing and shelter. They made tools and vessels, and most important of all, they made language” (French, 12). Despite all their developmental efforts they remained similar to animals in their physical functions while women seemed far more close to nature than men, because they menstruate, conceive, give birth, produce milk etc. especially before it was recognized that men also played a role in procreation.

This nature of women was worshipped as divine, but eventually the value of control over and separation from nature evolved and became a human characteristic.


As this sense of things developed, women’s supposed closeness to nature became a stigma rather than a miracle, and women began to be seen as lower than men; being part of nature in a way men were not, they were also part of what must be controlled (French, 13).


This male misogyny and oppression of women is already reflected in the Adam’s-rib story in Genesis where the man is granted control over everything, including Eve. She is the bearer of children and is given her name by a dominant man.

Now women are not closer to nature than men. They are equal. Pregnancy and nursing are rather an additional ability of women, since today we have the possibility of contraception. Differences in thinking, speaking and acting are linked to cultural programming. Though all cultures have exercised some control over nature a full subjugation of nature is not possible because it would mean destruction. The main intention of humans is to lessen their vulnerability towards nature and to become the subjugator of nature than the subject to the power of nature. This control over nature gave them quality of life and made it uncomplicated and more enjoyable. Control thus consists of ownership which became a good because poverty can make people weak and powerless. Prosperity and comfort were worth striving for because it could lessen vulnerability or at least provide the illusion of being invulnerable to the power of nature. In this world then to own nothing became a risk. Ownership and the power to take thus became a value and with it hostility and aggression flourished. Because the human power over nature has limits, people needed to create structures that were eternal or at least seemed to be perpetual. So they erected monuments, monarchies, kingdoms and empires. They established institutions and preserved life in poems and literature in short “things that can weather the flux of live within nature seem to console us for the inevitable loss of our own lives” (French, 15). Permanent structures, like the structure of Christianity, were created. Women and men both believe in it and since Christianity is a male invention, they could wield all its power.

Given the association of women with nature, the power over nature increased and polarization between the sexes increased as well. Male and female are yang and yin, that is complements, but the value placed on the two poles is unequal. Our culture and tradition value highly order, unity and rights and place a negative value on darkness, disorder and magic. It values the genders identified with these qualities in the same way. Power and stability have become the highest values on earth and these values are male ones and therefore the male pole “weighs” more. French names these two opposing poles the “masculine and the feminine principles”. The terms describe “how humans have conceptualized their experience for the past three millennia” (French, 16). Everyone, even those living in our “enlightened” Western culture has certain associations when the terms male / female are referred to. There is a clear picture behind each conceptualization of what is properly masculine and what is properly feminine. Evidences for these perceptions of the gender principles can be marked out in every human convention, like language, law, religion, art, philosophy and science that is in cultural conditions.

The most complete and most easily accessible expression of the ideas of the gender principles can be found in literature. The most realized manifestation, the most complete consciousness of these ideas can be found in Shakes-peare who deals continually with these poles and with the implications of polarization:


This is not to say that Shakespeare thought in terms of a feminine or masculine principle. But he did unquestionably think in terms of men and women, male and female, not as similar members of a single species, but as very different creatures, subject to different needs and desires, capable of different kinds of action, and judged by different standards (French, 16f.).


In the beginning of Shakespeare’s career as dramatist he had a deep admiration for “masculine” qualities and a deep distrust of “feminine” ones. But by the time he composed The Two Gentlemen of Verona he almost certainly appreciated “feminine” qualities. In the end of his career he even dreaded and condemned the dominance and unreliability of the masculine principle and idealized particular characteristics of the female. Throughout his life he tried to synthesize and harmonize these two principles (French, 11-18).

The gender principles may be laid on a gamut. The poles of this gamut are masculine and feminine. At the centre of this gamut are qualities which are not gender-specific, which are valued in both genders. The extreme on the masculine side is the ability to kill, on the feminine side to give birth. The masculine principle distinguishes itself by power-in-the-world, prowess, ownership, physical courage, assertiveness, authority and independence. Law and order as well as their institution and implementation, if necessary through physical force, are the business of the masculine principle. Nature was identified with female. Nature was dual, a powerful lover and a powerful hater. It had a benevolent and a malevolent side. The benevolent side is nutritive, supportive and regenerating. The malevolent side is destructive, it subverts human structures. “Because we die, nature always, inevitably vanquishes us. Human effort has always been to diminish this power, whether through belief in control of an afterlife (supranatural) or through erection of cultural traditions and artifacts that carry on our lives” (French, 22). These pictures of the female were male perceptions. “In such a conception, the feminine principle has great power, but it is also very threatening to the “masculine” drive towards control” (French, 23).

There is a split in nature as well as in the feminine aspect. This dualism in feminine principle French terms the “inlaw” and the “outlaw” aspects of the feminine principle. Outlaw aspects are associated with darkness, chaos, magic and sexuality. "It is outlaw because it is subversive, undermining of the masculine principle” (French, 23). It can be laid on both sides of the gamut because it has the ability to give birth and the ability to kill, e.g. abortion. “Its sexuality is dynamic and nearly irresistible; it is sex as abandonment (as opposed to “masculine” sexuality, which is possession or aggression - rape) and a power like that of nature to destroy” (French, 23). It rebels against the masculine principle, and it destroys their controlling structures entirely with desire, rather than establishing controlling structures of its own. The outlaw feminine principle is


tremendously threatening to the masculine principle because it does not respect the constructs attendant on that principle, and because it is vital and attractive. It is vital and attractive because it contains fundamental human energy and will, and because it sees the end of life as pleasure. Pleasure of all sorts, but especially sexual pleasure, is a threat to the masculine principle, the energies of which must be directed towards transcendent goals (French, 24).


One of the masculine qualities is permanency and the outlaw feminine principle rebels against any kind of permanency except the cyclic permanency of nature. The dichotomy of these two principles lies in their ambitions. The male pole of power aims at unpersonal goals, like the establishment of hierarchical structures, while the feminine principle is the pole of sex and pleasure and oblivion which aims at personal satisfaction. The outlaw feminine principle threatens and destroys the masculine principle, it is considered as castrating and as a powerful force and energy. The masculine principle is either subject to the outlaw feminine principle or overwhelming the feminine force.

The inlaw feminine principle symbolizes the benevolent aspects of nature clean of the malevolent side. While the outlaw principle is powerful, the inlaw aspect is wispy. It expresses the benevolent manifestations of nature. It includes qualities like nutritiveness, compassion, mercy and volitional inferiority and voluntary relinquishment of power-in-the-world. It is altruistic and values the community above the individual. It places feeling over action and sensation over thought. The qualities of the inlaw feminine principle are connected to and supportive of a quality in the masculine principle, but always subordinate. It finds pleasure in active submission.

Images associated with the feminine principle are natural similes: moon and sea, menstruation and menopause, seasons’ difference, fertility and sex. Images associated with the masculine principle are natural and civilized: thunder and lightning, cities, industries, human occupation like farming, fishing, making art, governing, in short, every form of control. The male is the image of the human, it is judged ethically, expected to conform to the laws, in short culture. Females never enter this dimension fully. They remain nonhuman, either as superhumans (inlaw) or subhuman (outlaw). Females are considered as mythical. They are saints and goddesses, whores and witches but they are only seen in relation to males and the male human standard. They are seen as trying to exert control over the male, the human.

The human in literature is subject to change. In Shakespeare’s plays, women are not changed by their experience, while men are. Women may change their world with their actions but they themselves do not change. Women’s problem is to adjust to a male world, to male needs and power, they have little power-in-the-world. Females cannot use all their qualities because any quality that is a threat to male power must be renounced.

Men in Shakespeare’s plays may have female qualities. But females who try to move into the masculine principle, are condemned as fiends, witches, devils or just as unnatural. Males are even urged to incorporate the inlaw feminine principle, but females who try to incorporate the masculine one (exercise authority, show physical prowess or even kill) fall inevitably into the outlaw feminine principle.

Females may incorporate some masculine qualities if they disguise and still accept the constrictions of femaleness. They can move about in the male world but their male dress does not enable them to fight or to duel.


In fact, female limitations are so severe in Shakespeare’s work that despite their charm and unshakable good values – or perhaps precisely because of their unshakable good values – females are rather static. They do not change: they are either utterly good or utterly evil because if they are not utterly good, they become instantly utterly evil. Stasis of character is found in female figures throughout literature (French, 29).


The two gender principles are divided into two areas and thus they cannot be synthesized or harmonized. They are not equal. “But because both principles are abstractions from universal human experience, representing urges and needs found in all of us, they desperately need synthesis. And much of the thought and literature of the past has been devoted to attempts to produce a synthesis” (French, 29).

There is one common form of arrangement in which the masculine principle is seen as dominant. It is legitimated by power and right and it accepts the feminine principle (and women associated with it) – the inlaw principle which subordinates itself and supports the masculine control. The outlaw principle is feared and illegitimate. French describes this as follows:


However, the masculine principle requires the energy and freedom of this pole, and therefore tolerates it in nonthreatening forms. Nonthreatening forms are those in which males maintain control; thus, sexual freedom is permitted to men in the form of concubinage or prostitution. A degree of sexual freedom in males is in fact seen as admirable (although not by late Shakespeare). But too much abandonment to sexual pleasure is deplored. The onus of sexuality is placed entirely on the women involved, who are, in almost every Western culture, looked down on as subhuman and entitled to absolutely no rights (French, 29f.).


There is another synthesis, more religious, which places the inlaw feminine principle above the masculine. The inlaw principle is seen as divine and is placed beyond worldly human life, some sort of heaven. The masculine principle is urged to uphold it. Here the outlaw feminine principle is for both, men and women, beyond the pale.

This synthesis varies from religion to religion, but in Christianity the divine element is actually a fusion of feminine and masculine qualities such as love and power, the outlaw aspect is always omitted. The great poets of the English Renaissance, among them Shakespeare, tried to synthesize the gender principles in more earthly locales. In these attempts male characters soak up features of the feminine principle to become good men. When they fail to become good, they are destroyed. Shakespeare often occupies himself with the “destruction of the qualities of the feminine principle by masculine abuse of power. But occasionally […] the outlaw feminine principle vanquishes the masculine, leading to indolence and shame. The attractiveness of the outlaw feminine world is probably best seen (by our biased eyes) in males like Falstaff” (French, 30).

These synthesises are based on male visions and have little to do with actual women and men and actual life. These conceptions are created out of perceptions that are no longer conscious but which are perpetuated by conventions of our literature, art, and language.

Shakespeare’s work contains polarities as many critics claim. These polarities are for example love and war or intuition and emotion or actuality and spirit. Shakespeare is believed to have written out of a world view not about character. Among his contemporaries Shakespeare was the one who created vivacious female characters. These characters embodied the principles and presented them in an energetic way. Shakespeare was driven by the image that the world could not exist without the influence of the qualities of the feminine principle (French, 21 – 31). “The problems for the world inherent in each gender principle, and in the relations between or among them, continued to fascinate him to the end of his career” (French, 31).

The characteristics of the gender principles pervade the literary forms that depict them” (French, 32). Works that are concerned with the masculine principle are dominated by a male actor, are linear and transcendent and progressive and their main focus is on power. Those “masculine” works dominate English literature in Shakespeare’s time. These works provide a distinctive universal order and consent to the masculine demand to legitimacy, power and moral right.

Feminine works are circular and eternal. The focus is in psychological, emotional associations rather than on progress. Interior experience, sensation, reflection are salient as well as synthetic thinking rather than analytic thinking. The work is built around a female figure, although she doesn’t dominate the action (in Shakespeare and his contemporaries). They depict the texture of life, its quality and therefore there is no particular cosmic order behind it. Power does not matter and is rather parodied or evaded. People are sympathetic or less sympathetic, they are tolerable or less tolerable but they are not more or less legitimate. “Thus, feminine literature is outlaw literature: it challenges, however subtly, masculine worldly structures, power, and permanence. It shows a different side of life: it celebrates flux, the moment, sensation, and emotion. It is likely to be concerned with love and sex rather than power and justice” (French, 33). There can be found a lot of “feminine” literature in the medieval period and the sixteenth century and also in Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s work can be divided into gender categories comedy and tragedy. Tragedy is masculine because it is for instance concerned with an individual. Comedy is feminine because it is concerned with community. In tragedy people die, in comedy people seem to die, in tragedy the loss of a handkerchief leads to death sentence, in comedy, that which is lost will be found.


In tragedy, insensitivity and arrogance lead Lear into an irrevocable error; in comedy, heroes may do penance for such qualities, as do the lords in Love’s labours lost, or Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. There are conversions and forgiveness in the comedies, rather than bodies strewn about the stage: and which is truer to actual experience? (French, 35).


Language play is a major focus in comedy, and it therefore challenges the masculine principle which believes that words have a fixed, a right meaning. Words imply doubleness, duplicity and ambiguity. Language suggests relativism and ambiguity in human life which permits revocability which opposes the masculine principle.

Tragedies focus on words and actions which are true because they are irrevocable and are therefore constrictive. Comedy focuses on disguise, word play, revocable utterances, changes in feeling and behaviour and thus shows the multiple truths that establish a human being or a community and is therefore expansive. Shakespeare’s comedy is feminine (French 32–39).



2. 2. Ortner’s “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?”


In Sherry B. Ortner’s essay “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” her arguments resembles those of French. Interestingly Marilyn French, whose text was published in 1981, nine years after Ortner’s text was first presented, does not refer to her. Although there is no obvious connection between the two authors, their theories are related. While French dedicates herself mainly Shakespeare’s work, Ortner writes without emphasis to literature, but in a cultural and sociological context.

The secondary status of women in society is known as a true universal and a pan-cultural fact (Ortner, 67). The biological facts, that women and men are different, contributes to the definition of cultural value systems (Ortner, 71). A lower value is placed upon women because women are being identified with something that every culture devalues, that is on a lower level than the existence itself, which is nature. Culture is equated with human consciousness or with the products of human consciousness. By these means, humanity attempts to assert control over nature (Ortner, 72). Culture asserts itself superior to nature and is thus able to transform natural conditions to its purpose. Women are identified symbolically with nature in contrast to men, who are associated with culture (Ortner, 73).


Since it is always culture’s project to subsume and transcend nature, if women were considered part of nature, then culture would find it “natural” to subordinate, not to say oppress, them. (…) [W]omen are seen (…) as being closer to nature than men. That is, culture (still equated relatively unambiguous with men) recognizes that women are active participants in its special processes, but at the same time sees them as being more rooted in, or having more direct affinity with nature (Ortner, 73).


Nature is thus something that has to be subsumed and controlled. This reflects French’s view, that women were part of nature while men were not and so they “were part of what must be controlled” (French, 13). The reasons for the devaluation of women can be summarized as follows:

  1. Woman’s physiology is seen as closer to nature.

  2. Woman’s social role is seen as closer to nature.

  3. Woman’s psyche is seen as closer to nature.

To back up the first thesis Ortner refers to Simone de Beauvoir, who concluded that the woman is a slave to her body and her reproductory organs. She is restricted through menstruation and the emotional discomfort and hygienic consequences and the depletions of pregnancy and birth. Her “animality” is more manifest in comparison to the male (Ortner, 74).

The woman is destined to create life, which is fragile, while men create objects of eternity e.g. technology, social and cultural constructs. This similarity to animals is also emphasized by French and both, French and Ortner, argue that in sum men are associated with culture and women are associated with nature. The female extreme is the possibility to give birth, the male extreme is the ability to kill (Ortner, 75). These two extremes French depicts as the two ends of a gamut. Due to Ortner it remains a miracle why the male power of destruction is valued more than the ability to create live. She also wonders why women, who are also endowed with consciousness, accept their devaluation and take over culture’s point of view. “Because of woman’s greater bodily involvement with the natural functions surrounding reproduction, she is seen as more a part of nature than man is. Yet in part because of her consciousness and participation in human social dialogue, she is recognized as a participant in culture. Thus she appears as something intermediate between culture and nature, lower on the scale of transcendence than man” (Ortner, 76).

The second thesis, that women’s social role is seen as closer to nature, is explained by her limited social movement. Since women, due to their bodily processes, are restricted to a closer family context, their role within the community they live in is limited to a domestic realm. Women are also automatically associated with children who are unsocialized human beings, and thus likely to be categorized with nature. The close contact between women and children leads consequently to an association of women and nature. And, since family represents a lower order of culture – within which the women takes a lower role herself as a nurturer of children – and women are associated with it and family is seen as natural, women’s social role is seen as closer to nature (Ortner, 77ff.):


Her “natural” association with the domestic context (motivated by her natural lactation functions) tends to compound her potential for being viewed as closer to nature, because of the animal-like nature of children, and because of the infrasocial connotation of the domestic group as against the rest of society. Yet at the same time her socializing and cooking functions within the domestic context show her to be a powerful agent of the cultural process, constantly transforming raw natural resources into cultural products. Belonging to culture, yet appearing to have stronger and more direct connections with nature, she is once again seen as situated between the two realms (Ortner, 80).


Here the connection to French’s feminine principle becomes obvious. The poles “male” and “female” are opposing and “male” is identified with humanity, the erection of constant structures, with power-in-the-world, “female” is identified with nature (French, 22). Because of the additional abilities of women to bear children and the connected physical functions contributed to the way how humans have categorized their experiences in regards to women (French, 16). They are conceptually tied to nature. Their roles’ closeness to nature is laid down in their depiction in Shakespeare’s plays, where the polarization of the two gender roles is implicit (French, 16ff.). He elaborates female figures who are very variable and enigmatic personalities, but they always remain restricted to their role as a woman.

The last thesis, that women are not only different from the male concerning her physical and social qualities, but that also her psyche is different Ortner underlines as follows: It is not so much the emotionality or irrationality of women that makes them psychologically closer to nature than men, it is rather a matter of socialization. “[T]he feminine personality tends to be involved with concrete feelings, things, and people, rather than with abstract entities; it tends toward personalism and particularism” (Ortner, 81). Women are more subjective, interpersonal and immediate, while men are objective, individualistic, abstract and distant. These characteristics are not “innate or genetically programmed”, (Ortner, 81) they evolve out of the family structure and the women’s responsibility for child care and raising children (Ortner, 81). In short, a boy has to shift to a masculine role by identifying with the father. Since the father is mostly absent, he has only an abstract view of him. Thus the boy enters a world full of abstract elements, which influences his thinking and his psyche (Ortner, 82):


For a young girl, in contrast, the personal identification with mother, which was created in early infancy, can persist into the process of learning female role identity. Because the mother is immediate and present when the daughter is learning role identity, learning to be a woman involves the continuity and development of a girl’s relationship to her mother, and sustains the identification with her as an individual; it does not involve the learning of externally defined role characteristics (Ortner, 82).


A girl is thus involved in the world of women, where female roles are quite determined and which is dominated by the personal identification with the mother. The feminine psyche is shaped by social-structural arrangements rather than by biological factors and is thus universal to the feminine character. Women are considered to be less cultural than men because they walk through the world in a nature-like way. “It is thus not difficult to see how the feminine personality would lend weight to a view of women as being “closer to nature”” (Ortner, 82f.). This is analogue to French’s concept of the gender principles: women’s closeness to nature urges the need to control them (French, 13).

The “universal secondary status of women” (Ortner, 83) can be explained “by postulating that women are seen as closer to nature than men, men being seen as more unequivocally occupying the high ground of culture” (Ortner, 83f.). The distinction of culture versus nature is itself a creation of culture, “culture being minimally defined as the transcendence, by means of systems of thought and technology, of the natural givens of existence” (Ortner, 84). Women appear “to be rooted more directly and deeply in nature. At the same time, however, her “membership” and fully necessary participation in culture are recognized by culture and cannot be denied. Thus she is seen to occupy an intermediate position between culture and nature” (Ortner, 84). Referring to this aspect, the difference between Ortner and French is that Ortner applies to women a conversing function, “conversion of nature into culture, especially with reference to the socialization of children” (Ortner, 84).

Women have a smaller range of roles available than men. They have also a smaller access to social institutions. A woman is supposed to have a more limited and more conservative array of attitudes and opinions than a man and the restricted environment she lives in supports this condition (Ortner, 85).


In short, the postulate that woman is viewed as closer to nature than man has several implications for further analysis, and can be interpreted in several different ways. If it is viewed simply as a middle position on a scale from culture down to nature, then it is still seen as lower than culture and thus accounts for the pan-cultural assumption that woman is lower than man in the order of things. If it is read as a mediating element in the culture-nature relationship, then it may account in part for the cultural tendency not merely to devalue woman but to circumscribe and restrict her functions, since culture must maintain control over its (pragmatic and symbolic) mechanisms for the conversion of nature into culture (Ortner 86f.).





3. On women


The status of and attitudes towards women in the Renaissance are depicted in the first chapter on women in the Renaissance. The status of and attitudes towards women in Shakespeare’s plays are depicted in the next chapter. Accordingly, in both chapters the threat of female sexuality which plays a large part – in life as well as in the plays - is evaluated.



3.1. Women in the Renaissance


Renaissance English Women had more sovereignty than their European counterparts. They had a sense of identity and autonomy. The same is true for the plays: also lot of Shakespeare’s women possess an independent spirit. Although the Renaissance law did not designate a special status for women, they had advantages in regards to marriage and inheritance. Unmarried women had practically all the rights of a man, and widows had even more power than most women.1 But it was socially unaccepted to remain unmarried, her fate was to get married and be the property of the husband. The only practicable alternative was to join a nunnery.2 This becomes visible in Kate’s speech in The Taming of the Shrew, where she articulates sarcastically the demanded behaviour of women:


Such duty as the subject owes the prince,

Even such, a woman oweth to her husband;

And when she is forward, peevish, sullen, sour,

And not obedient to his hones will,

What is she but a foul contending rebel,

And graceless traitor to her loving lord?

(The Taming of the Shrew V.ii.153-8)


As we can see here, the role of women was restricted especially with support of the Church because they were viewed as “the daughters of Eve, temptresses who would lead men down the primrose path to fornication” (Pitt, 15).

Though women had particular freedom – even in education - their reputation as sexually threatening disgrace contributed to the fact that men tried to restrict their field of independence. The desired status of a woman was thus, as Kate named it, to give in and to accept that:


Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,

Thy head, thy sovereign.

(The Taming of the Shrew V.ii.144-5)


Literary criticism that regards the period from a feminist perspective point to the striking fact, that the time was laden with male anxiety of insubordinate women who rebelled through eloquence. Articulateness in women provided a source of uneasiness. Women’s reading was regulated and they were prohibited to write or their women’s writing was stained as morally and legally unacceptable. The time was dominated by a compulsive movement of getting these disobedient women under control. A Woman who “exerci[sed] either her sexuality or her tongue under her own control rather than under the rule of a man” was subdued.3 Female sexual desire is one of the characteristics that make women threatening according to “recent feminist Shakespeare criticism”, which states that female sexual passion “was regarded as threatening” (Rackin,12).

Rackin’s findings in historical evidence underline the agreement of current critics that “respectable women were expected to stay at home, that they were economically dependent on fathers and husbands, and that they were subjected to constant surveillance by jealous men, obsessively anxious about their sexual fidelity” (Rackin, 22). Altough “Shakespeare criticism of the 1980s often tended to privilege male experience, emphasizing masculine anxiety in the face of powerful women, but also that some of the most influential work of that period was, in fact, produced by male critics,” the common consensus was that male anxiety of female subversiveness governed Renaissance time (Rackin, 14f.).

Mark Breitenberg’s Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England contributes to the argument that masculinity is anxious in cultures that inhabit hierarchies depending on patriarchal prerogatives. In those cultures power and authority are constitutive of their society. He outlines masculine anxiety as a generative force in the preservation of western patriarchal systems. Patriarchal culture constructed a masculine subjectivity and thus engendered “varying degrees of anxiety in its male members. [In these cultures, M.I.] [s]exuality is by definition an anarchic force constantly besieging the gates of collective order and individual self-control.”4 Anxiety among those with authority and status within a gender system is widespread in Elisabethan life. Anxiety and masculinity are intertwined because “anxiety is an inevitable product of patriarchy at the same time as it contributes to the reproduction of patriarchy” (Breitenberg, 3). Thus, male anxiety causes patriarchal systems and derives of patriarchal structures as well. Anxiety is the cause for the unequal distribution of power and authority between the sexes. “Patriarchal culture constructed a masculine subjectivity and thus engenders varying degrees of anxiety in its male members” (Breitenberg, 1). If this is true, it can be deduced that women’s gender role is determined by their biological sex. This becomes clear when we regard the fact that “[m]asculine identity in patrilineal cultures largely derives from the “resources” men inherit, including his status, and what he is able to pass on to his children” (Breitenberg, 16). Thus the fear of cuckoldry – or the fear of castration – can be explained. To a man it means the deprivation of generative power or virility. A man is deprived of his power, - and that is his power of prerogative – when he is not sure whether he transmits his wealth to legitimate heirs. The cultural imperative demands to figure one’s identity in relation to his wife’s chastity. “[T]he patrilineal basis of his identity depends on his offspring” (Breitenberg, 16). In patrilineal cultures men’s identity depends on the dissemination of property and status through women. To lose a woman or to be unable to detect if the offspring is one’s own, means to lose status. The fears are about inheritance, because only women know a child’s paternity. “Anxious masculinity derives in part from the potentially hazardous dependence on women required by […] dissemination” (Breitenberg, 30). Anxious masculinity is driven by the idea that “social and domestic order depended upon the regulation and scrutiny of women’s sexuality – perceived “by nature” to be more prone to transgression” (Breitenberg, 20).

The alleged connection between social disorder and the “danger of women’s infidelity” could be seen in a rising concern about scolds. “At the same time, evidence of a deeper anxiety toward women perceived as insubordinate can be found in a variety of rituals that were intended to ridicule dominated or cuckolded husbands and to punish their “unruly” wives” (Breitenberg, 20). Since it can not be exactly determined who is the father of a child a man is always dependent on the sexual reliability of a woman.5 And since the biological facts lead to these male anxieties, the role of women is engendered by their biological sex.

Women were considered to be more lustful and more salacious than men (although the double standard suggested a punishment for adultering women whereas fornication of men was swept under the carpet). And thus a “preoccupation with the supposed link between the dangers of women’s infidelity and social unrest shows up in the increased visibility of accusations against scolds or domineering wives in this period” (Breitenberg, 20). Things to humiliate women who undermined the authority of their men were invented. And women who were regarded as being sexually boundless were accused of witchcraft. Thus the tension aroused by the disparity of man’s social dominance and his vulnerability to women was released by scapegoating women who behaved beyond what was regarded as morally acceptable. Interestingly “the mythology of witchcraft was at its height at a time when women were generally believed to be more sexually voracious than men” (Breitenberg, 20).

Early modern England experienced a period of agitation and unrest. The “[f]ear of an impending breakdown of the social order have been common in many periods of history (…) but never were they more widespread, or more intense, than in early modern England” (Breitenberg, 17). The era was soaked with change in political, economic and social aspects of life. In this time family became a comforting and secure and reliable constant. But although this social order that places the man in the top as a natural superior, the proper relations of authority and obedience turned out to be disruptive. This is because of the masculine desire which “is a destabilizing if not self-destructive force, one that requires constant vigilance by reason and self-control” (Breitenberg, 30).

Enclosure acts by Richard Burt and John Michael Archer6 brings together the enclosure of land in early modern England with the containment of female sexuality in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature. It focuses on the link between these two acts of gaining enclosure in a cultural context. The enclosure of sexuality and the body in literary texts is considered as a symbolic order to this process. What is interesting about this book is that it is partly concerned with the containment of sexuality.

Not only men in Shakespeare’s plays try to contain sexuality, also real historical figures did: in 1599 The Bishops’ Ban “which silenced some of London’s most prominent writers, has usually been read as an attempt to quell satire pure and simple” (Burt, 8). With this Ban the Bishop attempted to suppress the recently upcoming salacious tone in the writings of renowned authors. This transgressive tenor was first recognized in the texts of John Marston, a contemporary writer, and it reached a peak in the satiric style of another writer of this time, Pietro Aretino, who was also known for his obscenity. In 1599, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, the authorized censors of the Elizabethan press, ordered the printers to collect, torch and deny from any future printing a series of literary works by ten major writers. Although the ban veils the reason why these books had to be burned, it was soon stated that these “works are imagined […] as acquiring a pervasive contagion that threatens the entire social body” (Burt, 186).

Furthermore many poets and pamphleteers connected “agricultural enclosure with women and landscape” in their writings (Burt, 9). Poets merged the female body with an “eroticized landscape of garden or field to constitute the ground on which male aristocratic control over the property of England is tested and, in most cases justified” (Burt, 9). Thus the female body is linked with the garden which is synonymous with nature; the potential destructive force of nature is artificially contained.

The introductory chapter of Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare’s Plays states that in Shakespeare marriage serves as “a focus for tensions and reconciliations between the sexes” (Neely, 1). Broken nuptials thus convey anxieties, desires and conflicts of the men and women who engage in marriage. Cuckoldry and misogyny are anxieties expressed when marital sexuality is concerned. Women’s status in society is defined in terms of whether they are married, to be married or widowed. Not only women in the plays, Renaissance women as well, are subjected to their (prospect) husbands and this defines their relationship towards men. Even historical women like Queen Elizabeth could not evade this patriarchal paradigm (Neely, 2). This emphasis on marriage stands for the need to control social structures, especially relations bet-ween the sexes. Marriage grants men social and sexual power. These patriarchal structures of the plays are heavily emphasized by feminist critics and such critics point out that


female characters inevitably are defined and define themselves in relation to men. They demonstrate that even strong, central women like lady Macbeth and Cleopatra are socially and sexually contained by the structures of patriarchy, that the assertive comic heroines are restricted by the marriages which conclude their stories (Neely, 3).


Women’s dangerous sexuality is emphasized by the fear of cuckoldry. In Renaissance time, unattainable women were idealized and their sexuality was denied. Cuckoldry denigrated women as well as it empowers them: A woman can not be cuckolded. There is not even a special term for her if she is the victim of unfaithfulness. On the other hand, “[t]he convention acknowledges the power of women’s sexuality” (Neely, 7).

Another aspect of their power is hiding behind men’s permanent slander. In Shakespeare’s plays men are often only imaginary cuckolds but their permanent articulation of the threat of cuckoldry enhances and confirms women’s sexual supremacy. “In the plays as in the period, women’s sexuality is a source of potential power and considerable anxiety” (Neely, 7). But in Elizabethan times things began to change. Is that true or did it just seem so?


Attitudes toward the place of women, the nature of sexuality, and the function of marriage were contradictory and in flux in the Elizabethan period as they are in the plays, so that reading the social representations of women is as complicated a business as reading the literary ones (Neely, 8).


Some historians took as evidence for the improvement of the status of the women the presence of exemplary women like Mary Tudor, Queen Elizabeth who gained political power in that time. The support of women’s education which was based on humanist ideologies as well as the promotion of companionate marriage7 gave the impression that women now had a better position. Other scholars argued that this new situation restricted women and diminished their status. They showed that education for women was in reality not as qualified as that for men and that these exemplary women were regarded anomalous and rather “generated anxieties” (Neely, 8) than to spread optimism. Above all they demonstrated that companionate marriage demanded with first priority the subordination of a woman (Neely, 8f.). Since marriage was an institution of God, which required obedience and respect on the part of the woman and prohibited fornication and adultery, men could justify its necessity and thus exercise power. Besides, they could gain control over their fear of treachery. However, the ideology of matrimony was discussed vivaciously in that time as well as in the plays with a focus on “the contradictory attitudes toward women and the complicated blend of power and subordination which characterized their status” (Neely, 9).

Harmonious partnership is only possible when the couple shares a mutual consent and when both are compatible. Thus, forced marriage and the tradition of wardship were condemned more and more. The pursuit of sexual satisfaction for both – men and women – could be found in marriage, adultery and fornication was undesirable as well as the double standard. Traces of this improvement can be found in Shakespeare’s plays (Neely,10). This improvement is opposed to the fact that marriage could be enforced by parents, that is by fathers and thus patriarchy can not be denied.

Above that it was suggested to women to behave in a certain way by prescriptive literature such as those of Juan Luis Vives.8 Those practical handbooks were written in abundance and most of them were written by men. Vives for example noted that if women don’t behave in a certain way, men will use violence to get what they want, and women will become „prisoners to lusts theeves, than wives and companions to faithfull honest lovers: so drunken are men with their owne lusts“ (Vives 377, quoted in Neely, 12). This is a proof, that female sexuality can drive a man mad, can make him drunken with lust and lose control. In the face of this threat that female sexuality can effect, marriage serves as a good instrument to prevent these dangers. And on top of that it was sacred by God. Marriage is thus a device of control, an implement of power and therefore necessary for the establishment and preservation of social order.

An anonymous pamphleteer admits that marriage is a form of exercise of power over women: in the chapter concerning the laws for widows he writes “Why mourne you so, you that be widowes? Consider how long you have beene in subjection under the predominance of parents, of your husbands, now you be free in libertie […] for her estate was free from controlment.”9 The death of her husband was the only possibility for her to escape his control (Neely, 13). Marriage was also to be arranged by the parents. It was the father’s duty to find a suitable man for his daughter, a proposal Juliet in Romeo and Juliet refused to fulfil (Vives, in Kaplan, 323).

Vives’s views were highly valued in Renaissance time and women gained a profit from it. Vives insisted that women are worthy of education and increasing their minds, which could be read as a support of their independence. But “the text’s emphasis on virtue provides a crucial view of women’s nature, for The Instruction conjures and attempts to exorcise the spectre of female will.” 10 Women’s education was not intended to increase their independence but to bow to the men’s will and to become “model women” (León Alfar, 37). Learning should protect them from corruption and deceit, since their nature was regarded as weak and prone to maliciousness. The woman “is a frail thing and of weak discretion, and that may lightly be deceived, which thing our fist mother Eve sheweth, whom the Devil caught with a light argument” (Vives, 102, quoted in León Alfar, 37). Vives’s connection of modern women with Eve is mirrored in the image of the feminine associated with chaos, unsteadiness and the need to control. (León Alfar, 37).

Vives admonishes a woman to be chaste. A loss of chastity would mean that she has


broken, thou false woman, the most holy band of temporal law, that is to say, thy faith and thy truth, which once given, one enemy in the field will keep to another though he should stand in danger of death, and thou like a false wretch doth not keep it to thine husband […] thou breakest the laws; thou offendest thy country;[…]What greater offense can they do, or what greater wickedness can they infect themselves withal that destroy their country and perish all laws and justice[…] All thy country folks, all rights and laws, thy country itself, thy parents, all thy kinfolk and thine husband himself shall damn thee and punish thee. Almighty God will avenge most rigorously his majesty so displeased and offended of thee (Vives 112f., quoted in León Alfar 37f.).

Vives compares the married woman’s loss of chastity to a crime against her country and this shows that female sexual independence would disrupt the bonds of marriage and the authority of husbands but also the stability of the whole nation. Women who jeopardize thus the security of their country are in danger of isolation and violence:


Now, whereunto should I rehearse the hate and anger of folks? For I know many fathers have cut the throats of their daughters,[…] Hippomenes, a great man of Athens, when he knew his daughter desoiled of one, he shut her up in a stable with a wild horse, kept meatless. For the horse, when he had suffered great hunger long and because he was of nature fierce, he waxed mad and all to-tore the young woman to feed himself with[…](Vives 105, quoted in León Alfar, 38).


Vives names a lot more examples that tell from thrusting swords in the belly of a woman after she delivered, about strangulation and even suicide, but they all show that a woman can only be rendered “good” by being killed. “Their deaths are exorcisms of the threat their desire poses and demonstrate that violence underwrites masculinist and economic structures of power” (León Alfar, 39).

Swetnam, a contemporary of Vives saw in the body of the woman the evil: “[B]etwixt their breasts is the vale of destruction; and in their beds there is hell, sorrow, and repentance” (Swetnam, quoted in León Alfar, 39). The female body is perceived as a


loathsome mixture of material temptations women exploit to manipulate men, Women’s bodies are webs in which men are trapped, immobilized, and eventually strangled. [Vives’s] image of woman as sexually voracious, insatiable in her quest for living male victims, broadens [his] vision of women as contemporary Eves to an archetypal construction of woman as monster, feeding on male flesh (León Alfar, 40).


These pamphlets had great influence on thinking in Renaissance time, which can be put down to the association with Eve whose sins are common know-ledge. The belief in this relation gave the threat of female sexuality a basis and a justification as a historical and religious truth.

According to the growing literacy of both men and women those manuals were printed. But also due to an increasing nervousness about the “potential for disorder, especially among women” these emerged increasingly. They had also a very fundamental instructive character (Breitenberg, 22). Women were for example instructed how to dress, to talk and how to behave toward their husbands. They were recommended what to read and to pray regularly. Due to male perception women needed “instruction in order to combat their supposedly transgressive nature” (Breitenberg, 22). The paradox in this male anxiety is that they try to contain a threat to their power which they themselves have established in the first place. They have constructed a view of women which becomes tragically self-fulfilling in the end. Tragically for the woman, because no matter how chaste and virginal she may be, she is a victim of men’s projection and thus the victim of his fearful attempts to control.



3.2. Threatening women in Shakespeare’s plays


Since female sexuality was associated with sin and Eve’s fall, as well as with lasciviousness, inconstancy and frailty, it became threatening. Chastity was required of women as well as certain behaviour or dressing rules (Neely, 14). Men had to control their women’s will and their sexual appetite. “Many Shakes-pearean husbands, among them Petruchio, Benedick, Othello, and Leontes, manifest the desire to control their wife’s will and appetite” (Neely, 15).

In Shakespeare the female body, as well as a female death body, is engendered by her sexuality. A dead woman is no longer a woman, because “Whatever it is that gendered Ophelia is ungendered by her death. In Shakes-pearean drama what engenders the female body is her sexuality” (Traub, 25). and they are defined by their sexual activity, either they are whores when they are promiscuous or they are virginal. Women’s erotic power consists of chastity and this chastity is overestimated and has social importance (Traub, 26).


In Hamlet (1600 – 1), Othello (1604), and The Winter’s Tale (1610 – 11), male anxiety toward female erotic power is channelled into a strategy of containment; the erotic threat of the female body is psychically contained by means of a metaphoric and dramatic transformation of women into jewels, statues, and corpses (Traub, 26).


This teleology of the transformation of an eloquent woman into a quiet one seems to stimulate these plays. Shakespeare was not the only one who was worried about the unmanageable sexuality of women. It was a common preoccupation among his erotically vulnerable contemporaries in this patriarchal culture, because paternity depended on the reliability of women and thus cuckoldry became a threat. Men in Shakespeare’s plays encounter these anxieties by imposing silence and stasis on women. Connected with this is a fear of chaos associated with heterosexual intercourse:


Whereas phallic penetration in Shakespearean drama is rigorously upheld as the apex of masculine identity and power, the orgasm which follows is imagined in terms of dispersion, a psychic dissolution of power and identity. Sonnet 129 sums up this bifurcation and dispersal in temporal terms: “A bliss in proof, and prov’d, a very woe;/ Before, a joy propos’d; behind, a dream” (Traub, 27).


Many critics point to the relation in the early modern period of the construction of masculine identity to an imagination of the female body as different from the male body. It was perceived as oppositional and dissimilar.


However, in the act of orgasm, male experience of the female body is not so much that of an object to be penetrated and possessed, but of an enclosure into which the male subject merges, dissolves, and in the early modern pun, dies. Orgasm within the body of a woman calls attention to – makes palpable – the myth of the unity and self-identity of the masculine subject: orgasmic release is precisely too much a release of the self. Insofar as women act as mirrors for the development of male subjectivity, female erotic mobility threatens the process by which male subjectivity is secured. For men to achieve the fantasy of full subjectivity, women must remain still (Traub, 27).


The fear of the subject’s demise directs Hamlet, Othello and Leontes eventually to yield for stasis, “for a reprieve from the excitations and anxieties of erotic life” (Traub, 28). Because their fear, that security and content will not set in, they transfer their longing for stasis onto the women with whom they have an intimate relationship. The woman becomes monumentalized as a result. This monumentalizing of the woman can be traced in “the fetishization of the dead, virginal Ophelia, the eroticized death of Desdemona, and the transformation of Hermione into a living but static form, a statue” (Traub, 28). A “friction” can be found in the female erotic. Either, women are chaste, “that is cold, still and closed, or they are unchaste, that is hot, open, mobile” (Traub, 28). There is nothing in between and so the strategy of monumentalizing is an extreme. There are manifold deployments of anxiety and also many ways by which the plays attempt to expel or moderate it. In Shakespearean drama all devices by which masculine fears are legitimized and replicated are embodied. “Shakes-pearean tragedy and romance not only depend upon, but are constituted by masculine anxieties; those anxieties circumscribe and delimit the entire dramatic action” (Traub, 48).

In Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet the gender roles depicted are flexible and mutual. In these plays “the intensification of the desirability of sexual activity seems to induce an even greater internalization of male codes on the part of the female hero” (Traub, 48). To explain that, Cleopatra denies sexual mobility and incontinence in women before she kills herself: “I have nothing / Of woman in me. Now from head to foot / I am marble-constant; now the fleeting moon / No planet is of mine” (Antony and Cleopatra V.ii.238-41). Antony’s bonds to Rome and Romeo’s commitment in the feud represent masculinity. This masculinity interferes with the bodily pleasures because both men fear to become effeminate when they give in to erotic excesses. In these parts of the plays not the men impose stasis but the women, Cleopatra and Juliet themselves, do it.

Shakespeare’s drama maintains male constructions of dominance that defend them against their anxieties. It examines and represents masculine fears and the development of the masculine values that accompany them. A heroine that made mistakes can only be reconciliated within the terrain of these masculine values and a reunion is only possible under the supremacy of male assessment. The dead Ophelia eventually becomes an angel which is a position that is permeated by masculine fears as was her preceding degradation. Gertrude is given the opportunity of salvation, but only at the expense of her sexuality. The dead Desdemona is affirmed guiltless, but her existence as a jewel in the male mind proves of the justification of such violent behaviour. Hermione is brought back together with her husband, but the anxieties that encouraged the imposition of stasis upon her are still at the surface of their union.


Insofar as Shakespeare’s theatre serves as a projective or transitional space in which to articulate and thereby assuage psychic concerns, the dramatization of Hamlet, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale may act as a temporary exorcism of masculine anxieties. However, the metaphorical displacement of sexually threatening women into jewels, statues, and corpses perpetuates the containment and vilification of female erotic power (Traub, 49).


On the one hand, in Shakespeare’s comedies women are most often caring and supportive of the man, they are powerful and their values serve as model to the man. Mutuality is a characteristic that is often achieved in the relationships. They often seize the possibility of male disguise which gives them the opportunity to act without social restrictions while at the same time it deprives them of their threatening sexuality. In tragedy on the other hand, women do not approve of the advantage of disguise. Their roles are more constricted, limited and insecure. They are accused of being devious and penalized for it even if they were not deceitful. “Good women are often powerless, and powerful women are always threatening and often, in fact, destructive.”11

Numerous feminist critics of Shakespeare make use of psychoanalytic approaches to explain the male ambivalence toward female sexuality. Although Freudian models are not sufficient the psychoanalytic approach offers an initial insight to these complications. The main theme these critics outline is men’s incapability to connect tenderness and love with sexual desire for a woman. They state that men always vacillate between the idealization and the degradation of women. Critics show how structures of male dominance develop from the fear of female power and how modes are elaborated that disguise these male fears of effeminization and the loss of power (Neely, 9). Thus it can be stated that “male identity [is] bound up with attitudes toward and relations with women” (Lenz, 13). And these relations are moulded by sexuality and the impediments that arise from it.

There is one constant that is shared by all of Shakespeare’s women:


[T]he central element in Shakespeare’s treatment of women is always their sex, not as a focus for cultural observation or social criticism (though these may be discerned), but primarily as a mythic source of power, an archetypal symbol that arouses both love and loathing in the male.12


That means, all women are sexually threatening is the first association when men come to think of women. Not women as a social being, a gender but a natural force. This is correspondent with French’s statement that in Shakes-pearean comedy the woman dominates as a convincing heroine while in tragedy she “most emphatically” does not (Berggren, 18). What is more, women in the tragedy are dividedly categorized as either good or evil. For women seem to exist merely two categories: virgin or whore, good or evil, monster or victim. But there exists a shimmering variety to group the men: They can be heroes, villains, princes or courtiers. This is also what French found out, namely that the roles of women, either in comedy or in tragedy, are limited. We can thus perceive a basic division through the sexes.

This split in the perception of women becomes most apparent in the tragedies. Lear’s three daughters provide an example for female sensuality in Shakespeare’s tragedies - particularly Goneril and Regan. King Lear praises them comparing them to the natural prosperity personified in “plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads” (King Lear I.i.65), then he revises his promise to Goneril and Regan, requesting Nature instead to “dry up [their] organs of increase” (King Lear I.i.288). Goneril and Regan display an immoral and infertile lasciviousness that procreates evil.


Indeed, evil in Shakespearean women seems to grow from a sexuality so out of tune with its procreative potential that it breeds villainy rather than children. When female lechery is not actually sterile, its progeny is malignant: from Tamora to Cymbeline’s Queen, the impulse to destroy passes inevitably from dissatisfied mother to dissatisfied son. Even the complex women of the major tragic phase suffer from an excess of libidinal energies that neither marriage nor motherhood can channel” (Berggren, 24).


When men rage against women, they rail against their own mistakes. They loathe themselves for what the woman had seduced them to. Women, on the other hand, despise men for doing them wrong, for hurting them, for being suppressed by them. Men curse women because in the face of a woman they become reminiscent that they are “creatures of the flesh” (Berggren, 26).

Shakespeare – unlike other of his contemporaries – created assertive women in his plays. But he also found a way to tame them already on stage so they don’t become too threatening to his male characters.


In drama as elsewhere, men find such women hard to handle, and often hard to take. Shakespeare knew how to manage them – at least on stage. That he could create women who were spunky enough to be fun to be with, and still find ways to mediate their assertiveness so as to render them as nonthreatening as their softer sisters, is one of the secrets of his perennial appeal”.13


Shakespeare mitigates female forcefulness on a meta-level. That is not only the men in his plays tempt to control women but even he as the playwright creates limits of female power within the structure of his plays. Control of the threatening women is exerted by both Shakespeare and his male protagonists. This resembles the assumption that control of female sexual power concerned men in and outside a play. Park offers a view more from outside which leads to the impression that the women in Shakespeare’s plays would break out if he did not set limits to their behaviours. They would assert themselves too much if there were no borders to their spheres of action.

In Shakespeare’s plays women are often entangled with violence and destructiveness. This motive passes through the plays. Men, who have a problem of emotional commitment to a woman, use violence to detach from the woman or to defend themselves against femininity. Claudio’s statement is indicative for the violent atmosphere in the plays: “But you are more intemperate in your blood, than Venus, or those pamp’red animals, that rage in savage sensuality” (Much Ado About Nothing, IV.i.58-60). The motivation for this “violent and disproportioned” eruption is his “suspicious predisposition”14 Therefore the likelihood of a heterosexual relationship provokes “emotional conflicts which give shape to the plot, unleashing a kind of violence which in the comedies remains symbolic, imagined rather than enacted” (Gohlke, 151). Shakespeare’s tragedies seem “to be shared fictions on the part of the heroes about femininity and about their own vulnerability in relation to women, fictions interweaving women with violence, generating a particular kind of heterosexual dilemma” (Gohlke, 152). The paradox of the threat of women’s power and the possibility of becoming the victim of their betrayal is prevalent in the plays. In Othello are “specifically and vividly portrayed the pathology of jealousy, the humiliation and rage that plague a man supposedly dishonored by the woman he loves” (Gohlke, 154). When the treat of deceit is banned he can love her again: “I will kill thee, And love thee after” (Othello V.ii.18-19)” Female lust leads to whoredom and betrayal: Othello views Desdemona as a whore, “one whose entire behaviour may be explained in terms of lust” (Gohlke, 155).

Murder, in this light, is a desperate attempt to control. It is Desdemona’s power to hurt which Othello seeks to eliminate by ending her life” (Gohlke, 155).

In either case it is the fear or pain of victimization on the part of the man that leads to his victimization of women. It is those who perceive themselves to be powerless who may be incited to the acts of greatest violence” (Gohlke, 156). That is why men react in a violent way to female threats.

Lear calls “down curses on the reproductive organs of Goneril and Regan” […] It is they who are the agents of power and destruction, allied with the storm, and he like Edgar, who is “unaccommodated man,” a “poor, bare, forked animal” (King Lear III.iv.105-7), naked and vulnerable” (Gohlke, 157). What “structures much of Lear’s relations to his daughters” is “birth itself, the condition of owing one’s life to a woman and the ambivalence attending an awareness of dependence on women in general” (Gohlke, 157f.).

Antony and Cleopatra lives from the “masculine consciousness of feminine betrayal” (Gohlke, 159). This play is dominated by his “fear of self-loss in any intimate encounter” (Gohlke,159). Antony is aware that Cleopatra dominates him. He is “o’er pow’red” by Cleopatra:



O’er my spirit

Thy full supremacy thou knew’st


You did know

How much you were my conqueror, and that My sword, made weak by my affection, would Obey it on all cause

(Antony and Cleopatra III.xi.58-59, 65-68)


Antony feels himself as having been effeminized by love the same way like Romeo feels being feminized: “O sweet Juliet, / Thy beauty hath made me effeminate / And in my temper soft’ned valor’s steel!” (Romeo and Juliet III.i.115–17). “O, thy vile lady! / She has robbed me of my sword” (Antony and Cleopatra IV.xiv.22–23) Antony is not only weakened by his affection for Cleopatra he also becomes sceptical of her fidelity. “For I am sure, / Though you can guess what temperance should be, / You know not what it is” (Antony and Cleopatra III.xiii.120-22). He jumps to conclusion that Cleopatra has cheated on him with Caesar and thus becoming humiliated sexually and politically. “O, that I were / Upon the hill of Basan to outroar / The horned herd!” (Antony and Cleopatra 126-28). In this, Cleopatra becomes a “witch,” a “spell,” a “triple-turned whore” (Gohlke, 160).


O this false soul of Egypt! This grave charm,

Whose eye becked forth my wars, and called them home,

Whose bosom was my crownet, my chief end,

Like a right gypsy hath at fast and loose

Beguiled me, to the very heart of loss.

What, Eros, Eros!

(Antony and Cleopatra IV.xii.25-30)


Cleopatra in many ways is the epitome of what is hated, loved, and feared in a woman by Shakespeare’s tragic heroes” (Gohlke, 160). She is a betraying woman, who is likewise considered a temptress to the man whom she seduces has to die. She is a “sexually powerful woman” (Gohlke, 161).

In The Taming of the Shrew Kate resists marriage like no other of Shakespeare’s female figures and Petruchio deals in a pragmatic and less emotional way with it (Neely, 28). His enthusiasm for Kate as a wife and sexual partner is obvious proved through his oath to marry and his loud kiss. When he removes her from the wedding he states his control and celebrates the sexual bond between them. Then he breaks her will, in a very unconventional way, by refusing her (Neely, 29) “food, sleep and the consummation of the marriage until he has bullied her into a more affectionate commitment” (Neely, 30). After Petruchio had transformed Kate’s “shrewishness into spirited devotion […] the couple can go off to bed for the belated consummation of their marriage” (Neely, 31). Critics still quarrel over the question if Kate gave in, or just pretended to give in to his taming activities, but nevertheless Petruchio gained control over Kate, and can now go on to consummate their marriage.

Male resistance to marriage can be another form of control. They do not withdraw from women but “they defend themselves against women and protect their self-esteem by aggressive misogyny or witty idealization” (Neely, 32). This is the case in Love’s Labour’s Lost where women maintain the control in the end, by postponing the weddings until after the end of the play, but the male urge to control and is as evident as their contempt to shield themselves against the seductiveness of femininity. In the first scene “the men banish women in order to cement their fellowship and to overcome “devouring Time” and “the disgrace of death” by warring against “the huge army of the world’s desires” (Love’s Labour’s Lost I.i.3–4, 10). Their ascetic retreat protects “the men from women and sex and time and strengthens their bonds with each other” (Neely, 33). Desire for women is suppressed by degrading them through banning them from the academic world and by idealizing them in love sonnets the men perform. In the end the men shift from asceticism to romanticism but acknowledge the threat that they now are surrendered to: “female infidelity can render male victory barren” (Neely, 33). “Allons! Allons! Sowed cockle reaped no corn, And justice always whirls in equal measure. Light wenches may prove plagues to men forsworn; if so, our copper buys no better treasure” (Love’s Labour’s Lost IV.iii. 380–83). In the end of the play that what the men feared the most – rejection, loss of honor, year-long penances, romantic folly, disbanding of their fellowship – comes true like a self-fulfilling prophecy:


Berowne, confined to a hospital, will have to confront the mortality he had evaded and to employ his wit in the service of others or discard it. Oaths once sworn to each other will now be sworn to their beloveds. The penances, however, do not deny time; they encourage the use of it to achieve not immortal fame but mortal satisfaction (Neely, 34).


In A Midsummer Night’s Dream desire is symbolized by the fairy juice. It is “urgent, promiscuous, and threatening to women as well as to men” (Neely, 35). The emergence of desire ridicules the affirmations of faithfulness by Lysander and Demetrius and, subjects to desire, Theseus and Oberon become possessive patriarchs: “every man should take his own…The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream III.ii.459, 463-64). This unpredictable and aggressive obsession of the controlling men are “linger[ed]” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream I.i.4) because Hermia and Helena remain chaste. On the other hand the faithlessness of Titania and Bottom annoys them. Oberon wants to punish Titania for her lust by putting a spell on her to crave for the next “thing” that walks by when she awakes:


The next thing then she waking looks upon,-

Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,

On meddling monkey or on busy ape, -

She shall pursue it with the soul of love:


(A Midsummer Night’s Dream II.i. 179–182)


In act IV.i.88 Titania submisses to Oberon by relinquishing her Indian boy and this generates in Oberon the tenderness she craves (Neely, 36). Men like submissive women. The „conventional romanticism and uncontrollable desire“ are the “two dimensions of love […] which, converging, threatened but did not harm the couples in the forest and which facilitated the union of Titania and Bottom” (Neely, 36). Sexuality threatens the bond of the couples but submissiveness of the woman eventually gives room for tender relationships. That is men love women and are likely to commit to them when they are rather obsequious and chaste than sexual and self-conscious.

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries woman was associated with “evil, sickness and death” (León Alfar, 15). This goes back to the understanding of women’s physiology based on Aristotle and Galen who saw the woman as inferior to the male. In many Shakespeare plays women were depicted as salacious, deceiving or contagious. Lear scolds his daughter a “vulture” (King Lear II.iv.135) and as “serpent-like”, (II.iv.161) a “disease that’s in [his] flesh” (II.iv. 222). Macbeth demands of his wife to “[b]ring forth men-children only” (I.vii.72) and in Antony and Cleopatra women’s evil finds its most markable expression in the “triple turned whore” (Antony and CleopatraIV.xii.13) Antony addresses her. And to Leontes Hermione’s pregnant body is a place of contagion and disease. (A Winter’s Tale II.i.36-37) Goneril, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra and Hermione are accused of being salacious, monstrous, betraying, deceiving, in short, evil.

The debate about the nature of women by writers such as Vives assumes that women are manipulative and faithless. Female desire in the plays is described as the driving force for change, disorder, disruption and especially for female transgression. “It is a force of disorder in terms of both conceptual and social systems” (León Alfar, 72). Female sexuality threatens to cross the borders of gender categories and it disrupts patrilineal social systems and it “unmasks the superficial and arbitrary basis for that system’s power” (León Alfar, 72).




1 Compared to other European countries, English women had relative freedom, for example, single women could inherit and administer land, sign a contract and so on. The same was true for widows. Only married women had no such rights, here the man dominated the family. (The Norton Shakespeare, New York, London: Oxford University Press, 9ff.)

2 Angela Pitt, Shakespeare’s Women (London: David and Charles; Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1981) 9. All further references to this work are cited in the text as (Pitt, p).

3 Phyllis Rackin, Shakespeare and Women (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) 10. All references to this work are cited in the text as (Rackin, p).

4 Mark Breitenberg, Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England (Cambridge, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 1. All references to this work are cited in the text as (Breitenberg, p).

5 Nowadays paternity can be determined through genetic tests but sexual reliability of the women is nevertheless required for fatherhood.

6 Richard Burt, John Michael Archer, “Enclosure Acts,” Enclosure Acts. Sexuality, Property, and Culture in Early Modern England, ed. Richard Burt and John Michael Archer (Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press, 1994). All further references to this edition are cited in the text as (Burt, p).

7 Companionate marriage was a Protestant idea, which had the principle of loving sexual partnership of the couple.

8 Juan Luis Vives (1492 – 1540) was the author of a number of works on theology, philosophy, law and history. The Instruction of a Christian Woman expressed a conservative view of female behaviour especially arguing that the husband has to control her and her sexual continence. His work had great influence in that time, since it was translated into several languages. In: William Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice. Texts and Contexts. Ed. M. Lindsay Kaplan (Boston, New York: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2002) 319.

9 Lawes Resolutions, 243 quoted in Neely, 13.

10 Christina León Alfar, Fantasies of Female Evil. The Dynamics of Gender and Power in Shakespearean Tragedy (Newark, London: University of Delaware Press, Associated University Presses, 2003) 35. All further references to this work are cited in the text as (León Alfar, p).

11 Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz et al. “Introduction,” The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare (Urbana, Chicago, London: University of Illinois Press, 1980) 6. All further references to this edition are cited in the text as (Lenz, p).


12 Paula S. Berggren, “The Woman’s Part. Female Sexuality as Power in Shakespeare’s Plays,” The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, eds. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz et al. (Urbana, Chicago, London: University of Illinois Press, 1980) 18. All further references to this article are cited in the text as (Berggren, p).

13 Clara Claiborne Park, “As we like it. How a Girl can be smart and still popular,” The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, eds. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz et al. (Urbana, Chicago, London: University of Illinois Press, 1980) 103.


14 Madelon Gohlke, “I wooed thee with my sword. Shakespeare’s Tragic Paradigms,” The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, eds. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz et al. (Urbana, Chicago, London: University of Illinois Press, 1980) 151. All further references to this article are cited in the text as (Gohlke, p). 




4. Selected plays


In the selected plays the different threats female sexuality inhabits are examined as well as the various ways men employ to cope with the fear. The threat can be compartmentalized into different levels of subjectivity. These categories that threaten men are material, individual and social. A man is threatened materially if his existence is threatened, that is his health or when he is deprived of passing on his genes. His procreative potential is affected and he fears to breed villains rather than children. Then his status, his masculinity, in short that what defines himself as an individual can be threatened by losing his reputation and honor to his peers when he becomes cuckolded or effeminized. And finally men are threatened socially when male bonds are endangered or the social order is concerned by powerful, influencing women that may destroy comradeship. Of course there are no sharp borders between these categories, they may merge into each other. Hamlet fears unfaithfulness of women initiated by Gertrude’s lust and hasty remarriage. His individuality is threatened, that is, that what makes up his view of women and relationships is shattered through Gertrude’s adultery. Othello fears deceit, his reaction is at first jealousy and finally murder. His jealousy poses another threat, the same as in A Winter’s Tale, here the jealousy of Leontes not only applies to his wife, but is also enlarged to a doubt in the legitimacy of his offspring. Here material aspects in Leontes’ life are threatened. In Much Ado About Nothing female sexuality comes in the mask of eloquence, male bonds are threatened and the fear of emotional closeness referred to. In Measure for Measure the fear is focused on the female body which breeds fears, like that of death, which is a genetic death, because a man is dependent on the woman as the mother of their future children. Men are threatened in their mere existence by sexuality. And in Romeo and Juliet sexuality threatens masculinity in form of becoming effeminate. Above that Juliet’s desire threatens the social systems that are kept through patriarchy. Her desire is responsible for the breakdown of moral order.



4. 1. Hamlet


In Shakespeare’s plays women are often considered as sexually threatening to the male characters. In Hamlet this erotic force is contained1 by monumentalizing the woman and to convert her erotic warmness into a cold, motionless corpse.2 In Hamlet the female body poses a threat to the man, a threat that is based on a particular fantasy the man, Hamlet, has of women. He feels threatened by her unchastity. This fantasy was materialized and enforced through his mother’s erotic mobility. The anxious male developed a strategy of containment of female erotic power which seems to be a teleological motivation for the play. “There is an “erotic friction” in the female erotic. Either, women are chaste, that is cold, still and closed, or they are unchaste, that is hot, open, mobile. There is nothing in the middle and thus the strategy of monumentalizing is excessive” (Traub, 28). The male fear of cuckoldry or adultery is shared by all men – real, living ones, as well as the characters in the plays – because fatherhood required the sexual fidelity of the woman and thus unchastity is a threat.

In Hamlet’s mind the uncontrollability of Gertrude’s sexuality is the cause for contamination in heterosexual relationships. Her adultery and incest serve as a projection onto other women, which he regards as prostitutes and adulteresses. And thus all men are turned into potential cuckolds. After Gertrude’s marriage to his uncle, Hamlet’s world is turned into “an unweeded garden, That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature. Possess it merely” (Hamlet I.ii.135-137). This unweeded garden breeds evil and seduction in form of sexually threatening women who “poison vulnerable and unwitting men” (Traub, 29). Women’s erotic power enables them to decide on life and death. This power is represented in the play Hamlet lets perform: “A second time I kill my husband dead / When second husband kisses me in bed” (Hamlet III.ii.182-3).

Hamlet projects Gertrude’s sexuality onto Ophelia. It seems somehow paranoiacally when he urges Ophelia: “Get thee to a nunn’ry. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? [...] I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me” (Hamlet III.i.122-5). In the peak of this monologue it becomes clear that he is suspicious about being cuckolded like his father: “Get thee to a nunn’ry, farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them” (Hamlet III.I.138-41). This pun on nunnery makes clear that Hamlet is less concerned about Ophelia’s capability to betray other men; his paranoia “extends only to himself and his beloved father” (Traub, 29). Monster is an early modern euphemism for cuckolds, and women have the ability to turn men into mons-ters, in deceiving them:


I have heard of you paintings too, well enough. God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another. You jig, you amble, and you lisp, you nickname God’s creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on’t; it hath made me mad. I say, we will have no moe marriage. (Hamlet III.i.144-50)


Hamlet repels marriage because it means “madness and whoredom”. It humiliates both – woman and man – but particularly the man who “ever knows who else has slept between his sheets” (Traub, 29). Hamlet has a strong fear of cuckoldry.

Not only marriage is compared to whoredom, Hamlet himself feels like a whore because he is “unable to carry out the revenge thrust upon him by his father’s Ghost” (Traub, 30): “Must, like a whore, unpack [his] heart with words, / And fall a-cursing, like a very drab, / A stallion” [male prostitute, M.i.] (Hamlet II.ii.586-8).” His rejection of Ophelia masks more than a mere fear of cuckoldry. His anxieties are “associated with sexual activity itself” (Traub, 30). Speaking of sexuality he uses terms that refer to contagion and disease. Gertrude’s lapse he describes as “ulcerous” that “infects unseen” (Hamlet III.iv.154-6). Traub states that to Hamlet sexuality is unnatural at all because he asks “And, shall I couple hell?” (Hamlet I.v.94) To couple with hell is unnatural and so is sexuality for Hamlet (Traub, 30).

To Hamlet’s father Gertrude is both an angel and a whore: “But virtue, as it never will be moved, / Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven, / So lust, though to a radiant angel link’d, / Will sate itself in a celestial bed, / And prey on garbage” (Hamlet I.v.54-8). He further goes on: “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge, / To prick and sting her” (Hamlet I.v.86-9). “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life / Now wears his crown” (Hamlet I.v.40-1), “crown symbolizing both his kingship and his wife’s genitalia” (Traub, 30). Sexuality is here equalled to a serpent, something that is nature and thus threatening. Here the link to French becomes obvious.

When Laertes talks to Ophelia about her betrothal with Hamlet his words are related to metaphors of sickness as well:


The canker galls the infants of the spring

Too oft before their buttons be disclos’d,

And in the morn and liquid dew of youth

Contagious blastments are most imminent.

(Hamlet I.iii.29-42)


Again the link between nature as evil and sexuality becomes obvious. Interestingly, terms like “canker” and “contagious” denote sickness and are directly intertwined with expressions of nature like “spring, dew” and “blastment”.

Polonius is worried about Ophelia’s chastity. He advises her: “Do not believe his vows, for they are brokers [….] / Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds, / The better to beguile” (Hamlet I.iii.128-32). And he admonishes her: “you yourself / Have of your audience been most free and bounteous” (Hamlet I.iii.93-4). That is, he warns her not to “risk opening her “chaste treasure”” (Traub, 32). “When Claudius later asks Polonius to repeat the advice he gave to Ophelia regarding Hamlet’s advances, Polonius replies: “That she should lock herself from his resort” (Hamlet II.ii.143). The message of father and son is clear: the proper female sexuality is closed, contained, “lock’d” (Traub, 32). That what is vitally threatening is eventually under control.

After Ophelia’s death, Hamlet and Laertes fetishize her virginity: “Lay her i’ th’ earth, / And from her fair and unpolluted flesh / May violets spring!” (Hamlet V.i.238-40). “Fetishized to the extent that it is utterly divorced from the rest of her being, Ophelia’s chastity embodies, as it were, a masculine fantasy of a female essence wonderfully devoid of that which makes women so problematic: change, movement, inconstancy, unpredictability – in short, life” (Traub, 32). Hamlet and Laertes then quarrel over the right to possess her. Possession can be equalled with control, even after Ophelia died, these men want to control her sexuality. “One that was a woman, sir, but, rest her soul, she’s dead” (Hamlet V.i.135-6). Now Ophelia is no woman any more, she is “no longer likely to incite erotic anxiety; she is, however, a likely object to figure in erotic fantasies of masculine prowess” (Traub, 32). Being dead, her sexuality is safely contained, possessed. Claudius’ last words when he leaves the funeral “This grave shall have a living monument” (Hamlet V.i.297) sharply express “the monumentalizing impulse behind the men’s collective desires, for Ophelia is immortalized only as she is immobilized” (Traub, 33).

Hamlet’s affectionate feelings to his father lead him to transfer his revulsion of his mother’s adultery onto Ophelia. He humiliates her and to him her death means that she can not deceive him anymore. Ophelia who is considered a whore in life through Gertrude’s adultery, regains her chastity and sexual attractiveness in death as an eternal virgin (Traub, 18-33).



4. 2. Othello


As it becomes clear in Othello desire and anxiety are connected. Othello’s anxieties of female sexuality tragically culminate in his murder of Desdemona. Due to many critics Othello has ambivalent feelings toward Desdemona and women in general. His suspicion provides a fecund soil for Iago’s slander and intrigue. Through the alleged betrayal of Desdemona, Othello exposes himself to emotional vulnerability. His suspicion is supported by Brabantio’s admonition: “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. / She has deceiv’d her father, and may thee” (Othello I.iii.295-6). And Iago takes the same line: “She did deceive her father, marrying you” (Othello III.iii.211).

Othello believes that women can be both virgins and whores. “Underneath the dichotomization of women into virgins or whores, Othello implies, lies the belief that women may simultaneously appear as virginal and yet be promiscuous” (Traub, 34). In Hamlet on the contrary the terms virgin and whore are mutually exclusive. “Importantly, however, Hamlet’s suspicions never obtain the status of existential Truth; they never assume the posture of irrevocable judgment” (Traub, 34). In Hamlet’s opinion Gertrude can rehabilitate herself in denying the so called “marriage bed”. And Ophelias reputation and unchastity is restored through her death, like Laertes states: “Lay her i’ th’ earth, / And from her fair and unpolluted flesh / May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest, / A minist’ring angel shall my sister be / When thou liest howling” (Othello V.i.238-42).

The price of such redemption, however, is a complete capitulation to masculine terms as well as the resurrection of the faulty structure of sexual dualism” (Traub, 34). Hamlet demands of his mother to revirginate herself


Hamlet: Confess yourself to heaven,

Repent what’ s past, avoid what is to come,

And do not spread the compost on the weeds

To make them ranker….

Queen: O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.

Hamlet: O, throw away the worser part of it,

And live the purer with the other half.

Good night. But go not to my uncle’s bed;

Assume a virtue, if you have it not.

(Hamlet III.iv.156-67)


In order to assuage masculine suspicions and fears – in order not to be a whore anymore – Gertrude must get rid of her sexuality and take up celibacy. In short, she must submit to Hamlet’s yearning for “no moe marriage”.

This possibility to salvation is not given in Othello because his suspicion is irrevocably true to Othello. Desdemona’s betrayal is no longer a possible but vague threat; it is a certainty. Othello objects: “O curse of marriage, / That we can call these delicate creatures ours, / And not their appetites!” (Othello III.iii.274-6). Here his urge to control becomes visible as well as his helplessness yet to possess a woman but not being able to control her salaciousness. Female desire is to Othello the reason why there is marriage: to control women. But since this is not completely possible, marriage remains a curse.

Iago can successfully convince Othello that all women are whores. He contributes to the prevailing distrust of women which is culturally shared by men in those times. Women were alleged to be deceitful and this counts as common knowledge. His manipulation is thus very successful: “this pestilence into his ear, / That she repeals him for her body’s lust” (Othello II.iii.350-1). Othello’s fear of deceit results out of a natural castration anxiety, an anxiety of “thraldom to the demands of an unsatisfiable sexual appetite in woman brought on by the consummation of his marriage” (Traub, 35). Othello’s murder of Desdemona, then, is a ritualistic effort to repeat and undo his own sexual complicity” (Traub, 35). In Act III, scene iii it becomes clear that Othello’s distrust in Desdemona is linked to his own self-worth, he is incapable to trust his own racial identity and thus to trust her: “Her name, that was as fresh/ As Dian’s visage, is now begrim’d and black/ As mine own face” (391-3). To sum it up, Othello is anxious about sexuality because his self-esteem - which is linked to racial inferiority – is low and above that he fears the chaos that he connects with erotic activity. For Othello romantic love is equivalent with calm and “content[ment]” and, considering the following quote the loss of love is associated with chaos: “Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul / But I do love thee! And when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again”! (Othello III.iii.92-94). Desdemona does not conserve peacefulness and content in their relationship as she was supposed to. Hence, Othello associates her sexuality throughout the play with chaos. Othello is thus double-minded: On the one side he yearns for romantic love, quietness and stasis, on the other side he is confronted with female sexuality which means chaos and violence. “Such hostilities, brought to a head by the consummation of his marriage, between the psychic structures necessary to his sense of self and those related to his sexuality must ultimately be reconciled if Othello is not to go mad” (Traub, 37). As means for an integration of these opposing sides he has to employ violence to achieve stasis. After their lovemaking he therefore says:


This argues fruitfulness and liberal heart: -

Hot, hot, and moist: this hand of yours requires

A sequester from liberty, fasting and prayer,

Much castigation, exercise devout;

For here’s a young and sweating devil here,

That commonly rebels. ‘Tis a good hand,

A frank one.

(Othello III.iv. 36 – 42)


Desdemona’s sexuality is “fruitful, liberal” and “hot” and must be “sequester[ed] from liberty.” That is, Othello is of the opinion that women’s sexuality is better to be locked up, contained.

Desdemona admits sexual desire that generates in her a stormy passion: “That I did love the Moor to live with him, / My downright violence and storm of fortunes / May trumpet to the world” (Othello I.iii.251-3). Othello also compares Desdemona’s sexuality to a storm but he is rather worried than delighted:


It gives me wonder great as my content

To see you here before me. O my soul’s joy!

If after every tempest come such calms

May the winds blow till they have waken’d death!

And let the labouring bark climb hills of seas

Olympus-high and duck again as low

As hell’s from heaven! If it were now to die,

‘Twere now to be most happy; for, I fear,

My soul hath her content so absolute

That not another comfort like to this

Succeeds in unknown fate….

I cannot speak enough of this content;

It stops me here; it is too much of joy.

And this, and this, the greatest discords be

[Kissing her]

That e’er our hearts shall make!

(Othello II.i.181-98)


Othello compares the act of sexuality with a battle. He would be prepared to die after such an encounter and not to rise again to prevent the turmoil of prospect combats. For Othello the threat of sexual satisfaction is equated with termination (Traub, 38):


As his speech concludes with a conjunction of discord and desire, Othello’s consciousness of sexuality causes him to falter, to halt, so that he swallows his words just when he asserts that he cannot refrain from speaking: “I cannot speak enough of this content; / It stops me here” (Traub, 38).



Othello’s yearning for calm and content is disrupted by Desdemona’s desire.


I had been happy if the general camp,

Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body,

So I had nothing known. O, now, forever

Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!”

(Othello III.iii.344-348)


Othello’s calmness is gone after he had ‘tasted her sweet body’. Her deceit would not have disturbed him, if he had not known. The ambiguous meaning of the stanza could also be directed to other men, who “had tasted her sweet body”, either way, Othello is prone to lose his repose. Othello becomes the victim of his own feelings. After he had “tasted her sweet body,” Othello is, as Iago says “eaten up with passion” (Othello III,iii.390). The love between Desdemona and Othello is supposed to give calm and tranquillity rather than erotic excitement. This sexual component that eatens him up evokes in him the anxiety of chaos: “Get me some poison, Iago; this night. I’ll not expostulate with her, lest her body and beauty unprovide my mind again. This night, Iago” (Othello IV.i.203-5). “The only protection against “unprovision” is to project onto the loved one the tranquillity that she is supposed to (but because of her mobile sexuality, fails to) create” (Traub, 39). This tranquillity can paradoxically only be achieved by violence. In his speech referring to the tempestuous sea the metaphor of this violence becomes visible (Traub, 39):



Like to the Pontic sea,

Whose icy current and compulsive course

Nev’r feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on

To the Propontic and the Hellespont,

Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,

Shall nev’r look back, nev’r ebb to humble love,

Till that a capable and wide revenge

Swallow them up.

(Othello III.iii.457-64)


Othello compares Desdemona to jewels, which is part of his “strategy for containing her distressing erotic mobility” (Traub, 39). In his mind he transforms Desdemona into a jewel. Jewels are cold and quiet and they are adored and wanted. With this picture of Desdemona he is able to distance himself from her and at the same time to idealize her:


By reducing a warm, living body to a static yet idealized object, Othello hopes to master the situation that threatens him, just as Hamlet defends against the image of Gertrude’s incest by projecting Claudius as a “cutpurse” who stole the queen, a “precious diadem” (III.iv.102-3). […] The equation of women and jewels is a crucial strategy of Petrarchan convention to exert power over a threatening situation” (Traub, 40).


The strategy of containment by transforming Desdemona mentally into an unliving object does not suffice. To contain her completely as an object he must kill her. ”Peace, and be still” Othello yearns obsessively (Othello V.ii.48). Desdemona’s “bold motion” is stilled while she sleeps but he has the urge to quieten her eternally. When he kisses her in her sleep he whispers: “One more, one more. / Be thus when thou art dead, an I will kill thee, / And love thee after” (Othello V.ii.17-19). Desdemona has to die because of her desirability and her threatening sexuality. Othello senses her kisses to be fatal to him: “So sweet was ne’er so fatal” (Othello V.ii.20). but in the end it is her who is being murdered because of his fear of her alleged deceit. To Othello sexuality and death are intertwined: “’Tis destiny unshunnable, like death” (Othello III.iii.281). Death is the logical consequence of desire. After her death Desdemona can again be sexualized because then she is eternally powerless and sacred (Traub, 40f.).

This containment of her sexual power is again a hint to the male urge to maintain control. The living woman is transformed into a dead corpse, that what is natural is under control, is death. It is a male characteristic and it is crucial to the play Othello:


Paradoxically, the need to discipline women is both the “cause” and the “cure” that is offered throughout Othello. Though Othello exceeds the boundaries of his culture’s notion of suitable “taming,” to discipline an erring wife is entirely appropriate within the play’s ethos. For Desdemona to have ventured beyond the bounds of patriarchal dictates would have been axiomatic evidence of guilt. Though Desdemona’s tarnished reputation is burnished by the end of the play, the play’s valorization of chastity registers the impossibility of her innocence beyond the masculinist ethos. In one moment Desdemona is vindicated and reinserted securely within masculine control (Traub, 41).


Erotic anxieties of men are not only a part of Othello or Hamlet. They can be found in a wide range of the Shakespearean works. To compare for example Much Ado About Nothing with Othello and The Winter’s Tale one can find out that there are parallels. The Hero/Claudio plot in Much Ado About Nothing is divided into two story lines. “The fraught courtship of Claudio and Hero is replicated in Othello’s marriage to Desdemona, whereas Hero’s semblance of death for restorative purposes is, even in the failure of its ritual resolution, reproduced in The Winter’s Tale” (Traub, 41). When Claudio first looks at Hero he uses similar expressions like Othello does when he refers to his object of desire: “Can the world buy such a jewel?” (Othello I.i.174). Claudio’s inclination to believe in Hero’s unfaithfulness corresponds with Othello’s susceptibility to Iago’s intrigue. Hero considered both a virgin and a whore, just like Ophelia and Desdemona. She is seen “[A]s chaste as is the bud ere it be blown” and as an “intemperate […] Venus” or animal that “rage[s] in savage sensuality” (Othello IV.i.56-60). Claudio is both a romantic idealist and a misogynist. The latter derives from his fear of female sexual power (Traub, 33 – 42).


The tragic brutality of Othello, however, seems to have operated as a kind of exorcism. Although fear of women’s sexual power dominates King Lear (1605) and Macbeth (1606), never again are the strategies employed to combat those fears so vitriolic and vituperative – or so horrifyingly final. Rather, Lear and Macbeth are themselves victimized by the sexual power wielded by commanding and evil women (Traub, 42).


The assumption of French, that men always seek to control that what threatens their order and the theory that men are afraid of female sexuality are corroborated through the findings in Othello and Hamlet. But there will be more evidence to these theses in the following chapters. In A Winter’s Tale the topic of containment of a sexually threatening woman will be described.



4.3. A Winter’s Tale


In A Winter’s Tale the conflict induced by the fear of women’s erotic infidelity continues. Central to the play is the transformation of Hermione into a cold, immobile statue and then her change into a woman again which is motivated by the threat her sexuality poses to Leontes. The model of containment of female erotic anxiety in Hamlet and Othello is repeated in A Winter’s Tale.

In Leontes’ court a sexual dualism is prevalent. Women are regarded with suspicion and ambivalence as it is true for Othello and Hamlet. When Polixenes speaks about his boyhood with his brother Leontes, his bias towards women as on the one hand sanctified and on the other hand salacious temptresses become obvious: “O my most sacred lady,/ Temptations have since then been born to ‘s, for/ In those unfledg’d days was my wife a girl;/ Your precious self had then not cross’d the eyes/ Of my young playfellow” (A Winter’s Tale I.ii.76-9). This is a projection which underlies the instinctively felt danger of the enticement women represent:


Leontes’ ostensible compliment to Hermione in the story of their betrothal – “Why, that was when/ Three crabbed months had sour’d themselves to death/ Ere I could make thee open thy white hand/ And clap thyself my love” (A Winter’s Tale I.ii.101-4) – replicates three of Hamlet’s and Othello’s most potent associations: the link between eroticism and death, the image of women’s sexuality as an opening, and the use of hands as an erotic emblem (Traub, 42f.).



The gesture of the opening of the hand means a woman gives herself to be married. But to Leontes this gesture means much more. It means that they can use their hands and thus “can give of themselves rather tan be the gifts of men” (Traub, 43). As long as the context of courtship is referred, the opening of the hand is a positive symbol. But for Leontes the opening hand is soon altered into the “paddling palm” of a whore. Her “free face” that receives a “liberty/ From heartiness” is a metaphor for whorish conduct (A Winter’s Tale I.ii.112-15). To Leontes Hermione’s sexuality has become too open and “Too hot, too hot!” (A Winter’s Tale I.ii.108).

Since Hamlet and Othello turn women into objects, Leontes pictures Hermione as a “medal, [that] hang[s] about [Polixenes’] neck” (A Winter’s Tale I.ii.306-7). [A] medal representing, even more explicitly than jewels, the power and prestige of the male” (Traub, 43). Herminone becomes an object which a man can possess. But unfortunately it is Polixenes who can call the treasure his own, at least in Leontes mind. Leontes utters his sexual nausea in an insulting, confused way:


And many a man there is, even at this present,

Now while I speak this, holds his wife by th ‘arm,

That little thinks she has been sluic’d in ‘s absence

And is pond fish’d by his next neighbour, by

Sir Smile, his neighbour. Nay, there’s comfort in’t,

Whiles other men have gates and those gates open’d

As mine, against their will.

(A Winter’s Tale I.ii.192-8)


Leontes rails against cuckoldry. The loss of sexual control lies in the openness of their so called gates, a fact that disturbs him enormously.

There are many approaches in identifying the source of Leontes’ far-fetched jealousy and his reaction to it, like the psychoanalytical approach. But what is interesting here is the question of cultural relevance to his anxieties:


[What] nexus of cultural relations creates the conditions for such a paranoiac reaction [?] The anxieties of Leontes are the anxieties of a masculinist culture in which women’s bodies possess enormous powers of signification. Hermione’s pregnant body, as much as it is a signifier of maternal fecundity and hereditary lineage, is a palpable reminder of erotic activity: to Leontes, her pregnancy visually re-presents the consequences of heterosexual intercourse (Traub, 44).


Leontes kills Hermione psychically and also their child Mamillus who is the product of Hermione’s sexual activity. Her mere imprisonment does not suffice; Leontes has to fantasize her death (Traub, 44f.). In this progress he reaches content: “say that she were gone, / Given to the fire, a moiety of my rest/ Might come to me again” (A Winter’s Tale II.iii.7-9). In killing her he hopes to get back his picture of the woman as a sacred figure who is not sexual anymore. Hermione’s uncontrollable sexuality has to be symbolically contained and neutralized. The strategy of containment pervades all three plays Hamlet, Othello and A Winter’s Tale. The reasons for the male fear of women’s erotic power are cultural constructs. These cultural anxieties lead Leontes to fantasize Hermione’s deceit. She must die metaphorically and this “death is reversed only when another symbolic form of stasis and control is imposed: Hermione’s “dead likeness” (A Winter’s Tale V.iii.15) re-presents her living body through the illusion of preserved feminine integrity. “[W]arm” but not hot (A Winter’s Tale V.iii.110), Hermione is chastened, her erotic power curtailed” (Traub, 45). In the last scene Leontes gets back his virtuous wife who is now subdued (Traub, 43ff.).


Hermione can be sacramentalized because the threat she represented has been psychically encased in stone. To the extent that a statue’s function is commemorative, Hermione-as-statue safely re-members, but does not em-body, the threat of female erotic power (Traub, 45f.).


Male anxiety of female sexual power is channelled into a strategy of containment in all three plays. In A Winter’s Tale Hermione, imagined as a jewel, becomes the symbol of status for the man who owns it. As a statue she is as well the mere possession, something that is under control.



4.4. Much Ado About Nothing



In Much Ado About Nothing a sexual conflict is central and women dominate the play. Don Pedro, Claudio and Benedick, returning home from a battle, enter another conflict: the ‘merry war’ and the ‘skirmish of wit’ between Benedick and Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing I.i. 62 – 63).3 The ‘war’ between them is characterized by an articulate and eloquent struggle to win this fight and thus gain supremacy over the other sex. The Language in Much Ado About Nothing is male-dominated and phallic even violent and serves as a male strategy of defence. The cuckold jokes, which are performed in the play in abundance, point to the male anxiety of castration and of female sexuality (Cook, 76).

The major topic of concern which is for the most part uttered by male figures in these witty battles between women and men is that of cuckoldry. Fear of cuckoldry has an omnipotent presence throughout the play, since cuckold jokes begin in the first Scene of the first Act and close with the last act. When Leonato is asked whether Hero is his daughter, he answers: ‘Her mother hath many times told me so’ (Much Ado About Nothing I.i.105). Men in this play don’t get tired of referring to remarks on cuckoldry which is a hint on the motivating power of anxiety. Cuckoldry is not only a part of the so called sophisticated small talk that is conventional in Messina but goes beyond its geographical borders. The vulnerability through cuckoldry is culturally shared by men “because they have only a woman’s word for the paternity of their children. A man may be a cuckold, it is suggested, and not be aware of his horns” (Cook, 77).

Anxiety about female power over men is uttered by Benedick in the first scene where he reveals his misogynist views to Claudio und Don Pedro:


That a woman conceiv’d me, I thank her; that she brought me up, I likewise give her most humble thanks; but that I will have a recheate winded in my forehead, or hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick, all women shall pardon me. Because I will not do them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the right to trust none; and the fine is (for which I may go the finer), I will live a bachelor.

(Much Ado About Nothing I.i.238-46)


This metaphorical utterance expresses masculine fears about feminine power. The subjection to a woman would mean to Benedick that he ‘lose[s] more blood with love than [he] will get again with drinking. (Much Ado About Nothing I.i, 250-1) He suffers a “loss of vitality and virility” (Cook, 78). To sum it up, the fear about cuckoldry lies for one part in the fear of being castrated4 but in a more symbolic way: castration of their power, loss of their virility and of doubt in legitimacy of their biological heir, their offsprings. Being cuckolded also means being exposed to public display and thus risk of losing ones recognition of other men. It means to suffer from humiliation and loss of status in the masculine hierarchy (Cook, 79). All these feelings are vitally expressed in the cuckold jokes. (Cook, 79f.).


[I]t is the place of the woman to be the object, or referent, of language, a sign to re read and interpreted; silent herself [except Beatrice], she becomes a cipher, the target of unconscious fantasies and fears, and is dangerously vulnerable to the representations and misrepresentations of men, as the main plot of Much Ado bears out. The woman is therefore doubly threatening, both in her imagined capacity to betray and cuckold men and as an image of what men fear to become: paradoxically, her very vulnerability is threatening (Cook, 80).


The concept of “woman” is susceptible to male fantasies and projections. Being cuckolded would mean to a man to become effeminized. Being effeminized means being vulnerable, since women are the ones who are supposed to be vulnerable, not men.

The characters of Messina are highly aware of „verbal style“ (Cook, 81). “Just as the Messinans talk about dress, they talk about talking” (Cook, 81). Benedick and Beatrice are famous for their ‘skirmish of wit’ (Much Ado About Nothing I.i.63). “[I]f they were married ‘but a week’, they would talk themselves mad”, (Much Ado About Nothing II.i.353-4) Leonato guesses. The speed of Beatrice’s tongue is legendary and their oral style is distinguished by “quips and sentences and paper bullets of the brain” and there is the “ill word” that ”empoison[s] linking”. And there is Don John who is – contrastingly - “not of many words” (Much Ado About Nothing I.i.157). Verbal wit is used to cover emotional vulnerability and to protect from exposure. Communication is aggressive and it even wounds: In the ‘merry war’ between Beatrice and Benedick, she “speaks poiniards, and every word stabs” (Much Ado About Nothing II.i.247-8) “Because of its capacity to inflict wounds, language – especially wit – is wielded both as weapon and as shield” (Cook, 81). This battle of wits can be equalled to a battle of the sexes in which women have as much power as men. Beatrice, considering her struggles with Benedick, often vanquishes him:


Benedick: I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way, o’God’s name. I have done.

Beatrice: You always end with a jade’s trick. I know you of old.

(Much Ado About Nothing I.i.135-139)


Benedick surrenders because he does not know what else to reply to Beatrice’s witty remarks. Beatrice’s power is eloquence. Her language is also phallic like the language of the men (Cook, 81). In taking over masculine attributes through male language she becomes strong. Women, who present themselves in a masculine way, are considered strong and powerful. On the other hand, if a man takes over female attributes it will effeminate him and he will be considered a weakling. Female sexuality with regards to language is thus so threatening because it is so transformable and devious and elusive.


Beatrice tacitly accepts her culture’s devaluation of ‘feminine’ characteristics – of weakness, dependence, vulnerability – and sees conventionally masculine behaviour as the only defence against them. She usurps the masculine prerogatives of language and phallic wit, speaking poiniards as an escape from feminine silence or inarticulate expression of emotion (Cook, 83).


Her eloquence is threatening because she can say things that hurt, that are painful for men. Hence, eloquence as a part of her sexuality, is threatening to men.

Aggressive behaviour results out of an anxiety. Men often react in an aggressive way when they feel threatened. Beatrice may be anxious, but she doesn’t lose a bit of her dangerousness to Benedick. He also fears “emotional exposure and vulnerability to the opposite sex” (Cook, 83). It seems as he is a severe case of commitmentphobic. He fears commitment and emotional closeness. He feels threatened by the mere thought of being with a woman and ridicules himself:


I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviours to love, will, after he hath laught at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love: and such a man is Claudio. I have known when there was no music with him but the drum and the fife; and now had he rather hear the tabor and the pipe: I have known when he would have walkt ten mile a-foot to see a good armour; and now will he lie ten nights awake, carving the fashion of a new doublet. He was wont to speak plain and to the purpose, like an honest man and a soldier; and now is he turn’d orthography; his words are a very fantastical banquet, - just so many strange dishes. May I be so converted, and see with these eyes? I cannot tell; I think not: I will not be sworn but love may transform me to an oyster; but I’ll take my oath on it, till he have made an oyster of me, he shall never make me such a fool” (Much Ado About Nothing II.iii.7-27).


Benedick’s reluctance of commitment and his ensuing confession that he is in love with Beatrice is the only thing ridiculous about it.


Love, and the vulnerability that comes with it, has been a kind of exposure each has dodged through most of the play. Their resolutions to open themselves to love have been followed by physical illness (Benedick’s toothache, Beatrice’s cold), which, whether real or feigned, suggests the anxiety such exposure produces (Cook, 90).


For Benedick Beatrice’s influence is a destroying force:


[I]f her breath were as terrible as her terminations, there were no living near her; she would infect to the north star. I would not marry her, though she were endow’d with all that Adam had left him before he transgrest: she would have made Hercules have turn’d spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make the fire too. (Much Ado About Nothing I.i.237-244)


But no matter how anxious Benedick may have been, in the conclusion of the play Benedick succeeds to strip off his self-protectiveness und confesses: ‘I do love nothing in the world so well as you – is not that strange?’ (Much Ado About Nothing IV.i.268-9) to which Beatrice replies:


Beatrice: You have stayed me in a happy hour, I was about to protest I loved you.

Benedick: And do it with all thy heart.

Beatrice: I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.

(Much Ado About Nothing 283-7)


These confessions satisfy the spectator’s long since suspected anticipation, but it also almost brings Benedick to kill Claudio, his friend. Benedick’s enthusiasm makes him exclaim: ‘Come, bid me do anything for thee’. And Beatrice requires: ‘Kill Claudio’ (288-9). Benedicks willingness to do it is another indication for the sexual power women can employ over men. Here his fear of dependence, which is mirrored in his commitment phobic, comes true as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Through Beatrices challenge the friendship between Claudio and Benedick is threatened. His falling for Beatrice jeopardizes his loyalty to his friend and thus female sexuality threatens male bonds.

Behind Claudio’s and Hero’s silent romanticism lies the anxiety of loss of power through sexuality. These anxieties are expressed in the “skirmish wits” of Benedick’s and Beatrice’s “merry wars”. For Benedick love, which is intertwined with sexuality, means humiliation and the loss of potency.


[H]e imagines it as a castrating torture: “Prove that ever I lose more blood with love than I will get again with drinking, pick out mine eyes with a ballad maker’s pen and hang me up at the door of the brothel house for the sign of blind Cupid” (I.i.243-47). He likewise fears being separated from his friends by marriage and loss of status with them if he must “sigh away Sundays” or, feminized, “turn spit” like Hercules (I.i.196; II.i.244). He defends himself against a fall into love and marriage and against fears of female betrayal by distrust of women – “I will do myself the right to trust none” (I.i. 237). Distrust, coupled with the claim that all women dote on him, allows him to profess virility without putting it to the proof” (Neely, 45).


He ridicules Claudio’s romantic idealization and covers himself in misogyny to protect himself. If there was an ideal woman then he would abandon the pose: “But till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come into my grace” (Much Ado About Nothing II.iii.27-29). He gives a description of the ideal woman who is an appropriate wife for him: “Rich shall she be, that’s certain; wise, or I’ll none; virtuous, or I’ll never cheapen her; fair, or I’ll never look in her; mild, or come not near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician” (Much Ado About Nothing II.iii. 29-33). Benedick’s misogyny gives him power, protects him and gives him the opportunity to indulge in self-importance. It puts him in a position of unchallengeable power; his wit is consistently confrontational, protective, and arrogant. His bawdy includes the aggressiveness and urgency of desire against which he likewise tries to defend himself (Neely, 45f.).

Beatrice is ambivalent, she does not mock Hero’s marriage as Benedick does, but she requires for Hero a man who will make her happy. Her marriage does not “engender smug self-satisfaction in her but a sense of isolation:” (Neely, 46) “Thus goes everyone in the world but I, and I am sunburnt. I may sit in a corner and cry ‘Heigh-ho for a husband!” (Much Ado About Nothing II.i.306-08) Her ambivalence about marriage is “rooted in her fear of the social and sexual power it grants to men” (Neely, 46). She is “apprehensive about the social and sexual submission demanded of women in marriage and wary of men’s volatile mixture of earthly frailty with arrogant authority” (Neely, 46). Beatrice does not want a husband except


[t]ill God make men of some other metal than earth.

Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with

a piece of valiant dust? To make an account of her life

to a clod of wayward marl? No, uncle, I’ll none.

Adam’s sons are my brethren, and truly I hold it a sin

to match in my kindred.

(Much Ado About Nothing II.i.56-61)


Her opinion about men is very highbrow and demanding. She is sure that there does not exist a man that is suitable for her: “He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not form me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him“ (Much Ado About Nothing II.i. 34-37). The subordination demanded of Renaissance women in marriage would not be unmanageable for her, because she would not submit to a man who was not a match for her. She feels very self-conscious about it and her resilience reveals her sallies and her wit.

The gullings of their friends draw a picture of their contrasting anxieties. The men feed Benedick’s ego by calling him proper, wise, witty and valiant. That is, he aquired status, which men always fear to lose in the face of threatening female seduction. Next they dovetail his vainness that all women dote on him by describing how unrestrained Beatrice loves him. They ease his fear about Beatrice’s aggressiveness, which is connected with sexuality, by drawing an exaggerated image of her: “Then down upon her knees she falls, weeps, sobs, bears her heart, tears her hair, prays, curses – ‘O sweet Benedick! God give me patience!’” (Much Ado About Nothing II.iii.148-50). “The men also reassure Benedick that Beatrice is sweet and “out of all suspicion, she is virtuous” (60-61)” (Neely, 48). The friends give him approval and eliminate another fear, namely that of losing social contact with his peers. Only after these assurances and after his fears are destroyed and his status and whatever he fears to lose to the seductive force of a woman is backed up in advance, he is willing to let go. Beatrice on the other hand reacts to the criticism concerning her attitude and swears to change herself: „She cannot love, nor take no shape nor project of affection, she is so self-endeared“ (Much Ado About Nothing II.iii.54-56) – „Contempt, farewell! And maiden pride, adieu!“ (Much Ado About Nothing II.iii.109) When Benedick is in love, he is „sadder“. As a sign for his new vulnerability he shaved off his beard (Much Ado About Nothing III.ii.15, 56).

In the masked-ball scene Claudio jumps to conclusions that Don Pedro has wooed for himself:


The rapidity with which Claudio is persuaded of Don Pedro’s duplicity and the speed with which he relinquishes his hopes of Hero mirror the depth of his distrust and his lack of self-esteem, for it does not occur to him that he could successfully compete with Don Pedro. Further, his reluctance to compete may reflect not only fear but also love and dependency: ultimately, he does not wish to risk losing Don Pedro’s affection and his powerful protection. All these factors suggest that Claudio’s allegiance is still invested in the sphere of male bonding and male achievement, perhaps as a defence against the anxieties occasioned by heterosexuality, and that he is not yet ready to take his place in the measured dance that signifies marriage and adult responsibility.5


The threat of losing male bonds contributes to his distrust and fear of being deceived. He has not yet experienced love but he is clearly aware of the power sexuality poses on him.


Claudio’s rage in the church scene is an index of his humiliation and his sense of betrayal. The male fear that she who seems so beautiful, so virtuous, so deserving of tender love will prove to be a whore and seek out other men to satisfy her supposedly insatiable sexual desires has, apparently, been confirmed. In a patriarchal value system that views women and her sexuality as a man’s exclusive possession, this infidelity is the ultimate betrayal, a fundamental wound to male self-esteem (Hays, 87).


Hero is a focus for male fears: “In the world of the play Hero’s role is to meet or reflect other’s expectations of what women are supposed to be (as Beatrice does not) and paradoxically, therefore, to represent a powerful threat” (Cook, 84). Hero is dangerous because she offers a platform for interpretation of male fears. She plays the role men ascribe to her, that of the deceiver. Above that consisting friendships between the men are jeopardized: Claudio thinks the prince has fallen for her and courted for himself:


Tis certain so. The Prince woos for himself.

Friendship is constant in all other things

Save in the office and affairs of love;

Therefore all hearts in love use their own tongues.

Let every eye negotiate for itself,

And trust no agent; for beauty is a witch

Against whose charms faith melteth into blood.

This is an accident of hourly proof,

Which I mistrusted not. Farewell therefore Hero! (Much Ado About Nothing II.i. 174-82)


Claudio becomes vulnerable to treachery because he let trustingly Don Pedro do the wooing for him. What is interesting about his speech is the subtle shift of the blame from the prince to Hero, whose ‘beauty is a witch’. “Though not specifically accused, Hero is subsumed into an archetype of destructive female power – of the sorceress who deprives men of their wills and dissolves the solidarity of masculine bonds into the ‘blood’ of passion and violence. […] He perceives her as a sexual being only in her capacity to betray, and then perceives her as a powerful threat” (Cook, 86f.). Claudio is now vulnerable to the intrigue of Don John because his “distrust of the witchlike powers of female beauty is close to the surface and easily triggered” (Cook, 87). He falls easily for the lure Don John puts down: ‘The lady is disloyal’ (Much Ado About Nothing III.ii.104). Don John draws Hero as a witch that is open to sexual betrayal and quickly the picture of a sweet and modest Hero vanishes in Claudio’s mind. This is only possible because he is already biased. He gives in to his distrust because unconsciously he feels threatened. His fears provide an ideal breeding-ground for Don John’s intrigue. He is sure that he has fallen for Hero’s beauty and that he had been beguiled by external characteristics. The witchlike female beauty made him a victim of her ‚exterior shows’ (Much Ado About Nothing IV.i.39).


O Hero! What a Hero hadst thou been,

If half thy outward graces had been placed

About thy thoughts and counsels of thy heart!

But fare thee well, most foul, most fair! Farewell;

Thou pure impiety and impious purity!

For thee I’ll lock up all the gates of love,

And on my eyelids shall conjecture hang,

To turn all beauty into thoughts of harm,

And never shall it more be gracious.

(Much Ado About Nothing IV.i.100-108)


Either Hero must be the unthreatening sexless recipient of Claudio’s ‘comely’ fraternal love, or she becomes the treacherous beauty whose witchlike powers destroy men” (Cook, 89). The dichotomy between her modesty and that, what is hidden under the surface become obvious. As long as she is a sexless, modest, sister-like girl, she is harmless. But then she becomes an unfaithful attractive beauty which is extremely threatening to the man.


She’s but the sign and semblance of her honor.

Behold how like a maid she blushes here!

O, what authority and show of truth

Can cunning sin cover itself withal!

Comes not that blood as modest evidence

To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,

All you that see her, that she were a maid,

By these exterior shows? But she is none.

She knows the heat of a luxurious bed;

Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.

(Much Ado About Nothing IV.i.32-41)


Claudio’s railings on Hero’s ostensible infidelity become more and more sophisticated and literary:


[Y]ou seem to me as Dian in her orb,

As chaste as is the bud ere it be blown;

But you are more intemperate in your blood

Than Venus, or those pamp’red animals

That rage in savage sensuality.

(Much Ado About Nothing IV.i.57-61)


Hero imaged as a wild animal scares him and he takes the consequences:


For thee I’ll lock up all the gates of love,

And on my eyelids shall conjecture hang,

To turn all beauty into thoughts of harm,

And never shall it more be gracious.

(Much Ado About Nothing IV.i.105-8)


The belief that sexuality lies under the surface of a woman’s body is evident. That, what lies beneath is the most threatening. Hero’s “surface has been stripped away to expose the secret foulness of her sexuality” (Cook, 90) when Claudio accuses her of betrayal. It is a sign for the dichotomy and fits in the inlaw - outlaw aspects of femininity: Either the woman is a modest angel or she is a dangerous, tempting seduction men can not resist. Much Ado About Nothing is full of threats and anxieties but ironically not only men are threatened by women, also women feel threatened by the opposite sex. While women blow themselves up to a threatening aggressive beauty, a man – Benedick - that feels threatened becomes a weakling that jokes about women and eventually steps in the traps that his female counterparts pose to him. Sigmund Freud described the fears of men in “The Taboo of Virginity”:


Wherever primitive man institutes a taboo, there he fears a danger; and it cannot be disputed that the general principle underlying all these regulations and avoidances is a dread of women […] Man fears that his strength will be taken away from him by woman, dreads becoming infected with her femininity and then proving himself a weakling.6


Freud claims that whenever men fear the power of women certain structures are established that protect them. This suggests that men have a natural distrust of women. In the Hero-Claudio plot in Much Ado About Nothing Shakes-peare introduced a topic he also inspected in several other plays: “the sexual distrust of woman, and her subsequent testing and vindication” (Hays, 79). Sexual distrust of women is also a topic in A Winters Tale, Othello, The Merry Wives of Windsor or Cymbeline.

Claudio links himself strongly with the male issues like warfare and combat. He is uncomfortable in affirming his emotions for Hero. His shyness is implicit in his words:


Oh, my lord,

When you went onward on this ended action,

I looked upon her with a soldier’s eye,

That liked but had a rougher task in hand

Than to drive liking to the name of love.

But now I am returned and that war thoughts

Have left their places vacant, in their rooms

Come thronging soft and delicate desires,

All prompting me how fair young Hero is,

Saying I liked her ere I went to wars.

(Much Ado About Nothing I.i.298-307)


He rather goes to war than to express his feelings for a woman. “We may deduce that Claudio is a young man whose energy has been channelled into male pursuits but who now finds himself physically attracted to a gorgeous young woman and is afraid of being overwhelmed by his feelings” (Hays, 81f.). He is troubled by these new found “liking” that “might to sudden seem” (Much Ado About Nothing I.i.316) and he would “salve it with a longer treatise” (I.i.317). Salvation in this sense refers to the physicality and the vulnerability of his emotions. Sexual feelings are here seen as something that perils health, it is something that has to be controlled. And his feelings are urgent, he asks Leonato to become married “tomorrow, my lord. Time goes on crutches till love have all his rites” (Much Ado About Nothing II.i.372f.). But he will make sure that his plans are channelled properly, that his marriage is a secure one and that he can trust the woman. “Claudio protects himself from Hero’s sexuality by viewing her as a remote, idealized love object who is not to be touched or even talked to: “she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on” (Much Ado About Nothing I.i.183), (Neely, 44). “Hero is the perfect object of his “delicate” desires: modest, chaste, virtuous, silent”, as long as he is not convinced of the opposite (Neely, 45).

Women fear submission, men fear betrayal. Hero is accused of infidelity by Claudio. Beatrice is both anxious about staying unmarried and about the social and sexual power marriage grants men. In the comedies broken nuptials empower women to resistance or control, even when men initiated it. With the reestablishment of the completed nuptials, male power is re-established in the end of the play and women have to submit (Neely,56f.). Since “female submission generates male affection,” (Neely, 52) Hero for example “must put herself in the hands of the friar, practice patience, and accept, if the trick fails, chaste seclusion in a religious retreat” (Neely, 52). Women “die sexually, validating male virility as Helen and Mariana do in bedtricks whose deceit makes them a form of mock death; and they die, or pretend to, as retribution for their imagined betrayals” (Neely, 52). The pattern of dying pleases the men’s desires of control and their sympathy to the woman.



4. 5. Measure for Measure


Central to the play is female sexuality. Critics respond to it as a “skewed and dismal account of sexual desire” and point to the “manifold dangers that accompany sexual unions and desires. [F]emale sexuality in particular is linked to ‘shame’ and ‘contamination’; [is] treated ‘disgust’ and ‘deep distrust’; [and is] figured as the original sin that brings death to the world; [it is] reduced to the bloody associations of rape and beheading.”7 Critics illustrated that the female playgoer in Shakespeare’s time may arise complications in the form that women may be seen “not only as an endangered object of the male gaze, but as a gazing subject who endangers patriarchal control.” […] “[W]omen enjoyed the “liberating theatrical freedom” not only by attending the London playhouses but also of seeing there the enactment of female liberty in the subjects of “love matches and cuckoldry” (DiGangi, 590).

Regarding the powerful cuckoldry plots which have an influential aspect from a woman’s perspective may lead her to the conclusion that her sexuality is compelling and attractive, that it holds power and that it threatens men, especially husbands. DiGangi states “that the relentless definition and manipulation of female sexuality in Measure for Measure is the graphic symptom of male anxiety about female agency: to unravel male-constructed meanings for erotic pleasure, pregnancy, and abortion is to discover a fear of the dangers thought to ensue from a woman’s control over her own body” (DiGangi 590).

In Renaissance time, given the fact of lacking contraception, a pregnant body was a sign for female sexuality. A woman had a satisfying sexuality when she was pregnant because sexual pleasure was a precondition for successful conception. “The pregnant woman is therefore an image of her own fulfilled sexuality, her belly an eloquent narrative of her illicit desires” (DiGangi 593). The belief that women could not conceive without orgasm was widespread. Thus woman’s pleasure was elementary but it was also considered threatening because it reduced her ability to remain chaste. Men believed that women were less able to govern their desires and so the husband was supposed to satisfy his wife to not encourage her to look for extra-marital sex (Breitenberg, 26). Juliet’s body thus narrates of the sexual intercourse with Claudio. Although Claudio supposedly initiated it, in the Duke’s opinion Juliet carries the greater part of culpability for their erotic activities. Even though Juliet may have been the passive one, the Duke forces her to admit her responsibility in the pregnancy. The Duke makes Juliet to confess to have committed a “most offenceful act” (Measure for Measure II.iii. 26). He goes on asking, “Repent you […] of the sin you carry?” (Measure for Measure II.iii.19) Juliet’s pregnant body is the sign for an illegal act and her body thus becomes an offence and a sign for her moral and spiritual failure. She affirms her regret and is willing to “bear the same most patiently” (Measure for Measure II.iii.20). Just like Eve she is punished for her concupiscence and will bear it out painfully. Pregnancy and the putative guilt of women reflect an anxiety of men that lies deeper in the “know-ledge” of our human genes: sexual reproduction is accompanied with death. Juliet’s fault weighs heavier than Claudio’s, although she will not be punished more severely than him. He is sentenced to death but his fornication is marginalized, because after all he is just a man with “natural masculine instincts” (DiGangi, 595) Juliet is a sinner. To sin, in this case, means activity, sexual act as a deed. Juliet thus becomes the perpetrator. The natural instincts, on the contrary, Claudio is subsumed to victimize himself. This substantiates the belief unfolding from the Fall: Women are to blame that humans have to die. They are to blame for sexual reproduction which is naturally connected with death. Everything that is connected with death is threatening and thus the fear of women’s sexuality is a result.

Juliet’s example provides two different sites patriarchal ideology constructs. Either a woman confines with the formalities of marriage or she threatens it through whorish attitudes.


As the Duke’s interpellation of Isabella through metaphors of growth indicates, female sexuality becomes intelligible (hence manageable) not only by the identification of the virginal or the whorish body, but also by the measurement of that body’s movement along a temporal scale. Women accomplish a physiological progression through three stages, which are analogous to stages of botanical growth: the young “fresh” virgin becomes the “ripe” wife and/or the old “rotten” whore. In the different but parallel economy of the brothel, the epithet “fresh” is reserved for the healthy and young, “rotten” for the diseased and experienced (DiGangi, 598).


Lucio calls Pompey’s mistress “your fresh whore and your powdered bawd; an unshunned consequence; it must be so” (Measure for Measure III.ii.57-58). The whores in the play are referred to as “hoar” or “old”: Lucio talks of Kate Keepdown as “the rotten medlar,” - a fruit that is already rotten before it becomes ripe (Measure for Measure IV.iii.171-72). The metaphorical use of terms that represent freshness or ripeness is not exclusive for Measure for Measure, it is among others employed in Twelft Night:


Orsino: For women are as roses, whose fair flower

Being once display’d, doth fall that very hour.

Viola: And so they are: alas, that they are so, -

To die, even when they to perfection grow!

(Twelft Night II.iv.38-41)


Are women in the fresh and ripe stage of their life the most threatening? Ripeness refers to the age of young women in which they are able to marry. In Romeo and Juliet Juliet’s age “ripe to be a bride” will be at sixteen (Romeo and Juliet I.ii.11). And when Isabella exclaims “Keep me in patience, and with ripen’d time/ Unfold the evil which is here wrapt up / In countenance” (Measure for Measure V.i.119-21), she does not yet know that she concerns her own ripeness and that the Duke will woo for her in the conclusion of the play. As this harvest-fruit-metaphor suggests, “as blossoming-time, that from the seedness the bare fallow brings,” (Measure for Measure I.iv.41-43) women are fruits that are hard to withstand. On the other hand, her pregnant body resembles a field that brings in harvests. These images of ploughed fields, harvests and blossoming are linked to biological reproduction and “nurturing the woman’s “natural” role in the socio-economic system” (DiGangi, 599). Here again the connection to French’s and Ortner’s containment of nature is obvious, namely that sexual maturity must be controlled.

The men’s power to kill is equalled to the female ability to abort. In Measure for Measure allusions to abortion can be found:


Angelo: The law hath not been dead, though it hath slept:

Those many had not dared to do that evil,

If that the first that did th’edict infringe

Had answer’d for his deed: not ‘tis awake,

Takes not of what is done; and, like a prophet,

Looks in a glass, that shows what future evils,-

Either new, or by remissness new-conceived,

And so in progress to be hatch’d and born, -

Are now to have no successive degrees,

But, ere they live, to end.

(Measure for Measure II.ii.91-100)


According to Angelo the “future evils” must be aborted before they are “hatch’d.” Angelo refers to the supposed rape of Isabella: “This deed unshapes me quite, makes me unpregnant, and dull to all proceedings” (Measure for Measure IV.iv.19f.). Angelo’s corruptness leads him to “impregnate another and this is not life-affirming but annihilating: it destroys his honor, his “grace,” and his unified subjectivity” (DiGangi, 600). Abortion is a threat to men. Either they themselves or their offspring are threatened. Abortion is the ability to kill and it is also a part of female nature, of female sexuality. “In Angelo’s sterile legalism the product of sex is death, but sex and death are conflated in the Duke’s original law and in the means for fulfilling it, the executioner Abhorson” (DiGangi, 600). Sex and death are linked:


The Renaissance pun on “to die” as the moment of sexual climax is anthropomorphized in Measure for Measure: the former bawd who facilitated sexual unions must as executioner’s aide destroy “fornicators”; conversely, the executioner himself is symbolically associated with the destruction of the product of sexual union” (DiGangi, 600).


DiGangi quotes from psychoanalytic critics who have discussed the link bet-ween sexuality and fear, loathing and corruption. It is said that sex threatens only men with death (DiGangi, 605). Neely posits that “the first half of the play moves towards the substitution of death for sexuality,” until, following the Duke’s lecture to Claudio, “sexuality is substituted for death, marriages for executions” (Neely, 99); in “Constructing Female Sexuality” she finds that the play represents male sexuality as “unrestrainable and degrading,” and female sexuality as “paradoxically essential and fatal, voluntary and enforced, central and subordinated” (Neely 225, 229). Their findings support the thesis of the threat for men through female sexuality.



4. 6. Romeo and Juliet


Shakespeare surely challenges the “modern conceptions of gender and sexuality and assumptions about the ways gender difference is grounded in the embodied experience of sexual desire”.8 Man’s desire for a woman makes up one striking difference. Desire, which is now characteristic for masculinity, is in Shakespeare’s plays often indicted as the risk of becoming effeminate. Especially in Romeo and Juliet effeminacy is a danger that results out of Romeo’s passionate feelings for Juliet. He insists that his desire has made him incapable for the masculine activity of fighting: “O sweet Juliet,” he mourns, “thy beauty hath made me effeminate, / And in my temper soft’ned valor’s steel!” (Romeo and Juliet III.i.114f.) Also in Antony and Cleopatra, the topic of effeminacy is brought up. Caesar blames Antony’s fervour for Cleopatra which has changed his sexual identity. Antony is, according to Caesar, “not more manlike than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolomy, more womanly than he” (Antony and Cleopatra I.iv.5-8).


Desire for a woman […] incurs the risk of feminization. […] A man effeminated by passion for a woman suffered a double degradation: the enslavement of his higher reason by his base, bodily appetities [sic], and the subjection of the superior sex to the inferior one (Rackin Foreign Country, 70).


In the Renaissance time sexual passion was not considered to be men’s forte, it was condemned for both sexes. But it was considered extremely dangerous for men because it effeminated them. Women were regarded as more lustful and voracious than men even as having uncontrollable animal-like-drives. In contrast to the asexual purity, that outlines images of female angels on todays commercial Christmas cards, lust was portrayed as feminine.


[T]he sculptured images of the deadly sins that adorned medieval cathedrals depicted Lust as a woman. Valuing sexual passion, the popular wisdom of contemporary culture associates it with the more valued gender, assuming that men feel it more often and more strongly. Despising lust as a mark of weakness and degradation, Renaissance thought gendered it feminine, attributed more of it to women, and regarded excessive lust in men as a mark of effeminacy. Reduced to its simplest terms, it’s the difference between seeing heterosexual sex as the place where manhood is contaminated and lost in congress with her. The danger was that husband and wife would become, quite literally, one flesh, a fantasy that was expressed in fables and images of passionate lovers transformed into monstrous hermaphrodites (Rackin, Foreign Country 74f.).


The danger consisted in the loss of identity. Individual identity was a high value and above that, it was a matter of gender. Loss of identity could only threaten the higher valued gender, the male. Thus, the man had more to lose becoming prone to effeminacy (Rackin Foreign Country, 69-75). Romeo desperately complains about his loss of selfhood that his desire jeopardized: “I have lost myself. I am not here. This is not Romeo; he’s some other where” (Romeo and Juliet I.i.194f.). He fell prey to the force of desire. He is even willing to give up his identity deliberately: “And I’ll no longer be a Capulet […] Call me but love and I’ll be new baptized. Henceforth I never will be Romeo” (Romeo and Juliet II.i.78-93).

The construction of woman as evil is dramatically displayed on stage when Juliet refuses to marry Paris. It causes Capulet to scold her as a “green sickness carrion” and “young baggage, disobedient wretch” (Romeo and Juliet III.v.156, 160). With her refusal she endangers the whole order in the play: “Female desire [is] responsible for any breakdown in moral or aesthetic order.”9 Since she desires the son of the enemies of her family, she also challenges her father’s authority and thus she endangers the “entire order on which male power relies in the play” (León Alfar, 64). Capulet intended to give Juliet to Paris as a wife because he hopes to get some advantage when Juliet marries the prince that will help him in the feud. Juliet’s refusal will thwart his plans to accumulate power through her marriage. His interests in the negotiations are of political nature and supposed to protect his family and to maintain the order.

Juliet vows “by Saint Peter’s Church and Peter too” that Paris “shall not make me there a joyful bride” (Romeo and Juliet III.v.116f.). This leads Capulet to rage against her and to show his self-interests that are the motives for his negotiations with Paris rather than his paternal love to his daughter:


I tell thee what: get thee to church a’Thursday,

Or never after look me in the face.

Speak not, reply not, do not answer me!

My fingers itch.


And you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;

And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets,

For by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee,

Nor what is mine shall never do thee good.

Trust to ’t, bethink you, I’ll not be forsworn.

(Romeo and Juliet III.v.161-164, 191-195)


Capulet is furious because Juliet’s refusal, that results out of her desire for Romeo, threatens to destroy the male bonds Capulet attempts to establish. His interest is not to offer Juliet a future that will make her happy, but to strengthen the male bonds. Male bonds are considered as prior to anything else and Juliet’s sexual passion is now threatening to tear down these ties and thus provide a threat to the social order.

However, Juliet’s rebellion “threatens Vives’s edict that a daughter must defer to her parents’ choice of husband, Shakespeare’s treatment of Juliet’s desire radically departs from Vives” (León Alfar, 66). Juliet first challenges patrilineal authority when she talks to Romeo on her father’s party. Since she is unmarried she is not supposed to speak to him at all, because this is regarded as immodest and transgressive. When they talk to each other they perform a language that is seductive and “challenges and adopts an alternate form of authority” (León Alfar, 66):


Romeo: If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this,

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Juliet: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

Which mannerly devotion shows in this:

For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hand do touch,

And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in pray’r.

Romeo: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do,

They pray – grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Juliet: Saints to not move, though grant for prayers’s sake.

Romeo: Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.

Thus from my lips by thine, my sin is purg’d. [Kisses her.]

Juliet: Then have my lips the sin that they have took.

Romeo: Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urg’d!

Give me my sin again. [Kisses her again]

Juliet: You kiss by th’ book.

(Romeo and Juliet I.v.93-110)


The religious metaphors they use mask the connotation of desire. The picture of the praying hands becomes a picture of sexual passion. With the image of purgation through a kiss, they “subvert[ ] religious morality and adopt[ ] a worship of desire” (León Alfar, 67). They both convert to a religion of passion.


Patriarchal authority, originating in a patrilineal God and represented by the sexual conservatism of early modern religious beliefs, cannot accommodate a faith based on sexual desire. Such authority is challenged, then, by Shakespeare’s idealization of the attraction between these two lovers, and the conversation anticipates their transgression against patrilineal authority in the form of the feud forbidding their love. Juliet’s rebellion against that authority ought to warn an audience of her potential evil (León Alfar, 67).


Juliet’s desire is idealistic, active and self-detemined. Her sexual passion is uncontrollable. Neither can she herself restrain it nor can her father get power over it. Her sexuality remains thus a force.

Juliet aggressively declares her love to Romeo and demands him to either marry her, or, if his feelings were not sincere, to leave her to herself:

If that thy bent of love be honourable,

Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow,


But if thou meanest not well,

I do beseech thee –

To cease thy strife, and leave me to my grief

(Romeo and Juliet II.ii.143-144, 150-152)


Juliet’s “aggressiveness is what ought to condemn her” (León Alfar, 70). Her marriage to Romeo without the approval of their parents disrupts the whole social system. “And as Vives makes clear, the interference of a young woman in her marriage negotiations robs her father of his rights” (León Alfar, 70). The aggressive Juliet is driven by her desire for Romeo which constitutes “acts of resistance to a system of power men derive through sterile and self-interested contracts such as the one Capulet proposes for Juliet” (León Alfar, 70). Juliet’s sexuality threatens the constructs men established in mere self-interest and egoism and is thus a threat for the male world.

The expectation and integration of violence in Romeo and Juliet is a crucial element in the play. Violence is vitally expected to the extent that Romeo and Juliet have a permanent view of a coming calamity. So does Romeo ponder “some vile forfeit of untimely death” (Romeo and Juliet I.iv.111), and Juliet wonders “If he is married, My grave is like to be my wedding bed” (Romeo and Juliet I.v.136f.). In this sense, the premonition of disaster culminates for both in the energy of a self-fulfilling prophecy. They both search the hazard: Romeo endangers himself by courting Juliet, and he is apt to commit suicide to follow Tybalt in his death. Juliet also is ready to die. She cries out: “I’ll to my wedding bed; And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!” (Romeo and Juliet III.ii.136-37)


Read metaphorically, the plot validates the perception expressed variously in the play that love kills. The paradigm offered by Romeo and Juliet , with some modifications, may be read in the major tragedies as well. Here, the structures of male dominance, involving various strategies of control, expressed in the language of prostitution, rape, and murder, conceal deeper structures of fear, in which women are perceived as powerful, and the heterosexual relation one which is either mutually violent or at least deeply threatening to the man (Gohlke, 152f.).


Violence in Romeo and Juliet is an expression of male power over the threats that lust brings with it. Be it effeminacy or the loss of identity, violence serves to prevent the loss of strength but leads in the end to what nobody really wants: death.

As the Prologue of the play suggests, sexuality is associated with violence and death. The end of the lovers is determined and their desire is fatal.


From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-crost lovers take their life;

Whose misadventured piteous overthrows

Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

The fearful passage of their death-marked love,

And the continuance of their parents’ rage,

Which, but their children’s end, naught could remove,


(Romeo and Juliet, Prologue, 5–11)


The teleology of this play seems to be the anticipated death of the two protagonists which is inevitable. The force behind this teleology is the desire which is inseparably connected with death. In that way, Romeo dies “with a kiss” (Romeo and Juliet V.iii.120) and Juliet finds her death in Romeo’s bed: “O happy dagger, This is thy sheath! There rust, and let me die” (Romeo and Juliet V.iii.168-9).




1 Containment implies the necessity to control or subdue something that is threatening.

2 ”Strategies of containment of female erotic power are employed in Hamlet, Othello and Winter’s Tale. Women are perceived by men as erotically threatening. They are, metaphorically and dramatically, monumentalized and their erotic warmth is transformed into the cold, static form of jewels, statues and corpses”. (Traub, 18)

3 Carol Cook, “’The Sign and Semblance of Her Honor’: Reading Gender Difference in Much Ado About Nothing,” Shakespeare and Gender: A History, ed. Deborah E. Barker, Ivo Kamps (London, New York: Verso, 1995) 75–103. All further references to this article are cited in the text as (Cook, p).


4 Freud’s everlasting, ever-returning model of the phallus is open to interpretation. Freud viewed the horn as displaced phallus that looms on the forehead of a deceived man. Another picture draws the horn the man wears for defence. These interpretations of the horn are extendible but would be way too much psychoanalytic for this paper. The fact is that men were afraid of cuckoldry in Shakespeare’s time, as well as in Freud’s time until today.

5 Janice Hays, “Those “soft and delicate desires”. Much ado and the Distrust of Women,” The Woman’s Part. Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, eds. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz et al. ((Urbana, Chicago, London: University of Illinois Press, 1980) 85. All further references to this article are cited in the text as (Hays, p).


6 Freud, Sigmund, ‘The Taboo of Virginity’ (1918), trans. Joan Riviere, in Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, ed. Philip Rieff, New York: Macmillan, 1963. pp. 70 – 86. quoted in Cook, 78.


7 Mario DiGangi, „Pleasure and Danger: Measuring Female Sexuality in Measure for Measure,” ELH 60 (1993): 589. All further references to this article are cited in the text as (DiGangi, p).

8 Phyllis Rackin, „Foreign Country: The Place of Women and Sexuality in Shakespeare’s Historical World”, Enclosure Acts. Sexuality, Property, and Culture in Early Modern England, ed. Richard Burt and John Michael Archer (Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press, 1994) 69. All further references to this article are cited in the text as (Rackin, Foreign Country, p).



9 Ann Thompson, “Shakespeare and Sexuality,“ Shakespeare and Sexuality, eds. Catherine M. S. Alexander, Stanley Wells (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 4. 




5. Conclusion


In Shakespeare’s plays women are controlled due to the male urge to prevail themselves from the threat that women’s sexuality constitutes. Men’s relentless quest of power masks their insecurities, their anxieties and impotence. Thus a paradox of power arises in which the man equates masculinity with violence and control as a denial or defence against femininity. Female sexuality is a threat to the male imposed social order.

Because of their feminine characteristics, like giving birth or producing milk, women’s closeness to nature becomes obvious. This closeness to nature is rather a stigma, because they are considered lower than men. The need of separation of humans from nature and the need to assert control over nature are depicted in the works of French and Ortner. Nature is associated with terms like powerful, wild, violent, untamed. Being part of nature in a way men are not, women are part of what must be controlled.

Either women are considered as virgins or as whores. This is expressed in French’s inlaw principles which represent a chaste, tamed and unthreatening woman; and in the outlaw feminine principles. The outlaw feminine principles are those that trouble men. The outlaw principle is tremendously threatening to the masculine principle because it does not respect it and because it is vital and attractive. It undermines the masculine principle and its sexuality is irresistible, dynamic and has the power to destroy. It contains fundamental human energy and will and sees the end of life as pleasure. Pleasure of all sorts, especially sexual pleasure, is a threat to the masculine principle. Magic, subversiveness, flesh, chaos and darkness are the most significant terms that are associated with the outlaw feminine principle.

To a great extent these outlaw women are represented in Shakespeare’s plays. “Whenever the feminine principle dominates (has worldly power) in Shakespeare, it is outlaw” (French, 45). But also the young women who are “inlaw” are not trusted in the plays. “Not just women, but love and marriage are seen as corrupting” (French, 49). The question why the self-conscious women depicted in Shakespeare’s plays are restricted, married or even killed in the end can be answered with the power they exert over men. The threat of female sexuality in Shakespeare’s plays develops out of the male struggle for power and the need to protect patrilineal structures. Thus the threat behind the disruptive sexual power of women is a projection of male anxieties and insecurities. The structures of containment of female sexuality are evident in Shakespeare’s plays and thus the plays are also a mirror of what is valid in real life.

Sexuality is a phenomenon of nature. Nature, as explained in chapter 2.1., evokes anxieties. It is something to be evaded or better, to be controlled. The real enemy are not the dominant women, it is sexuality. Sexuality leads to anarchy, “- the urge located within the outlaw feminine principle to overthrow all hierarchies, all legitimacy” (French, 48). What threatens men most is cuckoldry and adultery which deprive a man of his legitimate heir, of his guarantee of paternity. To be dominated or effeminized by desire means to lose honor of other men. The woman is considered a voracious, insatiable, devouring beast and therefore female sexual power was for Shakespeare political, a treason in a male, a revolt, a rebellion (French, 127). “[M]en who surrendered themselves to sex were seen as unmanly, bewitched, enchanted by the power of an outlaw feminine figure” (French, 128). Men need to contain women, they need women to stay chaste.

The male is not defined as sexual. A man is masculine when he rejects sex, because it would render him subordinated to that experience. “[S]ex […] is a (momentary) loss of self” […] and is seen as “a regression into nature” (French, 126). Sex is essential to females and thus to reject a woman is the same as depriving her of the power she possesses. “because of the visibility of female sexual functioning – menstruation and pregnancy – which led to the association of women with nature, sex and the flesh” […] “women have been seen as the vehicles of sexuality” throughout Western culture (French, 127).


No matter what form it takes, women are held responsible for it: the raped Lucrece kills herself, not her attacker. Women are admonished in many medieval – and even some twentieth-century – tracts to keep themselves covered up lest they tempt men. In Moslem countries, women are expected to keep not only their bodies but their differentiating faces hidden, and are sometimes physically attacked if they do not obey this injunction. It seems never to have occurred to the writers of such edicts that males should be held responsible for their own sexual behaviour. In our own country, raped women are often blamed for their victimization because they were out alone, or because of the manner of their dress. To this day it is prostitutes who are – not whipped, as in Shakespeare’s time, but - arrested and imprisoned and fined. Women are the guardians of the sexuality of the entire human race” (French, 127).



The reason is the division of “experience into gender principles and the association of males with the human, females with nature” (French, 127). The word “woman” is not always free from a sexual connotation and interestingly “[f]emale figures who are remembered in history or literature are defined by their sexual natures. Those who are associated with the masculine principle are praised for their denial of sex, their virginity” (French, 128).

One reason why women are considered in that way could be the belief in Shakespeares time, that procreation, that is conception, was not possible without orgasm of the woman (Breitenberg, 26). Women had to be lustful to fulfil their biological imperative. The paradox is that a man was dependent to sexual desire in a woman, although it threatened him. “Sex [thus] requires the giving up of control. Of all human activities, it most involves a surrender that appears to be surrender to another (it is really a surrender to feeling)” (French, 143). The remarkable detail is, as Breitenberg pointed out, that women are not sexually threatening by virtue of merely being a woman. It is what men project on them, how men see them. The threat comes from a fear a man has. Male anxiety, and thus the threat of female sexuality, derives from the potentially dangerous dependence on women required in procreation (Breitenberg, 30). As it is depicted in the chapter on Othello, Othello himself is anxious about not being loved by Desdemona and being deceived by her. Because he is dependent on her faithfulness, her ostensible treachery causes his anxiety. What is so tragically self-fulfilling about this model of dependence on a woman is “that it operates in relation to a false idea of “woman” rather than to women themselves” (Breitenberg, 32).

As was illustrated in the chapters of this work that deal with the selected plays, anxieties towards women develop out of an insecurity and male fear. Men’s aggression and violence toward women mask their own insecurity and vulnerability. The threat of sexuality of women in Shakespeare’s plays arises out of a male projection on women. This projection functions like a self-fulfilling prophecy: men are cuckolded, effeminized or lose honor. All their fears come true, just because of a false image of the woman.

As French’s and Ortner’s works point out, the structures described have a long tradition, they even exist since the beginning of the human race. They are valid in Shakespeare’s time and Shakespeare’s plays, and they are still valid today. Although the fears of men do no longer lead to accusations of witchery or punishment of treacherous women, they are still “at work in our legal system, where celebrated cases involving sexual harassment, paternity rights, rape, gay and lesbian parenting [as well as jealousy or cuckoldry, M.I.] have become national preoccupations” (Breitenberg, 33). There are a lot of films that deal with aggressive, independent women that threaten men they are involved with. This threat is “transformed into an unavoidable yet dangerous female eroticism, as if female independence can only be figured in terms of threatening sexuality” (Breitenberg, 33). This dangerous female eroticism is the same as is illustrated in the section on the selected plays in this paper.

It can by no means be stated that Shakespeare’s plays serve as evidence for his own misogyny, for his own anxieties about female sexual power. It is too daring to anticipate autobiographical traces in his plays, but nevertheless what is depicted in his texts has plenty of basis in real life and it met that what must have been on the minds of many of his contemporaries, of the society in which he lived. Either he assimilated his own anxieties or he just took up what was of latest interest and would attract the masses. Anyway, it can not be denied that it moves many people today and makes them pondering.


Critics differ in their estimate of how much conscious control is apparent in Shakespeare’s depiction of relations between the sexes. Some claim that Shakespeare, at least in certain plays, exploits the disjunction between the male characters’ fantasies about women and the portrayed nature of the female characters in order to question or explode sexist attitudes toward women. Others think it unlikely that Shakespeare’s own attitudes can be so clearly separated from those of his gender, his male characters, his period; they see the profound fears of female sexuality and the desperate attempts to control it in the plays as reflections of male ambivalence rather than criticisms of it (Neely, 9).


There is no data from the historical or aesthetic contexts that provide anything about Shakespeare’s own attitude towards his own texts; no psychological model or mode of interpretation and reading the plays that would help to find out whether Shakespeare was a feminist, a sexist or something in the middle. “While feminist critics do not rule out such speculations, they are implicit rather than explicit in their essays” (Lenz, 10). This could be a possible topic for further investigations.

It is important to take a look at the patriarchal history that constitutes culture more critically. It is necessary to gain an awareness of the anxieties that encouraged a patriarchal structure and to become aware of the self-destructive forces of anxiety. To undertake an examination of four-hundred-year-old characters, may be an opportunity to comprehend developments in society and culture in regard to four-hundred-year-old, still existing anxieties about women’s nature and power. Shakespeare’s plays are helpful to understand the origin of these fears and the resulting picture of women. The problems that emerge out of that fear and the strategies of their containment can be witnessed in the plays as well. The threat of female sexuality as depicted in this work is linked with modern conceptions of desire and sexuality, and corresponds with conceptions of women and sexuality in Shakespeare’s time. The analogy of literature in Elizabethan times and reality is evident.



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