Fillmore Central High School
The Role of Women in English Literature
May 11th, 2018
Women were portrayed different ways throughout literature. Throughout literature women were sometimes portrayed as sexual “objects”, some were viewed as beautiful and wealthy. Lady Macbeth from Macbeth was viewed as dominant. In Hamlet, Ophelia was weak and had no confidence.The women in Things Fall Apart, were not always treated with respect. Grendel’s mother from Beowulf, was portrayed as unkind and monster-like. In Federigo’s Falcon, Monna was viewed as the most beautiful woman to Federigo. The Wife from The Wife’s Lament, is a very sad woman who has went through a lot. A lot of the time women had no power and were viewed as weak. Women never really had the main roles in early literature. Characters like Hamlet, Macbeth, Grendel, and Beowulf all had a “main role”, whereas Ophelia, Gertrude, Grendel’s mother, Okonkwo’s wives and daughters don’t have a main role. Women also had different rules throughout English Literature.
Women haven’t always had a ton of freedom. Women usually couldn’t marry who they wanted to. Parents would pick out the person who they wanted their daughter/son to marry. Women weren’t allowed to be authors, so women helped men come up with ideas for books. Sometimes women would even pretend to be a man, and use a man’s name, so the women could actually publish their work.
There were multiple women in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Wife of Bath and The Nun, who is a Prioress. The Wife of Bath is an interesting character. She has had 5 husbands. The Wife of Bath also thought she was an expert because of all of her experience with men. The Prioress/Nun is supposed to be portrayed as religious. She is made fun of because of her awful singing and her terrible French accent. The Nun basically pretends to be someone she is not. She acts all religious, when really, all she cares about is how she looks. She dresses wealthy, even though she is not at all wealthy.
(“The Nun in the Canterbury Tales: Description & Character Analysis”)
During Shakespeare’s time, women had no rights. Women could not act in plays. Men would play the women roles in plays, and the “women” parts, didn’t have a lot of lines.
Some people believed in ghosts, and supernatural stuff. King James believed in ghosts. He loved to see Shakespeare's plays with supernatural events in it. The main supernatural things in Macbeth were the witches. The witches were viewed as weird. Banquo sees the witches and notes to Macbeth, “They look not like the inhabitants of the earth, / And yet are on it". (Act 1, Scene 3) The witches don’t quite look like they are residents of the earth. (Shakespeare 333)
Lady Macbeth is first viewed as strong, in the play Macbeth. She loves the idea of being a queen and Macbeth being king. She had wanted to be queen so bad, she was going to get Macbeth to do anything to become king. So she pressured Macbeth to kill Duncan. Macbeth wasn’t quite sure about the idea of killing Duncan, until Lady Macbeth insults Macbeth. She tends to question Macbeth’s manhood a lot. For example, Lady Macbeth says to Macbeth, “When you durst do it, then you were a man / And to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more the man". (Act 1, Scene 7) Lady Macbeth has a very dominant role in the play. She was very good at controlling Macbeth, to get her way, or to get what she wanted. After Duncan is killed Macbeth feels guilty, whereas Lady Macbeth basically says, “Just wash your hands, clean up, and everything will be alright”. She loved the idea of having power, even if it was only for a little bit. Eventually Macbeth starts to kill people off without Lady Macbeth’s help. Lady Macbeth starts to feel guilty, which led her down a dark road. She later then committed suicide. So she was fearless and confident in the beginning… and later had her downfall by dying from guilt. (Shakespeare, 345)
In Hamlet, Ophelia was portrayed as weak. Ophelia and Hamlet had feeling for eachother. Laertes, Ophelia’s brother warned her to not trust Hamlet of fall for her. She does say back, “Well if you’re telling me to behave, you better behave too.” Then Polonius, Ophelia’s father, forbids her to see Hamlet. She obeys her father’s rules and doesn’t see Hamlet. Ophelia is portrayed as weak because she obeys her father and doesn’t stand up for herself. Eventually she kills herself, which also is a sign of weakness.
Gertrude in Hamlet, cares so much for her son Hamlet. She always had tried to find out why he was upset, whether it was when she talked to Hamlet herself, or sent spies to figure out what was going on. Gertrude usually would blame his outbursts on the fact that her and Claudius were married. Hamlet thought that his mother is weird for marrying his uncle, who is her brother-in-law. Hamlet had been very disgusted by that situation he had been put in.
Women were not respected as much during the time in Things Fall Apart. Men were very dominant over women. Okonkwo thinks that Nwoye is too lazy, and isn’t perfect. He thinks that Ezinma would be the perfect, if she were a boy. Okonkwo repeats more than several times how Ezinma should have been a boy. He is very fond of Ezinma because she’s not lazy, but is hard-working.
Okonkwo gets banished in chapter 13. He is banished because during the funeral ceremony for Ezeudu, Okonkwo’s gun explodes. A piece of the barrel pierces a young boy in the heart. But because this was an accident, it was considered a woman’s crime. If it was on purpose, it would have been considered a man’s crime. Okonkwo and his family were banished for seven years. In Things Fall Apart, the men are very masculine. When things go wrong, people usually “run back to mommy”. Here, Okonkwo flees to his motherland with his family. Also, one of the most common names in the tribe is Nneke, meaning “Mother is Supreme” The men are very dominant in this book, and they are pretty much known as “first class”. The women are second class.
If a woman did one thing wrong, they would be in big trouble. For example; Okonkwo’s second wife, Ekwefi didn’t have his meal prepared right away. Ekwefi was getting her hair done. When she came back, Okonkwo beat her. Not everyone in the Ibo society agreed with beating their wives, but some did believe in it. Each woman in the tribe had a different role/job. As for Okonkwo’s wives, the three of them had different jobs. The women would cook meals for their husband, and they would do the chores. The chores included painting the houses. The first wife gets more respect than the second and third.
Grendel’s mother in Beowulfis not portrayed very kindly. When Grendel returns home to his mother, he is wounded. Grendel’s mother was not happy and wanted revenge. She was very determined and confident to get revenge for her son. The Beowulf Poet says, “No Geat could have stopped her” (45). So she is basically made out to be a monster in this poem.After Grendel’s Mother was thrown to the ground by Beowulf, the Beowulf Poet says, “But she rose / At once and repaid him with her clutching claws, / Wildly tearing at him.” (48)(“Character Analysis Grendel’s Mother”).
Monna from Federigo’s Falcon is portrayed as young, beautiful, and wealthy. She is also a widow with one child. Federigo is madly in love with Monna, but she doesn’t acknowledge him. Federigo would do anything to impress Monna, but she still would deny him. Her son became ill shortly after her husband had died. Her son wanted Federigo’s Falcon. Monna cared so much about her son and wanted to save him, but she felt bad that she would have to ask Federigo for his Falcon. Federigo had gave up everything to impress Monna, so now all he has left is his Falcon. She didn’t want to take away one of the only things he had left. When Monna meets Federigo at his farm to retrieve his bird, he tries to impress her again, not knowing why she wanted to meet. Federigo cooks his Falcon for her to eat. Monna became very sad when she found out the Falcon was dead, and shortly after, her son died. Monna, again was a very caring person. She grieved a long time over her son. But she eventually married Federigo, and the two of them had a happy life together. Monna was a very strong woman as she dealt with the death of her husband and her son. (“Monna Giovanna”). The Wife from the Wife’s Lament, is portrayed as a very sad woman. She went through a lot and that is why she is portrayed so weak and sad. Her husband had left her. The Wife had stayed with her husband’s family, while he was gone. Eventually, his family had basically kicked her out and said, “Go live somewhere else.” The Wife at this point is very depressed and brokenhearted. She does mention that women should be strong and be always cheerful.
Throughout English Literature, women’s roles varied. The women could be seen as weak, powerless, and beautiful. Sometimes men were drawn to the women because of sexual attraction. Lady Macbeth’s role was a dominant role, because she was hungry for power. Ophelia in Hamlet, was weak because she never stood up for herself and what she loved. The wives of Okonkwo, in Things Fall Apart were not given much respect and were known as second class. As the women in that time were basically their husbands slaves. In Beowulf, Grendel’s mother was very much monster-like, as she tore Beowulf to shreds. Monna in Federigo’s Falcon, was portrayed as a gorgeous young woman that Federigo was very fond of. In The Wife’s Lament, the Wife is sad, but she tells us how a woman should act. She should be strong and happy. Most of the time, the women were “second class”. With all of these examples, you can tell how women’s roles varied.