Facets of Female Agency in three of Shakespeare's Works

Shakespeare's Characters Juliet, Beatrice and Lady Macbeth as Examples of a New Female Agency in Shakespearian Times

Bachelor Thesis, 2017

40 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Active and Passive Gender Roles in Shakespearian Times

3. Romeo and Juliet - Loving Juliet
3.1 Act One - Agency in Mind
3.2 Act Two - Prompting the Plot
3.3 Act Three - Keeping Up Agency Despite All Burdens
3.4 Act Four - Acting Out the Plan
3.5 Act Five - Suicidal Agency

4. Much Ado About Nothing - Witty Beatrice
4.1 Act One - Agency in Eloquence
4.2 Act Two - Agency in Refusing to Act
4.3 Act Three - A Changing Course of Action
4.4 ActFour-Demanding Agency
4.5 Act Five - Silenced Agency

5. Macbeth - Strategic Lady Macbeth
5.1 Act One - Manipulative Agency
5.2 Act Two - Acting Out the Regicide
5.3 Act Three - Fading Agency
5.4 ActFive-The Loss of Agency

6. Comparing the Three Women

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord, for the husband is the wives [sic] head” (1559)

This is an extract from “[t]he Protestant marriage service in The book of commonprayer of 1559” (Eales 1998, 24) and it shows how women are supposed to behave in Shakespearian times. By quoting The book of common prayer, Jacqueline Eales reveals obedience and passivity as the normal behaviour of a woman in early modern England. Nevertheless, Shakespeare gives his female characters lines like “I will not marry yet; and when I do, I swear | It shall be Romeo” (Weis (ed.) 2012, 279)[1], “Lord, I could not endure a husband” (McEachern (ed.) 2016, 216)[2] or “Hie thee hither, | That I may pour my spirits in thine ear” (Clark, Mason (ed.) 2015, 155)[3]. It is clear from this that Shakespeare ascribes an agency to the women in his plays that does not conform to the image of women of the period of time he lived in. “[T]he dramatist tells his audience that women can take on many different roles in society, not just the stereotypical roles that most people of Shakespeare's day expected of them.” (Crawford 1997, 116). But how far can a Renaissance playwright go in granting agency to women? Are Shakespeare's female characters capable of pursuing their own happiness or standing up to a man? Are they able to commit a heinous crime, maybe murder? Shakespeare experiments with gender roles and ascribes to his female characters a cleverness and stamina, a wit and a cold-bloodedness that was contrary to what was expected of wo­men in the normal daily life of that time.

Juliet, Beatrice and Lady Macbeth are great examples to examine this thesis. De­riving from two different genres and three completely different plots, all of these wo­men have great agency, each in her very own way.

Romeo and Juliet (1595) is one of the Bard's best-known tragedies, telling the story of the two lovers whose love was not allowed to exist; it ends in the tragic double suicide of Romeo and Juliet. Thirteen-year-old Juliet is part of this loving couple and definitely not the passive one. She appears as a strong-minded and clever woman, able to make secret plans and conduct them at all costs.

The comedy Much Ado AboutNothing (1598) consists of a double plot, as it con­tains the stories of two couples: Claudio and Hero fall in love at first sight, whereas Be­atrice and Benedick battle out their “merry war” (Much Ado, 1.1, 58) only to discover

1 For precisionof reference inthe following labelled as Romeo andJuliet, III.5, 121- 122
2 For precision of reference in the following labelled as Much Ado, II.l, 26
3 For precision of reference in the following labelled as Macbeth, 1.5, 25 - 26

their love for each other through a trick performed by their friends and family. Provocative, self-conscious Beatrice is central to this play. She is not afraid of demonstrating her cleverness in arguing with Benedick. Much of the wit of the play resides in the character ofBeatrice.

Macbeth (1606) is a tragedy that finds its tragic moment not so much in the sad­ness of its plot, as in Romeo and Juliet, but in the evil which results in so many deaths. Probably one of the bloodiest Shakespearian plays, it derives its cruelty mostly from the strategic and manipulative Lady Macbeth who is responsible for the bloodshed, having convinced her husband to kill the king so her husband and she can rise to the throne.

With these extraordinarily active female characters, Shakespeare shows that the gender roles of his time are not a given. His writing, at the turn of the 16th century, re­veals a completely new female agency. It remains to be examined, however, what this implies and also where its limits might be: Both Juliet and Lady Macbeth die in the end of the plays and Beatrice finally marries a man which she always refused to do.

In this Bachelor thesis I will analyse Juliet, Beatrice and Lady Macbeth's agency in relation to the plays' plots, the outer and inner processes of the plays and characters, their relationships to men and their own character traits. I will do so against the back­ground of the usual image of women in Shakespearian times.

In order to do so, I will first outline the typical gender roles in Shakespearian times, focusing especially on activity and passivity. This will then be applied to Shakespeare's plays. First, Juliet will be the focus of this paper, followed by Beatrice and after that Lady Macbeth. I will look at their characters development following the chronological order of events in the plays. This will illustrate the development of agency in Shakespeare's plays and also its limits. In the sixth chapter, the similarities between the examined characters will be pointed out to illuminate Shakespeare's ap­proach in more general terms and to make a final judgement about Juliet, Beatrice and Lady Macbeth as non-typical women in the 16th and 17th century. A conclusion will sum up the most important results of my Bachelor thesis.

All in all, the Bachelor thesis in hand aims at answering the following questions: What are the typical gender roles in Shakespearian times with special reference to agency? In how far does Shakespeare establish a new female agency in the exemplary plays Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth, and how is this agency represented individually by the characters Juliet, Beatrice and Lady Macbeth?

2. Active and Passive Gender Roles in Shakespearian Times

There are only three morally acceptable conditions for women in early modern England: women are “divided [...] into virgins, wives and widows thus placing a central emphas­is on the importance of marriage to their status” (Eales 1998, 23). This shows that the status of women cannot be identified without reference to their relationship to men. Or rather, a woman has no status in her own right: if she is not 'virgin, wife or widow', she is “a whore” (Matchinske 1998, 86). Even then, the derogatory term 'whore' is one that is defined by the 'whore's' relationship to men. It becomes totally obvious that current concepts like single-mothers, career women or bachelor women are unimaginable in the Shakespearian era.

This opens up the question of female agency: if a woman's status cannot be defined without describing any relation to men, her agency must also be dependent on men. “As moral guardians of appropriate marital behavior, women fulfill prerequisites of their own, supplying husbands with sound moral advice and ensuring them credibility within the community.” (ibid., 101.). In other words, women's main task is to be good wives, support their husbands without being noticed by others and thus provide their husbands with social status: “In his marriage to a good wife, [the man] qualifies for full citizenship within the community. He becomes a good patriarch, a good neighbor, a good Christian, and a good businessman.” (ibid., 111). Women are a means to an end, only valuable if they fulfil social expectations. Moreover, it reveals the various positions men could achieve in society. All these values and positions that are ascribed to men result from their having married “a good wife”. However, these values are still ascribed to men only, as women are seen as men's acquisitions. The only activity women are al­lowed to perform is being silent advisers when it comes to morality: “they are [...] liter­al agents monitoring men's actions and emending them accordingly” (ibid., 113), but nothing more. Early modem “marriage ideology [...] denies [women] agency outside the moral sphere and continues to insist in their status as property.” (ibid., 102).

Megan Matchinske captures the time's social apportionment in the term “gendered domesticity - a domesticity that relegates wives to the private domain, to the education and rearing of their children and to the maintenance of the household.” (ibid., 110). Women's sole environment of action is the household. The patriarchal community is careful to ensure that this convention did not change and “very rigid lines between the public duties of men and the household responsibilities of women [are drawn]” (Eales 1998, 5). Even then, women cannot make decisions regarding the household completely on their own: “As head of the household, the adult male possessefs], in theory, absolute power over wife, children and servants, who [a]re enjoined to practise obedience.” (Fletcher, Stevenson (ed.) 1985, 32). Although the wife is said to rule the household to­gether with her husband, the husband has the power of final decision (cf. ibid., 33). This sets up further limits to female agency.

However, the ideal early modem English woman is not only defined by the tasks she is expected to fulfil, but also by the way she has to behave. Three key words are es­sential: “chastity, silence, and obedience” (Matchinske 1998, 99). Chastity identifies the woman's expected sexual behaviour. As prostitutes are generally considered to have low moral standards, the opposite behaviour is the only accepted behaviour. However, with chastity being one of the most important values for a woman, women harm themselves by not advocating their own desires and sexuality.

“Recognizing chaste reputation as integral to women's being and essential to the refigured mar­riage contract, [the woman] is unable to construct a positive female erotics unless it is externalized - translated into chaste beauty and perceived from the outside by men who will either account it part of the marriage portion or mis-'use' it in 'wanton and lascivious lookes.' This understanding necessarily encodes woman as victim or paragon, without agency, without sexuality, and without pleasure.” (Sowemam 1617. In Matchinske 1998, 110; accentuationMJ)

This reveals that women are not even allowed agency only to the extent of satisfying their own needs. This is closely linked to the concepts of silence and obedience.

“[Hjousehold manuals of the period [...] naturally stress that the wife's duty is always to obey her husband.” (Underdown 1985. In: Fletcher, Stevenson (ed.) 1985, 135). Susan D. Amussen (1985) also confirms: “the husband rule[s] his wife, and she obey[s] him in all things” (In: Fletcher, Stevenson (ed.) 1985, 201). Obedience means accepting the man as the head of the family and the female self as being inferior to him. It goes along with being silent and not contradicting what the man says. Additionally, the concept of obedience is not only applicable to the family but represents a social ar­rangement valid for the whole nation: “Patriarchal authority within the family was the cornerstone of Elizabethan and Jacobean political theory, the ultimate, 'natural' justifica­tion for obedience to the state” (Underdown 1985. In: Fletcher, Stevenson (ed.) 1985, 117). The whole state system bases on obedience.

Contemporary authors justify the “inferiority of women” (Fletcher, Stevenson (ed.) 1985, 2) by reference to women's nature: “In the early modern period women were described by male authors as morally, intellectually and physically weaker than men.” (ibid., 3). In 1619, “William Whately described a woman's 'chiefest ornament' as 'lowli- ness of mind'” (In: Eales 1998, 25). In this respect, people find an explanation for female passivity and male agency which describes gender-related standards in the 16th and 17th century.

In summary, in early modern England women are in every sense dependent on men. Their social status is always defined by their relation to men, leaving only four al­ternatives, namely virgin, wife, widow or prostitute, out of which obviously only three are desirable. The woman is inferior to the man, who stands above her even in the do­mestic sphere, which is the one place that is accredited to the woman. In the household, the woman is solely “responsible for the day-to-day education of both children and ser­vants” (Amussen 1985. In: Fletcher, Stevenson (ed.) 1985, 201), but still has no power to contradict her husband. A good woman should also serve her husband by advising him in terms of morality and thus secure him a fortunate position in the community. In doing so, “wives should be meek, submissive and chaste” (ibid., 205). But even then, women could not keep up high moral standards without the guidance of men. Due to their moral, intellectual and physical weakness they are naturally inferior to men. What this shows is that, in the 16th and 17th century, women are denied agency. Even the fields of social commitment that seem to require women, i.e. child education and advising their husbands silently on moral grounds, turn out rather to be tasks that are simply ex­pected to be fulfilled than an acknowledgement of agency.

Women are expected to marry. Women are expected to always obey their hus­bands. Women are seen as less brave, less intelligent and less dominant than men. And finally, women are expected to deny their own sexuality, their own ideas and their own desires and therefore their own agency. In the following examination of William Shakespeare's plays Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth it will be seen how far Shakespeare ascribes to Juliet, Beatrice and Lady Macbeth a new female agency that is unusual for early modern England.

3. Romeo and Juliet - Loving Juliet

Juliet is the first example of Shakespeare's female characters who will be examined. Probably everyone knows the story of the “star-crossed lovers” (Romeo and Juliet, Pro­logue, 6) whose relationship ends because of a family feud - after only four days -with their suicide. We know the rebellious strong Romeo who visits Juliet at night and con­fesses his love to her. We know the lovely and beautiful Juliet who is overwhelmed by her feelings. At first glance, she might appear as a shy young girl who simply gets roped into this forbidden love story. But is this really the case? She is part of the couple that stands in the centre of the play; she “has the second-longest part in the play” (Weis (ed.) 2012, 119) which already shows that it is unlikely that she is a thoroughly passive character. Carla Freccero calls the play “a story about the transcendence of the individual over the interests of the group and kin.” (In: Menon (ed.) 2011, 302) which also reflects agency of at least both Romeo and Juliet. The title of the play may mention Romeo first. However, throughout the plot, Juliet more and more becomes the foreground character, until in the end it says “Juliet and her Romeo” (Romeo and Juliet, V.3, 310, accentuation MJ), which mirrors “a hierarchy more truly reflective of the essence of the drama” (Weis (ed.) 2012, 7). This development will be analysed in this chapter.

3.1 Act One - Agency in Mind

“That I Must Love a Loathed Enemy” (Romeo and Juliet, 1.5, 140)

The play begins on a Sunday morning (cf. Weis (ed.) 2012, 25) on a street “[i]n fair Ver­ona” (Romeo andJuliet, Prologue, 2). Before Juliet's first appearance on-stage, the audi­ence sees both Romeo and Juliet in other relations to the opposite sex. Romeo suffers lover's grief (cf. ibid., 1.1, 58ff.) and Paris woos for Juliet by talking to her father (cf. ibid., 1.2, Iff.). The first remarkable thing is that Capulet, Juliet's father, does not simply decide for her to marry Paris at first but that he orders Paris to “woo her” (ibid., 15) himself and let Juliet decide whether to marry him or not. This seems to hint at an agency that Capulet allows Juliet. Nevertheless, in act three it becomes very clear that Capulet did not ascribe full authority to his daughter: see chapter 3.3 below. Capulet or­ganises “an old accustomed feast” (ibid., 19) at which Paris should woo Juliet. Fatefully, the servant he sends out with the guest list is illiterate, meets Romeo on his way and asks him to read out the list. On this list, there is also “Rosaline whom [Romeo] so loves” (ibid., 84) which is why Romeo decides to go to the feast (cf. ibid., 101 - 102).

In the next scene, Juliet appears for the first time on-stage. Her first two lines, “How now, who calls? [...] Madam, I am here. What is your will?” (ibid., 1.3, 5/7) present her as an obedient good child, fitting perfectly into early modem England's con­vention. This impression does not change throughout this scene, as Juliet's subjugation towards her parents stands in focus at all times. When Juliet's mother asks her whether she will be able to “like” (Romeo and Juliet, 1.3, 97) Paris, Juliet's answer is: “I'll look to like, if looking liking move, | But no more deep will I endart mine eye | Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.” (ibid., 98 - 100). She underlines that she will act exactly as her parents wish her to and thus, has no other desire than to fulfil the contem­porary role of women, and especially of female children, to obey and raise no claim to agency.

But then, in the last scene of act one, Juliet and Romeo meet for the first time at the masking ball and they fall in love at first sight (cf. ibid., 1.5, 41 - 42/96 - 99). Al­though Juliet knows that Paris is the one to woo her and that it would be her parents' will for her to marry him, she signals her affection for Romeo in her dialogue with him by responding to the metaphor he used in his first lines spoken to her, calling him a “[g]ood pilgrim” (ibid., 96) and even letting him kiss her (cf. ibid., 106/108). After Romeo has left, she wants to find out who he is and prays: “If he be married, | My grave is like to be my wedding bed.” (ibid., 133 - 134). This is a first sign of Juliet's develop­ing an own will that does not at one with her parents' will. She now feels ready to marry but does not have Paris in mind, but the man she just kissed, whoever that might have been. However, when she finds out that Romeo is Montague's son she is desperate be­cause she “must love a loathed enemy” (ibid., 140). The knowledge of Romeo's relation to her own family causes a clash of loyalties and reveals a great obstacle to her love. However, she never denies her love for Romeo. Act one ends with her shock and inde­cisiveness, but also with the certainty that both Romeo and Juliet are undeniably in love. Whilst it is obvious that Juliet has not yet developed her agency fully, first steps towards a new female agency can be identified.

3.2 Act Two - Prompting the Plot

“Hie to High Fortune!” (Romeo andJuliet, II.5, 78)

In act two the indecisiveness of the two lovers finds a quick end when both discover that their love is more important to them than their family bonds. Romeo goes to Juliet's room by night, initiating one of the best-known Shakespearian scenes: the balcony scene. Romeo watches Juliet talking to herself, unseen by her at first. Juliet appears still to be desperate: she fell in love with Romeo and the only thing that prevents her from living her love is the family feud that is meaningless to her: “wherefore art thou Romeo? | Deny thy father and refuse thy name, | Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, | And I'll no longer be a Capulet.” (Romeo and Juliet, II.2, 33 - 36). In these four lines Juliet already reveals more agency than ever before in the play. She quarrels with her name and therefore with the conflict between Romeo's family and her own. This is not what her parents would expect her to do: She starts to question her parents. Addi­tionally, she reveals her desire for a proof of their love. It is interesting that Juliet first prompts Romeo to take the active part and break with his family. However, she makes it clear that she would also be more than willing to take the active part, if he did not dare to do so. By saying so, Juliet does not only underline her agency but also her ability to cause great disorder by rejecting the naturally given family order. It becomes clear that she would act against all existing social rules to prove her love and to be able to live her love. Juliet's great love for Romeo arouses her agency.

As she utters the longing for a proof of Romeo's love in the beginning of the scene assumption seems likely that this is a strategy of finding out whether Romeo actu­ally loves her. This strategy apparently works as Romeo begins to talk about his love for her without her asking him to do: “With love's light wings do I o'erperch these walls” (ibid., 66). Her strategy grows more acute when Juliet emphasises Romeo's life-threat­ening situation: “If they do see thee, they will murder thee.” (ibid., 70). Yet again Romeo expresses his love for Juliet saying that he is “invulnerable to” (Weis (ed.) 2012, 191) the Capulet's watchmen. Juliet responds to him by underlining her wish of him be­ing unharmed (cf. Romeo andJuliet, II.2, 74).

In the following sequence of the scene Juliet addresses the fact that Romeo has heard her soliloquy and thus knows that she actually loves him. She cannot “deny | [wjhat [she has] spoke” (ibid., 89). This is an advantage for Romeo as he can be sure about her true feelings and would be in the position to trick her. She directly expresses this fact: “Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say 'Ay', | And I will take thy word; yet, if thou swear'st, | Thou mayst prove false.” (ibid., 90 - 92). Juliet proves great clev­erness here, as she is able to reflect upon her situation and the position she is in given that Romeo has more certainty about her feelings for him than does she.

Romeo responds to that by starting to swear his love but Juliet interrupts him twice and, thus, forces him to answer in a way that satisfies her. First, she interrupts him when he “swearfs] by [...] th'inconstant moon” (ibid., 109) because she does not want his “love [to] prove likewise variable.” (ibid., 111). Romeo agrees and asks her “[w]hat [he] shall [...] swear by” (ibid., 112). When he changes his vow, according to what Ju­liet responds, Juliet interrupts him once more, tells him not to swear at all (cf. ibid.,


Excerpt out of 40 pages


Facets of Female Agency in three of Shakespeare's Works
Shakespeare's Characters Juliet, Beatrice and Lady Macbeth as Examples of a New Female Agency in Shakespearian Times
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Anglophone Studies)
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
William Shakespeare, Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing, Juliet, Romeo and Juliet, Women, Gender, Shakespearian Times
Quote paper
Master of Education Marie Sophie Jendrusch (Author), 2017, Facets of Female Agency in three of Shakespeare's Works, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1236049


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