Feminism and Gender Roles in Old Literature

It is no secret that women have always been looked down upon in society throughout the years, it has been going on for many decades now and is not a shock to anyone. There are even stories written in old literature portraying just how strong the use of feminism and gender roles are, two very important critical lenses, by showing the women’s roles, personalities and fate in the tales being told. Many people actually think that feminism doesn’t exist,and women are already treated the same.

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In the stories of old literature it supports the evidence to just how unequal women are treated and relates to women even today. Many authors are trying to bring attention on the use feminism and gender roles in their pieces to show their belief on how unequal women are treated and viewed to society. The purpose of the use of the critical lenses is to bring light without actually focusing on the women’s roles unless you look at the writing as a whole and critiquing the language of literature. A few famous tales from the Middle English 1500’s ,Hamlet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Wife of Bath, illustrates just how strong feminism and gender roles were used to affect how the story flowed and how the women were perceived as back then.

Many people have most likely heard of the name William Shakespeare, often called the English national poet and considered by many to be the greatest dramatist of all time. He is well known for his famous play of the iconic love story of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare also wrote another play with a storyline unlike his typical romantic tragedy, but was based originally on a Danish revenge folktale told by a man called Saxo Grammaticus. In the version told by Grammaticus, a young prince fakes being crazy in order to get revenge on his uncle for murdering his father. In Shakespeare’s version he introduces a twist from the passed down fable in which he called the piece, Hamlet, a tale of a young prince who actually seems insane and determined to get his father’s revenge on his own uncle, who is in charge of his father’s murder. Throughout the whole story, Hamlet is so focused on trying to kill his uncle, he does not realize how many people’s lives he has put in danger: he fails to check up on Ophelia, the girl he likes, and her fate ends up ending her own life because of how unimportant she felt to everyone, including to Hamlet,who killed her father because he thought he was King Claudius. The story ends in a shocking tragedy, which seems to be common in Shakespeare’s work, where everyone in the royal family dies, including Hamlet and King Claudius.

Although getting vengeance may seem like the main focus of the story, since they mainly centralized the story on men, it also portrays just how little they cared about the women in the story. The first obvious evidence is that there were only two characters who were women throughout the whole story, Queen Gertrude and Ophelia, which are only included in the story because they have intimate relations to the men characters. It occurs that Queen Gertrude was only used to portray her unfaithfulness to her late husband King Hamlet, when she married his brother, King Claudius. On the other hand, Ophelia, was a young lady who had a romantic relationship to the younger Hamlet, even Ophelia’s brother and father thought she was being used by Hamlet for her chastity. Justifying how frequent men back then used women for their bodies and not for their personalities, a strong trait of gender roles. An author, Elaine Showalter, showed her point of view of the use of the character Ophelia, “”an insignificant minor character””,to only show the object of desire to Hamlet (Representing Ophelia). Nevertheless, there are acts in the scene that directly show how Shakespeare, showed how women were treated unequally. More specifically, in Act 3 during scene 1, Ophelia tries to talk to Hamlet, to remind him about the feelings they have for each other, instead of giving in to her attempt, he tells her off. He uses harsh phrases like get thee to a nunnery: Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? implying to become a nun in order to control her feelings or what he says is lustand that he would never feel that way about her because he does not wanna be a sinner(Shakespeare, William). This scene is particularly important because it shows a contradiction between the different gender roles with how the behavior of women are only showed as wanting lust. This is a false accusation, since Hamlet’s attitude towards the women in the play as sexist, and all they want is lust. Women back then were categorized as only objects of sex, showing the strong use of gender roles.

Hamlet is an example of men even today, using women for their own time and not the women’s time is being selfish, and when the women gives the same energy back they get blamed on for their such called lust. In present day, men are just as careless about women as they were back then, Hamlet couldn’t even take a second out of his self-absorbed revenge to check up on Ophelia, after he went off on her and caused the death of her father. If he would have checked up on her and was there for her, she would not have felt so alone causing her to end her own life.

Consequently, William Shakespeare wasn’t the first poet to bring light to the stereotypes of women. Although the real name of the poet who wrote the inciting masterpiece still remains anonymous, some people refer to this author as the Gawain Poet, since this story is one of his most successful work. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in the late 14th century while also surviving in a late 14th century manuscript, along with three other stories written by the same author. The tale is about a questionable warrior being put to the test to show if he has all the characteristics to become a heroic and noble warrior. To go in depth, the story is about a knight named Sir Gawain who accepts a deal from the Green Knight, who shows up at a local feast, the proposition was that he got to chop off the Green Knight’s head only if he could do the same to Sir Gawain a year later but although he was hesitant, Sir Gawain ended up accepting the deal. As a year passes, Sir Gawain is on his way back to where the knight said to meet him,but on his way back, a lord decides to welcome him into his castle for a few days. Sir Gawain was only allowed to stay in the castle if he accepted the lord’s one condition; where the lord and his men will go hunting while Gawain stays inside the castles door and whatever Gawain gets behind his castle they will exchange with each other. Thinking that it was a win for him, Gawain agrees. The first three days Gawain stays at the castle, the lord’s wife gives him kisses each day, but on the fourth day an old lady mentions she has a silk girdle that would protect anyone who wears it from death. So later that day the lord asked him what he acquired but did not give the lord the girdle.Keeping in mind that Gawain thought the girdle would save him from the Green Knight. Gawain leaves the castle the next day to fight. The Green Knight later reveals himself as the lord, and planned Gawain’s whole stay, including the old lady giving him the girdle, it showed dishonesty in Sir Gawain.

In the story not only did they use women as another sexual duty they also only put women in the story if they are queens or mysterious witches such as the old lady with the magical girdle, which is a big characteristic of feminism. The men in the story use women to restore their masculinity and control over them, Karras, an author who wrote a article about gender roles, goes in depth by saying the knight’s [masculinity] was defined in a large part in relation to women. The achievement of manhood depended on mastering the sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementary ideals of prowess (successful violence) and love (successful commodification of women) (Karras, 25). The men used battles and women to remind themselves about their masculinity, showing the inequality of the purpose of women in the story. The women are only objects to restore the reminder of how manly they are, when women are actually more powerful than men if they need women in order to show how strong they are.

This was back in the 1500’s and even in today’s society, men still use women to show how masculine they are, and it’s even worse now than back then.In today’s society, many guys will stunt with how many girls they talk to and how many relations they have had with them, as if women were just trophies to their collection.Whereas if women talked about how many men they talked to or had relations with, they would be considered a tramp. How does that balance out? Which is what many people who claim that inequality doesn’t exist fail to notice.

Lastly, the Wife of Bath, is one of the most famous stories included among the twenty-four stories in the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The individual prologue was written in the late 1300s but not only is it the oldest story talked about, it’s the most important story that shows feminism and gender roles. The story begins with a woman, Alyson but in the story they just refer to her as wife, in the story she is in her forties which is particularly unique because the author usually doesn’t involve characters who are older because they mostly likely don’t even make it to that age, noticed in his other stories. Alyson talks about her past five husbands that she had married, she openly talks about them and is not ashamed of how many husbands she has had, she also includes when her 5th husband dies she plans to remarry a 6th.The wife describes her past husbands, she describes how she has had three good one as well as two bad ones. The three good ones were rich and old and gave her everything she would ask them for, however, the other two she talks about how she suffered in marriage. She would deceive them, and wrongfully accuse them because no man can swear and lie like a woman can. The wife also explains from her observation skills that men only like women for their riches, bodies, or by what they can do, and if they are ugly then they will latch themselves to any man they see until one accepts them. She is displeased with them unless they do these general things like admire her beauty, call her dear lady everywhere they go, make her a feast for her birthday, make her happy, and lastly, honor her family. She would reveal that men always say that wives ruin their husbands like worms ruin a tree. Her fourth husband was a reveller, and she was young and playful, but her husband had a mistress, which she was very angry about that he liked another women so she got even by making him very angry and jealous just to get back at him. By treating him that way, she made sure her fourth husband wasn’t happy and made sure his life was a living hell. When he died while she was in Jerusalem, but she didn’t pay anything to bury him because it would have been a waste to bury him expensively, and she didn’t care about him that much to pay her respects to him. Although she hated her fourth husband, she loved her fifth husband the most because his love was standoffish, she never wants his soul to go to hell, yet he was the biggest liar. He was good in bed, yet he was abusive and would beat her, but she would always have a soft spot for him because, he could win back her love in an instant. She would tell all of her husband’s secret to her best friend and he would get mad that even told her things. Whenever he went to london she would go out and flirt with men and told them if she was a widow she would marry them. She would give her husband all the land and property but regretted it because he didn’t give her anything she wanted. He hit her on the ear for tearing a page out of his book and she became deaf in that ear. She disobeyed and did not listen to him anyway. She did not like the book he was reading because it basically shamed women, and since she knew he would not stop reading it he tore out 3 pages. He became angry and hit her again and she fell to the floor. He got scared because she fell and he thought he killed her. When she awoke they made an agreement and she got all the control and made him burn the book while she remained nice to him. They never argued again.

The Wife of Bath is not your standard female character in usual old literature, she is different from the roles of women in Hamlet and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, she knew her self worth and how she wanted to be treated by her lovers. Although, most of her husbands didn’t treat her right, she always stood up for herself and gave them the same respect they would give her. Alyson was powerful, but they way men thought about women throughout the story showed feminism, the whole prologue says that wives would ruin their husbands and that men will only care about them if they are rich, look good, and what they do. Women’s love was compared to hell and barren land, or to an inextinguishable fire , make the women seem like the villian or horrible people. Alexandra Losonti, in her article Discourse and Dominion in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath Prologue, argues in the Middle Ages women were identified by their roles in life and society as wives, widows, mothers or maidens and were portrayed in relation to a man or group of men(Discourse and Dominion in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue). This draws attention to why the Wife of Bath is not called by her name but by wife, portraying that her status as a wife is more important than her real name.

Similar events still happen like this till this day, where women will only be defined by being labeled as someone’s girlfriend or wife, it is unfair because we have names too, just like when a couple gets married it’s more likely that the woman must change their last name to the grooms. It’s a tradition, but is it just because that’s what everyone has adapted to throughout the years?

Overall, women have been degraded, used as sexual objects, and are stereotyped to receive unequal respect throughout all the years even dating back to old literature stories from the 14th century. Hamlet,Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Wife of Bath, shows a point of view on how women were perceived as, and surprisingly has not improved over the years. The feminism and gender roles that happened in the story still happens today, men using women to show their masculinity, being shamed for having feelings and lastly being insulted by saying loving women is like going through hell. What will it take to show how unequal women are being treated by men and show change?

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