By the Middle Ages, it was commonly accepted that Eve was principally to blame for the disobedience that led to the fall of humanity. Greek ideas had replaced Jewish in Christian thinking, including the notion that the soul was good but the body evil. Heretical though this might have been, it didn’t stop sexuality being regarded as somehow evil. One of the few recorded medieval women writers, the mystic Margery Kempe, aspired to celibacy even within marriage.
As it becomes apparent in a few select works representing women in medieval literature, includingThe Book of Margery Kempe, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Le Morte Darthur, in the middle ages or medieval period, restrictions placed on women underwent a significant change. At the beginning of this period, women’s roles were very narrowly prescribed and women did not have much to do with life outside of the home. As this age went on, however, women gradually began to express more opinions and have a greater and more equal role in society.
Two earlier medieval texts, Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight offer readers two simple categories of women, those who are or are not confined. Later, with the writings of Margery Kempe, the strict duality begins to disappear and the reader is confronted with a woman who is blend of each of these ideas of women. While she is confined by her society, she is unconfined by its conventions such as marriage and traditional gender roles. In general, however, each text presents an example of a “proper” and confined woman as well as the complete opposite; almost so that the reader can see what evils can occur if a woman is not confined.
The women in Beowulf, at least on first glance, might appear to be glorified waitresses and sexual objects, but their role is far more complicated than this. When it is stated in one of the important quotes from “Beowulf” that, “A queen should weave peace” As confined in a marriage, women in Beowulf are assigned the role of peace weaver, “queen and bedmateAll of the human women in Beowulf are queens and adhere to their duties as such with grace and obedience.
The only exception to this model of medieval femininity is Grendel’s mother who is technically a woman but is so hideously described that the idea of gender becomes grossly distorted. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight even though it was written some years after Beowulf. In this text, the reader is first confronted with the ideal woman, Guenevere, who is confined and is serving her role as peace weaver and object for the male gaze. “the goodly queen gay in the midst/ on a dais well-decked and duly arrayed / with costly silk curtains…all broidered and bordered with the best gems”
Chaucer’s womenAlthough women feature strongly in Chaucer’s earlier works, such as The Boke of the Duchess and Troilus and Criseyde, we only find three women on the pilgrimage described in The Canterbury Tales: * The Wife of Bath * The Prioress * ‘Another nun’ who accompanies her but is hardly mentioned again. The two principal women reflect the only ways that women at the time could achieve independence and status: in the Church or in a trade. The Wife of Bath represents those whose skills, such as weaving, gave them financial independence, though Chaucer’s character seems to have grown wealthy mainly by marrying a series of rich old men. is tempting to see the Wife as a champion of female rights, and her Tale brings out the idea that women should have maistrieover men, but the Wife is of course a character in a story written by a man. She has had five husbands, like the woman of Samariawho is challenged by Jesus (in John 4:17-18), ’withouten oother compaignye in youthe’.
Her fifth husband, whom she married for love rather than riches, proved to be less compliant – and very well read. She claims to have put him in his place eventually, but Chaucer enjoys making the Wife recount (and try to refute) all the misogynistic tales with which he has assaulted her. Women in Renaissance and after: Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the social standing and the legal and economic rights of women continued to be restrictive, limiting them to the domestic sphereDuring the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century and the resulting Catholic Counter-Reformation, the depiction of women in domestic roles became increasingly important. The social system of patriarchy matured during the early modern period, particularly during the Reformation. The concept of patriarchy involved male control over nearly all facets of society.
The assigned works from the English Renaissance primarily portray women unrealistically. Despite a few exceptions, these works depict women as being idealistically beautiful, as having perfect virtue, or, conversely, as exercising hyperbolically negative traits. The few exceptions to this rule do depict women in a more realistic light. For instance, in its first six stanzas, the female speaker of John Donne’s “The Bait” praises Marlowe’s “Passionate Shepherd,” but in the final quatrain, she acknowledges how foolish she is for biting at his bait, saying, “That fish that is not catched thereby, / Alas, is wiser far than I” (1247).
William Shakespeare also paints a realistic picture of a woman in Sonnet 130, debunking the florid Petrarchan conventions that elevate women’s beauty almost beyond comprehension but asserting that his mistress is “as rare” (1041) as any Petrarchan subject nonetheless. Among the male authors, Shakespeare also presents the most substantive and realistic female character of these works with Cordelia in King Lear. Although her honesty at first brings disownment and exile, she emerges as one of the few characters in the play who remain true to their convictions throughout the course of the narrative.
Cordelia’s realistic portrayal is rivaled only by the highly personal poetry of the only female author assigned, Katherine Philips. In “A Married State,” Philips also debunks the popular perspective favoring of marriage, especially with its benefits for women, noting to her audience of young women that the single life yields “No blustering husbands to create your fears; / No pangs of childbirth to extort your tears; / No children’s cries for to offend your ears” (1679).
Another of her poems, “On the Death of My First and Dearest Child, Hector Philips,” provides an equally realistic yet exponentially more emotional account of the uniquely maternal experience of losing a child. Despite the success of these works in presenting realistic depictions of women, they are the exceptions to the rule, as the majority of the assigned works portray women quite unrealistically. Perhaps the most common of the exaggerated portrayals addresses women’s physical beauty.
Sonnet 64 of Edmund Spenser’s Amorettidescribes his subject with the inflated Petrarchan conventions satirized by Shakespeare, likening each detail of her physical appearance to a different flower, and claiming that “her sweet odour did them all excel” (866)—an obviously impossible feat. The bride of Spenser’s Epithalamion is sung as having similarly cosmic beauty, with “eyes like stars” (870) or “Saphyres shining bright” (872). In fact, Spenser describes “all her body” as “like a pallace fayre” (872) in a highly exaggerated comparison, the meaning of which almost defies interpretation.
Even in a poem addressing the neo-Platonic ideal of finding virtue in beauty, Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil still relapses to using the common Petrarchan convention comparing Stella’s eyes to the sun in Sonnet 71 before concluding with the confession that he fails in his attempt to elevate his attention from her physical beauty to her underlying virtue. These last two works also invoke the fallacy of women as having unadulterated virtue. Again, Astrophil lauds the inherent goodness that Stella’s beauty reflects.
Not only does she possess this virtue, but she also seeks to improve all with whom she comes in contact: “And not content to be Perfection’s heir / Thyself, dost strive all minds that way to move, / Who mark in thee what is in thee most fair” (926). Spenser describes one example of the flawless disposition of the bride ofEpithalamion by recounting her humility, even shyness, in the face of the adoring stares of all the guests at her wedding and the unsullied virginity she brings to her marriage bed.
In another work, the virtuous Celia of Ben Jonson’s Volpone finds her faith and integrity unrewarded with an attempted affair forced upon her by her husband and a false conviction for allegedly seducing yet another man. Finally, in a highly complex simile, Donne draws a parallel between his love and “the fixed foot” (1249) of a compass in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. ” The woman he addresses is so constant, so faithful, so flawlessly virtuous, that she is as the tool that produces the circle, the shape of perfection.
Just as common as excessively positive characterizations of women are the excessively negative. Two of the assigned plays include women whose primary activity is political scheming: Goneril and Regan in King Lear and Lady Politic Would-Be in Volpone. Goneril and Regan present flattering platitudes to their father, Lear, that do not reflect their true feelings for him. In fact, after receiving their inheritances of half the kingdom each, they want nothing more to do with him and turn him out into the stormy night.
Lady Politic also schemes in an effort to increase her social status, leveling false accusations of adulterous seduction against Celia in order to advance her and her husband’s own chances of inheriting Volpone’s fortune. The speaker of Donne’s “Song” might have been hurt by such women as these, for he denies the existence of any faithful and virtuous woman. If his addressee were to find a seemingly true woman, Donne laments that “Though she were true when you met her, / . . . / Yet she / Will be / False, ere I come, to two, or three” (1238).
Another of Donne’s poems, “The Flea,” contains another common criticism of women: that they too often deny their suitors. The listener of this dramatic monologue, in killing the flea, casually rejects the speaker’s elaborate analogical argument for a relationship between them, and in response, the speaker insults her honor, which amounts to as much “as this flea’s death took life from thee” (1236). “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” also counters an elaborate argument, this one an appeal more emotional than rational.
Sir Walter Ralegh’s nymph responds to each point from Marlowe’s shepherd with the argument that all his promised goods and pleasures will fade with time, including his own youth and love. This reply to a heartfelt attempt to win her love establishes the nymph as cold and self-centered, as opposed to the devoted and emotionally expressive shepherd. The speaker of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” experiences a similar rejection from his intended lover.
Rather than praise her beauty and virtue, he mocks them as fleeting and meaningless, respectively, saying, “Thy beauty shall no more be found, / . . . in thy marble vault . . . ” (1691) and “. . . then worms shall try / That long-preserved virginity, / And your quaint honor turn to dust” (1691-92). Perhaps the strongest indictments of women in these works charge them with an opposite sin: the base corruption of formerly virtuous men. Arcasia, in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, attracts and seduces good men only to turn them into wild beasts doomed to her service.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144 describes a similar woman, close contact with whom carries damning effects: “To win me soon to hell, my female evil / Tempteth my better angel from my side, / And would corrupt my saint to be a devil” (1042). The most “accomplished” female corrupter of these works affects not only the man in her life but all of humankind. John Milton’s Eve, after ignoring the counsel of her wiser husband, inflicts sin upon all her descendents as a result of her inferior reason, virtue, and faith—according to Adam and Milton.
The sinful history of humanity to follow owes itself to the weakness of a woman. The enormity of this last example typifies how the unrealistically exaggerated portrayals of women in English Renaissance literature far outweigh the few examples of more realistic and moderate depictions. This subject culminates in the image of Milton’s Eve in the epic poem Paradise Lost. Although Milton’s Eve comes, in the mid-seventeenth century, at the end of the Renaissance in England, her image builds upon, and perpetuates, Renaissance antifeminist commonplaces, while it also questions and undermines them.
Milton emphasizes Eve’s subordinate position in his description of Adam and Eve in Book 4: “For contemplation he and valor formed, /For softness she and sweet attractive grace; /He for God only, she for God in him” (11. 296-299). Eve herself articulates and generalizes that subservience: “God is thy Law, thou mine; to know no more/Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise” (11. 638-639). When she rebels against her secondary position, she separates herself from Adam in their Edenic tasks and thus is vulnerable to Satan’s temptations.
When the Renaissance in England was at its height, in Edmund Spenser’s Elizabethan world, the great epic poet of the 1590s presents images of women that contrast with the shadowy or negative women of Milton’s epic poem. While antifeminist views of female nature are embodied in the allegorical Error in Book 1 of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, other females throughout the epic serve to celebrate women. In part because Spenser’s poem was written in praise of his own Queen Elizabeth, the positive images of women range widely. They include the gentle, yet forceful, Una, whose cry, “Fie, fie, faint harted knight” (1. x. 465) shocks the feeble Redcrosse Knight into action against the temptations of Despair. In the third book of The Faerie Queene, the virtue of Chastity is exemplified through the woman warrior Britomart.
In this portrait, Spenser tells Queen Elizabeth that he is disguising praise of her, his own queen, since explicit celebration would be inadequate: “But O dred Soveraine/ Thus farre forth pardon, sith that choicest wit/ Cannot your glorious pourtraict figure plaine/ That I in colourd showes may shadow it,/ And antique praises unto present persons fit” (3. . 23-27). Throughout her reign, Queen Elizabeth provided a strong, positive image of a woman, through which poets from Peele’s play, The Arraignment of Paris, through William Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 found opportunities to create dominant roles for woman. Yet Queen Elizabeth herself perpetuated some of the misogynist stereotypes that haunted her at her accession in 1558, in such tracts as John Knox’s Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.
Queen Elizabeth ruled through her own alienation from her womanliness. She ruled as the Virgin Queen, continuing the idea of chastity as the norm and replacing in her still newly Protestant country the lost ideal of the Virgin Mary. The artifice of her costuming and the artfulness of her speeches both contributed to her power. During Elizabeth’s reign from 1558 to 1603, positive images of women include the female characters of Shakespeare’s comedies, like Rosalind of As You Like It and Beatrice of Much Ado about Nothing.
After James I’s accession, however, the Jacobean theater explored female characters who achieved tragic, heroic stature, like John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. In her closet drama, The Tragedy of Mariam, Elizabeth Cary explored the dilemmas facing strong women. In addition, in this later period of the Renaissance, such women writers as Elizabeth Grymeston, the author of the Miscelanea; Lady Mary Wroth, the author of the poetry and prose epic romance Urania; and Amelia Lanier, the author of a poetic defense of Eve, became creators of rich images of women, which we are only now beginning to recover.