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To what extent does Shakespearean drama mediate social struggles and anxieties?

To what extent does Shakespearean drama mediate social struggles and anxieties?

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by carrie meharg. Originally submitted for BA MM ENG at Queen University Belfast, with lecturer Mary-Ellen Lynn in the category of English Language and Literature
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by carrie meharg. Originally submitted for BA MM ENG at Queen University Belfast, with lecturer Mary-Ellen Lynn in the category of English Language and Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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12/13/2013

 
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To what extent does Shakespearean drama mediate social struggles and anxieties?
For many readers, the works of William Shakespeare are merely enjoyable plays;however this aesthetic quality disguises a deeper relevance and a more sophisticated artisticagenda. That is the hypothetical mediation, by which I mean the dispersion, of the prominentsocial struggles and anxieties of the early modern period, such as patriarchal ideologies andfemale suppression. Using
 Much Ado About Nothing
(c.1599),
 Measure for Measure
(1603-04) and
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
(c.1590), I intend to explore the extent to whichShakespearean plays concentrate on these contextual problems. My focus on gender will
reference Shakespeare‟s presentation of the respective masculine and feminine crises and the
contrasting dissidence and adherence to the ideas of femininity using the female characters inthe three plays. With the aid of contextual resources, such as the popular Elizabethanpreacher Henry Smith I intend to use a new historicist approach to the plays; described by
Betty S Travitsky as “a receptivity to their intertextuality and contextuality”
1
, to prove thatthe texts do interact with and mediate the gender struggles and anxieties of the time. As theendings of the plays do not offer a resolution of the noted issues, I will argue that theyconclude with tenuous stability and an artificial resurrection of patriarchy. I thus propose thatinstead of mediating gender anxieties, the plays conversely act as proponents of theestablished patriarchal structure of Renaissance culture and society.The ascension of Queen Elizabeth to the throne in 1558 inspired an interrogation of gender hierarchy for many decades to come, as her infiltration into the masculine territory of monarchy questioned the validity of patriarchy and the role of women in the political and
1
 
Betty S Travitsky. “Placing Women in the English Renaissance”.
The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print:Counterbalancing the Canon
. Eds. Haselkorn Anne M and Betty S Travitsky. (Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990) 3-4.
 
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domestic settings
2
. Marion Wynne-Davis agrees with this interpretation and comments that
Elizabeth‟s presence in the court unsettled
the concept of masculine and female spheres and
“questioned the legitimacy of absolute male power”
3
. In addition, the intense religiousatmosphere emanating from the reformation and consequential theological redefinition
inspired a renewed emphasis upon woman‟s innate inferiorit
y because of her origin in man
and Eve‟s central role in the fall of mankind.
This is evidenced by Henry Smith
‟s 1591
statement
;
God tooke a rib out of 
 Adams
side, and thereof built the woman. He is not saideto make man a wife, but to build him a wife
....”
4
. Biblical focus on
woman‟s source also
emphatically implied that her purpose was wifehood and thus pressurised woman to conformto the institution of marriage. Society was therefore
reminded of woman‟s dependent
subjectivity, the necessity of suppression and the threat that the uncontrolled female like Eveor the Queen, posed to the stability of patriarchy.To demonstrate Shakespe
are‟s engagement with these issues
I will firstly analyse
 Much Ado About Nothing,
in which the correlation and dissention of the stereotypical notionsof gender and specifically women is evident in the characters of Beatrice and Hero. Theconfident and assertive language adopted by Beatrice, creates a masculinised female who
rejects society‟
s call for her physical and linguistic submission to the authority of patriarchy,
With a good leg and a good foot.... / such a man would win any woman in / the world...
.”
5
.
The independent construction of Beatrice‟s self as distinct from man displayed here, dissentsfrom the Smith‟s emphasis above, on woman‟s dependency.
By her renunciation of men into
2
Peter Stallybrass.
 
“Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed”.
Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe
. Eds. Ferguson Margaret W et al. (Chicago: University of ChicagoPress, 1987) 131-132.
3
Marion Wynne-
Davis. “The
 
Queen’s Masque: Renaissance Women and the Seventeenth
-Century Court
Masque”.
Gloriana’s Face: Woman, Public and Private in the English Renasissance
. Eds.Cerasano S P andMarion Wynne-Davis (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992) 80.
4
Henry Smith.
 A preparatiue to marriage
. (London: Thomas Orwin,1591: STC 22685) 8.
5
William Shakespeare
. “Much Ado About Nothing”.
The Norton Shakespeare
. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, et al.2
nd
ed. (London and New York: Norton, 2008) 1.3.13-15.
 
3
constituent parts, Shakespeare allows Beatrice to act as a challenge to societal suppression of women by
“resisting the patriarchal dictum that the natural destiny of all women ismarriage....”
6
.
Her subversion of the contextual focus upon “woman as the body”
displays adialogic
7
dissidence from theological theories regarding the bodily inferiority of woman andfrom the Genesis hierarchy, with Beatrice placed above man, scorning his companionship andrejecting both secular masculine superiority, and also spiritual patriarchy
8
. The suggestion of female independence, particularly in regard to marriage clearly dissents from the controllingand dogmatic treatises such as Smith above which sought to theologically instruct and edifytheir readers, appropriating religious themes to naturalise the order of dominance in marriage,as well as the institution itself.
Beatrice‟s speech also shows a contextual relation with
theearly modern anatomical exploration discussed by Jonathan Sawday in
 Body Emblazoned 
(1995);
reduction into parts... [in the] cultural of dissection.... [aiding or accompanying] the
construction of individuality”
9
. Shakespeare engages with the contemporary anatomy studieswhich were conducted by men, but in the dissident manner of woman dissecting man intoparts in the creation of her individuality.
Beatrice‟s dissent from this belief is
inconsistently portrayed and her resistance isneutralised with the introduction of a crisis of femininity. As
Smith‟s
quote demonstrates, theEarly Modern Period exerted an immense pressure on woman to fulfil her prescribed socio-
religious duty as man‟s serva
nt in marriage. I briefly noted that to subvert this was to deny
one‟s womanhood
, with Smith proclaiming
if “
God made the Woman for Man
then woman
6
Jean E Howard.
“Renaissance antitheatricality and the politics of gender and rank in
Much Ado About Nothing
”.
Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology 
. Eds. Howard, Jean E and Marion FO
’Connor. (Oxon: Routledge, 2005) 180.
 
7
Understanding dialogic as related to heteroglossia; word or dialog within the written texts to explore,challenge, create and interact with the real world, including ideologies and other constructions. Also the innerworlds of the text. See Mikhail M Ba
khtin “Discourse in the Novel”.
The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism
. Eds. Leitch Vincent B et al. (London and New York: Norton, 2001). 1190-1220.
8
Thomas Gataker
. Marriage duties briefely couched togither out of Colossians, 3. 18, 19
. (London: WilliamJones, 1620; STC 11667) 9.
9
Jonathan Sawday.
Body Emblazoned 
. (London: Routledge, 1995). 1-2.

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