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The Growing Importance of Women in British Literature


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From a stereotypically sweet heroine to a crafty and complex three-dimensional anti-hero, from being noticeably avoided to becoming a central part of the plot, and from playing the docile creature well within society’s confines to becoming so dominant as to command the hero, the role of women in English literature has vastly developed from the Anglo-Saxon age to the Renaissance. That women have always been considered as weaker and played subservient roles to the men is an undisputable fact. Yet, women morphed from being creatures dependent on their lord, and playing merely a functional role in the story, to asserting more independence and playing a more symbolic role in the story, to actually being one of the major characters in a work of literature, elaborately developed with flaws and possible redeeming points alike. Not only does this growing presence of women in English literature present them as more realistic characters, rather than as ideals to strive towards or reprobates to avoid, but also reflects the growing importance and a greater understanding of women in society as a whole.

Defined by the integration of pagan and Christian rituals, the bragging and forthright hero, and a society based on honor and warfare, the Anglo-Saxon period, lasting from 449 to 1066, did not place a great emphasis on the role of women in society, clearly reflected by their apparent lack of importance in works written during this period, such as Beowulf. Wealtheow, and Grendel’s mom, the two most important female characters in this epic poem, reflect the traditional view that society held of women’s place in the home and of women’s undeniable weaknesses through these characters respectively. Wealtheow’s act of giving Beowulf the cup of wine and receiving assurances to ease her country’s problems reveal that acting as a good hostess was perhaps the most valued quality in women in Anglo-Saxon society, and that such women would be rewarded by receiving safety by the hands of the stronger and braver men. Surprisingly, a woman who defied these social expectations, a woman who rather than inviting people to her home scares them away, a woman who dared to fight on a man’s terms—this type of women was still considered weaker and not worth mentioning in Anglo-Saxon literature and society, as Grendel’s mother was a prime example. Mentioned only as “the monstrous hell-bride”, Grendel’s mother is clearly less capable of being a true “monster” as Grendel was, only able to kill one person in Heorot compared to Grendel’s ravaging the entire hall. The fact that her name is not even mentioned, as Grendel’s was, and her obvious weakness compared to Grendel’s clearly explains the attitude that Anglo-Saxon society had towards women: that they were clearly inferior to men. That Grendel’s mother’s lineage and name is not stated speaks volumes; ancestry defined who a person was in Anglo-Saxon society and the fact that Grendel’s mother does not even have a name to be identified by shows her relative unimportance, even as a monster. This image of a weak woman is completely solidified by Beowulf’s bringing Grendel’s head back from the cave after defeating Grendel’s mother, yet leaving her head in the cave to rot.

Characterized by an emphasis on honorable Christian behavior, proper and cordial relations between men and women, and a stress on allegory, the Middle Ages, lasting from 1066 to 1485, saw a development in the role of women in its stories and showed that they could actually influence the men’s actions and thoughts. Perhaps a reason as to the growing influence of women in these stories might be that the audience for these early vernacular narratives were primarily women, such as the duchess, countess, and other ladies of the court who tended to be more interested in stories in which women played central roles. Because the poet’s livelihood depended on pleasing his audience, the narratives began to focus more on plot developments, rather than fighting, and stressed that a brave warrior was motivated by his love for his lady. Examples of important female characters in the Middle Ages are Guinevere, Arthur’s wife, and the flirtatious host’s wife in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Guinevere, Arthur’s wife, and the flirtatious wife have seemingly different roles in the Arthurian legends, but the truth is that they share one vital function: to test a man’s honor. The presence of Guinevere at court, as well as the fact that Arthur is about to enter a potentially lethal deal, compels Sir Gawain to risk his own life and prove his honor by playing the Green Knight’s “game.” Clearly then, not only does Guinevere serve as a feminine counterpart to King Arthur’s excellence, but she also indirectly presses the courageous knights of Arthur’s court to prove their integrity through performing heroic deeds. Paradoxically, women were also seen as immoral, possibly even a danger to a man’s virtue, seen by Guinevere’s later affair with Sir Lancelot and the host’s wife’s attempts to seduce Sir Gawain. Both instances were aberrations of the rules of courtly love, which were supposed to inspire the knight to do great deeds in order to be worthy of her love, not to act in an immoral manner. Gawain himself even complains about the deceitfulness of women after listening to the Green Knight’s explanation of his trial; he claims that women have brought about the downfalls of great men such as Adam, Solomon, Samson, and David. Despite this flaw, women were supposed to be treated with respect; Sir Gawain continues to treat the host’s wife in a pleasant manner even though her forthcoming advances slightly alarm him as he is placed in a dilemma of whether to give in to her seduction for the sake of courtly love and respect or to uphold his honor and refuse. Ultimately, although women began playing roles of greater importance in Medieval literature, they were relegated to functional characters, characters that inspire the real heroes of the story to do noble deeds, tested the men’s integrity, and portrayed immoral creatures that could, quite literally, spiritually ruin mankind.

From the epitome of the true Christian follower to the conniving yet guilty murderer, from the stereotypically delicate darling to the shockingly manipulative virago, from an ideal to strive towards to an all too realistic portrayal of an average human, the completely contrasting characters of Una, in Spencer’s Faerie Queen and Lady Macbeth, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, convey how English literature has drastically changed during the Renaissance period. Women began to gain greater influence in the Renaissance; they became more active members of society as guild members and even guild owners, some upperclass women even received an education, and England saw its first queen—Elizabeth I. That women started to garner increased affluence in books, such as the Faerie Queen and Macbeth should come as no surprise, given that Elizabeth I specifically asked Spencer to write the Faerie Queen and Shakespeare’s life literally depended on whether or not the queen enjoyed his plays. At first though, Una is not truly a “character” with independent motives and thoughts, but rather a paragon of perfection, a symbol of the ideal Christian. Una helps Redcrosse Knight through his journey, from warning him of dangerous people or places that the good Protestant should stay away from (such as Error and Archimago), to helping him find holiness by leading him to the House of Holiness, to saving his life at Despair’s cave. Another example of an “ideal” in the Faerie Queen, is Duessa—but rather than be an “ideal” to strive towards, she is the literal embodiment of all things evil and unholy in Protestant life. Nevertheless, despite her role as the counterpart to Una’s holiness, she is simply that—not a real character, just another ideal. This perspective on women’s importance changes as Shakespeare begins writing plays where women feature prominent roles, clearly evident in Macbeth. Engimatic, conniving, ambitious Lady Macbeth is a three-dimensional character with fatal flaws and surprisingly, redeeming qualities. Considered perhaps the real “villainess” of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth goads her husband into killing King Duncan, simply to achieve a higher status herself, and for her husband. Rejecting all thoughts of womanly weakness, she finds out later, to her surprise and horror, that her guilt and conscience will continue to plague, forcing her to be miserable even when she has finally achieved her goal. Tormented by the blood she has spilled, Lady Macbeth begins to have nightmares in which she frantically tries to rub her hands together to get rid of the blood—but find it is impossible to undo what crimes she has already committed. This dual nature, these conflicting emotions, this realistic portrayal of a human ensure that she is not thought of as merely a “symbol”—she is truly a character in the play, an intricately invented character that shows how all humans must battle their similar good and evil sides and conquer their ambitions. Also, Lady Macbeth’s control over her husband’s actions reveal the growing power that women had—as Elizabeth I was able to rule England, Lady Macbeth was able to move her puppet, Macbeth, in doing what she asked of him. Clearly, the roles of women changed greatly from the beginning of the Renaissance in 1485 to Macbeth, written in 1623.

Gentleness, monstrosity, purity, seduction, honesty, manipulation—these complementary traits are present in the female characters of British literature, beginning from the Anglo-Saxon period, continuing through the Middle Ages, and finally reaching the Renaissance. The fictitious image that writers had created of women in British literature began to crack over centuries, revealing a realistic female character with well-developed flaws balanced by redeeming qualities rather than a paragon of perfection or the embodiment of villainy. While women always played subservient roles to men, strengthening the men’s character development rather than displaying new traits of their own, women began to play a more pivotal part in not just British literature, but in society as a whole. This changing perception of women reveals a person that many revered, even feared, for their intelligence as well as morality. That this changing role of the women had a huge impact on the late Renaissance literature and the literature of modern era is undeniable—literary works of arts that we know so well today would be completely different or even unwritten, had it not been for the roles of women in these stories.




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