Representations Of Women In Sir Gawain And The Green Knight

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To what extent would you argue that representations of women are inherently misogynistic in one or more of the literary texts on this module from Shakespeare onwards. In answering the question you should also make specific reference to examples from earlier epic, biblical, and/or Romance traditions?

The representations of women in The Odyssey, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are easily contextualised by the periods in which the texts were written and set. In Ancient Greek and Fourteenth and Sixteenth-Century British societies, women had no voice or power, which is evident especially in The Odyssey where Penelope is not able to tell her suitors to leave; she has very little authority even in her own household. However, women in the texts can be seen to have some agency, or at least an element of it as they make use of that which they have.

Overall, I will explore the thesis that while there are some underlying themes of female agency and power, ultimately the texts are still predominantly misogynistic in their presentation and representation of their female characters. Furthermore, at the end of the narratives, order is seen to be restored with men once again having the power and agency, women in their rightful place (contextualised by the times which the texts were published). In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “social and conceptual hierarchies are firmly established, only to be more strikingly breached and confused before the eventual clarification and restoration of order” (Walters, 2002) The Femme Fatale character is a common occurrence in all genres of literature and can be conceived as being a misogynistic representation of women; they seduce the hero to bring on his downfall.

While the texts at their roots are misogynistic, there are some elements of feminism, for example the inverted gender roles, predominantly in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but also in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most notably, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, positions of power are inverted because gender is inverted; the women do not conform to the societal norms of the time (James, 2013). For example, at the end of the poem, Morgan le Fey is revealed to be the orchestrator of the plot,” she guided me” (Unknown, Armitage, 2007, line 2456), though it is Lord Bertilak who is presented as this throughout the text. This itself is inherently misogynistic because the true mastermind of the plot, a woman, is kept a secret.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream presents a patriarchal society in which both male and female characters negotiate masculine control (Stephens, 2011); on one hand, we have Titania who appears to have some element of power in her relationship, and it is Oberon who is shamed almost for his infidelity, as Titania notes his playing “Pipes of corn, and versing love/ to amorous Phillida” (Shakespeare, 2.1.67-8), while she remains unchallenged for her own adulteries at this point. Furthermore, stereotypically, in literature the man is supposed to persue the woman, however it is Helena who chases after Demetrius, “The more I love, the more he hateth me”, while he resists her. This inversion of gender roles in the human world of the play implies Helena’s own distaste for the patriarchal ideology, as she willingly goes against it in the interest of her own desires. Her stubborn nature, and that of Hermia, is arguably the reason for the subversion of the hierarchies, as the faerie world mirrors that of the human world (Stockard, 1997), which does connote some misogynistic blame on the two girls.

Female agency is another element of a feminist reading which can be applied in the texts, for example, the way in which Bertilak speaks presents her to be intelligent with the ability to play and manipulate into doing she wants. In the seduction scenes, Lady Bertilak has the agency compared to Gawain, she has the most dialogue, showing her to have power over him in those moments. It is in those moments where he is the prey, he is weak and unable to “love our ladies without believing their lies” (Unknown, Armitage, line 1421). Furthermore, Morgan Le Fay being the orchestrator of the plot shows her agency over the entirety of the poem and of the characters.

Much like in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we see Titania show her own agency in her relationship, as she says herself that she had “forsworn his bed and company” (Shakespeare, 1600, 2.1.62). This implies the paradoxical nature of the faerie world compared to that of the humans; Theseus and Hippolyta’s relationship is the antithesis and has a completely different dynamic. Theseus took her as a war prize, “I wooed thee with my sword”, (Shakespeare, 1600, 1.1.16) when he defeated her tribe, implying that she is simply an object to him, over which he has complete control and power.

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In The Odyssey, Penelope is able to use what little power she does have to her advantage by using stereotypical feminine skill of sewing to avoid remarrying as she “undid her work” on the tapestry, having promised to remarry once it was complete. The cunning this shows, which mirrors that of Odysseus, supports the thesis of Penelope being presented as being just as important as Odysseus in the text (Murnaghan, 2009. Penelope has some agency because she was left in charge of their home when Odysseus went away, but even then, the agency is limited by her lack of voice, which she herself recognises “They’d never feast here again, if I could stop them” (Homer, Book 4, page 58). Penelope, though in charge of her home is unable to make the suitors leave out of fear of humiliating them. Female agency is not common in old texts, so by there being elements of it in these three texts, it is something of a feminist anomaly, however it can be argued that this agency that the women appear to have in the text is only that which has been allowed by the men in the stories.

Despite the elements which appear to empower the women in the texts, it is crucial to remember the times in which they were written and the attitudes that influenced the texts. For one, the power Titania appears to have over Bottom, “Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no” (3.1.139) is simply her being manipulated by Oberon; if she successfully manipulates Bottom, then she herself has manipulated. Oberon is the true villain in the play, with just his own interests in mind as he drugs Titania so that in the end, “I then did ask of her her changeling child/ which straight she gave me” (4.1.58-9). In the very first act, the audience is witness to the ideas of the patriarchy of the time, when Hermia must follow her father’s order as “your father should be as a God” (1.1.47), and that any disobedience in the matter would result in her death (1.1.44). However, by advising her of marriage rather than allowing her father to lay down the law, Theseus actually grants Hermia the status of a speaking subject, which the law would deny her (Desmet, 1998). This offers a contradiction to Theseus’ own societal ideals and the misogyny of the text, however, she is still answerable to the male dominated society as does still only have a limited voice and is simply an objects or “estate” (1.1.98) to her Egeus; she is left with little option but to either die or become a nun if she refuses to marry Demetrius.

While, in the Odyssey, Penelope is left in charge of the home in Ithaca, she has no real authority nor voice, Telemachus himself disrespects his mother, during Book 1, “Making decisions must be men’s concern, and mine in particular for I am master in this house”, which is representative of the societal beliefs of the time. If the father was absent, the oldest son would become the head of the household, not the mother despite her being the parent; males held more status in society than women. The single appearance of Guinevere in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is telling of the attitudes and expectations of women during the fourteenth century; she is “gloriously framed…pricelessly curtained” (Fitt1, line 74-5). She is described through metaphor as a work of art, so she is beautiful, but also an object. During this time, she says nothing, implying her lack of voice in society despite her a queen, representing the lack of female voice during the fourteenth century. Furthermore, the representation that it is Calypso keeping Odysseus from his home of Ithaca, shows the power that she holds over him, though she is a Goddess so it is to be somewhat expected. This is misogynistic because it villainises the woman more than it does Poseidon who is the real reason he is unable to return home. She is an example of the Femme fatal character as she wants him to marry her and tries to make Odysseus forget about him home and son.

The femme fatale trope is a common form a misogyny in literature because the women are characterised as using their beauty to seduce the male characters to their downfall. Morgan Le Fay is a key example of one; in the King Arthur myth is the one who arguably defeats him. Furthermore, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lady Bertilak is the temptress who tries to seduce Gawain in order to defeat him: “the three serial temptations pose no physical danger to Gawain, but spiritual peril”, if he gives into temptations, then his soul is damned due to committing a mortal sin (Francis, 2016). This representation of Lady Bertilak is sexist because she is commonly referred to as the “beautiful woman” (Unknown, Armitage, 2007, line 1010) in the text, which itself dehumanises her and makes her more of an object of desire than anything else; her only role in the text is as the seductress, or a pawn in Morgan’s le Fay’s plot.

Femme fatales also appear again in The Odyssey, the Sirens use their song to lure men to their deaths, however in this case, Odysseus and his men are able to outwit them and, while Odysseus’ “heart was filled with such a longing to listen” (Homer, book 12, page162) that he demands to be set free, the group all resist the call of the sirens. This representation of women as femme fatales imply the true misogyny of the texts because the power that this role gives the female characters can only be used to the detriment of the male protagonists.

The structures of the actual texts are also supportive of the thesis that the texts are inherently misogynistic, most tellingly in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the play, everything is turned on its head, and there is a “disruption of masculine discourse” (Desmet,1998) leading to the women of the play to seemingly have power over the men. However, in the end, when the drug is out of the systems of all affected, proper order is restored and hierarchies are structured as they at the beginning, with the men having authority and power in both the human and faerie worlds. In the Odyssey¸ Odysseus’ return to and self-reveal in Ithaca symbolises and end to the chaos which occurred during his absence, with the end of Penelope’s authority over the home. Odysseus holds more authority due to his gender and so the suitors leave his home for him, when they would not when Penelope was alone. However, Sr Gawain and the Green Knight is slightly different in its resolution; Sir Gawain dies and Morgan le Fay is technically left in power as in Arthurian myth, she later plots in the death of King Arthur. These examples are misogynistic as they imply that chaos takes over when women are in power and order is only restored once men have power and authority in society.

Through the debate of the essay, I can conclude that the texts are inherently misogynistic despite the elements of power the female characters have in the texts. The power and authority given to the female characters are only that which they have been allowed by the men, it is not their own power; Lady Bertilak was sent by her husband to seduce Gawain, and Hermia’s voice is only that which she was granted by Theseus in Act 1. Penelope’s authority, thought largely ignored despite it, is only hers because Odysseus left her in charge, but the suitors have little respect for her anyway and refuse to leave until he returns. The representation of women as femme fatales villainises them as they are unable to use the power the roles gives them for anything other than bringing on the downfalls of male characters. Finally, the texts imply that chaos occurs largely when women are allowed some power, that there is order without the patriarchy.

Bibliography:

  1. Desmet, C. (1998). Disfiguring Women with Masculine Tropes: A Rhetorical Reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Critical Essays, 299-329.Francis K. H. So (2016). The Benign but Bleak “wyldrenesse” in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, 24( 1), 17- 35.
  2. Francis K. H. So (2016). The Benign but Bleak “wyldrenesse” in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, 24( 1), 17- 35. Francis K. H. So. (2016). The Benign but Bleak “wyldrenesse” in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Medieval And Early Modern English Studies, 24(1), 17-35. doi: 10.17054/memes.2016.24.1.17
  3. Homer, The Odyssey, 2003
  4. James, M. (2013). Displaced Blame and the Feminine Threat: Gender Conventions and Gendered Authority in the Romances of Chrétien de Troyes and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Masters). California State University San Marcos
  5. Murnaghan, Sheila. (2009). “Penelope’s Agnoia: Knowledge, Power, and Gender in the Odyssey.” In Lillian E. Doherty (Ed.),Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Homer’s Odyssey, pp. 231-244. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  6. Shakespeare, W. (1600) A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2002 edition
  7. Stephens, P. (2011). Master Mistress: Gendered relations in a Midsummer Night are Dream, Cymbeline, and the Sonnets. Shakespeare beyond English, 29-317.
  8. Stockard, E. (1997). ‘Transposed to Form and Dignity’: Christian Folly and the Subversion of Hierarchy in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Religion & Literature, 29(3), 1-20. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40059709
  9. Unknown, Armitage, S, (trans). (2007) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  10. Walters, C. (2002), ‘Introduction’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 9-19

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