Women’s role in literature has changed throughout history. Authors writing has evolved from the Arthurian legends to Shakespeare, this was shown through preliterate epic poems; such as Beowulf, stories of Medieval Romance, and Shakespeare Twelfth Night. In each of the stories femininity becomes more predominant and full of detail and dimension.
Beowulf is possibly one of the most well known pre-literate epic poems ever written. Due to its bloodstained setting and masculinity, it was perceived that women had no place in such a male predominant poem. Women were overseen or were seen as monsters, literally and physically. They also and had very few lines and opportunities to show how brave and strong they were. Even though women were slightly overseen, and had subtle roles, they were still important. In Beowulf when the queen is at circulating food and drinks to the men, we see how important she is in this quote -“Wealhtheow came in, Hrothgar’s queen, observing the courtesies.
Adorned in her gold, she graciously saluted the men in hall, then handed the cup first to Hrothgar, their homeland guardian, urging him to drink deep and enjoy it because he was dear to them. And he drank it down like the warlord he was, with festive cheer. So the Helming woman went on her rounds, queenly and dignified, decked out in rings, offering the goblet to all ranks, treating the household and the assembled troop until it was Beowulf’s turn to take it from her hand.” (Beowulf 612-624) The queen is very different from grendel’s mother, she is “above the earth” while grendel’s mother is below it.
The queen acts like a queen and is a loving and supportive mother, but just like Grendel’s mother they have very few roles and are one dimensional. Why is it that women had very few roles in stories from the Anglo Saxon period? Perhaps men didn’t understand women, or know what they were capable of and as result didn’t use them in their writing. Grendel’s mother may not be as strong or powerful as the men in the story, but she is motivated by revenge and will do anything to protect herself.
Her motives are monstrous and evil, as she tries to claim arms and of course seek revenge. Women are known to be complicated and men are trying to figure out how women work and what they want. Even though they did things that made women go crazy, I guess its a step in the right direction right? Women are more centered as they become more predominant characters.
Men want to know what women desire, while coicindtally they are sexualulizing women, which is believed to be the complete opposite of anything any women would want. “A wys women wol bisye hire evere in oon, to gete hire love, ye, there as she hath noon.” (wob 215-216). Here the wife advises that it’s always better to make a man fall in love with you so that you can use his love to gain power over him, which is a clue as to what women want. POWER? In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, women had some rules when it came to affection.
The men should not imply a kiss from a lady “So good a knight as Gawain as rightly reputed, In whom courtesy is so completely embodied, Could not easily have spent so much time with a lady Without begging a kiss, to comply with politeness, By some hint or suggestion at the end of a remark.” (Sir Gawain 1296 – 1301). We see that women finally have a place, they are able to make there own decisions and are allowed to “rule” over the men, in certain situations. Shakespeare forever changed the world’s view of women through one of his famous poems, Twelfth Night. He helped people (men) understand just how impactful women can be and how they have a chance to rule and have power in this world. It’s clear that Viola, Olivia and Maria have more women’s rights than any other shakespearian play, which is why this play could be categorized under Feminism. Viola and Olivia are equal even though Viola may be covering herself to protect her identity when she shows up in a foreign country where it seems that women would not thrive or be safe on their own. Olivia’s ability to marry whoever she wants to, really shows how much power she has, and also the fact that she wants to date a man of lesser economic status shows us that she wants/has power over men.
Even with all of that said, there is still some sort of inequality, and men still do not understand women’s status “There is no woman’s sides Can bide the beating of so strong a passion As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heartSo big, to hold so much; they lack retention.” (Twelfth Night 2.4.103-106). Here Orsino claims that women are incapable of love and that there bodies aren’t strong enough to withstand the fast heartbeat of love. With that said, to this day there is still inequality between men and women, but it has greatly increased thought he decades as women have shown that they are no less human an men are.