A theme is defined as an idea or subject that repeatedly occurs in literary pieces. Throughout history, recurring themes in British literature have played an important role in shedding light on serious concerns of mankind. Feminism and the representation of gender roles began in ancient times and are still current today. Another important theme is the development of humor revolving around role reversal. This paper will address gender stereotypes and role reversal over multiple literary periods.
The first expression of gender roles can be viewed in “Paradise Lost” by John Milton. This poem was written during the Age of Revolution (1603-1688) and tells the story of the creation as well as the disobedience of the characters, Adam and Eve. This story begins in Hell where Satan decides to travel to Earth to disrupt humankind. During this time, Adam and Eve care for the garden, where the Tree of Knowledge resides. God has already told Adam and Eve to refrain from eating fruit from this tree and so far, they have obeyed his wishes. Next, there is a series of temptations from Satan to eat from the Tree of Knowledge and a war between the good and bad angels. This is followed by the banishment of Satan.
Disobeying his banishment, Satan returned to Earth and convinces Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Because of his eternal love for Eve, Adam also eats from the Tree of Knowledge. God then finds out about their disobedience and allows his son to give out a series of punishments. He punished them by declaring that all men have to hunt for food on an exhausted Earth and all women must bear childbirth. Following their punishments, Adam and Eve experience regret and anger and the story ends with the repenting of their sins.
The story, “Paradise Lost” is an example of the stereotypical representation of gender roles that the world still struggles with today. The two most important characters in this story are Adam and Eve. Eve is described by Milton as inferior to Adam in more ways than one. She is inferior to Adam intellectually and is thought to be content with her intellectual level and does not strive to become more intelligent. She is content with allowing Adam to guide her through life because that is how God intended the male and female relationship. God believes that women should submit to their men. She is vulnerable and easily persuaded with verbal affirmations. However, Eve is also strong. She shows love and self-control and attains a greater level of beauty than Adam. Adam is portrayed as extremely intelligent but has a weakness for the unconditional love that he has for Eve, even though she disobeyed God and ate from the Tree of Knowledge. He proves his eternal love her Eve by also disobeying God and eating from the tree after Eve so that they can be doomed for eternity, together.
The theme of this story is the stereotypical representation of genders and gender roles. John Milton recognizes the important role that a woman plays in a marriage by creating her to be a character that perfectly complements Adam. He makes Eve fit the historical stereotype of a woman by making her submissive to Adam and describes women and men as “not equal, as their sex not equal” (Milton. Book IV.). As expected, Eve is also given a lower social class than Adam. Milton also displays the idea that women should be housewives when Raphael (the angel) visits and Eve “turns on hospitable thoughts” (Milton. Book V.). Eve acted as a good hostess and presented a platter of various fruits, playing the housewife role well.
Another example of the stereotypical expression of genders and gender roles can be viewed in the poem, “On Monsieur’s Departure.” This is an Elizabethan poem that was written during the Tudor Age (1485-1603). This poem is about Queen Elizabeth I and her private and public emotions revolving around the separation from her lover. Because of her status as the Queen of England she has to keep many of her feelings private. This forces her to struggle internally with feeling like two different people. She begs to find peace with her emotions and eventually accepts that she will forever care and cannot be cold to her feelings.
“On Monsieur’s Departure” is a perfect example of the portrayal of gender roles and one of the first examples of a female trying to diminish stereotypes. During the subset of the Tudor Age, the Elizabethan Era, women were portrayed as weak and passive. Queen Elizabeth is the main character and is depicted as someone who is educated, feminine, and strong. Unlike Queen Elizabeth I, women were viewed and portrayed as weak, passive, nurturing and submissive while men were traditionally viewed as strong, aggressive, and dominant. Because of this, Queen Elizabeth I had to adopt attributes of a King in order to continue ruling as the Queen because the attributes of a woman were seen as weak. However, this story shows “behind the scenes” characteristics of Queen Elizabeth I that aligns with the way women were traditionally portrayed. In this story, her character differs in public and in private. In private, she is sad and mourning but in public, she puts on a brave “hostess” face so that she does not show feebleness.
Gender plays an important role in the perception of a person’s characteristics. Queen Elizabeth’s sex makes the people of her country assume that she fits the stereotype of a woman and she works hard to change that. Another good example of this gender battle is shown during her speech to the troops at Tilbury. She desires to be viewed as a leader and during the speech to rally the troops, she expresses that she knows that she “has the body of a weak and feeble woman but has the heart and stomach of a king” (Queen Elizabeth I). Here she acknowledges the physical differences in gender but the similarities in every other aspect.
Thus far, the importance of gender roles and stereotypes have been discussed but another substantial theme in British literature is humor, entertainment, and role reversal. Humor and entertainment have changed throughout different time periods. For instance, the lack of women in theatre dates back to ancient Greece. Originally, only men were allowed to be in theatre. Thus, forcing men to play important female roles which lead to the development of role reversal. During the Elizabethan Era, a subset of the Tutor Age, role reversal was found humorous. The “Twelfth Night” is a good example of role reversal being acceptable. The “Twelfth Night” began in the Kingdom of Illyria.
Orsino, a nobleman, yearns for Lady Oliva who is mourning her dead brother. Viola, an aristocratic woman that washed up on the Illyrian shore, disguised herself as a man and works for Orsino. Her male name was Cesario. A love triangle was created when Cesario fell in love with Orsino and Lady Olivia fell in love Cesario. Then, Viola’s brother came into the picture, and looked like Cesario. Lady Olivia then asks to marry him, thinking that he is Cesario. The story ends with everyone being revealed and the couples, Olivia/Sabastian and Viola/Orsino, live happily ever after.
People of the Elizabethan Era found this type of story attractive and humorous because of the role reversal that Viola (the female Cesario) was a part of. The Elizabethan audience found comedy in this type of gender cross and the way that Shakespeare fills this story with pranks. It is important to note the humor in this type of entertainment and recognize that there are great differences in views of role reversals today.
Since the beginning of time, women have struggled to be treated as equals to men which created resistance in the acceptance of gender reversal. Even as recent as the 80’s and 90’s, reversing men and women’s roles was viewed as shameful and socially unacceptable. Men were supposed to emit masculinity and women were supposed to radiate femininity. It was frowned upon to blur the lines between these male and female roles. In today’s world it has become socially acceptable and celebrated for men and women’s roles to be crossed. Although American (soon to be in the United Kingdom), an example of this can be seen in the show, RuPaul’s Drag Race. For a decade, this show has honored and shed a positive light on drag queens. It is amazing to think that such a short time ago, this type of show was distasteful, and today, it has been nominated for prestigious awards.
Important themes discussed throughout the history of British literature are the representation of gender roles and the entertainment using role reversal. Feminism and gender stereotypes are still issues that the world deals with today. Examples of stereotypical gender role portrayal can be viewed in the “Paradise Lost” and “On Monsieur’s Departure.” Women and men were given very traditional roles and it was uncommon for people to stray away from them. Women were expected to submit to their husbands and portray themselves as a perfect housewife in front of guests. This gender role theme was fairly constant and tied into the theme of role reversal. Gender role reversal began as humorous, as seen in he “Twelfth Night,” and developed into something that was shameful and most recently, accepted. RuPaul’s Drag Race is a good example of how well recognized and received gender role reversal has become. Though these themes are reoccurring in British Literature, we have very different thoughts on these issues of mankind today.