Gender Roles in the Renaissance: Questions of Gender in Shakespeare’s As You Like It

Amber Zuber

Throughout history, men and women have been assigned specific roles to which society prescribes standards and qualifications. There are certain tasks that have been traditionally completed only by men, and others that have been assigned to women; most of which are separated by the realm of the domestic sphere. During the period of the Renaissance, men and women were assigned very different roles within society. The value, social expectations, legal status, and rights of citizenship differed greatly between the sexes as well as among the classes. Many of these gender roles can be identified through careful readings of the literature produced throughout the Renaissance. Sometimes the roles are clearly defined, while in other instances the characters move fluidly between them. In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Renaissance ideas of men and women can be easily identified. However, Rosalind possesses many of the traits typically associated with maleness as she manipulates Orlando and woos him as an outsider. Orlando is also forced into submission by his domineering older brother, Oliver. In As You Like It, Shakespeare assigns the traditional Renaissance gender roles to opposing sexes in the play.

In order to fully grasp the concept of the varying gender roles within the play, one must first clearly understand the Renaissance conceptions of men and women. The way in which society valued men and women differed greatly. Men basically functioned as the ruling voice over all aspects of society; “. . . all forms of public and domestic authority in Elizabethan England were vested in men: in fathers, husbands, masters, teachers, preachers, magistrates, [and] lords” (Montrose 68). Women had virtually no control over their role in society. The most honorable life, “. . . was that which included not only scholarly activity, but also political and public service. Such a life was impossible for women . . . because for a woman, a public reputation was dishonorable, a sure sign of immorality and scandal” (Wiesner 12). Women were excluded from any position of meaningful authority in any realm of society. Men were even valued for their ability to classify an object or being as beautiful. During this period of great creative accomplishments, men may “. . . have taken to commerce or to drink, but as a matter of fact they took to visible beauty” (Putnam 164). They established beauty as an important quality of life, and only men had the capacity to differentiate between that which was beautiful and not beautiful.

Women, therefore, were often valued for their physical features. In the Renaissance, “. . . the beauty of woman is more praised and esteemed than any other beauty . . . [for] it appears to be the order of nature that what is lacking in one sex is supplied in the other, and since man is endowed with wit, judgement, and a mind almost divine, . . . woman is given bodily beauty that she may be superior to man in this respect” (Camden 20). Women were object to be viewed with pleasing affections, not with any sense of worth other than their physical features; “. . . the only positive demand of the woman was that she should be beautiful” (Putnam 164-165). Women were also valued for qualities that define them as submissive and passive. A woman’s character should consist of specific attributions such as chastity, modesty, humility, constancy, temperance, piety, patience, and kindness (Dunn 17). All of the characteristics listed describe someone who has no authority in decisions and subscribes to being passive and obedient. Also, “her behavior was carefully prescribed. She was to tend to her household duties industriously, . . . she must be silent most of the time and not speak out or argue, . . . [and] she must never be witty or clever” (Dunn 17). It becomes quite obvious that the value of women during the Renaissance was almost opposite than that of men.

The legal status of men and women in Elizabethan society also had distinct features. While men held almost absolute authority, married women had virtually no rights as citizens. “Women differed from the men in their ability to be witnesses, make wills, act as guardians for their own children, make contracts, and own, buy , and sell property” (Wiesner 4). They were legally powerless in the society in which they lived. The men in their lives, whether their fathers or their husbands, had complete control over all constitutional matters of their lives. Women were definitely not free; “’free’ meant to them [Renaissance scholars] enjoying the rights and privileges of a citizen and possessing an educated capacity for reason, neither of which was possible for women” (Wiesner 1). While married women had few rights within society, “single women, whether widowed or unmarried, could, if they were of full age, inherit and administer land, make a will, sign a contract, possess property, sue and be sued, without a male guardian or proxy. But married women had no such rights under the common law” (Greenblatt 9-10). In choosing to marry, women sacrificed any legal or constitutional rights as citizens.

Marriage is another important domain to examine in the study of Renaissance conceptions of gender roles. The duties of husband and wife were explicitly defined and expected to be followed by both men and women. The role of the husband is one of authority and dominance. Although, “the first duty which the husband has toward the wife is to love her, . . . the next duty is to rule or govern his wife in all duties that properly belong to marriage, using his knowledge, wisdom, and judgement to maintain himself in the place that God intended him to have” (Camden 112). Women were seen as inferior in their abilities to run a household and make moral decisions. A woman’s role as wife is also clearly defined. In the marriage contract, “. . . the wife must obey the husband. This obedience or submission extends not only to the performance of duties required by the husband, but also to the abstinence from those activities which are displeasing to him” (Camden 121). Women who chose to become wives, which is the majority of the female population, agree to submit themselves to total control by their husbands. They move from living under the control of their fathers to living under the control of their husbands.

There are a few more broad categories in which men and women differed during the Renaissance, one of which is the field of education. “Intellectually, [women] were seen as limited; most Englishmen, including women themselves, thought that a woman was by nature incapable of higher learning, being framed by God only for domestic duties” (Dunn 15). Women were not only excluded from the educational opportunities offered to men, they were thought of as physically unable to learn the same materials men studied. Furthermore, “many men seem to have regarded the capacity for rational thought as exclusively male; women, they assumed, were led only by their passions” (Greenblatt 18). Women were unable to escape from their emotions long enough to learn something factual. This assumption is also related to Renaissance conceptions of biology. Scientists thought that “it is heat which makes a man bold and hardy . . . but the coldness of woman makes her naturally fearful and timorous. And since women are weak physically, they must be weak morally and mentally” (Camden 18). This rudimentary conception of heat as a biological difference led people to believe that women were inferior to men in almost every capacity except those dealing with domestic duties.

Now that clear explanations of ideas of men and women in the Renaissance have been provided, these conceptions of gender roles can be conversely applied to Rosalind and Orlando in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. In the play, Rosalind is portrayed as a dominant female character, who asserts her own desires over those of others. She knows exactly what she wants and she is willing to go to any lengths to achieve her goals. She uses her intellectual ability to arrive at innovative and resourceful techniques to help guarantee her survival outside the kingdom. By choosing to dress as a man, she is able to make decisions that benefit herself and Celia. She also is able to manipulate Orlando into wooing her as she would like to be wooed. She convinces him to pretend Ganymede, the name she chose for her male disguise, is really Rosalind, the woman he loves. In doing this, she is able to coach him as Ganymede and instruct him to woo her as she pleases. Another way in which Rosalind asserts herself is in defending her own opinions. Because she is an orphan, she has no dowry, yet she does not allow this obstacle to force her to compromise her beliefs. She still is able to win the man she loves, although she has nothing to offer him materially.

Orlando can also be viewed as possessing feminine traits. Oliver, his domineering older brother, has withheld any opportunity for education and has complete control over his life. Not only is Orlando robbed of intellectual stimulation, but he is also eliminated from the inheritance left by his father. Another aspect of his female gender quality is his nurturing capabilities. When Adam offers to help Orlando escape the oppression from his brother, Orlando realizes that he must help Adam through the forest. He carries Adam over rough terrain and then finds him food and shelter before thinking of himself. Then, Orlando chooses to save his brother’s life even through Oliver treated him so badly in the previous years. In this case, Orlando seems to be led by his emotions, when he is willing to put aside any conflicts they had in the past in order to preserve the safety of Oliver. Orlando takes on feminine characteristics when he is oppressed by his brother, when he cares for Adam, and when he relies on emotion rather that rationality to save his brother.

The differences between these two characters are quite obvious. Rosalind is the dominant role throughout they play. Although she is dressed as a man, at the beginning of the play, she is still portrayed as an assertive woman, while Orlando succumbs to the oppression of his brother. The two characters posses traits of the opposites sex which allows them to move throughout the play in ways that compliment each other. The specific gender roles set forth by society during the Renaissance can be applied to each character. Rosalind is intellectual, authoritative, resourceful, and visible in the public sphere. On the other hand, Orlando is submissive, nurturing, emotional, and easily manipulated. By assigning the roles to opposite sexes, Shakespeare questions the extent to which one must conform to the specific role prescribed for each sex. He realizes that the qualities possessed by each sex are fluid and not limited to one or the other. His brilliance and understanding of the human person is evident in his unconventional way of portraying the role of man and woman in As You Like It.



Works Cited

Camden, Carroll. The Elizabethan Woman. Mamaroneck, NY: Paul A. Appel, 1975.

Dunn, Catherine M. “The Changing Image of Woman in Renaissance Society and Literature.” What Manner of Woman. Ed. Marlene Springer. New York: NYU Press, 1977. 15-38.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Introduction. The Norton Shakespeare. Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus et al. New York: Norton, 1997.

Montrose, Louis A. “The Shaping Fantasies of Elizabethan Culture.” Rewriting the Renaissance. Ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986, 65-87.

Putnam, Emily James. The Lady. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1970.

Wiesner, Merry E. “Women’s Defense of Their Public Role.” Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Ed. Mary Beth Rose. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1986. 1-27.