A look at male gender roles in Shakespeare’s Renaissance

Leann Pettit

While the role of women in the Renaissance is mentioned highly, men are neglected in analytical views of the culture. However, the male gender role in the Renaissance is a very interesting subject. Not only are there male gender roles for men, but the cross-over of male gender roles for masculine women also plays a big part in Renaissance culture and literature. However, the social norms for men have changed little from the Renaissance to present day. In Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, readers see a masculine man and a masculine woman in the same play interacting with one another. This changing social norm leads men to look for fundamentals about the masculine stereotype and try to get to the heart of what it means to be male. The role of men in the Renaissance was being overshadowed by women and the stereotypes of men and women were becoming more and more defined.

Men in the Renaissance were writing a publishing household and marriage guides that “incorporated cookbooks, home remedies, blueprints for needlework designs, and manuscripts on what was suitable female education” (Renaissance Household). William Gouge wrote that a woman and government officers were both to uphold authority: a woman to her husband and a government officer to his King: “The perfect husbandman is the father and master of the family…whose office and employment are ever for the most part abroad, or removed from the house, as in the field” (Renaissance Household).

The husband of the family was always designated the ownership of the land and property that they family lived on (Renaissance Household). However, in an agricultural economy, land was seen as an investment and was outside of the home but influence the family dynamics within the house (Resistance to Gender Construction). The income from the family farm would give widows a “sense of economic independence and consequently social agency from their husbands and other men who often attempted to establish social dominance through financial pressure” (Resistance to Gender Construction).

However, from the non-traditional households of rouges, vagabonds, and beggars, men dominated “the maintenance of the domestic economy” (Non-Traditional Households). In this type of Renaissance society, men would call on a woman simply for their sexual pleasure.

Jonathan Shandell, in his essay “Shakespeare’s Genders, Then and Now,” breaks the “iconic masculine social types” into five categories: the Chivalrous Knight, the Herculean Hero, the Humanist Man or Moderation, the Merchant Prince, and the Saucy Jack. The break down of social types allows readers of Shakespeare to categorize the male characters into these five types of male roles.

Medical theories of the Renaissance suggest that men are “excessively hot-blooded and passionate” but social constraints demanded that he be reasonable in his actions (Shandell). This conflicting view of men creates a cross-over between men and women’s roles in the culture. Men, being while reasonable were beginning to be described with womanly terms and softer language while women were stepping up and taking on more male roles and masculine attitudes towards the culture and society.

The line between friendship and desire is a tightrope that no self-respecting man in the Renaissance would dare tread (Shandell). “The line between camaraderie and homoerotic desire was always dangerous territory for a sociable Elizabethan male to negotiate: ‘What a Renaissance man most desires to be is another man’s friend; what he most abhors to be is a sodomite’” (Shandell).

According to Jeanne Gerlach, Rudolph Almasy, and Rebecca Daniel in their essay “Revisiting Shakespeare and Gender” define that men in Renaissance society were expected to engage in public affairs in the way of soldiers, politicians, and other leaders; to be talkers, decision makers, and move events forward. Their lives were duty-bound to the state and were aggressive and self-satisfying.

However, the social climate was changing as to the way men and women were acting. Men were being described with softer, more feminized words and women were becoming more masculinized. “Defining masculine and feminine characteristics allowed writers like Shakespeare to draw males with certain ‘feminine’ characteristics and females with certain ‘masculine’ characteristics (Jeanne Gerlach). This crossing of gender characteristics might have made it easier for a Renaissance audience to accept a play house using an all-male cast and boys playing girls who are playing boy who are in love with other boys.

In the text “Gratian: On Marriage,” it is explained that men and women have sinned together and having sinned together in the Garden of Eden, made marriage and intercourse that results is not sinful “but is forgivable on account of the good of marriage which is threefold: Fidelity, Offspring, and Sacrament” (Internet Medieval Source Book). Master Augustine suggested that “a man may know his wife for four reasons, that is for offspring, to pay debt, for incontinence, or to satisfy lust and for the sake of pleasure” (Internet Medieval Source Book).

The role of men in the Renaissance culture was under some revisions and challenged by the masculine women that were being brought up in this new culture. The male roles outside of the home and in the public sector changed the roles of men in the culture of Shakespeare’s time which allowed audiences to help understand and accept the changing gender roles of the time.

Works Cited

Gender and Sexuality in Renaissance Popular Culture. 13 November 2007 <http://www.duke.edu/web/rpc/performance/household.html>.

Internet Medieval Source Book. 5 May 1999. 1 November 2007 <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/gratian1.html>.

Jeanne Gerlach, Rudolph Almasy, and Rebecca Daniel. "Revisiting Shakespeare and Gender." The Women in Literacy and Life Assembly of The National Council of Teachers of English (1996).

Non-Traditional Households. 13 November 2007 <http://www.duke.edu/web/rpc/performance/nontraditional.html>.

Renaissance Household. 13 November 2007 <http://www.duke.edu/web/rpc/performance/household.html>.

Resistance to Gender Construction. 13 November 2007 <http://www.duke.edu/web/rpc/performance/resistance.html>.

Shandell, Jonathan. "Shakespeare's Genders, Then and Now." (n.d.): 82-84.

Stapleton, M. L. "Making the Woman of Him: Shakespeare's Man Right Fair as Sonnet Lady." Texas Studies in Literature and Language (2004): 271-295.