Misogyny and Patriarchy: Its Impact on the Gender Binary in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

Amy Rae 1313322

TA: Christina Wiendels


25 November 2016

Misogyny and Patriarchy: Its Impact on the Gender Binary in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

In literature, motifs are used as a way to develop central topics or themes found in a work. When it comes to plays, motifs often function as a way to draw meaning from the fundamental and subliminal messages that lie within the words presented. I argue that in William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, the development of misogynistic and patriarchal ideologies work to explain and further progress topics of religion, gender and marriage in the plot. This is seen because of the time in which the play is written, where treatment of women and the dominance of men work in coherence with the main topics of the play. This is significant as it challenges the reader to critically analyze how the motif of misogyny and patriarchy functions in Measure for Measure as a gender binary, which is problematic.

Before examining Measure for Measure in terms of the misogynistic and patriarchal ideologies presented in the work, one must have a comprehensive understanding of what the gender binary entails, in order to critically analyze the problems it introduces. For this paper I present the gender binary in terms of the social construct between the sexes and how men and women are disconnected in a social structure. Looking to specific instances that reference religion, gender and marriage, open up the play to critique how the gender binary is constructed and what challenges that poses for present day society.

When considering the treatment of women in comparison to men, religion is a consequential topic that emerges in the play, and is one that is further developed by the Christian religious beliefs of the time period in which Shakespeare writes. These views display how the gender binary is prevalent throughout Measure for Measure. Religious views first become problematic when Isabella goes to see Claudio in prison to tell him how Angelo wants her to have sex with him in exchange for Claudio’s life (3.1 1278-1390). At first Claudio is disgusted by the proposition and tells Isabella to stay true to her virtues but eventually fear strikes and he encourages Isabella to break her chastity and vow to god (3.1 1369-90). This is shown when Claudio says, “Sweet sister, let me live:/ What sin you do to save a brother’s life,/ Nature dispenses with the deed so far/ That it becomes a virtue” (3.1 1369-72). Here Claudio is seen to manipulate Isabella by claiming her sin will become a virtue. He understands Isabella’s religious beliefs and how she takes them seriously, so by attempting to convince her that her sin will be virtuous explains the role of religion in the patriarchal and misogynistic construct. Claudio uses religion against Isabella in order to save himself. He no longer cares about Isabella’s life as a soon to be nun and expects her to forget her beliefs for him. This speaks to the patriarchal structure of Vienna at the time because men had all the power and women were expected to follow what men say. When Isabella does not agree to sleeping with Angelo to save Claudio she defies the patriarchal structure and this in turn challenges the reader to consider how the gender binary is at play in Measure for Measure.

Another instance, where in which the gender binary can be seen through religion’s influence on the misogynistic and patriarchal values of society, is when Mariana admits to having sex with Angelo as part of the bed trick (5.1 2576-2620). This creates a situation in which they must be married because of the religious beliefs of the time in Vienna. Angelo admits to the sin and asks for the death sentence, and the Duke sentences him to marry Mariana instead (5.1 2797-99). Angelo reacts to this saying, “No longer session hold upon my shame,/ But let my trail be mine own confession:/ Immediate sentence then and sequent death/ Is all the grace I beg” (5.1 2790-93). Misogyny is seen through the way in which Angelo would rather die for his sin than marry Mariana. The way he is shown to plead with the Duke about receiving death as his punishment speaks to how his love for Mariana was never true and he was only interested her as a means to an end. Religious beliefs are also seen by how the bed trick forces the hand of marriage upon Mariana, due to the consensus that a couple is not to have sex before marriage. It is evident that both examples presented explore how the gender binary is seen in patriarchal society to disempower women in terms of their religious beliefs by coercing them to do what men want. Religion is used to demonstrate how there is a difference in power between men and women in Vienna at the time.

Another theme that the motif of misogyny and patriarchal norms develops is the role of gender in Measure for Measure. By looking to the three main female characters with speaking roles, one is able to challenge the gender binary discussed, develops in the play. Looking first to Mistress Overdone who is a prostitute, one is able to see how the way men and women are viewed in society differs greatly. In Act 3, Escalus tells the provost to send Mistress Overdone to prison for running a brothel. She explains that the information has come from Lucio, who has been having sex outside of marriage as well. She says,

My lord, this is one Lucio’s information against me./ Mistress Kate Keepdown    was with child by him in the/ duke’s time; he promised her marriage: his child/ is   a year and quarter old, come Philip and Jacob:/ I have kept it myself; and see how he does about to abuse me! (3.2 1707-11)

This further explores the misogynistic values based on gender, as Mistress Overdone is being ‘slut-shamed’ while Lucio – who has also indulged in sex before marriage – is not charged with any crime. Mistress Overdone expresses her anger that Lucio is not being accused of any wrongdoing when he has committed the same crime, if not worse. This is problematic as Lucio is representative of other men in the time period, who do not face the harsh punishments that the women do. This speaks to present day societal issues with regards to the gender binary as women to this day are still judged for their sexual behaviour in a way that men are not.

Next looking to Mariana, a specific instance in which the gender binary becomes relevant through Vienna’s patriarchal society is when Duke Vincentio speaks to Isabella. He explains how Mariana was engaged to Angelo but he ended the engagement due to her dowry getting lost in a shipwreck, upon which her brother Frederick died (3.1 1455-60). Vincentio explains how Angelo, “[l]eft her in her tears, and dried not one of them/ with his comfort; swallowed his vows whole,/ pretending in her discoveries of dishonour” (3.1 1467-69). This is significant as it points to how Mariana is objectified and treated poorly. Angelo sees Mariana simply as an object and someone who can provide him with money for their marriage. When he realizes she no longer has a dowry he immediately breaks off the engagement, without a thought to console her about the death of her brother. This is depictive of misogyny and patriarchy as the reader if left to assume that Angelo is only looking to fulfill his selfish needs and has no intention of being an equal partner in their relationship.

Isabella is also seen to be discriminated against based on gender in Measure for Measure when Lucio tries to convince her to seduce Angelo in order to free her brother saying, “[g]ive’t not o’er so: to him/ again, entreat him;/ Kneel down before him, hang upon his gown” (2.2 796-98). This plays into the misogyny and patriarchal values as Isabella is expected to exploit herself by doing whatever Angelo would want her to do. Not only would the act of Isabella bowing down to Angelo express the gender binary in the play, but also even considering Lucio’s advice is problematic. The reader is able to see how the power dynamic in the patriarchal structure affects the way in which women make decisions. Each example examined begs the reader to question a woman’s place in society and how they react to patriarchal authority.

Marriage in Measure for Measure revolves greatly around the misogynistic and patriarchal views of society at the time. Through the examination of this topic in the play, one is able to see how women are depicted as defenseless in the role of marriage. One instance that expresses the problems that marriage contributes to the play in terms of the gender binary is when the Duke sentences Lucio to marry the woman he has impregnated (5.1 2958). Lucio reacts to this news saying, “I beseech your highness, do not marry me to a whore / […] Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging” (5.1 2960-62 & 2967-8). Reacting in such a manner by calling the woman a whore is once again representative of the misogyny in the play. Lucio feels the need to belittle the woman he has impregnated simply because he is unhappy with the punishment he has received. He uses harsh words such as whipping and hanging to express his distaste for marring such a woman. It is also significant to look at how patriarchy works in the way that the woman whom Lucio has slept with has no voice in the matter. She is not even depicted in the scene when the Duke rules that they are to get married.

While Lucio’s reaction to marriage is one that demonstrates the gender binary in through misogyny and patriarchy, he is not the only man who speaks to marriage in such a way. At the end of the play, the Duke asks Isabella to marry him after pardoning Claudio. They way in which he speaks about marriage is significant as it expresses how the views towards the institution of marriage is greatly centered around the patriarchal standards of the society at the time. When proposing to Isabella Vincentio declares, “[d]ear Isabel,/ I have a motion much imports your good;/ Whereto if you’re a willing ear incline,/ What’s mine is yours and what is yours is mine./ So, bring us to our palace; where we’ll show/ What’s yet behind, that’s meet you all should know” (5.1 2980-85). While he argues he will provide Isabella with a good life by saying what’s his is hers, Shakespeare illustrates the patriarchy through the way in which Isabella is almost expected to accept and is not given the chance to deny his proposal, if that is what she wishes. It is misogynistic how he assumes she would want to spend her life with him, but the most troubling part is how she is given no voice in the situation, similarly to Lucio’s mistress. Isabella loses all agency and autonomy in the decision-making process, speaking to how men living in Vienna’ s patriarchal society do not consider women as equals. After examining each example related to marriage, the reader can see how misogyny and patriarchal norms are used to disempower women, resulting in a consequential gender binary.

Once having evaluated how misogyny and patriarchy work in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, it is evident that it leads to a gender binary through the main ideas discussed. It is through religion, gender and marriage that one is able to make connections between the motif discussed and question why women are viewed in such a way, compared to men. After looking at the role of misogynistic and patriarchal ideologies as a motif, it is clear that this ideology deeply influences the significant topics explored in Measure for Measure while cultivating a gender binary. Through this analysis, one comes to ascertain a higher level of understanding with regards to how the mistreatment of women and male dominance influences the gender binary in the play. Challenging this standardization posed by the gender binary allows the reader to become a critic of gender-based issues and question the binary opposition that exits between men and women.

Work Cited

Shakespeare, W. Measure for Measure. Open Source Shakespeare, http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/play_view.php?WorkID=mea            sure&Scope=entire&pleasewait=1&msg=pl#a3,s2. Accessed 10 November 2016.

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