Women in Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus and Love’s Labor Lost
The women of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Love’s Labour’s Lost play very different parts in their respective stories. The women in the two plays have differing roles, responsibilities, opportunities. The women in Titus Andronicus are rarely recognized by the men; they are often accessories to the crimes of Aaron. Love’s Labour’s Lost provides women with more freedom; they are smarter and play major roles in moving the plot along. Altough there are some similarities, Shakespeare portrays and uses women much differently in Titus Andronicus and Love’s Labour’s Lost.
The women of Titus Andronicus receive little respect. Lavinia plays a miniscule role in Titus Andronicus. She is used as an object in the play; she is merely there to move the plot along for the major characters, all of whom are males except for Tamora. Like Lavinia, Tamora receives little respect or acknowledgement for her actions in Titus Andronicus. Men dominate Titus Andronicus. Tamora is not an entirely one-dimensional character; she seeks revenge on Titus for killing her son. She marries Saturninus as a way to gain power and eventually avenge her son’s death. Ultimately, though, it is Aaron who terrorizes Titus and his family the most. Tamora has some interesting actions, but the male villain, Aaron, appears as the more active and more evil of the vengeful pair. Aaron also receives most of the credit for the tragedies in the play; Marcus says, “An irreligious Moor, Chief architect and plotter of these woes. The villain is alive in Titus’ house” (Tit. V. iii 121-123). While Tamora is an obviously evil character, Marcus would rather place blame on another man, and, in a sense, refuses to believe a woman could act in such a heinous way.
Lavinia, meanwhile, is objectified throughout the entirety of Titus Andronicus. Titus’ daughter makes no important decisions and only plays an important part when she is used by the men of the play. From the beginning of her introduction as a character, Lavinia is an object that the men lust over. Her beauty is remarkable, but the audience learns little about Lavinia aside from her exceptional physical features. This one-dimensional view of Lavinia is seen when Bassianus says, “And her to whom my thoughts are humbled all, Gracious Lavinia, Rome’s rich ornament” (Tit. I. i 51-52). Her intelligence and skills are unnoted and remain unseen throughout the play. She is further objectified when Demetrius says, “She is a woman, therefore may be woo’d, She is a women, therefore she may be won” (Tit. I. i 82-83). Demetrius implies that there is nothing to Lavinia except her womanhood, and she is only there to be won by a suitor. Lavinia’s only important moments occur when she is raped and mutilated and when she later exposes the rapists. Lavinia serves little more purpose than a prop in Titus Andronicus. Lavinia suffers a fate worse than death (although that eventually comes as well) in the play. Demetrius and Chiron rape Lavinia and she becomes a social reject as a result. She would have rather been killed than raped. Her society would have outcast her once it was discovered that she was raped. While Demetrius and Chiron would have been legally punished for their crime, Lavinia would have repercussions to face as well. Roman society dictates that a woman who is raped must kill herself, or in Lavinia’s circumstance, can be killed by her father. Roman society justified the killing of a rape victim, despite the fact that Lavinia was innocent and forcibly abused. Roman society, not Shakespeare, encouraged the death of rape victims. Shakespeare was not advocating for her murder in Titus Andronicus, but it is intriguing that he would use rape to carry a plot forward. Lavinia leads a miserable life in the gruesome play, a role that could have been played differently, without a rape and death. The audience sees Lavinia only as a woman who gets raped and has her hands and tongue severed. Shakespeare maintains Roman cultural constructs in Titus Andronicus, but he chooses to show some of the worst, most sexist parts of Roman society.
The women in Titus Andronicus have many similarities and differences when compared to the female characters of another Shakespeare play, Love’s Labour’s Lost. Lavinia plays almost no role and Tamora is receives little acknowledgement from her fellow male characters in Titus Andronicus, but the women in Love’s Labour’s Lost are critical to the play’s plot. The women of Love’s Labour’s Lost have power and freedom more so than the women of Titus Andronicus, albeit they are still not considered to be equals to their male counterparts. The women of Love’s Labour’s Lost are treated with respect while very little regard is given to those in Titus Andronicus. The women of Love’s Labour’s Lost, although still considered lesser than men, have far more importance and power than the women of Titus Andronicus. The main female characters of Love’s Labour’s Lost (the Princess, Rosaline, Maria, and Katherine), while being beautiful women, display intelligence and wit throughout the play. The women successfully attempt to lure the men away from their scholarly quest; they use their stunning beauty to gain a certain power over the King of Navarre and his men. Their wit is also visible when the women later deceive their suiters by switching the gifts received from the men. The women of Love’s Labour’s Lost display much more character and intellect compared to the female characters in Titus Andronicus.
While the women of Titus Andronicus could do very little without the men, the women of Love’s Labour’s Lost act entirely of their own accord and do not rely on the men to act for them and dominate the play. The Princess acknowledges the women’s intelligence, saying, “We are wise girls to mock our lovers so” (LLL V. ii 58) and Rosaline displays her power over Berowne, saying: “That same Berowne I’ll torture ere I go. O that I knew he were but in th’ week! How I would makehim fawn, and beg, and seek, and wait the season , and observe the times, and spend his prodigal wits in bootless rhymes, and shape his service wholly to my device and make proud to make me proud that jests!” (LLL V. ii 60-66). The Princess, Rosaline, Maria, and Katherine are given much more independence and power than Tamora and Lavinia. The differences between the sets of female characters is significant, but there are also several notable similarities between the female characters in Titus Andronicus and Love’s Labour’s Lost.
The women of Love’s Labour’s Lost, despite having more importance and better character development, are similarly objectified like the women of Titus Andronicus. The Princess and her friends are seen as objects that the men lust over. The King and his men immediately fall for the women merely because of their looks. They appear to care to care little about the women’s personalities and interests. The members of the two groups spend very little time getting to know their counterparts. The men of Love’s Labour’s Lost are comparatively much more developed than the women. Each male character has a distinct personality and unique disposition. Even minor male characters, such as Don Armado, seem to be more defined and characterized than the female characters, major and minor. The audience learns the King of Navarre’s name to be Ferdinand, but his female parallel, the Princess, is never given a name despite being the female lead; she is simply referred to as “the princess.” Shakespeare spends significantly more lines characterizing and developing the male characters in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and while the female characters are undoubtedly important to the play, very little about their backgrounds or personalities is revealed. While certainly not empowering women to equality, Love’s Labour’s Lost is far more progressive than Shakespeare’s earlier Titus Andronicus.
Written only a few years after Titus Andronicus, Love’s Labour’s Lost shows women playing major roles in a play instead of being portrayed as mainly background characters, as is the case with the earlier work. While it could hardly be considered a feminist work, Shakespeare devoted significant stage time and lines to the women in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Looking back to Shakespeare, and other authors of the Elizabethan Period, readers can observe a glimpse of the social order and cultural beliefs of the historical period. Titus Andronicus and Love’s Labour’s Lost display the societal view on women; the English commonly objectified women and men would lust over women entirely for their physical beauty. Women could not even portray the female characters in Shakespeare’s play; male actors dressed up as women to play the female parts. Looking back at Shakespeare’s works, both literarily and historically, one can see how disenfranchised 15th and 16th Century women were.
One must look back look back to the past to create a better future. By looking back at Shakespeare’s, and English society’s, objectification of the female gender, the audience can see how modern society has advanced in regard to gender equality. One can see how modern day views of women have changed drastically and are much more positive and empowering. Women have many more rights than they did in Shakespeare’s time. Much has been done to bring about the equality of women. Viewing the works of the past allows one to see history through another’s perspective and compare that perspective to current times. Further, by reading works of the past and looking and previous societies, one is encouraged to reflect on modern society and see what advancements still need to be made. By looking at one’s own society, one can see what improvements still need to be made so that future generations will not look back to this time period with the same disappointment and negativity that is given to Shakespeare’s male-dominated era. While women are certainly much more equal to men, there are still opportunities not afforded to them. Women (and men) must still fight for gender equality. Literature provides the reader with a glimpse into the past; it is the reader’s responsibility to learn from that past and use that knowledge to improve the world. Shakespeare provides two contrasting views of women in Titus Andronicus and Love’s Labour’s Lost. In the former, women are held in low regard and rarely receive recognition of their limited contributions to the play. The women in the latter, although still considered unequal to their male peers, make direct contributions to the plot and act with a fair degree of intelligence. The portrayals and uses of women differ significantly between Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Love’s Labour’s Lost.
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