‘Semblative a woman’s part’: why and how are considerations of gender and sexuality important in any TWO plays you have read?

Joel Roberts

This essay looks at how the use of the land as allegorical for gender in these plays is telling in its construction of sexuality. Exploring themes of conquering and purity, it compares the freedoms and related actions of two key female characters, in order to highlight how one squanders a chance for emancipation that the other never receives.


Questions of gender and sexuality in Shakespeare go right to the heart of the playwright.  The exploration of ambiguity in this area formed an intense part of his internal dialogue.  In his book Will in the World (2005), Stephen Greenblatt sums up this exploration - found most explicitly in the sonnets - as such:


He focused, it seems, his capacity for ecstatic idealization largely on the young man and his capacity for desire on his mistress…in both cases, there is an obstacle to fulfilment.  The poet adores a man whom he cannot possess and desires a woman whom he cannot admire (2005: 254).


He focused, it seems, his capacity for ecstatic idealization largely on the young man and his capacity for desire on his mistress…in both cases, there is an obstacle to fulfilment.  The poet adores a man whom he cannot possess and desires a woman whom he cannot admire (2005: 254).

A struggle of such intensity was always going to find its way into Shakespeare’s plays.  I aim to explore why and how gender and sexuality are important in Henry V and The Merchant of Venice. 

The construction of gender in Henry V is central to the theme of masculine conquest in the play (Howard & Rackin 1997: 93).  Henry casts the battle in such terms, masculinising and feminising the lands of England and France.  He masculinises the English in a speech at the beginning of act 3 scene 1 (lines 3-6), declaring essential to male virtue the desire to fight for King and country:


In peace, there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility
But when the blast of war blows in our ears
Then imitate the action of the tiger.

This is followed up in act 4 scene 3, lines 64-67 (bold italics mine):


And gentlemen in England, now a-bed,
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhood’s cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

He feminises the French at the beginning of act 3 scene 3, lines 7-14 (bold italics mine):

If I begin the battery once again,
I will not leave the half-achieved Harflew
Till in her ashes she lie burièd.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the fleshed solider, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand, shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh fair virgins and your flowering infants. 

Here we see the importance of the plays’ construction of gender roles: men are to be the active, fighting English and women the passive, submissive French, awaiting their male rescuers. 

This patriarchal domination of the female is analogised in act 3 scene 4, as Katherine and Alice discuss the English names for her body parts.  With the winds of war howling outside, there is a sense that she has nothing to do, other than wait to be pulled apart by masculine conquest of her body (both physical and geographic.)  In the violent battle for her conquest, she is passive, resigned.

A geographical divide also represents gender in The Merchant of Venice.  It (Venice) is the burgeoning capital of European commerce, a place of vice and the masculine centre of the play.  Belmont is the pastoral escape from the city, a place untouched – at least aesthetically – by the secular sins of Venice.  It is the home of Portia and feminine rule.  However, this is not simply a binary divide: beneath the idealist landscape of Belmont is a world almost as troubled by patriarchy as Venice (Newman 1987: 20).

At first glance, it can appear as though the play promotes a certain amount of feminine independence.  In act 4 scene 1, the feminine Portia (Belmont) upholds the rule of Venetian law and liberates Antonio from his bond to Shylock.  Seemingly it is a victory all round; Portia, the female, brings liberation – the men are indebted to her superior wisdom - and Antonio is spared a cruel punishment.  However, it is dressed up as a man that Portia does this, and in doing so reasserts the rule of Venice: its patriarchal structures are upheld and its economic (masculine) dominance continues (Newman 1987: 20).

Portia has, in a sense, shot herself in the foot:  the money Antonio owed was borrowed for Bassanio to make a bid for Portia’s hand in marriage, in a system set up by her bereaved father.  In saving Antonio, and by extension Bassanio, she has maintained the patriarchal structure imposed on her with regard to who she can marry (Newman 1987: 20).    

In both plays, the autonomy of choice in sexual relations is paramount.  In Henry V, the choice of whom Katherine embarks on a consecrated union with resides with her father; she is but property.  Henry’s wooing of her is a formality:  for all his self-deprecation in act 5 scene 2, it is still a coercive plot to endear him to her, one where she has no choice but to be persuaded in the matter.  He may grant her the virtue of being courted; he will not grant her the choice to say no.

Henry’s conquest of the land of France is inseparable from his sexual conquest of Katherine.  He describes her, in act 5 scene 2 (line 97), as “our capital demand.”  Westland later comments in the same scene (lines 322-324), that “The King hath granted every article:/His daughter first; and then in sequel all,/According to their firm proposed natures.”

In Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare's English Histories (1997), Jean E. Howard and Phyllis Rackin align this conquest with “a kind of rape” (1997: 93), commenting that it; 


Illuminates the dark underside of the emergent conception of marriage as the proof of manhood and the necessary basis for patriarchal authority – the production of rape as the gatekeeper for the gender hierarchy (1997: 93).

Henry’s construction of masculinity as something defined by physical strength - as showcased in war - extends seamlessly to the act of finding a partner; the pinnacle of masculinity is sexual conquest, analogised in the physical contest of a battle defined in terms of masculinity and femininity.  Sexual conquest was the ultimate act of masculinity, war its ritualisation.  If men were the victors, then women were their victims.  

In an Elizabethan world beset by patriarchy, the terrifying conclusion of this logic was that men were free to “range/With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass/…fresh fair virgins” (act 3, scene 3, lines 12-14).  They used the overpowering strength that accompanied this identity to convince women to play their subservient role; Henry had already won a battle with the odds stacked improbably against him, dare Katherine argue?

Similarly in The Merchant of Venice, Portia’s marital fate is woven in to a system left by her deceased father.  The flagrant patriarchy is less crude here; Portia is not the prize for victory in a war analogous to the conquest she is about to be subject to.  She is the prize for whoever can pick the correct casket out of three - the casket containing her picture.  The irony of the symbolism of this choice as a kind of death for her is not lost here.

The ring that Portia gives to Bassanio for making the correct choice is crucial for what it represents.  Having made him swear that he will never part with it – that parting with it is tantamount to parting with her love – she regains in it a certain amount of autonomy.  Were he to ever part with it, she would perhaps be free to make a truly autonomous choice with regards to marriage, having both fulfilled her fathers’ wish and forged herself an escape route.

Whether this is on her mind when she asks for the ring as payment for her work as the judge is doubtful; her love for Bassanio is real; she has no reason to desire escape.  It seems more that she wants to test his resolve.  However, the principle of choice is still at play.  The disappointment of Portia’s character is perhaps that - having regained this choice - she does little more with it than momentarily tease Bassanio.  There is never a sense that she has regained it - that she is going to use it to interrogate Bassanio’s self-centred relativism, which seems central to his masculinity, as defined by the materialism of Venice.  It is this sense of playfulness that is disappointing – that a tool of feminine independence is used as little more than bait in a practical joke.  

The plot is thus contained within a patriarchal structure again, as an opportunity for subversion is wasted by a character who, for all her manoeuvring, seems happy to be complicit in this structure, sadly wasting an opportunity that Katherine is deprived of.  Of course, these are two different plays: Henry V is one about history and The Merchant of Venice a tragic comedy.  For this reason it is perhaps unfair to judge Portia’s choices in light of Katherine’s situation, though it does serve to illuminate the opportunities wasted by the former character.  

Finally, any consideration of sexuality in Shakespeare must also take into account the fact that female parts were played by young boys in the Elizabethan theatre, and the accompanying homoeroticism of this fact.  In Staging The Renaissance, Lisa Jardine comments that:


The boy player is liable to be regarded with erotic interest which hovers somewhere between the heterosexual and the homosexual around his female attire (P59).

This is perhaps the androgynous chord that Shakespeare is trying to strike in his plays: to ask the question that, when the distinctions are blurred, what really is gender, attraction?  He is addressing Foucault’s question, posed some three hundred years later; do we truly need a sex?

Much more could be said with regard to this.  Suffice it to say that Shakespeare’s plays are fertile ground for exploration of gender and sexuality; imbued with his own search, they allow us to look - individually and collectively - for better ways of understanding ourselves in this way. 



Greenblatt, S. (2005) Will in the World.  London: Pimlico.

Howard, E.J. & P. Rackin (1997) Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of 
Shakespeare's English Histories.  London: Routledge. 

Jardine, L. (1991) Boy Actors, Female Roles, and Elizabethan Eroticism in Kastan 
D.S. and P. Stallybrass (ed.), Staging the Renaissance.  Oxon: Routledge.

Newman, K. (1987) Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in 
The Merchant of Venice.  Shakespeare Quarterly Vol 38, No. 1: 19-33.

Shakespeare, W. (2000) Henry V.  Hertfordshire: Wordsworth.

Shakespare, W. (2001) The Merchant of Venice.  London: Penguin.



Joel Roberts


brightONLINE student literary journal

10 Aug 2012