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Shakespeare, thou art the man: Shakespeare and Masculinity

Submitted by Gabriel A. Pangalangan, student no. 2006-09672, UP Diliman.
Note: I do not own the images used in this essay.

When you hear the name Shakespeare, many ideas come to mind. Some may associate Shakespeare with deep and eloquent poetry; some may associate him with love and romance; while others may think of him as someone relevant only to the artsy-fartsy literature people from the College of Arts and Letters. However, when one encounters the name Shakespeare, do you think words like “manly,” “masculine,” or “angas” come to mind? I think that’s very unlikely.

Drawing from personal experience, I doubt that anyone from my all-boys private high school down Katipunan Avenue would openly admit to liking Shakespeare or his works. If anyone did, it would be a strange rarity. Why would it be uncommon and just plain weird to admit that you like Shakespeare in an all-boys high school? Well, because it’s just not manly enough, it’s just not cool. In an all-boys high school, students aren’t really concerned with what a dead white man wrote about years and years ago. And they aren’t spending hours wondering “O Romeo, o Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” Well, from my high school, maybe a few.  What high school boys are worried about today are girls, sports, technology and body hair. So the question this essay hopes to address is, “is Shakespeare not manly/ masculine enough for teenage boys to admit they like it?”

The final act in Hamlet


Truth be told, many aspects of Shakespeare’s works depict images and notions of masculinity. In Robin Wells’ Shakespeare on Masculinity, it stated, regarding Shakespeare’s plays, that “all the tragedies and most of the comedies and histories inevitably concern themselves in one way or another with the question of ‘manhood and honour’” (6) Even though it was only in the 1960’s that the word “masculinity” took on the notion of describing “attributes and actions seen as appropriate to males” (Shakespeare and Masculinity 11), “masculinity” was still visible in Shakespeare’s works. However, the word that Shakespeare used to refer to these attributes and actions was “manliness” (Smith 11). This “manliness” was not only present in all of Shakespeare’s plays; it was often the cause of tension between his characters. (Dutton and Howard, A Companion of Shakespeare’s Works Vol. II)

In Robin Wells’ Shakespeare on Masculinity, it stated that in Renaissance writing, heroic traits were traits that were deemed to be masculine, such as “courage, physical strength, prowess in battle, manly honour and defiance of fortune” (2). Such heroic traits could be found in many of Shakespeare’s characters. For  example, we have Hamlet who showed courage when the ghost met Horatio, Marcellus and him in the first act. Here, Hamlet stated:

“If it assume my noble father’s person,
I’ll speak to it, though hell itself should gape
And bid me hold my peace.” (Act I, sc ii)

The character Macbeth, on the other hand, demonstrated heroic traits such as “prowess in battle and manly honour.” And in the case of Romeo in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, he showed his heroic traits by defying fortune in his pursuit of Juliet. Shakespeare depicted his heroes to having these masculine characteristics. Shakespeare’s heroes were, by definition, men (Wells 2).

In addition to that, masculinity in Shakespeare’s plays was not merely equated to heroism but also to violence. Robin Wells pointed out that men in Shakespeare’s plays, more specifically in Macbeth, defended their virtues with “vengeance, rage and passionate violence.” In Macbeth, our hero and his wife, Lady Macbeth, murdered their own kin in their pursuit of the thrown. Both characters associated “manliness with heroic violence” (Wells 117). Such “heroic violence” can also be seen in Hamlet, where our main character plotted his vengeance against Claudius for the murder of his father. We also saw Hamlet’s rage and “passionate violence” when he killed Claudius in the final act. His rage was apparent in lines such as “O villany! Ho! let the door be lock’d: Treachery! Seek it out,” and “Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane, Drink off this potion. Is thy union here? Follow my mother.” (Act V, sc ii) Romeo too showed vengeance and passionate violence in Act III, scene 1 of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. In this act, Romeo murders Tybalt out of vengeance for killing is friend, Mercutio, saying, “Alive, in triumph! and Mercutio slain! Away to heaven, respective lenity,And fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!” (III, ii, 122-124)

Such acts of violence were apparent in numerous scenes of Shakespeare’s plays. The characters in his plays defended their manhood through confrontations, duels, and acts of violence. And these aspects of Shakespeare’s plays remained prevalent in their  Big Scene adaptations.

Hamlet (1990)

In the film adaptation Hamlet (1990), the lead role of Hamlet was given to none other than Braveheart himself, Mel Gibson. In the picture above, you see a very badass version of Hamlet (right)- bearded and ready to kick some ars. This depiction of masculinity is very much inline with the depiction of masculinity found throughout the entire play.  It is also inline with the recurring theme of men lashing out in acts of passionate violence.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

On the other hand, the film Romeo + Juliet (1996) cast Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo, much to the delight of teenage girls the world over I’m sure. Romeo, the Capulet’s and the Montague’s often brandished firearms in the film, which was symbolic of the swords used in traditional Romeo and Juliet plays. Manliness proved through violence was also apparent in this film, as seen in the picture above.

The book Shakespeare and Violence stated that, “Although Shakespeare’s world was very different from that of present day…the basic issues remain the same” (Foakes 9) The understanding of masculinity or manliness during the Renaissance is not the same as today. Aside from terms and their definitions, a great many things have changed since then. Violence and masculinity, however, still seem to coincide until today, and even though Shakespeare’s works are looked upon as highbrow, they still provide rather dangerous depictions of masculinity.  These violent depictions of masculinity from Shakespeare’s time are still prevalent until today. Nevertheless, as Foakes stated, “If violence is natural to human beings, then we need to come to terms with this issue, and seek understanding from the stories and enduring works of literature that deal with it” (7).

It is clear to see that Shakespeare’s plays are filled with manliness and masculinity. Their depictions of masculinity are often shrouded with violence, but as Foakes mentioned, reading about violence will help us form an understanding of it. On a more positive note, the masculinity depicted in Shakespeare’s plays also consists of positive traits such as courage and honor. At the end of day, Shakespeare is about more than just deep and eloquent poetry or love and romance; it’s about being a man. So I’m calling out to all the manly men out there: to the high school boys, football players, body builders, ultimate fighters and hero wannabe’s the world over. Gather round, it’s time we read some Shakespeare.

Sources:

Foakes, Reginald. Shakespeare and Violence.
Cambridge University Press.

Wells, Robin. Shakespeare on Masculinity.
Cambridge University Press: 2000.

Smith, Bruce. Shakespeare and Masculinity.
Oxford University Press: 2000.

Dutton, Richard and Jean E. Howard (eds). A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works, Volume II: The Histories.
Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Blackwell Reference Online. 18 January 2011 <http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/book?id=g9781405136068_9781405136068&gt;

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Categories: Multimedia Essays
  1. theclassicalfan
    March 24, 2011 at 9:01 pm

    This is a very interesting topic. The fact that Shakespeare and his works are not easily associated with the concept of masculinity in this day and age may be indicative of the fact that our concept of masculinity is different from that of the olden days. Or perhaps the fact that Shakespeare’s works are perceived as “highbrow” and “refined” is what prevents people from seeing that his works do indeed exemplify violence and manliness.

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