There are certain patterns in literature; themes which present themselves over and over again despite the time period in which they were written and the cultural background of the author who wrote it. One such theme is that of human sexuality and the gender categorization that is associated with sexuality and appropriate or acceptable behaviors. Throughout history, men have dominated over women and this is explored in works of literature throughout recorded time. Men had to be strong and virile, able to control their women and also to intimidate other men in order to be considered successful. Maleness, machismo, and masculinity were all synonymous in most of history. Women were consequentially subservient to the males in their life, be it their fathers, brothers, husbands, or any other man in the society in which they lived. According to the gender demands of the eras, women were required to be sweet, gentle, and to obey the authority of the other gender. Anyone who behaved in ways that were different from the prescribed gender roles was considered other and subjected to ridicule and potential ostracism. Despite the differing time periods, these issues of sexuality and gender present themselves repeatedly as exhibited in The Faerie Queen from the medieval period, William Shakespeare's Othello from the Early Modern era, and The Country Wife from the Restoration period.
Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queen is an elongated allegory, exploring all manner of vice and virtue of medieval society. The story's historical background exhibits itself in the narrative of the epic poem. It was written during a period of religious and political conflict in England, at the start of the reign of Elizabeth following one of the most deadly periods when England was led by the Catholic "Bloody" Mary. When Elizabeth took the throne of England, there was a great deal of debate over whether a woman alone could rule effectively and there were frequent efforts to get her married and by other factions, she was constantly plotted against.
A powerful queen and the potential threats to her leadership are present in The Faerie Queen but more than this the poem explains how the culture expected women to behave. Each virtue, holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice, and courtesy is admired and shown. Women were supposed to exhibit each of these characteristics and Spenser asserts that Queen Elizabeth does, which is what makes her both a perfect woman and a perfect leader. If Elizabeth were not virtuous, she was after all known as the "Virgin Queen," then it is possible that she would not have been able to retain her position of power. Although women of the period were supposed to be seen and not heard, so long as they exhibited character traits which affirmed the gender binary, it was marginally acceptable for the woman to lead. The women in The Faerie Queen exhibit both the perfect and imperfect forms of women with the imperfect being exemplified by the Queen Duessa (Jeyathurai). She is manipulative and serpentine, using sexuality and flirtation to get the men to do as she wishes. Duessa is the very epitome of the evil side of womanhood; the type of person who should never be allowed to rule. Her nature is shown when Spencer writes: "That which is for Ladies most befitting, / & #8230;Was from those Dames so farre and so unfitting, / As that instead of praying them surcease, / They did much more their cruelty increase" (4.2.19). By showing this character, Spenser shows a counterpoint by which Elizabeth can be favorable compared. A woman who is sexually active or uses human sexuality for advancement is an inappropriate woman because is countermands the gender role of submissive and dominated sex which is preferred in the British culture.
During the Early Modern period, William Shakespeare's plays were some of the most popular and celebrated works; their quality and importance testified to by the fact that they are still performed regularly at places all around the world. In his play Othello, the differences between men and women and the power struggle associated with the gender binary is one of the primary themes of the plot. Shakespeare's Othello is a tragedy wherein jealousy leads a newly married man to murder his beloved and wholly innocent wife. Othello is everything a Renaissance era man should be; he is a soldier and has proven himself to be very brave in battle. Also, he has had to overcome adversity in his home life since he is a Moor and thus marginalized because of his ethnicity. Desdemona is beautiful and virtuous and what is more she is devoted to her husband and also to her friends. The influence of an evil person makes it so that Othello sees his wife and misinterprets her innocent actions, believing that she has committed adultery. The belief in her affair with his officer Cassio leads Othello to execute his wife through strangulation. Throughout the play, Desdemona's sexuality is what causes distress for the young woman. First, her father is affected when he is told that his daughter is married to Othello, but more upsetting to him is the mental image he forms of the two of them having intercourse. Iago warns the father, "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is topping your white ewe" (1.1). Later in the story, her sexuality again is what causes people to react. The idea of her being unfaithful, of violating her pledge to only give herself sexually to her husband is enough to send Othello to an explosive rage and to murder her and agree to have her presumed lover likewise killed. On her deathbed, Desdemona proves her virtue through her adherence to the prescribed gender roles of womanhood. Rather than stand up for herself and try to protect her life, she gives in to her dominating and succumbs to his wish for her death. According to Sara Ekici in her article "Feminist Criticism: Female Characters in Shakespeare's Plays Othello and Hamlet," "She is helplessly passive. She can not do anything; she cannot retaliate, neither in speech, nor in silent feelings" (20). It was a wife's duty to follow her husband's orders in all things. This is what leads to Desdemona's isolation from her father and her eventual death. She goes to her room and awaits her throttling. By behaving passively and submissively to even these wishes, she proves herself to be the perfect woman and thus incapable of committing the betrayal of which she is accused. Her inability to stand up for herself leads to her untimely demise. Even as she knows her husband intends to kill her, she does little to stop him, feeling that she has somehow earned her execution because there is no way the infallible male could be wrong.
William Wycherly's play The Country Wife, written during the Restoration era, tells three distinct stories: one of a man who pretends to be impotent so that he can bed the wives of his fellow men without risking their suspicion, a middle-aged man who married the title country girl in hopes that she would be too naive to cuckold him, and finally the love story of virtuous Alithea and Harcourt who never doubted her virtue despite the way that things might look. In each of the stories, the women behave atrociously, at least in terms of the time period. Women of the village have no qualms about betraying their husbands and going to bed with the supposedly impotent Horner, including the supposedly naive Margery (Velissariou 115). The only woman who remains virtuous in the story is Alithea who is engaged to a boorish and unkind man but will not break her promised engagement for anything. She is caught in a compromising position and he breaks off…