Women occupy conflicted and ambiguous roles in Middle English and Renaissance English literature. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night all show how male authors in particular grappled with the role of women in an increasingly patriarchal society. Women feature prominently in each of these stories, even if their status and perceived morality is questionable. Each of these stories features women who have a fair degree of power, albeit expressed within the confines of a patriarchal social and political construct. What's more, the women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Canterbury Tales, and Twelfth Night create their own power; power is not "given" to them by self-serving benevolent men. In fact, women like Morgan Le Fay, Lady Bertilak, the Wife of Bath, and Viola all wield power effectively. Women and men occupy separate and distinct spheres, and each wields a different type of power, a theme that changes little from the 14th to the 17th centuries in English literature.
Marriage is depicted as a social institution with the paradoxical potential to convey gender equity in English literature from the 14th to the 17th centuries. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Guinevere is empowered and has a decisive role. Although her husband has the political title and official authority, King Arthur defers to his wife on more than one occasion. Even more powerful is the unmarried Morgan Le Fey, who is unfettered by patriarchal domestic roles and who instead possesses supernatural prowess. Morgan Le Fey's power over the Green Knight is palpable, and she does not need to be cast in the wifely role in order to possess this power. Lady Bertilak is cast in a wifely role, but this does not detract from her ability to take initiative and act independently of her husband. Her sexual power is a key driving force in Sir Gawain and the Greek Knight. Based on the gender roles, norms, and stereotypes embedded in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it can be said that women can wield power from within a generally patriarchal society.
Likewise, women in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales certainly wield power from within the patriarchal social order. The Wife of Bath's tale is full of feminist import. She begins her tale amid rude interruptions by males, which show that women's status in the society is perceived as being low. The Wife of Bath is well aware of the lowly status of women, which is why her tale is clearly about the ways women can subvert patriarchy in order to regain both status and power. Within the marriage construct, women can retain power and control over their own lives. The Wife of Bath has been married five times, something that the speaker is proud of because it proves that she has chosen her husbands, not the other way around. She has allowed herself self-determination, even if the Wife of Bath is still cast as a "wife." As a childfree woman, the Wife of Bath is not dictated by her social role, which is ironic given her title.
When she finally embarks on her tale, the Wife of Bath tells a story that is determinately feminist in nature. The story begins in a highly political manner, as the Wife of Bath mentions clearly the way rape is a political matter. Friars, she notes, have taken over the matriarchal old religions to replace them with Christianity's patriarchy. Moreover, the status of women has worsened because the friar's exude their dominance over women via rape. Rape is defined as a political measure: an act of dominion and power and not sexuality. Yet the Wife of Bath is clear to point out that the friars could not make their female victims pregnant like the incubi could. Her statement emasculates the friars, and subversively derides Christianity. The Wife of Bath's story is about King Arthur, linking it to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Just as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Wife of Bath's story depicts Guinevere as Arthur's political equal, if not in title than in practice. Guinevere is proffered the power to determine the fate of the rapist knight. Thus, Chaucer shows that women can take back the power stolen from them in the act of rape by having the political power over the rapist. Guinevere suggests that the rapist knight take one year to find out exactly what women want most; if he can discover this secret, then he will be spared his life. Solving the root cause of rape means unraveling the evils of patriarchy. The rapist's salvation depends on his ability to listen to and therefore respect women.
The hag in the Wife of Bath's story calls the shots in the relationship, has full control and dominion, and ultimately has as much control over the knight's life as Guinevere does. Therefore, two women are depicted as being in control over the same man. The patriarchal structure is completely subverted by the Wife of Bath. Given that the secret the knight seeks is precisely the fact that women need, want, and must have power, the message is that patriarchy is problematic. The hag wants to marry the man who does not want to marry her; she therefore symbolically subjugates and "rapes" him. Her interest in him is not purely selfish, however. The woman brings her story to Arthur's court as a lesson to all women -- and all of humanity -- about the nature of patriarchy and how it can and should be challenged continually through women taking back their power. She also bears wise universal truths about not only gender but also social class status, as she indicates the fact that people who are born of high social class status are not necessarily better people morally than the poor.
It is also significant that the hag does not love the knight. She only wants to marry him to teach him the lesson. He happens to learn that lesson, as he submits and allows her to choose whether to be beautiful or faithful. The story of the Wife of Bath takes the patriarchy out of marriage and makes marriage a gender-neutral institution.
Likewise, in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, marriage is more about love than it is about patriarchy. Viola, like Guinevere, Morgan Le Fey, and the Wife of Bath, is childfree. What Viola accomplishes that her predecessors did not is the ability to transition from one gender to another seamlessly. Her drag performance highlights gender disparities in society, as Viola understands that she must dress like a man in order to be considered for a job in the Duke's court. Her independence and self-sufficiency is established early in the play, though, and Viola takes charge of her own life. She is shown to be completely self-sufficient, even economically, which is a genuine challenge to the patriarchal order in which women are financially dependent on men as well as conscripted to a life of domestic servitude when they get married.
Like the Wife of Bath, Viola takes charge of her affairs and of her love life. She determines that she loves the Duke of Orsino. When she does get the man she wants, their marriage takes place on equal footing. Gender is treated in complex ways in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, which bears subtle references not only to gender bending but also to homosexuality. Viola as Cesario is the love interest of Olivia to suggest lesbian love; while Viola as Cesario is interested in the Duke of Orsino to suggest male homoerotic interest. The fact that love does develop between the various members of the cast in spite of their genders illustrates the fluidity of gender and the fact that gender is not real but socially constructed. This is the key way that Shakespeare's play…