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A ‘battle of the sexes’ implies a conflict between a man and a woman regarding gender roles in a given environment or circumstance, or a more generalized battle for supremacy between men and women. The inequality between sexes can be found in any work of literature or film, and Shakespeare is no exception. Gender plays a huge role in social issues that Shakespeare touches on. With strong, domineering male characters and quick-witted, yet still meek, female characters, Shakespeare draws parallels between the two genders and gives a strong script for modern filmmakers to play with. In Shakespeare’s time, England was a patriarchal society meaning that every aspect of it was dominated men, women were considered wholly inferior to men, and therefore they must necessarily be protected by men, even though most men’s idea of protecting women was subjugating them in all aspects of their lives. Shakespeare wrote about independent, strong-willed women, but these women nevertheless exist in the time period in which Shakespeare wrote his plays, and his plays reflect the male-dominated society at the time they were written. There is not a lot about the ‘battle of the sexes’ in any of Shakespeare’s plays. There might be an occasional skirmish or a localized rebellion, but there’s no wholesale battle between men and women. In none of his plays does Shakespeare portrays women as superior to men as a whole. When women are shown as the equal of men or superior to men, this only pertains to specific women, and specific men, in specific situations. What is referred to as the battle of the sexes is a generally comic trope in Shakespeare’s plays—necessarily so since the comedies end in marriage, which is a truce and there are no general great battles between men and women for supremacy in any of the plays. In some of the plays there are is at some point moments of tension between man and women and these ‘battles of the sexes’ too are highly localized, which is to say that they occur only between individuals, in a clearly defined environment, and on a limited scale. These ‘battles’ also occur with the environment of Elizabethan and early Jacobean societies and are therefore subject to the societal norms in effect at the time the plays were written. The plays in which we find a tussle for power evident between men and women are as follows.

‘Measure for Measure’

In ‘Measure for Measure’, men dominate women throughout the play. There’s no battle, rebellion, or even a minor skirmish between any men and women in the play regarding their respective roles in society but there is a battle going on between Isabella and Angelo and here Isabella battles with the evil Angelo and wins. Isabella rejects Angelo’s lustful advances towards her, and she shows herself throughout the play to be independent-minded and strong-willed. Angelo wants to have sex with the pure Isabella, his price for commuting her brother’s death sentence. Angelo has recently broken his engagement with Mariana because she has lost her dowry. Isabella and Mariana hatch a plot. Isabella will agree to go to bed with Angelo, but only in complete darkness. Then Mariana substitutes herself for Isabella. Once he has consummated the relationship, Angelo is forced to honor his engagement and marry Mariana. Isabella is also instrumental in working with Duke Vincentio (disguised as a friar) and Marianna to expose and denounce Angelo. Thus, the women outwit the men and defeat them in their plots.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

In ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, there are two battles of the sexes so to speak of one battle is of Hermia with her father and another is between Oberon, King of the Fairies, and Titania, Queen of the Fairies. Hermia loves Lysander, but Hermia’s father, Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius. Hermia is wholly subject to her father’s will in the matter, and Duke Theseus sides with Hermia’s father. Hermia battles her father and Theseus over the right to marry for love since there is no way that her father will consent to her marriage with the man she loves, Hermia and Lysander decide to run away to be married, away from Egeus’s influence and beyond Theseus’s jurisdiction. This is open an rebellion that Hermia shows towards her father and towards Theseus. In another plotline Titania, Queen of the Fairies, battles with her husband Oberon, the King of the Fairies, over who gets to keep a little Indian boy whose mother has died. Titania wants him because she promised the boy’s mother, she would care for him, so she goes toe to toe with Oberon, who likes to have his way. This leads to bad weather in the human world–and comedy in the fairy forest. They’re squabbling over who will have the companionship of a changeling boy, an Indian prince. Titania is in power and although Oberon is King of the faeries he can be read as being weaker than his wife. He bends to her will and although he argues with her and makes demands he never truly gets what he wants.

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‘The Taming of the Shrew’

‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is often cited as the ultimate Shakespearean ‘battle of the sexes’. The battle between Petruchio and Katherina is at the battle of personalities and by the end of the play, it appears that Petruchio has ‘tamed’ Katherina, but only because Katherina let herself be tamed. It is the play to which the term ‘battle of the sexes’ is most often applied, supposedly involves a woman’s efforts to assert herself in a male-dominated society. It’s not so much that the woman, Katherina wants to assert herself in a male-dominated society. She simply wants to assert herself, period, and she happens to live in a male-dominated society, which only serves to complicates the matter. Katherina fights with everyone. It’s her nature. She fights with her father, her sister, her sister’s suitors, those who foolishly try to be her suitor, and innocent passers-by. When Petruchio comes into her life, she fights with him. Where Petruchio and Katherina are concerned, however, it’s not simply a fight; it’s a full-blown, winner-take-all battle of the wills. It’s a battle solely between Katherina and Petruchio. The inference in the play seems to be that although Katherina and Petruchio are equally matched, it appears that Katherina eventually succumbs to Petruchio’s will. In fact, in their hard-fought battle for supremacy, Katherina and Petruchio equally succumb to their hard-won love for one another.


Lady Macbeth is one of the most dynamic characters in all of Shakespeare’s plays because no other character is as manipulative as she is. For the first half of ‘Macbeth’, it is Lady Macbeth who puts herself in a position of power by taking the lead in the decision to murder Duncan. To get her power, Lady Macbeth not only openly rejects her femininity, but the thought of belonging to any gender at all. She is the driving force behind her husband’s ambition. She is the stronger partner in their marriage. She dominates Macbeth emotionally and wages psychological battle with him and browbeats him into killing Duncan and take the throne. Without her pushing him, it is doubtful that Macbeth would have killed Duncan. Lady Macbeth continually has strength over Macbeth because she diminishes his manliness and her womanliness. When Macbeth starts having second thoughts about murdering Duncan, Lady Macbeth steps in and threatens his masculinity. She states, “When you durst do it, then you were a man;/ And to be more than what you were, you would/ Be so much more the man” (I. vii. 49-51). To further her point, Lady Macbeth states, “I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums/ And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn” (I. vii. 56-58). Here, Lady Macbeth states that she would willingly kill her child if she promised to do so. In saying this, she is making Macbeth seem weak because he is going back on his promise that seems less significant now that that usually gives a female power does not do so in Macbeth. Women in Macbeth have to mask their femininity to get power. Lady Macbeth is initially very successful at rejecting her femaleness. She is in control of her own and Macbeth’s actions. Once Duncan is murdered, Macbeth gains back his confidence and subjects Lady Macbeth to a lesser role. This shows that the power that comes with masking femininity is only temporary and cannot be kept for an extended period of time. As seen from the final prophecy, there is no power in womanliness in Macbeth.

‘As you Like It’

In the play ‘As You Like It’ the story revolves around the character of Rosalind, she manipulates Orlando and some of the other characters in the play. Rosalind has all the power in ‘As You Like It’ because she takes the initiative to disguise herself as a man named Ganymede so she can easily persuade those around her. It is Rosalind’s independent mind and reliance on no one but herself that give her the drive to bring all of the couples together at the end of the play, but it is the masking of her femininity that allows for it to happen. The first time the audience meets Rosalind she is upset about the banishment of her father. She says to Celia, “Unless you could teach me/ to forget a banished father you must not learn me how to/ remember any extraordinary pleasure” (I.ii.3-5). She is upset about the banishment of her father, which is why Celia is trying to cheer her up. Interestingly, in the next scene, after Rosalind meets Orlando, she has something quite different on her mind. Rosalind meets Orlando after she sees him wrestling. This display of masculinity catches her eye and she is attracted to Orlando’s sexuality. When Celia asks her if her silence is all because of her father, Rosalind responds, “No, some of it is for my child’s father” (I.iii.9). After just meeting Orlando, Rosalind is already in love with him and talking about him like he is the father of her future child. Rosalind chooses Orlando on her own accord and her father is not a part of her life currently, and she chooses to fall in love and marry Orlando by herself. Already the idea of gender role is being switched because Rosalind was able to make these decisions for herself because of the actions she took as Ganymede. Rosalind herself equates femininity with weakness and she feels that she has to cover up her womanliness so that she does not feel the fear that the forest will offer her. She could have gone into the forest with a curtal-ax and a boar-spear, but she can only use those if she is dressed as a man. Rosalind is saying that it would be unlike her gender as a man to cry, making it a singularly feminine emotion. The implications of what gender roles mean are tested in Rosalind and Orlando’s relationship. Rosalind is the most dynamic of the couple because of the multiple sides of her. The many roles that Rosalind plays contribute to the complex relationship she has with femininity. Rosalind is not afraid to speak her mind here because by masking her femininity she has power over the other characters and can get away with saying whatever she wants. This shows that men had more freedom than women in Shakespeare.

Sexuality and gender are prominent themes in Shakespeare’s plays. Depending on the genre of the play, sexuality and gender are used as either a tool of manipulation, a form of propaganda or sometimes both. During the time of Shakespeare, there was a hierarchy of sexes and each had their own role in society. Men were masculine, they were not ruled by emotion, they were strong and hard working. Women belonged in the home, they were ruled by men and by their emotions and therefore were thought to often make bad decisions. Shakespeare wrote a variety of genres from romance to tragedy to history to comedy. Shakespeare saw the social norms of sexuality and gender in Elizabethan society and sought to deconstruct them to bring a new viewpoint on them. He was the Elizabethan version of a modern-day feminist bringing the role of women in a new light able to compete against men and outwit them.

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