A wife’s role in marriage in Historical and Contemporary Literature

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The role of women in marriage has inevitably changed over time. In the 15th Century, themes of ‘courtly love’ were apparent in most literature of the Middle Ages. It is the notion that a man desires above all else the true love of a woman; such a strong desire that he must submit totally to her. It is also a familiar premise that the love is so powerful that a man will go through physical changes and become unrecognisable. This is shown in texts such as the Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Prologue” from the “Canterbury Tales” (1405-1410) and Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra” (1623).

This theme emerged in poetry of the 11th Century and remains in medieval and renaissance literature and culture. This concept places the women in a position of control however it also requires them to follow the typical duty of women to physically please her man and be a ‘good wife’ in order to receive the wealth and other benefits of marriage. Feminism in the 20th Century brought about a radical change in society’s view of a woman’s role in marriage. It changed women’s attitudes towards sexuality and gender roles.

Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” (1982) explores women’s sexuality, power, and independence in love and marriage through characters such as ‘Shug Avery’ in a way which wasn’t as evident in earlier literature. But does the role of a woman lay in the definition of society or ones self? Society’s attitude towards women in marriage today sees them as to equals men, as the principle of inequality became generally unacceptable. But historically, views of this nature have not been questioned.

In the Bible Peter declared “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner”. The opinion that a wife is a ‘weaker partner’ in comparison to the husband is a motif which is also echoed in literature. In “The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra”, Shakespeare uses the contrast between Rome and Egypt to represent inequality through contrasting masculinity with femininity. In the first Act, Cleopatra requests of Antony “If it be love indeed, tell me how much”.

Through using the imperative ‘tell me’, Shakespeare is illustrating that she is so weak, she is in desperate need of Antony to reassure her how about much he loves her, in which he has found no problem expressing. Her ability to command him refers to the concept of ‘Courtly love’ that I have previously referred to. As Shakespeare intended this to be a staged play, the intention of his dramatic language to declare love between Antony and Cleopatra would have been received well by an audience at that time though as they already would have scorned the pitiable demise of a noble man.

Originally, Antony represents the ‘proper’ Roman, strong, self-disciplined, and intelligent. Yet Cleopatra embodies the Egyptian temptress, sensual, self-indulgent, dependant and weak. She single-handedly causes the ruin of the once honourable Roman, Antony, because it is merely in her nature and she can not help herself, just as it was in Eve’s nature to tempt Adam towards his downfall. It is a familiar notion that it is a woman’s ‘duty’ to physically please her man. Cleopatra shows this duty through her sensual nature though it is very much a part of her personality.

The power of lust is a theme reiterated through the play and is a central aspect to her power over Antony. Indications to sex are far more common in the play than the sex itself but it is inferred that the power of her sex is so strong that it causes Antony to do ‘unrecognisable’ things, so it is undoubtedly a key aspect of their relationship. Conventionally, sexual desire is linked with strong emotions and expressed through communication. Communicating sexual desire is a trait associated with masculinity and it is socially out of the norm for a woman to express her sexual desire in a confident manner.

However, in “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” Chaucer uses a mixture of rhetorical questions and controversial statements to allow the reader to question any pre-conceived notions of masculine and feminine behaviour. The Wife declares that “In wyfhode I wol use myn instrument, as frely as my Makere hath it sent. ” (155-156) Contrasting to Shakespeare, Chaucer uses the imperative “I wol” to convey the control the Wife has over the relationship and she does not succumb to society’s expectations of a wife’s behaviour.

Chaucer uses the metaphor of an “instrument” when describing the Wife’s genitals to illustrate her belief that her body is merely a tool which should be used for reproduction. By referencing her “Makere”, Chaucer justifies the Wife’s sexually driven nature with a spiritual and religious understanding of sexual activity. Throughout the Prologue, The Wife constantly defines the purpose marriage through, sex, money and material gain. Sex is directly linked to power for the Wife of Bath and it is the only way she can manipulate a man into sharing his wealth.

Rarely is sex associated with love in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Prologue’ and as she has had five marriages, Chaucer sets an underlying tone that this is an unsuccessful lifestyle. Due to the way sexuality is viewed in today’s society, A contemporary reader would not be surprised by the Wife’s intentions as views of this nature have been caricatured in aspects of media and film-making. A reader in the Middle Ages would be feel very differently, they would be shocked by the way she is openly speaking about her sexual endeavours.

Themes of sex are evident in the majority of both historical and contemporary Literature, but the purpose of sex and the expression of woman’s sexuality have changed over time. For the majority of the book “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, the protagonist Celie views sex as a violent act or at best, an obligation to her husband. This is evident when “Mr. ___” a character which goes unnamed for the majority of the novel, is having sexual intercourse with Celie. Afterwards she describes her experience by saying “When that hurt, I cry. He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it.

The use of colloquial language and southern dialect in the phrase “git used to it” shows a lack of intelligence the woman has in the relationship. This is due to the fact that at the time, women typically were not educated and mainly stayed at home while the men went out and worked. Walker is portraying men to be dominant in through the command “You better”, implying that if she doesn’t comply, she will be punished. A reader at this time would be familiar of a relationship of this nature as it was very normal for a husband to be dominant over his wife.

Domestic violence within relationships was not spoken of, therefore silently accepted. Celie then meets a character named Shug Avery which opens up Celie to different views on sexuality within marriage. Shug Avery shares similar views to that of the Wife in Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue. ” One of the views she shares is that Shug believes that sex is something that should always be enjoyed, and God intended to be that way. This is shown when she declares to Celie “God made all them feelings… God made it. Listen, God love everything you love-and a mess of stuff you don’t. ” (p73. 3-56)

By referencing God, Walker brings up a theme of religion and spirituality which is evident throughout the novel. In southern states of America, religion (especially Christianity) is very common and being right in the eyes of God was extremely important. Through use of repetition of the word ‘God’ in saying that “God made it” and “God loves it”, this leads a reader at the time to reconsider the purpose of sex within marriage and allows society to accept a woman’s sexuality as an expression of themselves and not a rebellious or promiscuous act. Shug Avery states in the novel that if you haven’t enjoyed sex, you are still a virgin.

This empowers characters such as Celie to take control of their sexual identity and not succumb to the age-old “duty” of women to provide sex in marriage. This is a very powerful idea that would have been embraced by readers at the time as the novel gave women examples of other women who demonstrate “masculine” traits such as aggressive behaviour and sexuality are all parts of being a woman that society has not openly accepted. As The Color Purple is an Epistolary novel, the structure of the letters in the book slowly become larger as Celie begins to find her voice.

This shows that she is slowly becoming comfortable with herself and gives the reader a chance to grow with her. The fact that Celie has to speak through a range of letters to God as opposed to open dialogue such as Cleopatra or The Wife of Bath, speaks volumes for how women are trapped within their expectations in society and those who break the conventional duties of a woman are either shunned upon or silently admired. In the play Antony and Cleopatra, the constant dialogue allows the reader to understand the dynamics of both the man and the woman in a relationship.

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