Gender persona, others hint at a homosexual interpretation.

has always been a recurring theme in literature. It is often observed that
authors make allowance for gender roles and base their plots arounds these
expectations. The ‘dominant male’ was particularly romanticised in works
preceding the Industrial Revolution and thereby, the concept of ‘masculinity’
became idealised.

                It must
be made clear that not every interpretation of what is considered to be
‘masculine’ conforms to the idea of the dominant Victorian machismo. The
concept of ‘masculinity’ is a subjective one. Unsurprisingly, one comes across
a broad range of characters based on their writer’s idea of masculinity. In
this essay, we shall consider the representations of masculinity in the
Renaissance and Elizabethan periods, focusing particularly on John Donne’s Batter My Heart and William
Shakespeare’s Othello.

                The fall
of Constantinople and the Renaissance ushered mankind into an age of enlightenment.
Old traditions and beliefs were questioned while man made great strides in the
fields of science and logic. Women were offered greater autonomy due to the
changing economy and worldview. It is therefore quite natural that Renaissance
authors such as John Donne would choose to question the existing gender role
and stereotypes.

unsystematic but pointed comments on questions and issues raised by the public
controversy about women, Donne sets out to explore the natures of women and of men, considered separately as sexes.” (Benet,
Diana Treviño; pp. 15)

It can, therefore, be reasonably inferred that Donne’s idea
of masculinity is radically different from the “rough and tough” stereotype.
Donne’s portrayal of his poem Batter My
Heart has led to much debate. While some critics are of the opinion that
the poet simply adorns a female persona, others hint at a homosexual
interpretation. Certainly, the introductory lines of the poem bear much insight
into the poet’s interpretation of sexuality,

my heart, three person’d God; for you

                 As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to
mend”; (Donne, John)

There can be no doubt in the mind of the reader that Donne’s
persona is, perhaps deliberately, overtly submissive.

Richard Rambuss likens the ‘ravishment’
the heart to the violation of a rectum, wherein the poet yearns to receive the
full of might of God’s homo-erotic grace in the form of a “trinitarian gang bang”
(Rambuss, Richard; pp. 50). The conflicting themes of dominance and submission
present a confusing image of masculinity that Donne seems to relish. Indeed,
the well-structured sonnet and the confident choice of words suggest a dominant
personality while the lines “That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mw and bend/
That I may rise…” suggest a more ‘deviant’ approach to masculinity.

Donne’s interpretation of
masculinity, centred around the themes of submission, devotion and love; is an
interesting change from the classic stereotype of the dominant male machismo. It
is important to note that it is not Donne’s desires that are queer, but rather,
his masculinity that is so (Barnes, Andrew William). The poet’s portrayal of
masculinity in the poem is two-pronged. God, characterised as the dominant male,
deals with the themes of dominance, rape and subjugation while the poet dons a
submissive ‘sodomitic’ persona. Donne remains neutral to the theme of male sexuality
and is content to let the reader establish his own ideal of masculinity and acknowledges
both interpretations of male sexuality.

Masculinity in early modern England
was more of a political issue than a social one. Terms such as ‘manhood’ and ‘courage’
gained much popularity in the works of writers of that time, in adherence to
the aggressive Protestantism. Shakespeare himself however, was derisive of this
emerging masculinity and expressed this derision through his plays. Shakespeare
seeks to discredit the aggressive male sexuality which ran rampant during his
time by making masculinity the motive force behind his characters.

Masculinity is a central theme in
Othello. The protagonist, the ‘Noble
Moor of Venice’ is compelled to murder his beloved wife because of a perceived affront
to his fragile masculinity. The reason behind Iago’s schemes is his wounded
masculine pride and his hatred is the jealousy of a man smarting over a
perceived insult. It is curious to note that Shakespeare’s representation of masculinity
also characterises the women in the play. Desdemona, even after being fatally
wounded, would not reveal the murder out of devotion to Othello, in a rather ‘masculine’
display of courage.

“Of all his tragedies, Othello is Shakespeare’s most relentless
and excruciating…. concentrates on the systematic immolation of one man”
(Benet, Geoffrey). The plot of the play revolves around the issues of jealousy,
sexuality and gender as the audience watches Othello’s eventual downfall at the
hands of his ensign, Iago who takes notice of his superior’s fragile
masculinity and confidence; capitalising on it by whispering words of Desdemona’s
infidelity into Othello’s suspicious ear.

In Act I, the audience is
introduced to Othello, the ‘Noble Moor’ of Venice who is born of royal blood
and is an accomplished military commander. Othello is a man of adventure and
success. His position in Venetian society is that of prestige and his well-articulated
speeches further enhance his distinguished character. Othello’s accomplishments
and charm attract Desdemona, the beautiful daughter of Senator Brabantio and
the two marry out of love for each other. Othello is thus, portrayed as the
very ideal of masculinity.

Othello is secure in the
knowledge that Desdemona loves him – “she loved me for the dangers I had passed,
/ And I loved her that she did pity them” (1.3;166’7). When Brabantio, smarting
at the loss of his daughter, warns Othello that since Desdemona had betrayed
him, Othello must also be prepared to be betrayed in turn; the latter
confidently places his faith in his wife – “my life upon her faith”.

Beneath the thin façade of
Othello’s confident masculinity, there exists significant insecurity. Othello
rapidly loses his faith in Desdemona when Iago insinuates that Cassio had made
him a cuckold by having intercourse with his wife behind his back. Initially,
to his credit, Othello is somewhat resistant to these suggestions and
vehemently denies Iago’s claims and declares that he would not have “the smallest
fear or doubt of her revolt, / for she had eyes and chose me. No, Iago, I’ll
see before I doubt, when I doubt, prove, / And on the proof there is no more but
this: / Away at once with love or jealousy!” (3.3; 191’5)

Yet, Othello cannot help but be
suspicious of Desdemona. His interactions with her become stiff and awkward and
his sanity further erodes as his ensign continues to prod at his insecure
masculinity. He distances himself from his wife and tells Desdemona to “leave
me a little but to myself” (3.3; 86). Othello feels threatened by what he feels
is Desdemona’s rejection of his love and masculinity. His perceived failure at subjugating
his wife injures his already fragile masculinity which transforms and manifests
itself into sexual jealousy.

Othello, however, does not suffer
in solitude. His ensign, Iago, too falls prey to insecurity and the motivation
behind his scheme is revealed to be his anxious masculinity manifesting in his heart
as utter loathing. The reason for Iago’s insecurity is two-fold. Firstly, Iago’s
professional pride is injured when Cassio, who Iago remarks is nothing but a
glorified bookkeeper, is promoted instead of him. Secondly, rumours of Othello’s
‘dalliance’ with his wife infuriates him and his already injured masculinity is
struck a fatal blow. Desperate to subconsciously reassert his dominance, he
plots the downfall of his ‘foes’. Iago’s hatred of Othello far outstrips his
disdain of Cassio because to him, the injury to his masculine pride at being
replaced as the ‘man’ in his wife’s life is the more unforgivable offence.