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Women's Roles In Epic Of Gilgamesh, Sir Gawain And The Green Knight And The Canterbury Tales

1482 words - 6 pages

Changing Women's Roles in The Epic of Gilgamesh, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Canterbury Tales

Over the course of time, the roles of men and women have changed dramatically. As women have increasingly gained more social recognition, they have also earned more significant roles in society. This change is clearly reflected in many works of literature, one of the most representative of which is Plautus's 191 B.C. drama Pseudolus, in which we meet the prostitute Phoenicium. Although the motivation behind nearly every action in the play, she is glimpsed only briefly, never speaks directly, and earns little respect from the male characters surrounding her, a situation that roughly parallels a woman's role in Roman society of that period. Women of the time, in other words, were to be seen and not heard. Their sole purpose was to please or to benefit men. As time passed, though, women earned more responsibility, allowing them to become stronger and hold more influence. The women who inspired Lope de Vega's early seventeenth-century drama Fuente Ovejuna, for instance, rose up against not only the male officials of their tiny village, but the cruel (male) dictator busy oppressing so much of Spain as a whole. The roles women play in literature have evolved correspondingly, and, by comparing The Epic of Gilgamesh, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Wife of Bath's Prologue, we can see that fictional women have just as increasingly as their real-word counterparts used gender differences as weapons against men.

The epic poem Gilgamesh is the first heroic epic of world literature. The role of the primary mortal woman mentioned in it is only to benefit and please men, and with little or no consideration as to how she feels about this arrangement. According to Rivkah Harris, author of Gender and Aging in Mesopotamia, Gilgamesh was written by men as entertainment for an apparently all-male audience (120). The woman is a harlot seen only once and -- at least in the N.K. Sandars translation -- is not even given a name. She becomes and remains what Harris calls an "object of male control" (226). Each time she is spoken to, she is referred to as "woman," as if this is her name, and is commanded to complete a task. For example, when the trapper takes her to find Enkidu, whom she is to seduce, he says to her, "Now, woman, make your breasts bare, have no shame, do not delay but welcome his love" (Lawall 20). This woman, as Harris has written, is not as much a real character as an object, and one of male pleasure at that. While many might see her role as completely demeaning, however, it also marks the beginning of literary women's use of sex as a weapon. What we must remember is that, no matter that it comes about by way of a man's commands, the harlot changes Enkidu from a ravenous wild man into the more human companion of a king. Only she has the power men need to transform him into a character that will benefit, instead of rebel against, the...

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