The Role of Women in Beowulf
Beowulf is an epic tale written over twelve hundred years ago. In the poem, several different female characters are introduced, and each woman possesses detailed and unique characteristics. The women in Beowulf are portrayed as strong individuals, each of whom has a specific role within the poem. Some women are cast as the cup-bearers and gracious hostesses of the mead halls, such as Wealhtheow and Hygd, while others, Grendel's mother, fulfill the role of a monstrous uninvited guest. The woman's role of the time period, author's attitude, and societal expectations for women are evidenced throughout the poem.
Wealhtheow is Hrothgar's queen and the mother of his two sons. Wealhtheow portrays the role of a traditional Anglo-Saxon woman at the time. When Wealhtheow is first introduced to the audience, she immediately falls into her role as peaceful greeter and cocktail waitress. The author writes, "Then Wealhtheow came forth / folk-queen of the Danes daughter of Helmingas / and Hrothgar's bedmate. She hailed all of them / spoke her peace-words stepped to the gift-throne / fetched to her king the first ale-cup" (ll. 612-6). Wealhtheow then proceeds through the meadhall "offering hall-joy to old and to young / with rich treasure-cups" (ll. 621-2). When Wealhtheow first approaches Beowulf and the Geats, she "bore him a cup / with gold-gleaming hands held it before him / graciously greeted the Geats' warleader" (ll. 623-5). The author then reinforces that she is a member of the weaker gender by directing Wealhtheow to her proper position behind the king. When the queen is not serving drinks or greeting the hall guests, she may usually be found obediently following Hrothgar throughout the mead hall and "waiting for hope-news" (ll. 923).
Wealhtheow exists as the main female protagonist in the poem. She does not enter as a character until she is needed to fulfill her role as the cup-bearer for the first feast at Heorot. She is well-respected within the mead hall and in return respects the men of the hall "adorned in her gold, she graciously saluted / the men in the hall, then handed the cup / first to Hrothgar, their homeland's guardian" (ll. 614-616). However, as Wealhtheow continues her rounds of serving, it becomes apparent that Wealhtheow has more power than that of a common cup-bearer. This is evidenced when she is able to speak to the guests of the mead hall, and receives a respectful response from the guest of honor, Beowulf. In addition to the respect that she is given, it becomes apparent that Wealhtheow is well spoken and perhaps well educated: "With measured words...