The representation of gender and sexuality in Sydney's "Astrophil and Stella" and Shakespeare's "Coriolanus"

A comparison

Essay 2015 8 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Modern literary analysis often deals with different social problems of the time.

When looking through texts of other periods it is searched for evidence how people at that time dealt with those problems. In the last 20 years the depiction of sexuality and the term of “gender” - what is masculinity/femininity? - became an important factor in analysing. Thus, in every period there was a depiction on how male and female have to behave and how affection and sexuality is shown. Comparing two literary pieces of art from one period, one can clearly see the discrepancy even presented by two different authors.While Shakespeare’s depiction of gender and sexuality has a more masculine tone in his tragedy Coriolanus the sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella, written by Phillip Sidney gives a more feminine picture of men and women.

In the beginning of the sonnet Astrophil is shown as a man who is totally in love with a beautiful woman. The only problem he has is that this woman, Stella, does not love him. Hence, he writes poems about his feelings and emotions which shift from being amatory and promising to being frustrated and angry about Stella’s rejection. Astrophil is addicted to Stella (Sidney, poem 5 and 611 ) and cannot control his emotions anymore (Sidney, 1, 18, 50) or contact his other muses (Sidney, 10).

Moreover, Astrophil is not only overmastered, the willing victim of a superior power, he is also emasculated. (...) [T]he courtly lover is explicitly a man who is subjugated to a woman- a situation which puts at stake not only his self- possession but his virility and phallic power (Bates, 1).

Furthermore, he always praises Stella’s eyes (Sidney, 7, 11, 42) which are black but he compares them with the stars (Sidney, 26) which are bright. The eyes are said to be the mirror of the soul and hence, Stella is supposed to have a dark and bad soul. Although, Astrophil describes Stella with the best materials he knows like gold, red porphir, pearl and marble (Sidney, 9, 26) Stella is often portrayed as a tyrant or tormentor (Sidney, 46). The most important reason for this image of her is that she does not want to have sex with Astrophil what makes him jaundiced because of his “indulging and aggressive male libido” (Sanchez, 2). But for Stella having “sex with Astrophil would harm or humiliate [her]” (Sanchez, 3). Moreover, he starts to make use of tricks to get Stella’s permission for having sex with her (Sidney, 63) because it would be a rape without her permission. According to Sanchez, this attitude makes “Astrophil (...) not only immoral but also misogynistic” (2) and “sexual rapacity is a masculine quality” (5). His approach towards women is shown in several times like in poem 68 when he talks about “a Vertue to enjoy”. The woman is depicted as an object which can be used whenever he wants to and therefore, it is her only duty to entertain the man.

In the poems 12 and 36 Astrophil describes their relationship as a leaguer and a war in which Stella is victorious. “In class masochistic logic, being beaten by a woman serves as a displacement for being loved- that is, being sexually used or penetrated- by a man” (Bates, 16). Additionally, he compares Stella with a cherry tree he is not allowed to taste from (Sidney, 82) because Stella does not want a sexual relationship. Although he is forbidden to taste from this tree he cannot resist the temptation and steals a kiss from the sleeping Stella in the second song like Adam and Eva could not resist the tree of awareness and thus, were banned from paradise. Like it is said in poem 67, he should be pleased with what he has of Stella but he is not because his sexual desire increases and he hopes that he can control it (cf. Sidney, 76).

“Of highest wish, I wish you so much blisse, Hundreds of yeares you Stella’s feet may kisse” (Sidney, 84) shows that “Astrophil is abject” (Bates, 1) because kissing someone’s feet is a degrading and servile action. In addition, he cries after Stella broke up with him (Sidney, 95) and crying men are seen as weak and feminine. In poem 67 he thinks about all possible reasons for Stella’s blush, if there is a chance that she is in love with him and he analyzes everything she does. That behaviour is adjudicated to girls and women and hence, “Astrophil (...) is feminized, castrated, and unmanned” (Bates, 2). But although Astrophil is feminine he is not able to get Stella. Thus, one come to the conclusion, that a feminine man in that period was not wanted by women and therefore was not accepted by the society. This is also one of Astrophil’s problems because he fights with the men from the court (Sidney, 41, 53) and mocks them for their behaviour when they are in love (Sidney, 16). According to Sanchez, Astrophil only wants to have sex with Stella (cf. Sidney, 16) but this is not true because he quickly wants to console himself with other women (Sidney, 106) after his break up with Stella and “[t]hese women, however, are hardly passive targets of Astrophil’s lust” (Sanchez, 18). Therefore, it becomes obvious that he is only in love with Stella’s outer beauty especially her body and not her as a real person. But that is what Stella wants- someone who loves her personality and not only her body (cf. Sidney, 62).

In contrast to Astrophil and Stella men and women in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus are depicted differently. Coriolanus, who is named Caius Marcius at the beginning of the drama, is said to be a very proud man and Sicinius asks himself whether there was “ever man so proud as is this Marcius?” (Sicinius, I. 1. 268). Moreover, women describe all men as strong, heroic and brave (cf. Shakespeare, I. 3). While men have to fight in battles women stay at home waiting for them to return. “In militarist Rome, wars serve as an institutionalised site of maturation in which boys are constructed as men by learning to fulfil mandates of masculinity” (Dittmann, 7).

The relation between Coriolanus’s self-sufficiency and masculinity is based on the time the play was written in (cf. Dittmann, 11).

The play’s description of the construction of masculinity as a defence against lack provides a suggestive comment on the operation of the ideology of masculinity in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. The appeal of masculinity in this period was largely derived from its association with self-sufficiency (ibid.).

Coriolanus’s role in the plot changes from Rome’s defender to its attacker and thus, he attacks his own family and friends. He is that injured in his pride that he is not able anymore to see what he is doing. Dittmann describes, “that in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England masculinity was a deeply contested term” (5). Additionally, “[i]n Shakespearean tragedy male tragic heroes (...) seem to move from central spots in their communities to the fringes and beyond to become geographical or psychic outsiders” (Roberts, 199). Coriolanus moves from a good Roman soldier to a traitor of nation in exile. In contrast to that, Volumnia is a powerful character who is respected by her community (cf. Roberts, 205).

Therefore, the more surprising roles in Coriolanus are the female ones because in most cases the male characters were protagonists of tragedies (cf. Roberts, 199). That is because in “Renaissance England the community, the cultural center of the imagined world was hierarchical, patriarchal, male-centered, and relatively static and exclusive” (qtd. in Roberts, 200). Furthermore, it is difficult to get an objective impression of women because most of the time they are described from a male person what gives only a limited characterisation of them (cf. Roberts, 200). Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia and his wife Virgilia are antithetic in their behaviours and attitudes. Volumnia, who is in Roberts’s point of view the only female tragic hero in Shakespeare’s plays (cf. 206), is depicted as a strong woman who was able to raise her son alone to a good soldier and proud man. “Volumnia is a Roman matron, apparently a single parent who has inculcated in her son the values of a Roman soldier” (Roberts, 205). In contrast to her, Virgilia is naive, weak and inconspicuous. She cannot think about Coriolanus being wounded (Shakespeare, I. 3. 40) and she wants to stay at home to wait for Coriolanus to return and wants to be alone with her self-pity (cf. Shakespeare, I. 3. 74- 115).

According to Roberts, who says that women were often seen as men’s objects of fantasies, Virgilia is more stuck to that female representation than Volumnia is. Although “most of the women in Shakespeare’s tragedies, who, interesting though they may be, conform to the stereotypical patterns of virgin, villain, and victim” (Roberts, 203) Volumnia “escape[s] the most common male stereotypes of sex object and victim, and (...) certainly reveal[s] inner conflicts” (Roberts, 205). When Coriolanus is send to exile because of the betrayal of Sicinius and Brutus, Volumnia is the person who confronts them with their fault (Shakespeare, IV. 2.). Moreover, she persuades Coriolanus to speak to the nation although he does not want that (Shakespeare, III. 2). “She clearly changes as Rome is threatened. Her conflicts are profoundly moving. She acts finally to shape the destiny of Rome but only at the expense of her son and her hopes” (Roberts, 206). Therefore, she places Rome’s future above hers and Coriolanus’s because she is a doyen for Roman ideologies and thus supports integrity (Dittmann, 7).

“Through its dramatisation of Coriolanus’s fall, the play subjects the early modern ideal of masculinity to intense critical scrutiny” (Dittmann, 3). It is a difficult task for Coriolanus to beg for the citizens’ votes to become consul in act II scene 2 because he does not like the common people. Hence he does not want to show his wounds because it would “contaminate his identity as an integral masculine hero” (Dittman, 7).

All in all, one can see that Shakespeare and Sidney portray men and women differently. Men are shown as the strong defenders of the nation in Coriolanus and as hunting debauchees in Astrophil and Stella. As Bates claims it, “we have in Astrophil an image of manhood that is unquestionably bereft and impaired” (9). Coriolanus is the main tragic hero in Coriolanus but his death does not really affect his community because he has already been banished. Furthermore, he is urged into the background by his strong and confident mother who is much wiser than he is because he does not know what he can say and what only think. He always says the things which come to his mind without thinking about how other people will understand them. Women on the other side are depicted as the maiden in distress, hunted by Astrophil in Astrophil and Stella and therefore, pictured as a tyrant and mean. Stella gets punished for saying no to sex with Astrophil by his mean descriptions of her. Volumnia is the real heroine of Coriolanus because Rome would have been destroyed without her help. Virgilia is not a help for her because she is neither confident nor strong. One can say that she is the reflects the role of the women during the 16th cenrury because they did not have many rights and hence, were addicted to their husbands.

The most notable difference between the genders is the obsessive male concern with female sexuality, a concern that seems to reflect society’s fixation on the `purity´ and sanctity of the family tree (Roberts, 206).

In the end Coriolanus dies because he was too proud and therefore, not supported by his nation and Astrophil is at his start again because he was not able to get Stella’s love and now he knows that he will never get it. But in contrast to Coriolanus he, Stella, Volumnia, and Virgilia have the chance to change their lives before it is too late.

Works Cited

a) Primary Literature

Sidney, Philip. “Astrophil and Stella”. In The Major Works. Ed. Katherine Duncan- Jones. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics. 2009. Print.

Shakespeare, William. “Coriolanus”. In Coriolanus. Ed. Bruce King. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education. 1989. Print.

b) Secondary Literature

Bates, Catherine. “Astrophil and the Manic Wit of the Abject Male”. Rice University 41.1 (2001): 1-24. Print.

Dittmann, Joo Young. “’Tear him to pieces’: De-Suturing Masculinity in Coriolanus”. English Studies 90.6 (2009): 653- 672. Print.

Roberts, Jeanne Addison. “Sex and the Female Tragic Hero”. The Female Tragic Hero in English Renaissance Drama. Ed. Naomi Conn Liebler. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002. 199- 215. Print.

Sanchez, Melissa E. “In My Selfe the Smart I Try’: Female Promiscuity in Astrophil and Stella”. John Hopkins University Press 80.1 (2013): 1-27. Print.


1 Following abbreviated with “Sidney, poem number”


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Title: The representation of gender and sexuality in Sydney's "Astrophil and Stella" and Shakespeare's "Coriolanus"