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A Female Agency in Beowulf

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Words: 847 |

Pages: 2|

5 min read

Published: Nov 8, 2019

Words: 847|Pages: 2|5 min read

Published: Nov 8, 2019

Like many other epic poems, Beowulf was designed to be orally recited. In order to ease the difficulty of such a laborious undertaking, speeches made during the epic are scarce and establish an implicit aura of importance within the composition. These lapses in narration serve an array of effective literary functions, from displaying the nature of central characters to indicating narrative transition. However, speech within the poem also acts as a method of displaying power, hence, those who are granted speaking passages tend to hold a greater importance. Observing the speech of Beowulf with this sentiment in mind highlights the hierarchy of the Anglo-Saxon realm in addition to implications of societal expectation. In this regard, acts of speech in the poem depict a glimpse of the patriarchal gender dynamic present at this time in history. The vast majority of women in the poem hold diminutive roles and are either silent or left unnamed, with the exception of Wealhtheow. Though her presence is brief, the voice of the queen emerges as an integral element in understanding the importance and capability of women within the Anglo Saxon aristocracy.

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Anglo Saxon culture was rife with tales of nobility and valiant heroism, and the story of Beowulf is no outlier. Reflecting upon the dissemination of speaking passages in the epic, the text is dominated by androcentrism; emphasizing a social hierarchy that was constructed upon glory, loyalty to the crown, and physical prowess among other masculine achievements. The culture’s romanticization of masculinity and honor is especially evident following the death of Aeschere, with Beowulf proclaiming “The days on earth for every one of us / are numbered; he who may should win renown before his death; that is a warrior’s / best memorial when he has departed from this world”. However, despite the culture’s conflation of masculinity and status, a close examination of Wealhtheow proves that women were not simply docile instruments for their kings to command. Due to the historical context, female agency was not absent, but merely restricted to the confines of the patriarchy. Following Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel, a rejoicing celebration ensues in Heorot. Emerging from the clamor of the mead hall, Wealhtheow’s entrance exudes a commanding aura as she takes her seat: The hall echoed with joy, Waves of noise broke out along the benches; cup-bearers carried wine in glorious vessels.

Amidst the fervor of victory, Hrothgar extends a bond of familial kinship to Beowulf, despite his own sons as direct successors to the throne. Wealhtheow’s entreatment of Hrothgar displays her stateliness as well as implications of larger political importance. Her role as ritual cup-bearer not only reinforces her primacy as queen, but also grants her a platform to speak upon. In her request of Hrothgar, she urges him to be generous to Beowulf and his men, but to be wary of introducing him into the Danish lineage. Instead, she advocates for his nephew Hrothulf to succeed him, ultimately ensuring the continuation of her household and reminding Hrothgar of the obligation he bears to his kin.

Although Beowulf possesses physical prowess and honor in monumental proportions, Wealhtheow is evidently perturbed by the heedlessness of her husband’s decision to erase his lineage. By securing the legacy of her family, Wealhtheow subverts the notion of female powerlessness through a display of political authority. Her rebuttal of Hrothgar’s wishes elucidates the method in which the queen constructs her agency within society's confines. In this vein, Wealhtheow concurrently embodies the loyal and maternal virtues of an idyllic Anglo Saxon woman; stoically standing beside her king, but also providing intelligent counsel. A greater display of agency occurs as Wealhtheow gives an ensuing speech to Beowulf: May you, Beowulf, beloved youth, enjoy with all good fortune this necklace and corslet, treasures of the people….Here, each warrior is true to the others…They will do as I as.

Although she previously insinuates that Beowulf should not be responsible for the throne, she still acts nobly and retains a peaceful bond between the Geats and the Danes by means of treasure. By bestowing lavish adornments upon Beowulf, Wealhtheow appropriates the traditionally male capacity of allotting rewards. This graciousness acts on behalf of Hrothgar’s future kinsmen as she enforces the relationship between Beowulf and Hrothgar’s kingdoms. In conjunction with her speech to Hrothgar, both acts of speaking reflect the queen’s active and authoritative role in the court.

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The act of presenting treasure to Beowulf places Wealhtheow in a commensurate role with men, and this is furthered through her queenly declaration that the warriors of the hall will “do as she asks”. Through speech, Wealhtheow is able to assert herself as an autonomous individual within the confines of social restriction. In both her ritual cup-bearing and rewarding of Beowulf, she manifests as a woman with an agency in the court through the methods that were available to her. Although her role is still ultimately a subservient one through a modern lense, in the context of the narrative, Wealhtheow holds an integral role in safeguarding the prosperity of her children as well as constructing political bonds for generations to come.

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

Cite this Essay

A Female Agency in Beowulf. (2019, September 13). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-female-agency-in-beowulf/
“A Female Agency in Beowulf.” GradesFixer, 13 Sept. 2019, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-female-agency-in-beowulf/
A Female Agency in Beowulf. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-female-agency-in-beowulf/> [Accessed 16 Jun. 2024].
A Female Agency in Beowulf [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2019 Sept 13 [cited 2024 Jun 16]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-female-agency-in-beowulf/
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