The substandard status of women has been a staple in various cultures throughout the centuries. Certainly the literary world has been no exception; in fact, literature projects the creed of a civilization rather well. At first glance, women seem to take up very little space within the context of Beowulf, but a second look will reveal their societal roles in this era thanes and kings. Particularly, the portrayal of Queen Wealhtheow as a peacemaker and an audible voice reflects the contradictory expectations of women in a patriarchal society.
As the queen, Wealhtheow is by default the ceremonial hostess as well; she is expected to bridge the gaps that exist between the guests and the rest of the kings court. At the feast in honor of Beowulfs arrival, Wealhtheow enters in graceful splendor, passing a cup of mead around to the warriors. Although her manner is depicted as queenly and dignified, honoring the gathered thanes with her service, the act of physically bearing a cup for the men places her in a status subordinate to that of her husband (621). As portrayed in the text, Wealhtheow, in spite of her title, or perhaps because of it, has yet to gain equality among her male acquaintances. In addition to her dignified servitude, Wealhtheow also lends formality whatever activity she is involved with. For instance, after Beowulf fulfills his promise, she takes it upon herself to announce the extent of his accomplishments (1221-1226). The formality in her speech reminds everyone of the proper code of conduct, and offers structure in the midst of the drunken men. To the reader, Wealhtheows words present a note of finality and solidity to Beowulfs heroism that would otherwise be left to the ambiguity of interpretation. In the same way, Anglo-Saxon women of the past seem to be expected to shed light on, or even contribute to, the successes of their male counterparts.
While the docile servant-girl is one essential aspect of women of the time, ceremonial meekness alone cannot produce the quintessential Anglo-Saxon woman. As displayed in Wealhtheow, a model female must also at times demonstrate command of the company. Wealhtheow exhibits her self interests multiple times throughout her short lived appearances, the first of which can be seen in her initial dialogue with Hrothgar. During this conversation, Wealhtheows self interest is bared as she vouches for Hrothulf in order to benefit her children in the long run (1176-1179). While this still may seem a bit altruistic, the fact that her later life will depend on that of her childrens must be taken into consideration. Through her children, Wealhtheow ensures the security of her own future; before a crowd, no less. Even if Hrothgar had, for any reason, been against her suggestions, he would not have been able to directly oppose her while maintaining the pleasant atmosphere. The second time Wealhtheow removes her tame faade, her tone is much more assertive. Near the end of the feast in celebration of Grendels death, Wealhtheow speaks to Beowulf, not only asking for kindness on her sons behalf, but this time also implying definite control, stating that the thanes have one purpose[and] having drunk and pledged, the ranks do as [she] bid (1230-1231). A degree of intimidation is carefully laced into her words as she emphasizes her influence over her people. Wealhtheow is no pushover; she knows the extent of her power, and consciously curtails it for the sake of decorum.
Wealhtheows presence in the poem is relatively peripheral, mainly making customary appearances at celebrations. In fact, her condensed portrayal itself speaks volumes for womens secondary importance from the perspectives of men of the Beowulf era. Though in the background, they are nonetheless essential to society, as Wealhtheow has proven to be. In fact, Wealhtheow can be regarded as the quintessential balance between a strong will and the traditional feminine meekness. She is aware of her power over the whole company, yet checks herself in a humble and graceful manner; a woman like her in a position of power is ideal in the political and social arenas. Consequently, her character shows the small yet important part a woman plays in the poem, which in turn mirrors the expected roles of women in society at the time.