You are here:

Shakespeare/Woman in Shakespeare's time


Hi, i was just wondering if you could help describe what the gender role of women was thought to be during Shakespeare's time. How were they percieved and how were they expected to act.

Hello, Bob,

Historians nowadays have uncovered a great deal of misogyny during Shakespeare's time, more perhaps even than had been present in the Medieval culture before then.   For example, unlike in the previous age, women in the Early Modern period handed over all legal right to any material wealth to her husband upon marriage (except any land she held, which remained in her name as a safeguard to her family in the event that she predeceased her husband, in which case it was not for her benefit, or for upholding "women's rights" in our contemporary concept, that she retained ownership of land but for the patriarchy's protection of its elder males' rights).

Why did the social equality of women take a large step backward after the Middle Ages?  It has been conjectured that Protestantism broke England away from Catholicism and its acceptance of the Mother Mary within the hierarchy of venerated figures, as well as Catholicism's provisions for a hierarchy of women in power in the convent system, both of which left England's women without an accepted female divine figure for private prayer or consolation, as well as without a place of refuge within which, like men though separated from men, they could also achieve various levels of power. It has also been argued that, since the Renaissance involved the rediscovery of texts from antiquity, the Greek view of the general inferior nature of women also emerged.  For a highly Christianized culture such as Western Europe in the Early Modern age, finding a viewpoint shared both by Aristotle and the Bible guaranteed its validity. Aristotle argued that womankind was physically "defective," meaning that, compared with men's bodies, a woman's body lacks some critical parts and was therefore not whole.  Under the Greek concept of the "Doctrine of Homology," which set forth that what is true and demonstrable in one sphere is going to be true and demonstrable in all others, the logical conclusion was that if women were physically defective then they would be intellectually, emotionally, morally, spiritually defective, as well, and man would be the perfect "whole" that was to be set above woman as being superior in all the arenas just mentioned. In fact, it would be man's duty to protect this defective creature and also to protect the world from her. As it turns out, Hebraic culture shared much of this view of women, as well, and so the Bible's view of Eve upheld this notion of "defective" woman, as did St. Paul's epistles, which altogether formed an irrefutable truth to the Early Modern patriarchal mind.

As a result, woman's role during this time was confined to her biological functions as bearer and nurturer of children, along with any such household duties (depending upon her rank in the class system) as befitted her station. This association of women with monthly cycles and the similar blood-letting of giving birth made women connected more with flesh, earth, and moon, while masculinity was associated with spirit, the heavens, and the sun.  And this was thought to be the "natural" state of the sexes, that is, the way that nature had created them, by God's decree.

It logically followed, then, (or so it was thought logical) that the defective minds of women had to be governed or watched over by the "naturally" superior men in their lives, and that the defective morals of women meant that women should be kept from any public office or display in which they could have influence over the lives of others.  Many of the Humanist educators began to argue that a defective mind, morality, and spirituality even more demanded that women should be educated, so as to try to make up for the natural deficits in their makeup. However, it was generally agreed that the education of a woman should be done in private by hired tutors and afterward used only in private, that is, that a woman should use her education only to teach her small children at home (older male children of prominent families were thus often sent to be "fostered" at other prominent families' homes, to escape the undue influence of the "defective" mothers and the natural loving kindness of fathers who would not discipline the child enough).  In effect, this practice limited education for women to the aristocracy and upper- or wealthy classes of commoners, since any public schooling was to remain the province of males exclusively.

It became a widespread notion, then, that a "proper" woman had to abide by three "cardinal virtues" that were held to be paramount throughout Western Europe and England from the 15th century, at least.  These virtues were chastity (keeping a clean body that is sexually pure if she were unmarried and, if married, given only to her husband), obedience (to the male power above her, i.e., in successive order, father, husband, brother, any male relative on her father's side), and, oddly enough to us moderns, silence.  This tri-part sense of virtue -  chastity, obedience, and silence - had an interlocking quality, as well, meaning that if a woman broke one of the three virtues then she was considered to have broken all three.

Although this seems rather odd to our modern sensibilities, it was apparently quite a natural idea that speech and language-use would have an element of sexuality to it.  If a woman thus spoke publicly, as in teaching, preaching, or in any way engaging in political rhetoric (or spoke openly in the home or among company in any way forbidden by her husband), the assumption was that she was unchaste, also, and disobedient.  A proverb, "An eloquent woman is never chaste," was very common throughout the Early Modern age in Western Europe and England.  It is unknown exactly where these proscriptions actually originated, though the resultant women's behavior manuals that flourished throughout these centuries made ready connections between Eve's willful speaking to the serpent and prostitutes who spoke to entice unwitting men to fall to their wiles.

A woman was thus expected to obey the man who had charge over her, to remain sexually pure, and to speak only when spoken to and very lowly and meekly at that.  The middle- and upper-class woman was expected to be her husband's helpmate by running the household (keeping servants in line, balancing money accounts, planning and executing social functions) and bearing his children.  (Due to exceedingly high mortality rates for childbirth, perhaps I should say, "taking the risk to bear his children.")

The obvious exception to some of these rules was Queen Elizabeth's presence on the throne of England for 45 years of relative peace and prosperity. Upon her accession to the throne, there is evidence of some strong disapproval of what John Knox called the "monstrous regiment of women," and she clearly did not marry and produce children as she was expected to do. In particular, she was expected to provide an heir to the throne (to prevent war upon her death without such an heir), though she refused even to mention a name of an heir until she was on her deathbed. One could argue that her public image paid heavily for her womanhood as well as for her nerveless refusal to be bullied by traditionalists in her court and country, for rumors circulated throughout her reign of her supposed illicit sexual activity and bearing of illegitimate children whenever she traveled, neither of which has ever been proved.  She professed until her dying day that she remained a virgin (chastity), and she always fashioned herself as God's obedient servant (obedience to a male guardian, in this case, God Himself), though remarkably enough she did not hold silence, delivering during her reign at least 19 public speeches (some of them in the masculine scholarly language of Latin) that we know of, several of which exist in draft form in her own hand.

What effect, if any, such a strong Queen's presence on the throne of England had on the culture of Shakespeare's time is debated.  Some say that her mere presence and success in the male-dominated political world was enough to shake up the patriarchy in England and to begin the machinery of change, while others argue that her behavior, more like a male in that she did not change any laws to equalize women's rights and she ruled her own Ladies in Waiting with the iron hand of a bona fide patriarch, did nothing to further the cause of women in her own world.

I hope this discussion has been useful to you.  Write back with more questions, if you wish. And thanks for consulting AllExperts!
Dr. T.


All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


Dr. T.


I can answer questions about Shakespeare's life and times, his plays and poems, the history of criticism and critics' responses to Shakespeare's works, other authors of the time period, the audiences of the time period, Queen Elizabeth I, women of the Renaissance or Early Modern age, history of rhetoric, British drama, etc.


I have taught Shakespeare, Early Modern literature, Early Modern women's literature, the history of rhetoric, Arthurian literature, and related general literary subjects and many others in university classrooms for more than 25 years.

Renaissance Society of America, South-Central Renaissance Society, John Donne Society

3 books with University Presses, 1 book with HarperCollins Press; articles with: Continuum Press, DLB, Gale Research Shakespearean Criticism and Shakespearean Criticism Yearbook, College English journal, Studies in English Literature journal, CEA Critic journal, Renascence journal, Texas Papers on Language and Literature journal, several others.

Ph.D. in British Renaissance Literature and Rhetoric; M.A. in English; B.A. English and Theatre

Awards and Honors
I was editor of a scholarly journal for 10 years; Recipient of my university's Recognition Awards for Research, Teaching, and Service; two Sabbatical awards; graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude

Past/Present Clients
Panelist/Reviewer for National Endowment for the Humanities, Washington, DC, 2001, 1997, and 1993; Referee for College Literature, Yale University Press (numerous editions of Shakespeare’s plays), College English, Harper/Collins (1992 to 1995: full-length book manuscripts, including the complete manuscript of The HarperCollins World Reader, Volume I.); Dramaturg for local Little Theatre, 2001–03 (including productions of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Dangerous Liaisons); Dramaturg for various productions in Theatre/Dance Dept at my University (including As You Like It, Midsummer Night's Dream, Measure for Measure, The Tempest)

©2017 All rights reserved.