Women in Shakespeare

Women in Shakespeare

Women in Shakespeare is a topic within the gneral discussion of Shakespeare's works. Women appear as both supporting characters and central characters in Shakespeare's plays although none of his plays has a woman as the only eponymous character in the play's title, although The Taming of the Shrew refers to the key female protagonist and Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida have titles which refer equally to a male and female character.

Important Women Characters

* Cleopatra Anthony and Cleopatra
* Cordelia King Lear
* Cressida Troilus and Cressida
* Desdemona Othello
* Gertrude Hamlet
* Goneril King Lear
* Juliet Romeo and Juliet
* Katherina (Kate) The Taming of the Shrew
* Lady Macbeth Macbeth
* Miranda Tempest
* Ophelia Hamlet
* Regan King Lear
* Rosalind As You Like It
* Viola Twelfth Night

hakespeare's Heroines

Three of Shakespeare's most famous heroines are Ophelia (Hamlet), Desdemona (Othello), and Cleopatra (Anthony and Cleopatra). Ophelia and Desdemona play similar roles in Shakespeare’s' plays. They are ultimately always at the mercy of the men in their lives. These heroines can be related to Hermia, Helena, and Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night's Dream as well. The women in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are basically bossed around and expected to do whatever the men in their lives want them to do. They do not have much freedom to act as they wish, and when they do choose to act the way they want to they are looked down upon by the rest of society.

These women are mostly passive and very innocent. Shakespeare in some points of his plays has these women acting like children. They do not have many strong points of view, or times of resistance. For the most part they are under the control of the men that surround them. Their only defense and reactions are usually emotional breakdowns and fits of anger and sadness. Shakespeare sets up these storylines so that many of the women in his plays become victims. They become victims to the men around them, and the situations that they are placed in. Usually when Shakespeare’s female characters are put into this state of being a victim they decide to ultimately obey the men in their lives, or they become “mad.” They end up not being able to control their emotions, and they have no defense.

Cleopatra on the other hand is very different from these other women. "Cleopatra's masculine qualities counterbalance the play" (Lewis). The power role is swapped between Cleopatra and Antony, and this is a very different look at a female character in Shakespeare's plays. The women in the other plays who were very quiet and submissive did not show much of their sexual side. Cleopatra is open about her sexuality during the entire play; she is not embarrassed or shy. She is called a "whore" and a "strumpet" at many different points in the play, but the difference between Cleopatra and our other women found in Shakespeare is Cleopatra doesn't change because of what the male characters say to her. In not changing for the men around her, Cleopatra gains power, and uses it against the men in her society. Her resistance to conform is her strength and empowerment.

Another difference between our other heroines and Cleopatra is status. Cleopatra is the Queen of Egypt, while the other females are dependant on their male counterparts or fathers. In Shakespeare's plays we are normally introduced to the relationship between father and daughter, and we are immediately shown how these females depend on their fathers for food, shelter, and money.

A good example of one of the female characters being completely dependent on a male is Hermia from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Hermia goes against her fathers' will and starts a relationship with Lysander, whom her father does not approve of. Egeus (Hermia's father) wants Hermia to be with Demetrius. He gives her the ultimatum of either marriage to Demetrius, or death. Egeus uses his power against his daughter, and forces her to be in a situation where she really has no control over her own life. When the situation is brought to King Theseus’ attention, he agrees with Egeus and tells Hermia that she should be grateful for everything her father has given her, and she should obey his wishes.

hakespeare and Queen Elizabeth

There has been controversy on the roles that women play in Shakespeare's literature. Some crticis have argued that Shakespeare "was a feminist" (Lewis) while other people have come up with the conclusion that Shakespeare portrays women poorly in his plays.

C.L. Barber suggested, "The very central and problematical role of women in Shakespeare and in Elizabethan drama generally reflects the fact that the Protestantism did away with the cult of the Virgin Mary. It meant the loss of ritual resource for dealing with the internal residues in all of us of the once all-powerful and all-inclusive mother" (Montrose).

"The normal occupation for women at the time (sixteenth and seventeenth century) was marriage and motherhood" (McDonald). Obviously this was not the case for every woman in Shakespeare’s day, but for a majority of them this was the most important role that they had in their life. Many women worked, and kept up the household activities, but there were not many cases where women held a higher position socially than men. The big exception to this common trend was Queen Elizabeth, who embodied the ultimate image of a powerful woman, ruled England.

Queen Elizabeth herself was a very strong woman, and she embraced the powers that she had. In Elizabeth's time "marriage was not merely a legal and affective union between private persons but also a political and economic alliance" (Montrose). Elizabeth might have chosen to not marry because she did not want to share the power that she possessed. Many writers in Elizabeth's time wrote about the royal image. Elizabeth was seen as a ruler, a mother, and also a warrior. She was the ultimate woman in Shakespeare's time, and many people believe that she had a high influence on his works. She was known to read his plays, as well as have them come and be performed for her viewing pleasure.

Shakespeare's works are a result of the culture he lived in and he wrote about contemporary issues and relationships that were going on in his time. The Patriarchal society that Shakespeare lived in could be a direct reason for the different views of women that we find in his plays. There are many critics who believe that it is not necessary to think that Shakespeare had intentions of glorifying, or demeaning women in his works. Their reasoning for this is because for the most part, he merely wrote plays that were contemporary. In Shakespeare's contemporary and realistic world, women did not have many rights, and that was a fact of life. With this idea in mind, it would be unrealistic and unheard of to have female characters as heroes, or the center of attention because this wasn't something that was common in his time. Women generally acted a certain way, lived with guidelines, and if Shakespeare did not show this in his literature, people might have wondered why he was creating personalities that did not exist in his time.


Patriarchy technically is defined as a form of social organization in which the father is head of the family, descent being traced through the male line. The husbands in the family had complete control over everything that was going on. They had control over the estate they lived in, the income, and even complete control over their children. Wives were supposed to yield to their husbands in this time of patriarchy. Men and women were thought to have spiritual equality (McDonald), but not human equality. Through the sacrament of holy matrimony husband and wife become a pair, but the pair was still run by the male. They were on the same level spiritually, but on Earth the men took the reigns.

These ideas were not easily altered. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries people were born into their class system. The social structure that we have today is still somewhat based on the system that was developed in Shakespeare’s time. Just like it was not easy to move from one social class to the next, it was not easy to control more power than the world was willing to give you, especially if you were a female. At this point in time people were divided into the following groups: Aristocracy, Gentry, Citizens, Yeomen, Servants, and The Indigents.

People found in the Aristocracy group were people of noble birth, who possessed considerable wealth. Gentries were descendants of the Aristocracy who owned less than the people in the Aristocracy, but still maintained a good amount of wealth. Citizens were mostly urban tradesmen or shopkeepers, who usually made and sold items for the public. Yeomen were the rural equivalent to the citizens. The Yeomen owned grazing land that they made a profit from. Servants owned little themselves, but made their living working for other people. The Indigents were people that were thought of as beggars. For one reason or another the indigents were unable to work, therefore they tried to live off of other people. There were still many people who did not fit into these groups and were merely known as “masterless men,” or “vagrants.” This is merely an outline of the social society that existed in Shakespeare’s time. This outline however is thought to have established groups in society that almost still exist today.

In Shakespeare's works he portrays all his characters (male and female) in several different ways. He has many interesting characters that have a variety of lifestyles. Like I stated above, some people believe that the scrutiny Shakespeare receives over his female characters has to do directly with the patriarchal time he lived in. Shakespeare wrote plays that were performed by men. Women did not have any active roles in the theatre business, besides being viewers. Women were not allowed to act, and men ran all the theatre and acting circles that we know of in his time. Some people find this sexist, while others accept that women were not a major part of the literary or theatrical world at this point.

Shakespeare tries to give his viewers colorful characters that represent the time they lived in. For this reason alone, many people believe women are presented the way they are. It isn't that Shakespeare is trying to put his women down in his plays, he is showing his readers how the women would have realistically been treated at a particular place and time. Shakespeare shows us how many of his heroines are forced to react to the world they live in. These heroines do not usually have a say in the lives they lead, and they almost always do not have positive alternatives.

Views of Women in Society (In Shakespeare’s time and Today)

Another theory of why women are portrayed the ways they are in Shakespeare's works are because women were thought to think and act in a certain way. Shakespeare could have been part of a very popular group of writers in his time that believed in the promoting of good moral behavior among young women. Women have always been expected to think and act a certain way in literature, as well as in the real world. The expectations of women in general started centuries ago, and are continuous today. Men along with women are generally thought to act, think, and live a certain way, but many scholars believe that women have been scrutinized all throughout history by trying to break out of the shell our society has placed them in.

When Shakespeare goes along with the trend of the times by showing how women are portrayed in society, he could also be reinstating the fact that this is how women should be treated. But the question is; who is to say what Shakespeare thought. We can only make assumptions and suggestions to what Shakespeare really believed. All we have are his pieces of literature to make any kind of judgments. Shakespeare has left us with an abundance of timely literature that will be criticized, speculated, and read for all of time. It is definitely obvious that Shakespeare has many different female characters that are helpless against the world that they live in, but some people say there is really no difference to how Shakespeare's women are portrayed, and how women are portrayed today still.


1.)“Shakespeare’s Women.” November 2001. Lewis, Liz.http://www.literature-study-online.com/essays/shakespeare_women.html

2.)“Shaping Fantasies. Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture, Representations.” No.2. Pgs 61-94. Spring 1983. Montrose, Louis Adrian.

3.)“Queen Victoria, Shakespeare, and the Ideal Women.” 2008. Folger Shakespeare Library. http://www.folger.edu/template.cfm?cid=1792

4.)The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare, Second Edition. 2001. McDonald, Russ.

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