What were some superstitious beliefs about women in  Shakespeare's time? 

What were some superstitious beliefs about women in  Shakespeare's time?

 

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kateanswers eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A lot of superstitions regarding women in Shakespeare's day had to do with social deviancy and witchcraft. Unmarried women, especially those who were old, were often suspected of being witches. There were very few occupations available to women in Elizabethan England outside of being a wife and mother, so a woman who was not either was considered a little strange. Many women practiced folk healing to support themselves in the absence of a job or husband, and their herbal remedies were sometimes believed to be magical spells or proof of deals with the devil.

Women's reproductive biology had a lot of superstitions, as well. From the Medieval Period onward, a menstruating woman was believed to have a terrible influence about her. Folklore from around England and other parts of Europe dictated that a menstruating woman's touch would kill plants, prevent bread from rising, and cause all manner of food to spoil. At the same time, most Elizabethans were of the opinion that the menstrual cycle was both natural and healthy. The dominant theory of health in Shakespeare's time involved the Four Humors-- four fluids which circulated about the body and were in constant flux. Too much or too little of any one was bad for the health, and it was believed that menstruation was simply a woman's way of letting off a little excess blood every month.

With regards to Shakespeare's work, women were considered bad luck on the stage, and so women's roles in plays were acted by young boys. I suspect that the belief about women on stage being bad luck had far more to do with the social dynamics of the time than any superstition. In Shakespeare's time, women were believed to be inferior to men in all but one respect-- they could bear children. In anything else a woman did, she was not as good as a man, and this would have applied to the performing arts as well. Of course, theatre and acting did not have the air of luxury that they carry today. Actors were considered to be very low class people, and theatres were pits of moral degeneration. Sex workers often waited outside of theatres for a client to come by, and a woman on stage might have been taken as a sex worker. This could cause all sorts of social unrest, regardless of whether she actually was a sex worker or not. Though the Shakespearean theatre was a dirty place of generally low morals, I think Elizabethan people would still have been outraged to believe that a sex worker was performing on stage and receiving their money.