What was the role of women in Shakespeare's time?

The role of women during Shakespeare's time was to serve as wives and mothers. Women had little autonomy, and though some women were educated, they were not allowed to work in most professions. A woman's primary societal duties were to marry as her family directed her and to raise children for her husband.

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Women in Shakespeare's time were subservient to men. Even though England was ruled by a queen during most of Shakespeare's life, Elizabethan (and later Jacobean) England was a patriarchal society. Women were the property of their fathers or husbands and were not able to own property themselves, unless they were widows. One reason Elizabeth herself never married was that she refused to make herself subordinate to a husband.

Shakespeare's female characters, however, suggest that women had more personal agency than their legal status would lead us to believe. In As Your Like It, for instance, both Celia and Rosalind are more clever than the male characters. Rosalind adopts the identity of a man to protect her friend Celia on their journey to the Forest of Arden, a role she uses throughout the play to gain advantage over her lover, Orlando. Rosalind's androgyny would seem to indicate, in her case at least, that a woman can make as good a man as an actual man. Celia, on the other hand, lacks Rosalind's gender-bending freedom, and, despite her higher social position, seems a less dynamic character. The movement of the play nevertheless is to bring Celia and Rosalind under the care of men. Even though women clearly have the ability to be independent, it would seem that in Elizabethan England, the only "happy" ending for a woman was in marriage.

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The role of women in Shakespeare's time was subordinate to that of men. Women were expected to be wives and mothers, attending to the needs of their husbands and children. They had no lives to speak of outside of the home, which was almost universally regarded as the exclusive province of men.

Ironically, the monarch who sat on the throne during most of Shakespeare's lifetime was a woman, Queen Elizabeth I. A powerful, highly intelligent woman, Elizabeth pushed back against some of the sexist preconceptions that were current at that time. Even so, the general situation of women in Shakespeare's time was in no way improved by having a queen on the throne.

As for Shakespeare himself, he created a number of memorable female characters, strong women who challenged the prevailing gender norms in various ways. One thinks of the scheming, plotting Lady Macbeth, acting more like a man than her vacillating husband when it comes to killing Duncan.

Then there's Cordelia in King Lear, who shows great courage and fortitude despite her imprisonment. As with Lady Macbeth, she's behaving in the same way that a man would've been expected to behave in those days, albeit in a much more noble cause.

None of this changes the fact that women were treated like second-class citizens in Shakespeare's day. But it does at least show that some people, like Shakespeare himself, were prepared to recognize that women were potentially capable of so much more than their narrow social roles would imply.

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Women had a variety of roles in Shakespeare's time, though the extent to which these roles were open to any particular women depended on wealth and social class. For most of Shakespeare's life, a woman ruled England. There are some other examples of women, such as Bess of Hardwick, whose social position allowed them to follow traditionally masculine careers in business and politics. However, these careers generally had to include advantageous marriages. Bess of Hardwick married four times to achieve the wealth and power that finally crowned her career.

For the majority of women, marriage was even more important because they were limited and defined by the position of their husbands. By law, women were under the direction of their fathers until "given away" to their husbands upon marriage. Women, therefore, had very little legal power, and their personal power depended on force of character. Fiction and drama are unreliable guides here. The strength and independence of women in Shakespeare's comedies is a subject for comedy precisely because it was not the norm.

Since their principal role was to be wives and mothers, women's lives depended largely on the men they married. Some men would treat their wives as partners, others as servants. It is important to remember that many of the disadvantages under which women labored were also shared by the majority of men. Women received no formal education, but few men did either, and many men were scarcely freer than women in their choice of profession. A woman from the aristocracy or gentry, or even the upper yeomanry, had opportunities for advancement and self-development open to few.

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Women's roles in Shakespeare's time were quite limited, despite the fact that a woman ruled England at the time of William Shakespeare. The Elizabethan society was highly patriarchal, and women were expected first and foremost to be wives and mothers.

Women were considered the weaker sex and in need always of being protected. They had little autonomy and few rights, as their lives were primarily guided by their fathers, husbands, or even sons. When married, women were expected to bear children, for childbearing was considered an honor and a duty. Most women bore children every few years, but because so many children died in infancy, families were not necessarily large. As head of the household, the husband was allowed to chastise or punish his wife, and often women were not allowed to inherit property.

Although the society was patriarchal, there were women who were highly educated. However, women were not allowed to enter into most professions. While women were permitted to write—providing the subject was suitable—acting was considered unsuitable for women. For this reason, young men played the female roles in plays during Shakespeare's time.

Despite these limitations, English women generally enjoyed more freedom in the Elizabethan Age than during previous eras.

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