Under the umbrella of “feminist criticism” there is a wide range of critical practices and approaches to Shakespeare's works, and each of these approaches has its own supporters and detractors. Due to the diverse array of feminist studies, many feminist critics hesitate to posit a general description of what, exactly, feminist criticism is. It has been observed, however, that feminist criticism reflects the assorted theoretical positions of the feminist movement. Common topics of feminist studies of Shakespeare include examinations of patriarchy, gender and sex roles, and the relationship between gender and power in Shakespeare's plays. It is generally agreed that feminist criticism of Shakespeare as a “movement” began in the mid-1970s. Richard Levin (1988) cites Juliet Dusinberre's publication of Shakespeare and the Nature of Women in 1975 and the Modern Language Association's special session of feminist criticism in 1976 as the genesis of the feminist criticism movement in Shakespeare studies.
Feminist critics of Shakespeare's works are often the subject of critiques—this is due in part to the tension that exists between feminist critics and critics of other branches of criticism. Jonathan Dollimore (1990) critiques various feminist approaches to Shakespearean studies. He explains and defends the approach of cultural materialism as a method of Shakespearean criticism, and responds to feminist critics of this approach. Lynda E. Boose (1987) traces the evolution of feminist criticism, particularly in regard to the treatment of marriage, sex, and family. Boose also discusses feminist debate over Shakespeare's own attitude toward patriarchy and the subordination of women. Feminist criticism is also the subject of Peter Erickson's 1997 essay. Erickson outlines the development of feminist criticism in America, and argues that there is a stark contrast between what he views as prefeminist criticism, before 1980, and feminist criticism after 1980. The year marks a shift, Erickson asserts, toward an emphasis in feminist criticism on culture and ideology. Erickson concludes by reviewing a new wave of feminist criticism which provides an expanded framework for viewing “otherness” in such characters as Shylock and Othello.
Character studies often form the focus of feminist analyses of Shakespeare's works. Feminist critics such as Janet Adelman (1985) examine the way in which various characters are portrayed and perceived. Adelman studies the portrayal of Cressida in Troilus and Cressida and maintains that the play enacts the fantasy of Cressida's inconstancy. At the moment when Cressida is separated from Troilus, Adelman explains, Cressida becomes “radically unknowable, irreducibly other,” and due to the inconsistent way Cressida is portrayed, the other characters in the play, as well as the audience, are forced to view Cressida in the same way. Like Adelman, Sharon M. Harris (1990) studies the portrayal of Cressida. Harris reviews six traditional critical responses to her character: she is ignored, viewed as a whore, thought to possess an inherent limitation or frailty, thought to behave in accordance with a particular theatrical convention, viewed as synonymous with society's disorder, and thought to behave in the only way possible given her circumstances and environment. Harris identifies the way feminist critics have responded to each of the categorizations of Cressida and notes that feminist critics have found new ways in which to analyze her character. Similarly, Sharon Ouditt (1996) outlines the various methods by which feminist critics examine Shakespeare's characters. Ouditt selects three feminist critics who have studied Hamlet's Gertrude, and uses these studies to elucidate different feminist perspectives. Ouditt then identifies the problems inherent with these approaches.
The way feminist critics analyze Shakespeare's plays has been reviewed by a number of critics. Kathleen McLuskie (1985) identifies several feminist avenues of approach and highlights the shortcomings of each. She notes that the mimetic and essentialist modes of feminist theory fail to allow for the “full complexity of the nature of women” in Shakespeare's time or modern times. McLuskie examines the way sex and sexual roles in Measure for Measure and King Lear are discussed by feminist critics, and reviews the problems with these types of analyses. She notes that feminist readings often “reorder” the terms of the text and shift the critical attention from judgement of the action to focusing on the process by which the action may be judged. Similarly, Richard Levin (1988) investigates the problems with a feminist thematic approach to Shakespeare's tragedies. Levin contends that the central theme of the tragedies is often viewed by feminist thematic critics as the role of gender within the individual and society, and that these same critics identify the cause of the plays' tragic outcomes as masculinity or patriarchy. Levin stresses the illogic of this approach, and also observes that there are problems inherent in the thematic approach in general, not just the feminist thematic approach to Shakespeare's tragedies.