Issues relating to gender in Shakespeare's dramas have inspired critical interest for centuries, but in the late twentieth century gender has become of tantamount importance to many Shakespearean scholars. Modern commentary has focused on a variety of issues related to gender, including relations and conflicts between the sexes, the concept of what it means to be masculine or feminine, and the ambiguous ground where differentiation between the sexes blurs. Additionally, many critics have taken an interest in the historical component of gender on the Elizabethan stage, noting, for instance, the fact that female roles were originally performed by young boys. Also, scholars have explored Shakespeare's ideas about gender identity as they evolved over time in the different dramatic genres he produced, from the early comedies to the histories and later tragedies and romances. Taken as a whole, these studies portray the dramatist's highly complex and varied approach to the question of gender as an evolving personal, social, and cultural phenomenon.
Critics note that the nature of gender identity in Shakespeare's plays is generally portrayed from the perspective of the male, and, as a result, women are almost invariably seen as archetypal figures. Paula S. Berggren (1980) has explored Shakespeare's mythic and supernatural approach to women and finds that they are often viewed as having innate energies of rebirth and renewal—energies which the men do not possess. Femininity is further explored by Linda Bamber (1982), who has noted how frequently women are defined only in their relation to the actions or perceptions of men. Female roles, she observes, are notably downplayed in the histories, which generally deal with masculine power struggles. In the comedies Bamber contends that women are largely static creatures characterized by their avoidance of decision-making. In contrast, men in Shakespeare's plays tend to take a more proactive stance toward their fates. Coppélla Kahn (1981) observed, however, that this attitude can produce negative results, as in the cases of Macbeth and Coriolanus. Both use violent means, at the bidding of influential female figures—Lady Macbeth and Coriolanus's mother, respectively—to prove their manhood, but only succeed in bringing about their own destruction.
Shakespeare's exploration of androgyny is also of interest to many critics. The intersection of the male and the female appears most frequently in his romances, and it is in these works that commentators find some of the dramatist's strongest heroines—who often make their mark while disguised as men or boys. This device of a woman assuming the guise of a man has interested many feminist writers, such as Juliet Dusinberre (1975), who argued that it allows Shakespeare the means to present the strengths and weaknesses of his feminine characters more fully, as well as an opportunity for the critique of gendered social mores. Jean E. Howard (1988), in contrast, viewed the process of gender inversion through disguise as potentially radical, but ultimately unable to effect social change. She argues that though female characters such as Rosalind and Viola assume a masculine gender for a time, they eventually return to their proper positions in society as (married) women.
Still other critics see Shakespeare's attitude toward gender as a function of genre that changes from the comedies and histories to the tragedies and romances. Barbara J. Bono (1986) has focused on Shakespeare's As You Like It and finds an intertwined masculine and feminine discourse; the latter she describes as "doublevoiced"—that is, simultaneously adopting and deriding the conventions of the male-dominated culture. Carol Thomas Neely (1985) looked at Antony and Cleopatra as a special case among Shakespeare's plays which, with its relationship to the comedies, tragedies and tragicomedies, offers new considerations on gender. The genre of the tragicomedy is of particular interest to Helen Wilcox. Unlike many critics before her, Wilcox (1994) viewed the tragicomedy as not exclusively malefocused, but equally concerned with rendering the nature of its feminine characters.