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Elizabethan Era Gender Roles in Shakespeare’s Plays


Gender roles are a collection of behavioral and social norms that acceptable for people of a particular sex in the framework of a specific culture (Dusinberre 12). Gender roles change widely between different cultures and periods. To better understand gender roles in Shakespeare’s plays, it is crucial to understand gender-based roles in the Elizabethan Era.

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Gender Roles in Shakespeare’s Plays

In the Elizabethan era, gender roles were clearly defined. Elizabethan England was highly patriarchal in attitudes and structure. Women were not allowed to claim any independence but were considered subservient to their male relatives, whether husbands, brothers, or fathers. During this era, social advancement for women was almost impossible. They were denied access to literary rhetoric, an essential linguistic and intellectual tool for social promotion (Emmison 36).

During this era, Men were granted dominion over women, and it was expected that they were the heads of the household and demanded obedience from their wives and children. Men arranged marriages for the daughters and women relatives to suitable suitors. Bravery and intellect were expected for all men. The service to the crown and the church was required for all.

On the other hand, women were expected to be submissive to their male counterparts. They had to be respectable, obedient, and knowledgeable of domestic issues. A woman’s duty was to obey her husband and make him proud (Loomba 16). From birth, women were taught how to carry out domestic tasks and govern the household, such that when they were married, regardless of their class, they would make their husbands proud. In marriage, a woman was supposed to provide a dowry to the man. Once married, she passed her material wealth to the husband.

Education during this time was only granted to women from noble families. Education mainly included knowledge of several languages such as French, Latin, Italian, and Greek. Throughout their lives, women of the Elizabethan era were made to become highly dependent on their male husbands, and deviance from this would constitute a social crime. It may have led to a woman being socially shunned and labeled a witch or other inappropriate titles (Emmison, 45).

Shakespeare’s great works have been recognized mainly because of the reality check that they had in the society of the time. However, having examined Shakespeare’s works, one cannot help but notice how he firmly emphasizes the place of each gender in society. According to Shakespeare, it is a man’s world, meaning that it is the male gender that has got the upper hand in society over their female counterparts. In almost all his books and poems, Shakespeare depicts women as being submissive to men, not having the same opportunities and freedom as their male counterparts, and giving up a lot for the male figures in society.

In the book The Women of Richard III, Shakespeare brings out another side of the women. Shakespeare depicts a woman as one who will not tolerate the oppression and the inequality in society. She is ready to raise her voice to speak against the unfairness and injustices in society. Therefore, in Shakespeare’s world, women are victims of their male counterparts who are always sidelined and who must constantly complain and protest to have their grievance addressed.

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It is as though they are not part of society, and they have to sort of struggle to fit in a male-dominated society. Shakespeare depicts a chauvinistic society where the male gender occupies the entire society, oblivious to the existence of their female counterparts.

Women have played various roles and characters in the plays and poems written by Shakespeare. However, they are weak and inferior to men. This is so evident, even in the manner that Shakespeare chooses his characters. For instance, in The Tempest, there is only one female character, Miranda, while the rest are male. This deliberate choice of fewer female characters in comparison to the male characters sometimes makes the female character have a minimum impact. By the end of the play, the reader may have disregarded or forgotten about the existence of the female character.

It is important to remember that when William Shakespeare came up with his creative pieces of writing, it was the Elizabethan era. This was when Queen Elizabeth of England was reigning. During this era, women were highly looked down upon, and men heavily dominated their women to the extent of oppressing. Therefore, Shakespeare’s depiction of women was just a reflection of what in society at the time. However, he was on several occasions accused of exaggerating the demeaning of women in society. Some of his critics even argued that he was a male chauvinist. Scholars, however, argue that William Shakespeare was a feminist.

One of Shakespeare’s greatest plays that received worldwide acrimony is Romeo and Juliet. Like many other of his works, one of the loudest character traits of all the females depicted in these works is silence. Women are almost afraid of complaining or protecting the situation of their lives in society, yet it is evident that they are not content with their situations.

In Romeo, there are only a few women who can be noted. They include Juliet, her mother, and Juliet’s nurse. Throughout the play, it becomes evidently clear that these women have little control or none at all on their lives and even on the lives of others. Juliet’s mother, for instance, does not have any influence on Juliet, the kind of influence that a mother would be expected to have on her daughter. The manner in which the play ends with Juliet being silenced to death is parabolic, showing the loud silence among the women in Shakespeare’s world.

The aspect of silence can also be seen in Othello, where the wife of Othello is a good Christian wife who knows nothing else but to remain submissive to her husband. She does not ask any question but rather follows instructions from her husband without fail. Hamlet, another great work of Shakespeare, features two key women who also portray a great deal of silence. One cannot help but notice that in all works of Shakespeare, the main women characters are finally sentenced at the end of the play or poem. They are actually silenced practically through death as a result of the actions of their male counterparts.

While William Shakespeare may have been accused of being a male chauvinist by his critics, the truth of the matter is that Shakespeare helped the rest of the world know what was happening and especially as far as the oppression of women was concerned. It is perhaps due to such works of William Shakespeare that women came together and protested. The world today has no comparison with the society back then. Women have now risen to positions of power, and now they have equal and similar opportunities as their male counterparts. The oppression is now an issue of gone days. Women are now enjoying just as much freedom as the male gender.

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Shakespeare was able to forge the relationship between the different gender roles to bring out different plots in a manner acceptable to the audience in the Elizabethan era. He uses the gender roles defined at the time to develop his characters. He presents how various characters meet their gender roles to complete a given role as required by the plot of the play. Although modern critics may deem Shakespeare a sexist, it is essential to remember that gender roles are defined by the moment they are applied and that Shakespeare utilized his gender roles in an exemplary manner to meet his objectives.

Works Cited

Chedgzoy, Kate. Shakespeare, Feminism, and Gender: Contemporary Critical Essays. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. London: MacMillan, 1996.

Faucet, Helena. On Some of Shakespeare’s Females Characters. New York: AMS, 1970.

Loomba, A. Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama. Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Orgel, Stephen. “Prospero’s Wife.” Representations 8.10 (1984): 1–13.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest: With New and Updated Critical Essays. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.

Thompson, Ann. “Miranda, Where’s your Sister: Reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest.” Kamps 1 (1995): 168-177.

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Thomson, Peter. “The Comic Actor and Shakespeare. In Wells, Stanley and Sarah Stanton” The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Tillyard, E. M. Shakespeare’s Last Plays. London: Chatto and Windus, 1938.

Woolf, Virginia. “A Room of One’s Own.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Second Compact Edition: Volume B. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Pearson, 2004. 1240-1242.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Elizabethan Era Gender Roles in Shakespeare’s Plays'. 5 May.

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