The Role of Women in Shakespeare's Society

Written by simon fuller
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The Role of Women in Shakespeare's Society
Queen Elizabeth I ruled a society dominated by men. (Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

William Shakespeare lived most of his life, which lasted from 1564 to 1616, in a period of English history known as the Elizabethan era, named after its reigning monarch of the time, Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth sat the throne from 1558 to 1603, and her rule saw women in English society have more freedom than previous ages, but simultaneously still restricted by traditions and laws in terms of the roles they might play.

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Unmarried Women

The role of a woman in Shakespeare's society was influenced by whether she was married or not. Women typically aimed to get married as soon as they could, and girls as young as 12 years old could legally marry as long as they had their parents' permission. Failing to marry often consigned a woman to a fate as a governess, teaching the children of wealthy families, or a life in another kind of domestic service.

Marriage

Once married, women looked to their husbands to provide for them, and in return, men were meant to care for them. The reason for this social structure was that the Church of the time taught that women were inferior to men, and thus needed looking after. A woman's role within the marriage was dedicated to the couple's children and to domestic duties. The wife would organise the household, performing domestic duties unless her husband could afford servants, as well as give birth, generally to several children over her life. Men usually benefited from marriage financially, since women brought land and money to their husbands through their marriage dowry.

Employment

Women were severely limited in the professions they could enter during Shakespeare's age. Many could become servants such as cooks, but were prohibited from more intellectual careers such as those in medicine or law. Neither could women become actors or playwrights, so in Shakespeare's plays, boys took on the parts of female characters. Some women did become educated however, and some turned their hand to writing translations of texts, for example.

Upper Class Women

While the women of lower classes in Shakespeare's society would enter careers of servitude, upper class women sometimes enjoyed the benefits of an education. Such an education would come from a hired tutor, and would include learning languages and etiquette as well as music and dancing. Such women would go on to become ladies-in-waiting for other noblewomen, assisting with the running of a household, or perhaps even enter the service of the Queen, before becoming married and having a household themselves.

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