Women in Shakespeare's Era
History proves that Queen Elizabeth was a formidable and intelligent leader, unwilling to bend to the will of any man. But the Queen was a rare exception in Elizabethan England. The women in Shakespeare's era were subservient to men and had very limited options.
Every aspect of their lives was controlled by the men in their lives, who they relied on completely. Even the roles of women in Shakespeare's plays were performed by boys, as women were not allowed to act in the theatre.
Women in Shakespeare's era were not allowed to go to university. However, sometimes Elizabethan women from noble and upper class families were afforded an education at home. Starting at a very young age they were taught languages such as Latin, French, Italian and Greek. They also learnt a variety of skills like dancing, archery, horseback riding and playing music. Knowing proper etiquette was of high importance, particularly for life at court. Some girls were also sent to live with other families to broaden their education.
In Elizabethan times women were expected to marry and obey their husbands. Marriages were arranged and were treated like a business transaction -- the women had to bring a dowry, things such as money, goods and property, to the marriage. Unmarried women were often thought of as strange, and occasionally were accused of witchcraft. The only real option for a woman who didn't marry and did not come from an upper class family was domestic service. Otherwise, a woman's financial security rested solely on the shoulders on the men in their lives. Aside from royalty, women were never heirs to their father's titles. They were not allowed to vote or to have an opinion in politics. From the time of birth, most women in Shakespeare's era knew their only real purpose in life was to marry, take care of a home and raise children.
With girls from upper class families being the only females of the time privy to an education, women from the lower class were just taught the skills needed to care for their house and children. Girls from noble families would use their skills to be the queen's ladies-in-waiting and were expected to serve and entertain her. Although women were not allowed to perform in the theatre, the women at court were could perform in the masques.
Women's lives were so controlled that even the Sumptuary Laws of the Shakespeare era dictated the way a woman would dress. The appearance of upper class women in particular was very important, and they often went to extreme measures to meet the ideal of the time. They used a white lead based face make-up to make their skin look pale, sometimes causing them to become ill or even die. They wore extremely tight corsets and layers of uncomfortable clothing.