Elizabethan England was a fiercely patriarchal society with laws that heavily restricted what women could and could not do. Women were not allowed to attend school or university, which meant they couldn’t work in professions like law or medicine. Most of the guilds, which trained skilled workers like goldsmiths and carpenters, did not officially admit women. Even the disreputable profession of acting was off limits to women. The only trades legally available to women were those that could be mastered and practiced in the home, such as hat making and brewing. Women were also barred from voting, and though they could inherit property from their father or their husband, they could not themselves purchase property. In addition to these legal restrictions, women were also bound by strict social expectations that did not apply equally to men. Sermons and books written during the Elizabethan era encouraged women to be silent and obedient to male authority, whether that of their father or their husband.
Marriage in Elizabethan England replicated society’s patriarchal structure. Legally a girl could marry as young as 12 with her parents’ consent, though young women typically married in their late teens or early twenties. When a woman’s father deemed her ready to marry, he had a large degree of control of who she married. Among the aristocracy, where marriages were often more about politics than love, women often had no say at all in who they married. Upon entering marriage, a woman ceased to be her father’s responsibility, and her husband became her legal master. Shakespeare reflects this condition in The Taming of the Shrew, when Petruchio refers to his wife as “my goods, my chattels . . . my ox, my ass, my anything” (III.ii.). As his wife’s legal guardian, a husband was permitted to punish his wife as he saw fit, particularly in cases of infidelity. In several of his plays Shakespeare showcases the real danger that male anxiety over infidelity posed for women. Hermione in The Winter’s Tale is imprisoned because her husband mistakenly believes that she is pregnant by another man. In Othello, Desdemona is murdered by her husband because he believes (again mistakenly) that she is having an affair.
Despite the intensely patriarchal nature of the society Shakespeare grew up in, for the majority of his life a woman occupied the throne—and an unmarried woman at that. Throughout Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, debates raged about whether a woman could rule as effectively as a man. Elizabeth constantly struggled to prove herself in the face of male doubt. When speaking to her troops ahead of a Spanish invasion, she famously reassured them: “I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” Yet Elizabeth enjoyed a long and politically stable reign, demonstrating the effectiveness of female rule. It is possible that Elizabeth’s success as a ruler inspired other women to demand more freedom, particularly within their marriages. The period between 1595 and 1620 saw a sharp increase in the number of disputes and separations between aristocratic wives and their husbands. By the same token, however, the rise in women’s dissatisfaction with the constraints of marriage also gave rise to the trope of the “shrew”—that is, an aggressively assertive woman who speaks her mind. The trope of the shrew in turn reinvigorated the idea that husbands need to discipline their wives, again renewing patriarchal norms.