Elizabethan England was a fiercely patriarchal society. Laws heavily restricted what women could 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 unrespectable profession of acting was off-limits to women, and although there was no law against women writing plays, as far as we know no plays written by women were staged in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Women were also bound by legal restrictions within the home. When an Elizabethan woman married, her husband became her legal master. In The Taming of the Shrew , Petruchio declares that his wife is “my goods, my chattels…my ox, my ass, my anything.” In most cases, married women could not own property. Husbands were permitted to physically punish their wives, and if a woman killed her husband, she was guilty not of murder but of treason.
On top of these legal restrictions, women were also bound by strict social expectations. These expectations did not apply equally to men. Sermons and books written during the Elizabethan era encouraged women to be silent and obedient. Unmarried women were expected to obey their fathers, and support them by doing housework or caring for younger children. When a woman was ready to marry, her father might insist on helping choose her husband. Aristocratic women sometimes had no choice at all in who they married. As Capulet tells his daughter in Romeo and Juliet : “An you be mine, I'll give you to my friend. / An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets”. “Cuckolds,” men whose wives are unfaithful, are the butt of many of the jokes in Shakespeare’s plays, but male anxiety about infidelity also posed a real danger to 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.
In the face of these severe restrictions, women found creative ways to exercise freedom and autonomy. Although they were effectively barred from practicing many trades, women excelled in the trades they were allowed to practice, often trades that could be mastered in the home, like hatmaking and brewing. As many as a third of all women in Shakespeare’s England never married. The most famous of these was Queen Elizabeth I. With all her male relatives dead, Elizabeth was able to enjoy autonomy in her decisions, and answered to no one. Had she married, she might have been forced to share the throne with her husband, who would have been named co-monarch. In Shakespeare’s plays, single aristocratic women like Cleopatra ( Antony and Cleopatra ) and Olivia ( Twelfth Night ) enjoy considerable power within their domains. Lower down the social scale, Mistress Overdone ( Measure For Measure ) and Mistress Quickly (Henry IV, Part 1) are single women who control their own businesses.
in Shakespeare’s lifetime women began to demand more freedom within their marriages. Between 1595 and 1620, roughly the period of Shakespeare’s writing career, there was a sharp increase in the number of disputes and separations between aristocratic wives and their husbands. The need for men to discipline their strong-willed wives became a popular theme for books, songs and plays. Shakespeare explored it in The Taming of the Shrew . A “shrew” is a woman who speaks her mind, and in Shakespeare’s play a “shrew’d” woman called Katherina is subjected to starvation, sleep deprivation and public humiliation by her husband Petruchio. Katherina’s father, her sister’s suitors and their male servants all conspire in Petruchio’s attempt to “tame” her. At the end of the play, Katherina gives a speech in which she seems to agree that wives should obey their husbands, and many readers have been horrified that Petruchio’s cruelty seems to get him what he wants. Other readers have argued that Shakespeare’s play deliberately highlights the cruelty of Elizabethan marriage, and the complicity of all men in its worst extremes.
While Elizabeth I was on the English throne, Shakespeare and his (male) contemporaries gave a lot of thought to the question of whether a woman could rule effectively. It’s probable that Elizabeth’s success as a ruler was one of the reasons women began to demand more freedom during her reign. Nevertheless, she constantly struggled to prove herself in the face of men’s doubts about her ability. When speaking to her troops ahead of a failed Spanish invasion, she famously reassured them that “I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” One of Shakespeare’s most powerful female characters, and certainly the most politically ambitious, is Lady Macbeth. Before she can steel herself to murder her king and take his throne, Lady Macbeth must deny her female body: “unsex me here…Come to my woman’s breasts,/And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers.”