Although in reality many women worked for themselves or with their husbands, Elizabethan literature portrays women first and foremost as wives and mothers. Interestingly, there are few mothers in Shakespeare’s plays. His older female characters are usually childless, like Cleopatra (who in Shakespeare’s source material has several children, but in Antony and Cleopatra has none). Two notable exceptions are Gertrude (in Hamlet) and Volumnia (in Coriolanus ), who both have extremely difficult relationships with their adult sons. Almost all Shakespeare’s young women, and the majority of his major female characters, are involved in romantic plots. Most of these plots revolve around young women’s desire to choose their own husbands. By the time Shakespeare began writing, women had won more freedom to choose their own husbands than they had traditionally enjoyed. Nevertheless, the daughters of nobles and other wealthy or powerful men were still frequently required to marry for political or financial reasons: to forge an alliance or to strengthen a business partnership. The contrast between who a woman might want to marry and who her father might prefer for her had the potential to create serious conflict in families, and Shakespeare returns to this conflict again and again in his writing.
Two of Shakespeare’s tragedies begin with the struggle of a young female character to free herself from male control. In both, tragedy ensues when male power reasserts itself in the face of this minor rebellion. In Romeo and Juliet , Juliet sneaks out of her home to marry Romeo, and then fakes her own death to escape the husband her father has chosen for her. In Othello Desdemona too sneaks out at night to marry the man she has chosen against her father’s wishes. Although these heroines free themselves from their fathers, they do not free themselves from male control altogether. Juliet loses her chosen husband when he is drawn into the ongoing feud between the men of his family and the men of Juliet’s family. When Desdemona marries, her father warns her husband Othello: “She has deceived her father, and may thee.” Desdemona remains faithful to Othello, but her history of defying male authority makes him anxious. He comes to suspect her of adultery and ultimately he murders her.
While in Shakespeare’s tragedies women are usually secondary characters, or share top billing with a man (like Juliet or Cleopatra), in his comedies women are often the main characters. As You Like It , A Midsummer Night’s Dream , Much Ado About Nothing , and Twelfth Night all center on young women determined to choose their own husbands or, like Olivia in Twelfth Night and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, determined not to marry at all. Like the tragedies, these plays show that the freedom to choose a husband or to avoid marriage does not add to up to very much freedom. Olivia and Beatrice are both persuaded to marry after all. Rosalind (As You Like It) and Viola (Twelfth Night) both disguise themselves as men at the beginning of their plays: in their disguises, they have comic and exciting adventures which will most likely come to an end once they take off their disguises. The Merchant of Venice offers a slightly more optimistic ending. Portia and Nerissa, disguised as men, both trick their husbands into giving up their wedding rings, a symbolic gesture which suggests both women intend to exercise power within their marriages.
In many of Shakespeare’s plays, women dress up as men. In the plays, women wear men’s clothing as a dramatic device to further the plot, but cross-dressing wasn’t unheard of in Shakespeare’s times. In 1610, Lady Arbella Stuart dressed as a man in order to escape from James I, who was worried she might inherit the English throne. Like Lady Arbella, Viola in Twelfth Night, Rosalind in As You Like It and Imogen in Cymbeline are all forced to make a dangerous journey, and dress as men as a form of protection. By making his female characters cross-dress, Shakespeare gave himself the opportunity to put them in situations which in real life women would have been barred from by convention. Disguised as the young man “Cesario,” Viola offers to help Duke Orsino woo Countess Olivia, something a noblewoman would never have been allowed to do. Rosalind, disguised as a boy called “Ganymede,” is able to take the lead in seducing the man she loves, a role forbidden to women.
In Elizabethan England women were believed to lack the intelligence, rationality, courage and other qualities necessary to perform the professional roles reserved for men. However, when Shakespeare’s cross-dressed women take on a traditionally male role, they usually do a better job than the characters who are really men. Viola, disguised as “Cesario,” succeeds in wooing Olivia, after the male courtier Valentine has failed. In The Merchant of Venice, none of the male characters can think of a way to rescue Antonio from a contract which allows the moneylender Shylock to take “a pound of flesh” from his body. Only men were allowed to practice law, but Portia dresses as a man so she can defend Antonio in court, where she succeeds in saving his life. Portia’s clever interpretation of the law, wherein she qualifies that, according to the contract, Shylock is legally entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh but “no jot of blood,” proves Portia a brilliant and shrewd lawyer.