Shakespeare and the Woman’s Part

by Helen Abbott | 14 January 2019

Shakespeare littered his plays with gender centred arguments…

It’s easy to think that the discussion surrounding gender and gender equality is relatively modern. When we think about the first waves of feminism most of us think about amazing and inspiring women such as Josephine Butler, Elizabeth Blackwell or the Suffragettes. It is not often we think of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare however, a man who was writing over 400 years ago, littered his plays with gender centred arguments. Many believe he was a sixteenth century feminist. Believe that or not, Shakespeare certainly had a platform which he used in order to explore and experiment with gender. It may not be obvious when we view his plays through the prism of our contemporary attitudes but if we remember the era in which he was writing and how heavily controlled public speech was, Shakespeare certainly pushed the boundaries of what could be possible for women when they challenged the norm.

If we look at the characteristics that were attributed to men and women at the time they are fairly easy to define. The Renaissance period was a patriarchal society where men ruled and were known for their strength, intelligence, ambition etc. Women conversely had very little control over their choices and the way they were expected to behave. Great value was put upon their physical appearance. There are countless examples in Shakespeare of a woman’s beauty being revered and often her beauty is one of the first things we learn about her. Other traits assigned to women (meekness, conformity, chastity, humility, kindness etc) were those associated with their role in society as wife and homemaker.

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