The Roles of Women in Shakespeare's Plays

A wide-eyed woman raises a burning torch
Lady Macbeth Walking in her Sleep. Painting by Johann Heinrich Füssli.

Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

Shakespeare’s presentation of women in his plays demonstrates his feelings about women and their roles in society. Looking at the types of female roles in Shakespeare demonstrates that women had less freedom than their male counterparts in Shakespeare's time. It's well known that women weren't allowed on the stage during Shakespeare's active years. All of his famous female roles like Desdemona and Juliette were in fact once played by men.

Shakespeare's Presentation of Women

Women in Shakespeare's plays are often underestimated. While they were clearly restricted by their social roles, the Bard showed how women could influence the men around them. His plays showed the difference in expectations between upper and lower class women of the time. High-born women are presented as “possessions” to be passed between fathers and husbands. In most cases, they are socially restricted and unable to explore the world around them without chaperones. Many of these women were coerced and controlled by the men in their lives. Lower-born women were allowed more freedom in their actions precisely because they are seen as less important than higher-born women.

Sexuality in Shakespeare's Work

Broadly speaking, female characters that are sexually aware are more likely to be lower class. Shakespeare allows them more freedom to explore their sexuality, perhaps because their low-status renders them socially harmless. However, women are never totally free in Shakespeare’s plays: if not owned by husbands and fathers, many low-class characters are owned by their employers. Sexuality or desirability can also lead to deadly consequences for Shakespeare's women. Desdemona chose to follow her passion and defied her father to marry Othello. This passion is later used against her when the villainous Iago convinces her husband that if she would lie to her father she would lie to him as well. Wrongfully accused of adultery, nothing Desdemona says or does is enough to convince Othello of her faithfulness. Her boldness in choosing to defy her father ultimately leads to her death at the hands of her jealous lover.

Sexual violence also plays a major role in some of the Bards work. This is seen most notably in Titus Andronicus where the character Lavinia is violently raped and mutilated. Her attackers cut out her tongue and remove her hands to prevent her from naming her attackers. After she is able to write their names her father then kills her to preserve her honor.

Women in Power

Women in power are treated with distrust by Shakespeare. They have questionable morals. For example, Gertrude in Hamlet marries her husband’s murdering brother and Lady Macbeth coerces her husband into murder. These women show a lust for power that's often on par or surpassing that of the men around them. Lady Macbeth especially is seen as a conflict between masculine and feminine. She forgoes normal "feminine" traits like motherly compassion for more "masculine" ones like ambition, which leads to the ruin of her family. For these women, the penalty for their scheming ways is normally death.

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Jamieson, Lee. "The Roles of Women in Shakespeare's Plays." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Jamieson, Lee. (2023, April 5). The Roles of Women in Shakespeare's Plays. Retrieved from Jamieson, Lee. "The Roles of Women in Shakespeare's Plays." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).