Introducing Shakespeare's Women

The Women of 'Much Ado About Nothing'
Shakespeare Women: 'Much Ado About Nothing'. Photo © NYPL Digital Gallery

Shakespeare’s presentation of women in his plays demonstrates his feelings about women and their roles in society. As our guide to the types of female roles in Shakespeare demonstrates, women had less freedom than their male counterparts in Shakespeare's Time.

Shakespeare's Women

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.

These women were coerced and controlled by the men in their lives.

Broadly speaking, female characters that 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.

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. For these women, the penalty for their scheming ways is normally death.

Read our guide to the types of female characters in Shakespeare for further analysis.