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Role of Women in Queen Elizabeth I’s Era and the Effect on Shakespeare's Plays

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1453 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Queen Elizabeth I

“I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too,” stated Queen Elizabeth I in regard to her gender and leadership (East Anglian Daily Times). Queen Elizabeth I ruled in a time referred to as The Golden Age, a time when playwrights flourished. One of the most known playwrights from this time period is William Shakespeare. Many of Queen Elizabeth I’s actions affected the way Shakespeare lived and consequently his works. The role of women in Queen Elizabeth I’s era, how Mary Stuart was shown, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth’s imposing Protestantism on her people affected Shakespeare and influenced his plays.

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In the Elizabethan era women were considered lesser in every way. In the Merchant of Venice, Portia and Nerissa must appear as males to save Antonio (Crowther, John). Women would not have been thought capable. In Shakespeare’s era, Elizabeth I was ruler of England. The country was disappointed that King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn had not had a son (Birth of a Princess). Elizabeth was treated differently than a prince would have been.  Shakespeare’s writing was influenced by this cultural norm that he lived every day.

The 22 year old Shakespeare must have been shocked that his sovereign, Queen Mary (formerly Mary Queen of Scots), was beheaded.  Ideas about the characteristics of the Queen are seen in his writings.  In Antony and Cleopatra, the couple wander through the streets of Alexandria in disguise (Liberal Studies). Mary loved men’s apparel, going through the streets at night wearing a mask, and being in dancings secretly (Liberal Studies). Both women also been reported of cross-dressing. Cleopatra dresses Antony in her clothes and takes his sword (Liberal Studies). Mary, along with her ladies, wore male costumes to bring gifts to a visiting envoy (Liberal Studies). In Merchant of Venice, Portia also dresses in men’s clothes but to save Antonio (Crowther, John). Another similarity between Portia and Mary is they both need perform roles in life normally done by a male. Portia managing her father’s estate and Mary ruling a kingdom.

 Before Elizabeth I was born, England was a Roman-Catholic nation, meaning that the power to annul marriages lay with the Pope (Birth of a Princess). King Henry VIII wished to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, his first wife, but she had family connections making this  problematic. A trial was held to determine the validity of the marriage, but after several months with no decision, King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church. Henry then began to create the Church of England, which later gained the name of Protestantism (Birth of a Princess). After Henry’s death, his only surviving son, Edward succeeded to the throne and reigned under the same faith (Difficult Childhood). When his half sister Mary took the throne, she England converted back to Catholicism (Heir to the Throne). At one point during Mary’s reign, Elizabeth was taken to the Tower of London. While in the Tower of London Elizabeth converted to Catholicism (Ridley 20). When Elizabeth became queen, she converted England to Protestantism once again. England’s national religion had been changed three times in twelve years (Wood, Michael). Many of England’s citizens were extremely upset at the change in religion because they had been Catholic their whole lives. One of these citizens was William Shakespeare. At one point in life Shakespeare even used a fake name to hide that he was living with Catholics (Wood, Michael). Elizabeth’s imposing Protestantism unto the people of England had extensive effects on their lives.

In another effort to maintain a singular religion in England, one of Elizabeth’s predecessors, Edward I, banned all Jews in 1290(Shapiro, James). Judaism was practiced consequently in secret during the 16th century, and many people raised Jewish converted to Christianity or pretended to do so (Shapiro, James). In William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Shylock is forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity and award his riches to Antonio, Jessica, and Lorenzo (Crowther, John). If Shylock decides to not do these tasks then he is charged with attempting to murder a Christian and be put to death (Crowther, John). One of the most notable Elizabethan Jews was Roderigo Lopez, Queen Elizabeth’s physician (Shapiro, James). In 1594, Lopez was drawn and quartered for allegedly planning to kill the Queen. William Camden states “Lopez went to his death strenuously ‘affirming that he loved the Queen as well as he loved Jesus Christ; which, coming from a man of the Jewish profession, moved no small laughter in the standers-by,’” (Shapiro, James). Both Shylock and Lopez attempted to murder a Christian.The reason Lopez was killed and Shylock was not, is likely that Lopez was connected to a royal and Shylock was not.

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Women’s roles in Elizabethan England, how Mary Stuart is shown, and imposition of Protestantism on the people of England influenced Shakespeare and his plays. Throughout life Elizabeth received different treatment because of her gender. Elizabeth’s relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots displays an example of another obstacle that Elizabeth had to overcome. Jews in Elizabethan England influenced the way Shakespeare wrote Shylock.

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