It is known that women’s roles and rights in society have been limited throughout history. Women’s roles and rights were especially scarce during the era of William Shakespeare. What were the roles of women in general, how did the roles change, and how did roles vary by social class?
A commonly known fact throughout history is that women have been oppressed in society. This oppression has commonly come from roles and legal rights being limited and controlled by men. A description of women during Shakespeare’s era is “When England was ruled for half a century by Queens but women had almost no legal power; When marriage, a women’s main vocation, cost them their personal property rights; when the ideal women was rarely seen and never heard in public; when the clothes a women wore were legally dictated by her social class; when almost all school teachers were men; when medicine was prepared and purified at home; when corsets were constructed of wood and cosmetics made of bacon and eggs; when only half of all babies survived to adulthood”(Hull 15)? Virtually everything in a woman’s life back then was controlled by either her parents or the men around her. Parents wanted to protect their daughters and then get as much of their value from each husband once she married. A woman could not live life 100% the way she wanted it because everything, all the way to thoughts and ideas, was shaped by men of the era (Cloud). The men in the community were the leaders, teachers, religious leaders. Why weren’t there women in these positions? There were, however very few. These few women were rich enough to get into and through university, and these women were almost always part of the upper class.
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Not only were roles limited in general, but were specific to each of the social classes as well. The upper-class women had the most freedoms, however still very few. According to the essay “Gender Roles of Women in the Renaissance,” women were not legally allowed to work by themselves or live alone if they weren’t married. If a woman was single, then she was made to move in with a male relative or become a nun. If she lived with a man, married or not, she was to take care of the household, no matter what class she is of (Cloud). All women were expected to take care of the house and household, but each class had distinct differences from the others. Upper-class women were allowed to express themselves, just not sufficiently or 100% freely. These upper-class women were allowed to have servants and/or workers working for them and were the only women below royalty to have this privilege. Working-class women had different expectations and more of them than the upper-class. These working-class women were expected to work for, not with, their husbands’ and to help with their husbands’ businesses. Last and lowest, the low-class women were practically excluded from public social life. Low-class women were expected to be housewives and only housewives, taking care of the house and household (Cloud). According to “Women From the Renaissance to Enlightenment”, even the upper class had very limited roles in society (Radek-Hull). Radek-Hull also shares that “ women’s sexuality was intensely regulated–chastity is once again virtually mandated–, and male comfort being important, women were taught to be charming; they were to be dressed elaborately, also, so that they were both pleasing to look at and a statement about their husbands’ or fathers’ social status”. This quite simply shows the sheer amount of control men had over women.
It is mentioned in “In Search of Shakespeare” that women were not permitted to act in plays during Shakespeare’s era. Upon further research, it was discovered that this act of not allowing women onstage started with the ancient Greeks. Further evidence of this is found when Lamb states “Since heroines and Goddesses were the pinnacles of Greek society, they were often the stars of drama productions. Despite this, the role of women in the Greek Theater was otherwise non-existent. Women were strictly prohibited from being onstage, as it was considered “too dangerous” to give them such a prominent platform. Even the most renowned characters, like the tragic heroine, Antigone, were portrayed exclusively by male actors. During the following centuries, there were few accounts of women participating in theater”(Get Thee to a Stage). Women not being allowed onstage was around for over a thousand years, all because men felt it was too dangerous to be onstage. Research has not explicitly shown the reason why men thought women were in such danger onstage, however, the reason could simply have been a tradition passed through generations.
Over time, the role of women has changed. Women started out as housewives that were not permitted to be onstage. During modern times, female roles in plays are played by females. In the case of The Merchant of Venice, the female roles of Jessica, Portia, and Narissa were played by women, likely because of the more modern take on the novel(Crowther). With modern times, women also got more rights and freedoms, like being in public and acting on-stage. Women are still viewed as mothers, but now have nearly the same rights as the men that have controlled their lives throughout history.
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Overall, women have been guided and directed by men all throughout history. With everything controlled by men, women could do very little of their own accord. In The Merchant of Venice, the originalfemale roles were played by men in makeup and wigs. Now, in Crowthers portrayal, the female roles are played by females. With advancements in theatre, daily life, and general rights, the roles of women have come a long way from where they were during Shakespeare’s age,
- Cloud, Amahda. “Gender Roles of Women in the Renaissance.” Gender Roles of Women in the Renaissance, www2.cedarcrest.edu/academic/eng/lfletcher/shrew/acloud.htm.
- Crowther, John, ed. No Fear Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice. SparkNotes LLC, 2003
- Hull, Suzanne W. Women According to Men: The World of Tudor-Stuart Women. AltaMira Press, 1996.
- Lamb, Jessica. “Get Thee to a Stage! A Brief History of Women in the Theater.” Women’s Museum of California, 31 Aug. 2017, womensmuseum.wordpress.com/2017/09/06/get-thee-to-a-stage-a-brief-history-of-women-in-the-theater/.
- Mazzocco, Angelo. “The Role of Women in the Italian Renaissance.” The Woman of the Renaissance, www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/nvaget/eurst/womrenaissance.html.
- Radek-Hall, Kimberly M. “Women from the Renaissance to Enlightenment.” Women from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, 2001, www2.ivcc.edu/gen2002/Women_from_the_Renaissance.htm.
- Wood, Michael. In Search of Shakespeare. BBC, 2003
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