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Shakespeare's Portrayal of Women in the Elizabethan Era

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Courtney Pierson Jr

on 13 May 2014

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Transcript of Shakespeare's Portrayal of Women in the Elizabethan Era

Woman in sixteenth-century England
had no vote
few legal rights
extremely limited chance of ever getting an education
most women were denied the chance to be schooled beyond the basics
limited to a job.
The only career open to all Elizabethan women was marriage
When a woman got married, she lost all control over her property,
including clothes and jewelry; her husband could sell them, throw them out, or give them away as he pleased
In giving up her property, the wife often became her husband's property

Upper-class wives

had much more free time.
Most popular activities
writing letters
strolling in the garden
playing with dainty little pet dogs
poring over needlework
everything their education had prepared them for.

Needless to say, the life of a woman in the Elizabethan
era was bleak. Religious fanaticism enforced by law molded
women into the form of the dutiful wife and mother. Their lives
were dull and hard, with successive childbirths making them old
before their time and leading to very early deaths. It’s for this
reason that Shakespeare’s depictions of women as brilliant,
rebellious, three-dimensional characters is so extraordinary and
highly valued.
Women in the Elizabethan Era
Though this is not true to all of his plays, in
Shakespeare keeps women in the roles and temperaments afforded them by traditional Elizabethan values. It is interesting to note, however, that this play is set significantly before the Elizabethan era, and not in England. This may indicate that the way characters are portrayed in this play are not indicative of how Shakespeare feels about the contemporary role of women, who began to hold slightly more power in the Elizabethan era thanks to Queen Elizabeth, who often patronized Shakespeare.
Examples from the book
Queen Gertrude
Shakespeare's Portrayal of women
Because he is disgusted with Gertrude, he generalizes his thoughts towards her to all women
Shakespeare makes is seem that, because Gertrude is weak, so is every other woman in that time period
"Frailty, thy name is woman"
Vague, stereotypical claim
Dependent on men
Marries Claudius only two months after Hamlet Sr.'s death
Compares Gertrude to an animal
"Oh women! You are so weak...even an animal would have mourned its mate longer than she did"
Shows how Shakespeare thought lowly of all women, by comparing them to an animal"
Shakespeare show that women can't think for themselves
Claudius makes the decisions for her, and she simply replies, "I will obey you"

Examples from the book
Hamlet is in love with her, but pushed off by her willingness to be obedient to him
Two voices of authority- Polonius and Laertes
Two "father figures"
Make her aware that her actions are unsuitable and naive
Most of her decisions are made by them
When she is asked about Hamlet's intentions to be with her, she says, "I do not know my lord, what should I think"
Relying on others to think for her
When her father dies, she can no longer function without a male figure, which eventually leads to her own insanity and death
Specifically in Hamlet, Shakespeare treats women in ways consistent with their traditional roles during the Elizabethan era. Not only does he give them similar constraints and situations to women of the time period, and write men reacting to them in ways that support these submissive and frail stereotypes, but Shakespeare imbues it into the characters themselves. When Ophelia goes mad after her father dies and Hamlet rejects her, she is made not only socially and economically dependent on men, but her character is defined by her fundamental emotional and mental dependence on men as well. Gertrude functions in a very similar way, and not only by marrying Claudius quickly after her husband’s death. Even after Hamlet threatens her, she still acts kindly and submissively towards him. Though this does not hold true to all of his plays, the women Shakespeare writes in Hamlet do hold true to Elizabethan (and prior) societal norms

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