What Expectations Were There Of Men And Women's Roles In Shakespearean England.? Is This The Same Across The Social Hierarchy?


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Will Martin answered
Generally we can see that the role of women in Shakespeare's England was subservient to men. This is clear from the language where, for instance, you can often find a husband addressing his wife with the familiar "thee" or "thou" form, while she responds with the formal "you." There are also fairly frequent references to the obedience expected from a wife to her "lord." However, in Elizabethan England there were also very powerful women, and Shakespeare's heroines tend to reflect this. His comedies often pair a gentler, more submissive heroine with a bolder, rebellious one (Celia/ Rosalind, Hero/ Beatrice.) This underlines the idea that, alongside the idea of the meek daughter or wife, there was room for more independent women (like Queen Elizabeth herself.)

In Shakespeare the poorer characters are often more egalitarian; you can see this in the prologue to "The Taming of the Shrew" where Christopher Sly, a tinker, is tricked into believing that he is an aristocrat; he is shocked that his "wife" addresses him as "my lord", protesting "Are you my wife, and will not call me husband?"

Germaine Greer's book on Shakespeare (Oxford Past Masters) has some very interesting discussions of class and gender in Shakespeare, and how far they reflect reality.

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