Patriarchy and attitudes towards women

Presenting both sides of the argument

The Great Chain of BeingShakespeare both presents and challenges patriarchy and the authority of men as leaders in society and the family. He upholds male authority in the social, political and economic organisation of society and in plays such as Macbeth order is closely linked to patriarchal social structures and the chain of being which placed the king as head of the social order. He also challenges weak figures who fail to fulfil their patriarchal obligations, such as Lear, the monarch who renounces his authority in King Lear
At the same time, Shakespeare’s plays interrogate aspects of patriarchy, questioning the authority of fathers in family settings (e.g. The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet) and of men in marriage and family life (e.g.  The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing). His strong female characters, among them Rosalind in As You Like it and Portia in The Merchant of Venice, resist restrictive patriarchal structures and develop an intelligent and witty authority of their own.

Portrayal of women in religious texts 

The background of Judaeo-Christian teaching – and its distortion
By the time Shakespeare was writing, Western literature had been seriously affected by a distortion of Judeo-Christian teaching about women. In the original New Testament texts there is a balance. 
On the one hand, Paul advocated the need for women to submit to their husbands, taking their cue from biblical injunctions such as: 
For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. Ephesians 5:23
But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. 1 Corinthians 11:3     
Indeed, Shakespeare includes references to these verses when Katherina says:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper
Thy head, thy sovereign… (Act 5 Scene 2).     
On the other hand, Paul also wrote that:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28 ESVUK).     
and he commanded men to:
love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her ..  28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. (Ephesians 5:26-28 ESVUK).     
However, this more positive response to women, also seen in their treatment by Christ, was gradually submerged under centuries of male apologetics.

Changing emphasis

Saint Augustine (354-430 CE) saw fallen sexuality as a key component of original sin. By the Middle Ages, it was commonly accepted that Eve was principally to blame for the disobedience that led to the fall of humanity. Augustine also propounded the view that Mary, the mother of Jesus, remained a perpetual virgin, leading to the idea that sexuality was somehow evil. Thus medieval stereotypes of women were quite polarised – they were either madonnas or whores.
Any woman who resisted such male categorisation was regarded as a harridan or ‘shrew’ who sought to have dominance over men. The stereotype is found in medieval writings, for example Noah’s's wife in some of the Mystery plays, and was vividly brought to life in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. The Wife’s fifth husband is well versed in misogynistic writings, which she spends much of her narrative recounting and attempting to refute, whilst her behaviour to her previous husbands rather proves them!
Although the courtly love tradition (See Women in literature > Courtly love ethic) apparently gave women an elevated status, the great Romances of Lancelot and Guinevere, or Tristram and Isolde, were based on what were essentially adulterous relationships, which resulted in personal or social tragedy.

Mutual respect

Commentators in Shakespeare’s day started to realise that the context in which any female submission ideally should take place is that of mutual respect and understanding. This is evident in the biblical description of marriage and potentially in Katherina and Petruchio’s partnership at the end of the play. The Office and Dutie of an Husband, written by Juan Vives and translated by Thomas Paynell in 1553, expressed similar ideas. 
Homilies (sermons which were required to be read aloud in churches) quoted Ephesians 5:23 and 1 Corinthians 11:3, extrapolating from them to discuss how women should behave in the home and in society. Homily XVIII (1563-71), entitled On the State of Matrimony, explored how a man and wife could ‘live lawfully in a perpetual friendship’, without: ‘chidings, brawlings, tauntings, repentings, bitter cursings, and fightings’. It describes as ‘folly’ everyone’s ‘desire to rule, to think highly of our self, so that none thinks it meet to give place to another’. 
On the State of Matrimony encouraged the husband to ‘be the leader and author of love’ and to ‘use moderation and not tyranny’. It encouraged the wife to ‘apply herself to [her husband’s] will’, ‘seek his contentment’ and ‘eschew all things that might offend him’. The homily condemned violence: 
God forbid that [a man should beat his wife] for that is the greatest shame that can be … to him that does the deed.      
Instead it encouraged mutual respect and partnership: 
for when either parties do their best to perform their duties the one to the other, then follows there great profit to their neighbours for their examples sake.    
This was a point Shakespeare was keen to make at the end of The Taming of the Shrew.


In spite of a New Testament reference to women being silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:33-35), elsewhere the apostle Paul lists women in church leadership amongst his commendations: Romans 16:1-6 includes a deaconess and perhaps an apostle amongst the female ‘saints' and ‘fellow-workers'. However, by the time Shakespeare was writing, the Judeo-Christian approach had been significantly re-interpreted. 
In the sixteenth century a number of sermons, homilies and texts explored the relationship between men and women, and the place of women in society. One famous diatribe against women in leadership came from the Scottish Protestant reformer John Knox in 1558, entitled The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. In it he described the ‘notable faults’ of women which made them unfit to be rulers or have authority, and wrote that women were ‘weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish’. Primarily written to criticise the rule of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and her mother, his views also alienated him from the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I in England.

Portrayal of women in popular texts

A number of sixteenth century ballads, poems and other texts explored the role of women in marriage and society. Some described unruly women who beat their husbands, neglected their families and needed ‘taming’:
  • One book, titled The Deceit of Women, Instruction and Example of all Men, Young and Old, Newly Corrected (1560), was illustrated with a woodcut on the title-page showing a woman sitting astride her husband, pictured on his hands and knees, whipping him
  • A ballad titled A Merry Jest of a Shrewde and Curste Wyfe described an unruly woman and the punishment she received from her husband who beat her until she learned obedience
  • In 1542 Edward Gosynhill wrote Schole house of women and criticised the vanity, faithlessness and frailty of women based on examples from the Bible such as Eve and Jezebel. See Big ideas: Women in the Bible.
Not all contemporary writing promoted such a view:
  • Edward Gosynhill wrote another work the next year with a change of heart and praised women as dedicated mothers and models of God’s creation
  • Sir Thomas Elyot, in The Defence of Good Women, (1545) also wrote about the constancy and wisdom of women and took examples from history and legend
  • Some of Shakespeare’s ‘unruly’ women attracted attention because of their unconventional behaviour, but were, like Rosalind in As You Like It and Portia in The Merchant of Venice, highly intelligent and witty women who disproved the idea that women were vain, faithless and frail.

Women in Shakespeare's plays

By the sixteenth century, there were a number of female stereotypes, fostered by the courtly love tradition and by the emergence of the sonnet and Arcadian idylls. However, the idealised ladies of most sonnets or the shepherdesses of the pastoral verses bear little resemblance to real women. 
The resurgence of drama in the late sixteenth century allowed for the presentation of female roles on stage. Women were acted by young men, which meant there were fewer parts written for them but, as portrayed by Shakespeare, these become increasingly complex. 
Women are no longer just stereotypes. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 he writes ‘my mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun ...' and proceeds to turn the conventional image of the mistress on its head. This woman's breath ‘reeks'. In The Taming of the Shrew there is a similar engagement with the disjunct between male perception of females – idealised in the case of Bianca, stereotyped in the case of Katherina – and the ‘reality’ of sharing life with these women. Shakespeare's heroines have plenty to say for themselves.
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