What Was the Role of Women in Shakespeare’s Time?

The primary roles of women in the time of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) were to marry and have children. Primary roles aside, privileges permitted to women depended largely on where in Europe they lived and whether they were wealthy or not.

A large part of William Shakespeare’s life occurred during the Elizabethan period when, ironically, England was ruled by a woman. This does not mean that English women were unusually liberated for the time, but they did enjoy a certain amount of freedom that women in other parts of Europe did not. For starters, wealthy women were fairly well educated. Women were permitted to seek an education in Elizabethan times, though they were not allowed to enter any type of profession but those of a domestic nature. Women and girls also were permitted to indulge in artistic endeavors such as painting or literature. Women from poorer families seldom sought educations, however, due to financial constraints and familial obligations.

Overall, women were expected to marry. Most marriages were arranged in order to ensure financial stability or gain through the dowries and alliances between families. Women were also expected to have children. Wealthy women, in particular, were expected to produce a male heir, as all inheritance was passed through male lineage and female relatives were not permitted to inherit land or titles.