1.2.1 Historical Background: patriarchal society

In Shakespeare’s time, England was a patriarchal society and every aspect of it was dominated by men, being women considered emotionally weaker than men.

On the other hand, religion was a dominant force in English society and had enormous control in society as a whole and over its people. It influenced people’s everyday lives, affecting their view of the world and opinions towards a variety of issues. In fact, the story of creation from the Bible was used as a tool to support the patriarchal hierarchy. Eve was created second, therefore, she was a deviation from the norm. For that reason and the notion that she was created from the man’s rib, she was inferior and should be subordinate to her master. What is more, Eve was weak because she was deceived by the evil and even tempted and led Adam to disobey God and so caused the fall from grace. Therefore, all women must be controlled and kept in their places; women could clearly not be trusted.

Apart from religion, the law upheld the patriarchy as it did not treat men and women as equals. It recognized the man as king in his household. A man who murdered his wife, was hanged for murder, however, if a woman murdered her husband, she was burned for petty treason. The husband was responsible for his wife and she was, in fact, his property.

Men, and society as a whole, strove to exclude women from almost every aspect of society which was outside the home. Women were not allowed any formal role in the church, legal profession or any role in office, neither central nor local government. Education was banned to women because keeping women ignorant was naturally intentional and necessary for the patriarchal system.


When Shakespeare was born and throughout most of his lifetime, England was ruled by a female monarch and by the time Elizabeth I died in 1603, England had experienced half a century of female rule (from 1558 to 1603). She was the first English queen to confront head-on all the paradoxes created for the English Church and State by an independent female monarch. Elizabeth I was a strong and intelligent woman, but she neither attempted to change the misogynist attitudes in her society towards women nor did she accentuate women’s strengths and abilities. Instead, she admitted that women were weak and feeble because in one of her most famous speeches she said, “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king”.

Elizabeth I did not demand equality for her sex publicly in her speeches, and for that reason, many historians have labelled her patriarchal and even misogynistic. Nevertheless, I don’t think so taking into account her society and the role she was playing. Moreover, although she did not demand equality in actual words, she did so with her actions, by not marrying and being a successful queen.


Elizabethan women were raised to believe that they were inferior to men. The Church believed this and quoted the Bible in order to ensure the continued adherence to this principle. The protestant leader John Knox wrote:

“Women in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man.”

Elizabethan Women were totally dominated by the male members of their family. They were expected to instantly obey not only their father but also their brothers and any other male members of the family. The punishment for disobey was the whipping stool – the Elizabethan girls were beaten into submission and disobedience was seen as a crime against their religion. Elizabethan Women could not be heirs to their father’s titles. All titles would pass from father to son or brother to brother, depending on the circumstances. So the only exception was the monarchy.



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