Document 907

Shakespeare's attitude towards women

Author(s): Rosie Bell

Copyright holder(s): Rosie Bell


Shakespeare's attitude towards women in his works is often highly ambiguous. The heroines of Shakespeare's comedies are usually from high-class backgrounds. They are often portrayed as being well-educated. In "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Hermia and Helena talk of their schooldays. Rosalind in "As You Like It" knew something of Julius Caesar and could refer to the classic lovers: Troilus and Cressida, Hero and Leander, as well as Venus and Cupid, the gods of love. Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing" was conversant in History and Geography. Probably the finest example of a highly educated woman, in Shakespeare, is Portia in "The Merchant of Venice". She skilfully outwitted the shady Shylock by means of cleverly applying the letter of the law. Her heroic achievement is underlined by the Jasonic description of her:

".... and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece"

Queen Elizabeth may have been a model for these spirited women. As Gloriana, the Virgin Queen, not only did she have divine sanction but was, by many, held to be a deity herself. Helped by her governess, Katherine Ashley, the young Elizabeth studied Latin and Greek; history, geography and maths. Music, archeology and astronomy were studied as well as French, Italian, Spanish and Flemish. Elizabeth's colouring, itself conventionally petrachan, could have influenced Shakespeare in the descriptions of his fair heroines.

Some of the women in Shakespeare's works may not come over as being highly intelligent but are nevertheless still portrayed with obvious sincerity, even affection. Perdita in "The Winter's Tale" is one such heroine. However, it may be her arcadian innocence, her complete lack of sophistication which endears her to him. She has a kind of innate nobility, which prepares the audience for the revelation of her true status as the daughter of a king. Shakespeare loves these eleventh-hour expositions of the hero's aristocracy, which trace their origins back as far as Havelock the Dane, who, for most of his youth, worked as a kitchen scullion in his wicked uncle's castle. His true identity was revealed by means of a birth mark and other identifying objects, which device is still being employed by contemporary writers.

In "King Lear", the worldly Goneril and Regan are exhibited as being un-natural, as beasts, monsters. Goneril appears to be subtly revealed as an adulteress. Cordelia alone stands out. Her character is idealistic, a true romantic heroine, a kind of dream woman.

The Dark Lady of the Sonnets seems to have held more of a nightmarish fascination for Shakespeare. Was she the:

"... whitely wanton with pitch-balls stuck in
her face for eyes..."?

Whereas the sonnets which seem to be addressed to the Young Man are full of love and devotion:

"Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire..."

the ones addressed to the Dark Lady are often bitter with invective:

"For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds:
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds."

Shakespeare seems to have been, for several years, captivated by an anonymous raven-haired beauty who threw him over, perhaps even for the Young Man of the Sonnets, and whose eyes seem to have had a strong fascination for the poet. In "The Winter's Tale", Leontes can be seen to express Shakespeare's feelings of rejection when envisaging the cuckold who:

"...holds his wife be th'arm
That little thinks she has been sluiced
By Sir Smile, his neighbour."

In "Lucrece", Shakespeare comes over as not so much of a misogynist as a male chauvinistic pig. In this poem, the woman is not portrayed as a basilisk, whose glance could be fatal but as the pliable plaything most men would love to possess :

"For men have marble, women waxen minds,
And therefore are they formed as marble will;
The weak oppress'd, th'impression of strange kinds
Is formed in them by force, by fraud, or skill.
Then call them not the authors of their ill,
No more than wax shall be accounted evil,
Wherein is stamp' d the semblance of a devil."

This heroine, almost predictably, has hair "like golden threads" and lily-white skin. Shakespeare's detailed description of the lady asleep in her chamber and the slow, painstaking passage of the licentious lodger towards it is almost voyeuristic. The progress towards the rape is drawn out to a state of almost unbearable anticipation. Shakespeare, himself, behaves here like the :

"...foul night-waking cat, he doth but dally,
While in his hold-fast foot the weak mouse panteth..."

Shakespeare seems torn between feelings of empathy for the lustful Tarquin and outrage at the violation of virtue. These two emotions, like Lear's daughters, good and evil, both spring from the same source.

In seeming contrast to "Lucrece", Shakespeare's "Venus and Adonis" exhibits a very definite rapacious role-reversal. In this highly erotic tale, the young man, Adonis, is the conventional fair one:

"Thrice fairer than myself...
...More white and red than doves or roses are:"

Whereas the active sex partner in "Lucrece" is undoubtedly lewd and lustful, Venue is seen as a skilful seductress, only thwarted in her ambition by a man who is :

"obdurate, flinty, hard as steel.

In "Lucrece", the dastardly deed is done in the dead of night but in "Venus and Adonis", the burning sun "did hotly overlook" the feverish fumbling of the heroine. Both of the so-called victims in this pair of poems are reflections of the puritanism of the age. Angelo in "Measure for Measure" starts out as a puritan, policing a city of corruption, who is himself corrupted and is metamorphosed into a lustful demon under the influence of the play's arguably most innocent woman, Isabella, who was about to enter a convent.

It could be that Shakespeare had more reason than merely the sting of rejection to despise salaciousness in women. There are many references, especially in the later works, to sexually-transmitted diseases and popular cures for them. Someone who had not had personal experience in this area would hardly dwell so much on the problem. "Measure for Measure" typifies a society which has sunk to the level of the sewer. Licentiousness is rife at all social levels. Names like Mistress Overdone and Master Froth are self-explanatory.

It is difficult to understand the attitude of Timon of Athens towards women in the play of the same name. The only two females involved in the action are the mistresses of Alcibiades, who accompany him on his visit to Timon in exile. They only came to offer him help and did not deserve to be treated as shamefully as :

"Be a whore still! they love thee not that use thee;
Give them diseases, leaving with thee their lust.
Make use of thy salt hours: season the slaves
For tubs and baths; bring down rose-cheek's youth to
The tub-fast and the diet."

There is no evidence that Timon was a womaniser who, perhaps, was himself brought to the tub-fast. The cause of his downfall was too many nights out with the boys. For a self-confessed "misanthropos" he seems to place the blame squarely on the female sex. When Apemantus, his true friend, asks Timon

"What things in the world canst thou
nearest compare to thy flatterers?.."

Timon replies :

"Women nearest..."

As these flatterers are the reason for his enforced exile from his former life of luxury, the comparison must be of a truly derogatory nature. When thieves come to steal his gold in IV iii, Timon calls them thieves which they deny declaring themselves to be soldiers. Timon retorts :

"Both too, and women's sons..."

When Flavius comes to serve his master in his adversity, Timon has gone mad and thinks Flavius is a fallen woman, come to repent. Perhaps Timon turned misanthropist because all men are "born of woman..."

The first line spoken by Macbeth, although describing the weather, could equally be applied to Shakespeare's attitude towards women:

"So foul and fair a day I have not seen..."

Macbeth's attitude towards the witches is ambivalent. He is at once repulsed an attracted to them. He treats them like beasts, admonishing them to :

"Speak, if you can;- what are you?..."

The use of a pronoun more commonly associated with an animal or an object is revealing. It is his own wife, however, who is shown as being deadlier than the male :

"...-Go get some water,
And wash this filthy witness from your hand..."

Lady Macbeth is shown as being the more practical of the conspirators

The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, whether she really existed or not, pops up in the most surprising of places. In "Romeo and Juliet", we get no real description of the heroine but the first object of Romeo's affection, Rosalind, who never even makes an appearance, is discovered to be an avatar of the sonnet lady. When Friar Lawrence chides him for discarding Rosalind, Romeo declares of his new love, Juliet :

" ...She whom I love
Doth grace for grace and love for love allow;
The other did not so."

Romeo's friend, Mercutio reckons that his love-sick friend has been :

"Stabbed with a white wench's black eye..."

when under the romantic influence of Rosalind.

It is obvious that women were very important in Shakespeare's life. Not only the lovers but also the beloved children. It is possible that Shakespeare's younger daughter, Judith, was the blossom :

"...which withering on the virgin thorn
Grows, lives and dies in single blessedness."

In "Anthony and Cleopatra", Shakespeare seems to make a sexual metaphor out of Cleopatra's dramatic entry into the harbour at Alexandria. As is common in Shakespeare's plays, the best lines are often given to a secondary character and Enobarbus describes the scene. When compared to North's translation of Plutarch, who described the same scene, Shakespeare embellishes his description in a manner befitting such an occasion. The barge was like a "burnished throne" which "burn'd on the water..." This illustrates the fire and water paradox that Shakespeare so loved: it occurs also in "Venus and Adonis". The sails of the barge were purple, like the colour of aroused erectile tissue.

Purple, in those days, could also be seen to represent blood, so could have presaged the doom to come. The winds were love-sick and the oars kept stroke to the time of the flutes. The water, when beaten, followed faster ''as amorous of their strokes..." The queen herself :

"O'erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy out-work nature..."

Pretty boys," like smiling Cupids" fanned her cheeks, like fanning a fire into flame, the more they tried to cool, they more they enflamed. The "silken tackle" must refer not only to the ship's ropes but also to the lady's hair. Shakespeare could not have been unaware of the images conjured up by his "adjacent wharfs." In this detailed description, all of the senses are stimulated: Sight in the colours described; Smell in the perfumed winds; Hearing in the sound of the flutes; Touch in the feel of the cloth-of-gold tissue on which Cleopatra lay; and lastly, Taste in what is arguably the most evocative and erotic statement ever made about a woman :

"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed; but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies..."

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APA Style:

Shakespeare's attitude towards women. 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 21 May 2024, from

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"Shakespeare's attitude towards women." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2024. Web. 21 May 2024.

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The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech, s.v., "Shakespeare's attitude towards women," accessed 21 May 2024,

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The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. 2024. Glasgow: University of Glasgow.


Information about Document 907

Shakespeare's attitude towards women


Text audience

Adults (18+)
Audience size 3-5
Writer knew intended audience

Text details

Method of composition Handwritten
Year of composition 1986
Word count 1920
General description University assignment

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Author details

Author id 866
Forenames Rosie
Surname Bell
Gender Female
Decade of birth 1940
Educational attainment University
Age left school 15
Upbringing/religious beliefs Catholicism/Atheism
Occupation Travel agent
Place of birth Glasgow
Region of birth Glasgow
Birthplace CSD dialect area Gsw
Country of birth Scotland
Place of residence Glasgow
Region of residence Glasgow
Residence CSD dialect area Gsw
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Bus Driver
Father's place of birth Glasgow
Father's region of birth Glasgow
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Gsw
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Cleaner
Mother's place of birth Glasgow
Mother's region of birth Glasgow
Mother's birthplace CSD dialect area Gsw
Mother's country of birth Scotland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes All circumstances
Italian Yes Yes Yes Yes
Scots Yes Yes Yes Yes