Shakespeare and the members of the Elizabethan era would be appalled at the freedoms women experience today. The docility of Elizabethan women is almost a forgotten way of life. What we see throughout Shakespeare’s plays is an insight into the female character as perceived by Elizabethan culture. Shakespeare’s female characters reflect the Elizabethan era’s image of women; they were to be virtuous and obedient and those that were not were portrayed as undesirable and even evil.
When one considers Shakespeare’s female characters, one has to remember that the plays were written in a time when women were considered weak-minded creatures who were apt to make bad choices if given the freedom. Shakespeare, for the most part, divided his female characters into two categories. One was the docile, obedient, virtuous woman, the heroine in some cases, who embodied all that was desirable in a female. The other was the independent, dominating, evil counterpart.
It’s difficult to comprehend exactly how society in general, and men in particular, viewed females. To us, some of their beliefs seem almost ludicrous. Orsino, for example, “recalls Elizabethan folk beliefs when he speaks of Olivia’s liver, brain, and heart which were thought to be the seats of passion, judgment, and sentiment, respectively, and the three centers of power within the body” (Bates 5).
Of course, one Elizabethan belief was that women lacked character, particularly in the case of love. Some considered “women’s love [was] very variable and not lasting” (Bates 13). Shakespeare alludes to this belief in Twelfth Night when “Viola also laments that Olivia cold fall in love with Cesario so easily; she compares women’s hearts to sealing wax in an apt metaphor, and notes how the ‘proper false’ leaves a lasting impression in their hearts” (Bates 11). Orsino, as the frustrated suitor laments “that women are very inconstant in their love, and could have a feeling as deep as the love that he has for Olivia” (Bates 10).
Shakespeare also plays with the role of strong women as undesirable, even evil. As we see throughout many of his plays “it is common in Shakespeare’s plays… for the good characters to easily fall victim to their evil counterparts” (Peterson 12). This is particularly true of Cordelia and King Lear in the play, King Lear, as both become victims of Regan’s and Goneril’s plotting (Shakespeare V.iii.276-280). “Women as the most evil of characters is not a new experiment for Shakespeare” (Peterson 8).
In Elizabethan life “a dominant woman was unnatural, a symptom of disorder” (Order in the sexes 1). Particularly in King Lear, we see the unnaturalness of dominant women and how they are evil. Regan and Goneril, who begin the play with false declarations of love for their father, soon become dominant women who show little regard for the values of their society (Shakespeare I.ii.54-61, 69-76). Regan, in...