In Shakespeare‟s time women were subservient to men. They were dependent on
their male relatives to support them. They were used to forge alliances with
other powerful families through arranged marriages. There was little dispute
over such arrangements as Elizabethan woman were raised to believe that they
were inferior to men and that men knew better!
Elizabethan women were tutored at home - there were no schools for
Elizabethan women were not allowed to enter University
Elizabethan women could not be heirs to their father's titles ( except
Elizabethan women could not become Doctors or Lawyers
Elizabethan women did not have the vote and were not allowed to enter
There were no Elizabethan women in the Army or Navy
Elizabethan women were not allowed to act in the theatres ( but women at
court were allowed to perform in the Masques)
Disobedience was seen as a crime against their religion. The Church firmly
believed this and quoted the Bible in order to ensure the continued adherence
to this principle. The Scottish protestant leader John Knox wrote:"Women in
her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man."The fabric of
Elizabethan society was built with this belief and 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. The only exception was the
Love and Marriage
In Shakespeare‟s time it was generally considered foolish to marry for love,
although love may occur in marriage.
Parents and friends were considered better equipped than women to look out
for their best interests, being mature and experienced in the world.
Most people arranged their children's marriages with the children of
neighbours and friends.
The lower on the social scale they were, the more likely they were to have a
choice in the matter.
Children were the property of their parents, and give them the respect a
servant gives his master: in particular daughters.
Wives were the property of their husbands.
Some women were more independent than others, and some feared marriage.
However, every woman expected to be married, and to depend on her male
relatives throughout her life.
With parental permission, boys were legal to marry at 14, girls at 12.
Sir Thomas More recommended that girls not marry before 18 and boys not
In non-noble families, the most common age for marriage is 25-26 for men,
about 23 for women. This is because it was considered best to wait until they
could afford a home and children. Also, most apprenticeships didn't end until
the mid 20‟s.
Noble families may arrange marriage much earlier. Robert Dudley's sister
Katherine, who became the countess of Huntingdon, did go to the altar at age 7,
but that was extraordinary.
When the participants are very young, it is principally to secure a dynastic
alliance. They generally do not live together as man and wife (by any definition).
Often, the bride may go to live with the groom's family to be brought up in
domestic management by her mother-in-law.
Travel and colonialism
Under Elizabeth, England began colonization of the Americas with Walter
Raleigh's excursions to the Atlantic shore and establishment of the Roanoke
colony. Also, Sir Francis Drake made a mark in history as the first man to
circumnavigate the globe, earning prestige for England and for Elizabeth. The
English Navy's defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was an unexpected blow
to Spain and a welcome triumph for England, giving the country the precarious
title of a world power.
Shakespeare and his audiences would havebeen very interested in the efforts
of English and other Europeansettlers to colonize distant lands around the
globe. The play explores the complex and problematic relationship
between the European coloniser and the native colonisedpeoples.
The English colonial project seems to be on Shakespeare‟s mind throughout the
play, as almost every character, ponders how he would rule the island on which
the play is set if he were its king. Shakespeare seems also to have drawn on
Montaigne‟s essay “Of the Cannibals,” which was translated into English in 1603.
The name of Prospero‟s servant-monster, Caliban, seems to be an anagram or
derivative of “Cannibal.”
Prospero views Caliban as a lesser being than himself.As such, Prospero believes
that Caliban should be grateful tohim for educating Caliban and lifting him out
of “savagery.” Itsimply does not occur to Prospero that he has stolen
rulershipof the island from Caliban, because Prospero can‟t imagineCaliban as
being fit to rule anything. In contrast, Caliban soon realises that Prospero views
him as a second-class citizen fitonly to serve and that by giving up his rulership
of the island inreturn for his education, he has allowed himself to be robbed.
As a result, Caliban turns bitter and violent, which only reinforcesProspero‟s
view of him as a “savage.”
In Shakespeare‟s time there was little distinction between magic and science.
Many people believed in witches and the supernatural. One of the most famous
Elizabethan “scientists” was Dr. John Dee, who was regarded as a “magus”. This
was a term applied to someone who dabbled in magic, either in the field of
astrology, alchemy, or sorcerybelief in magic and witchcraft was in
Shakespeare's day an established article in the popular creed, and accepted by
the great majority of the cultivated and learned. To attack it was a bold thing
to do, and few writers had ventured it.
We have no reason to suppose that Shakespeare believed in magic. From his
14th Sonnet we may infer that he did not believe even in astrology, as most
people did long after his day; and yet Prospero is the grandest conception of the
magician to be found in all our literature. The delineation is in strict accordance
with the prevalent theory of the magic art, and yet it is so ennobled and
idealized that in our day, when that theory is reckoned among the dead
superstitions of a bygone age, we see nothing mean or unworthy in it.
The European societies of the late sixteenth through the seventeenthcenturies were remarkably fascinated with mysterious and supernatural
phenomenon like fairies, ghosts, magic, and most especially witches and
witchcraft. The people of Elizabethan England were constantly facing
uncertainty of life and death with the Bubonic Plague and wars raging
throughout the continent, while famine, diseases, and other catastrophes were
also constant concerns. Logically, the European people needed someone or
something to be held responsible for these terrible events, and religion or God
was a major source for explaining the disasters—At the same time, witches,
witchcraft, and otherworldly wonders were also frequently regarded as
William Shakespeare, among other writers, incorporated these otherworldly
elements into his plays most likely for the same reason; to find some kind of
rationale for all the misfortune in the world. Throughout Elizabethan England,
witches bared the brunt of most of this blame, which is cleverly emulated in
written works and artistic pieces of the time period, principally inMacbeth,
(Alchin 2005: 1-4).
Being a male-chauvinist society, supposed witches in England were nearly
always women—Either female healers who had knowledge of medicinal remedies
(herbs, plants, etc) or women who were too old, weak, poor, or widowed to
combat the rumours of their „sorcery.‟
Power and control
Social status played a key role in early-modern English society. Wealth was
important, but so were birth, education, and employment in determining social
Education was one way to attain gentle status - Masters of Arts, physicians,
and lawyers were all assumed to be gentlemen. Clergymen too, aspired to gentle
status and for the most part were accepted as such, though after the
Reformation, the status of many local clergy fell, and the higher clergy were
gradually excluded from political power.
Sir Francis Drake (1540-95) attained gentry‟s status the old-fashioned way - by
distinguishing himself fighting for his Queen and country. Elizabeth I knighted
him in 1580 when he returned from harrying and plundering the Spanish.
Shakespeare's father, John, was a reasonably prosperous Glover, though he fell
on hard times. In 1568 he applied to the College of Arms for permission to use a
coat of arms. His son William followed up the application in 1596. The College
agreed on the grounds that one of Shakespeare's forbears had been rewarded
for valiant service under Henry VII, that John had married the daughter of a
gentleman (Robert Arden) and that he was a JP, a royal bailiff and the owner of
land and buildings worth £500.
In practice, education was only usually available to comparatively wealthy
families. The poorest families needed their children to work.
Shakespeare‟s England was an extremely hierarchical society, demanding that
absolute deference be paid and respect be shown not only to the wealthy and
powerful but also to parents and the elderly.
From the opening scene of Theplay during the storm,when the ruling courtiers
on the ship must take orders fromtheir subjects, the sailors and the boatswain,
The Tempestexamines a variety of questions about power.