In Elizabethan times, women belonged to their fathers (or their brothers if their father died), and then to their husbands. Women could not own property of their own. Women had no control over any money. Women could not have careers. Women could not divorce their husbands. Women had no access to education.
Despite this, William Shakespeare featured many strong, dominant and powerful female characters in his plays - from our leading lady, Juliet, to the rather controversial Lady Macbeth, to Rosalind, Viola and Portia. However, women WERE NOT ALLOWED to perform on stage during Elizabethan times meaning all female roles were performed by men, or more commonly, young boys.
In several of Shakespeare's plays (Twelfth Night, As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice), the female characters disguise themselves as men – so the audience would have seen a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man.
It was in 1660 - only 44 years after William Shakespeare died - that women first took to the stage after King Charles II saw women on the stage in Europe and thought it would be a good thing to have in London.
Have a think about the following questions - you could even write your response to this information using the questions as a guide:
- How does this make you feel? Shocked, unhappy, surprised, disappointed?
- Would you like to be a woman in Elizabethan times? Would you like to be a man in Elizabethan times?
- How do you think it felt as an audience member to watch a man play a strong, female character in a play with no female actors?
- Why would Shakespeare choose to invent these character knowing that women could not perform, and held very little power?