High-born women are presented as “possessions” to be passed between fathers and husbands. In most cases, they are socially restricted and unable to explore the world around them without chaperones. These women were coerced and controlled by the men in their lives. Broadly speaking, female characters that sexually aware are more likely to be lower class. Shakespeare allows them more freedom to explore their sexuality, perhaps because their low-status renders them socially harmless. However, women are never totally free in Shakespeare’s plays: if not owned by husbands and fathers, many low class characters are owned by their employers. Women in power are treated with distrust by Shakespeare. They have questionable morals. For example, Gertrude in Hamlet marries her husband’s murdering brother and Lady Macbeth coerces her husband into murder. For these women, the penalty for their scheming ways is normally death.
The Bawdy Woman
These characters are sexualized, cheeky and flirtatious. They are often working class characters such as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, Margaret in Much Ado about Nothing or Audrey in As you Like It. Mainly speaking in prose, as befitting their low social status, these characters often use sexual innuendo when conversing. Low class characters like these can get away with more risqué behavior – perhaps because they have no fear of losing social status.
The Tragic Innocent Woman- These women are often pure and chaste at the beginning of the play, and tragically die once their innocence is lost. In stark contrast to his presentation of bawdy women, Shakespeare’s treatment of young innocent women is fairly brutal. Once their innocence or chastity is taken away, they are literally killed to signify this loss. These characters are generally courtly, high born characters such as Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, Lavinia from Titus Andronicus or Ophelia from Hamlet. Their high social standing makes their demise seem all the more tragic.
The Scheming Femme Fatal – Lady Macbeth is the archetypal femme fatal. Her manipulation of Macbeth inevitably leads them to their deaths: she commits suicide and he is slain. In her ambition to become Queen, she encourages her husband to murder. King Lear’s daughters, Goneril and Regan, plot to inherit their father’s fortune. Once again, their ambition leads them to their deaths: Goneril stabs herself after poisoning Regan. Although Shakespeare seems to appreciate the intelligence at work in his femme fatal characters, allowing them to manipulate the men around them, his retribution is brutal and unforgiving.
The Witty, but Unmarriable Woman – Katherine from The Taming of The Shrew is a prime example of the witty, but unmarriable woman. Feminists have commented that their enjoyment of this play is marred by the fact that a man literally “breaks” Katherine’s spirit when Petruchio says “Come on, and kiss me, Kate.” – should we really celebrate this as a happy ending? Similarly, in the plot to Much Ado About Nothing, Benedick ultimately conquers the feisty Beatrice by saying, “Peace, I will stop your mouth.” These women are presented as clever, bold and independent but are put in their place by the end of the play.
The Married Off Woman – Many of Shakespeare’s comedies end with an eligible woman being married off – and therefore being made safe. These women are often very young and passed from their father’s care to their new husband’s. More often than not, these are high-born characters such as Miranda in The Tempest who is married to Ferdinand, Helena and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing.
Women Who Dress as Men – Rosalind in As You Like it and Viola in Twelfth Night both dress as men. Consequently, they are able to play a more active role in the play’s narrative. As “men”, these characters have more freedom, highlighting the lack of social liberty for women in Shakespeare’s time.
Falsely Accused of Adultery – Women in Shakespeare’s plays are sometimes wrongly accused of adultery and suffer greatly as a result. For example, Desdemona is killed by Othello who supposes her infidelity and Hero falls terribly ill when she is falsely accused by Claudio. It seems that Shakespeare’s women are judged by their sexuality even when they remain faithful to their husbands and husbands-to-be. Some feminists believe that this demonstrates a male insecurity about female sexuality.