Shakespeare's Women

‘Frailty – thy name is woman!’ How do we reconcile Shakespeare’s attitudes to his women characters, when they vary from the dazzling wit of Beatrice to the shrewish Katerina? Was the bard a misogynist? Discuss the interpretation of these women by Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences, and consider how modern perspectives might cast these varied characters in a new light.


  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Hamlet
  • Othello
  • As You Like It
  • Taming of the Shrew


  • Elizabethan and Jacobean Women: In our introductory class we will consider the usual roles and expectations for women in Shakespeare’s age, including marriage, work and family life – and special roles such as that of Queen.
  • The Wit and Charm of Beatrice: Perhaps Shakespeare’s most delightful heroine, this week we study the leading lady of Much Ado About Nothing, whose intelligence and independence are evident as she rejects princes and goads suitors.
  • The Tragic figure of Ophelia: In this lesson we consider whether Ophelia is a ‘fallen woman’ and the tragic beauty of her drowning – considered one of the most romantic scenes in literature.
  • Gertrude – a Mother and a Queen: Though her poor judgement and lust are described by her son, Hamlet, in this class we consider her wisdom and responsibility as mother and monarch.
  • Desdemona the Brave: An often unappreciated character, we explore Desdemona’s independence, bravery, and her strange attempts to protect Othello even as he kills her.
  • Emilia the Wise: This hand-maiden delivers one of the best proto-feminist arguments in literature. Her wry and practical wit, and sense of justice sees her turn against her husband.
  • Rosalind the Tutor: In this class we examine the dominant character of As You Like It. Rosalind’s balance between courtly wit and pastoral pleasures sees her school her would-be husband and the rest of her father’s court of exiles.
  • The Shrew in the Ointment: In our final lesson we examine Katerina’s problematic transformation from wretch to dominated housewife in Taming of the Shrew, and try to reconcile her portrayal with the other women of Shakespeare’s plays.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Assess Elizabethan/Jacobean perceptions of women in the plays.
  2. Identify the role of social and religious context in shaping women in Shakespeare’s plays.
  3. Perform close passage readings of excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays.
  4. Discuss various women from Shakespeare’s plays through the lens of contemporary feminism.