Women

Authored by: Tim Stretton

The Elizabethan World

Print publication date:  September  2010
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415409599
eBook ISBN: 9781315736044
Adobe ISBN: 9781317565796

10.4324/9781315736044.ch20

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Abstract

Successive generations of scholars in the twentieth century made bold yet contradictory assertions about the lives of women during the reign of Elizabeth. Some assumed that the example of a female sovereign provided women with a living precedent for the potential of female power and autonomy. Others, by contrast, suggested that Elizabeth’s manipulation of gender norms – playing up her bodily weakness, emphasising her masculine princely powers and refusing to compromise her authority by marrying – revealed the limits of female independence. Some historians alleged that the Protestant character of the Elizabethan settlement privileged companionship within marriage and helped set women on an eventual course to equality. Others disagreed, arguing that Protestantism entrenched the power and authority of husbands and fathers at the expense of wives and daughters. A number found in Shakespeare’s plays evidence of strong female roles suggesting a new and heightened respect for women’s worth. Others read the same plays yet concluded the opposite: Shakespeare gave his female characters limited roles that conformed to restrictive gender stereotypes and which were performed not by women but by young boys.

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