'Frailty, thy name is woman': The depiction of women in The Revenger's Tragedy and in Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth

Seminar Paper 2004 20 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of contents

1.0 Introduction

2.0 Reflections on the origins of the view on women in Renaissance England

3.0 Analysis : Women as morally and socially inferior to men ?
3.1 Women’s hysteria: depression, weakness and suicide in Hamlet
3.2 Behind the scenes of Macbeth: The woman as dominant and ingenious seducer?
3.3 “Wives are but made to take to bed and feed”[i]: Depiction of woman in The Revenger’s Tragedy

4.0 Renaissance drama: misogynistic view on women or reality depicted? –
A conclusion

5.0 References

6.0 Bibliography

1.0 Introduction

This paper deals with the question how women are depicted in English Renaissance drama, exemplified by the women in The Revenger’s Tragedy and in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth. It shall be examined which functions women in the drama fulfill and which conclusion their status allows.

Of particular interest will be the concept of the ‘unruly woman’, who unites characteristics like mysteriousness, seductiveness and inexplicability. The analysis will show that none of the examined characters Gertrude, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Lady Macduff, Gratiana, Gloriana, Castiza, Antonio’s wife and the Duchess are shaped plainly but ambivalently. Therefore, no explicitly good or evil female character can be identified. With regard to the widespread misogynistic view on women in the 17th century, this speaks for the dramas’ authors. However, various negative human features that are presented as typically female, will be taken into consideration and questioned as the basis for discussing the issue whether the dramatists can be rather regarded as feminists or sexists. Moreover, a short insight into the potential origins of the (male) perception of the Renaissance woman is presented and shall clarify and explain the circumstances, in which rather ‘modern’ matters like woman’s self-perception, ambition and emancipation, self-determination and reputation.

The paper’s aim is to expose what the general way of women’s depiction actually is and to investigate if the dichotomy between men and woman can be portrayed in the simplified way of depicting female weakness versus male strength. Furthermore, it shall be focused on the strikingly depicted male superiority and dominance in the plays, its nature, consequences, the connected illusions and, maybe, underlying weaknesses.

Additionally, the analysis will focus on questions suggesting themselves such as the discussion of woman’s habitual death in Renaissance drama, the identification of the different angles of depiction and, above all, the inquiry of the thesis if women are really depicted as morally and socially inferior to men and, if yes, whether this can be justified.

2.0 Reflections on the origins of the view on women in Renaissance England

As ultimate source of spiritual orientation over centuries, the Bible has always had a special status. Although people have faced a constant development of knowledge and change of beliefs, there are some principles which have always been existing and are still today, although modified, part of the common opinion. Therefore, when examining the status of women in societies of the present or past, the Bible has to be considered as one, if not the most, important source of beliefs, values and also stereotypes.

The Bible’s most striking aspect with regard to its depiction of women is its teaching that the woman brought sin and led to the banishment from Paradise. As a result of Eve’s fall, humankind was burdened with the original sin. It is especially interesting that in consequence of her offence, Eve, and thus every woman, was punished by inferiority to men: “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy conception; in pain thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”[ii]

What has been justification for hundreds of years of patriarchy, is still an appropriate concept in the English Renaissance. In his polemic treatise The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, John Knox argued that:

“To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation or city, is repugnant to nature, contumely to God, a thing most contrarious to his revealed will and approved ordinance; and finally, it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.”[iii]

Even though Knox’s writing is influenced by particular political aspects, namely the events connected with the reign of Mary Guise, it yet generalizes the ideas about “a woman” since it gives the impression to be universally valid. Consequently, the text portrays all women as being inferior and lacking ability and rationalizes this presumption by reference to “God’s will”, “nature” and “order”. It seems that lacking arguments for his view are to be covered up by the absoluteness of ancient morals. However, referring to the Bible, Knox only followed a virtuous Christian’s guidelines: ”For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.”[iv]

The Bible can be seen as the main source for the controversy of the nature of women during the English Renaissance. It can be estimated that the ambiguous representation of women in the Bible seems to parallel women’s indistinct depiction in Renaissance drama. On the one hand, woman’s potential merits such as reason and beauty are praised (”A gracious wife delights her husband, her thoughtfulness puts flesh on his bones”[v]) and her significance for the man’s life is underlined. Even Eve’s ‘fault can be seen as redeemed by Virgin Mary’s love, humility and virginity.’[vi] Besides that, Eve’s fall is considerably seen as being connected with temptation and human weakness or curiosity but not with intention.

On the other hand, the Bible propagates that Eve is responsible for mankind’s misery. John Calvin illustrates this aspect in one of his sermons by the words:

“(…) woman must stoop and understand that the ruin and confusion of mankind came in on their side, and through them we be all forlorn and accursed and banished the kingdom of heaven: when women do understand that all this came of Eve and of womankind… there is none other way but for them to stoop and bear patiently the subjection that God hath laid upon them, which is nothing else but a warning to them to keep themselves lowly and mild. ”[vii]

Although convincing and logical with regard to the biblical context, Calvin words imply certain insecurity and seem rather to be aimed at keeping women down. Are women actually feared to be superior to men and is it just men’s fear and insecurity which materializes in male dominant behavior out of the wish for superficial maintenance of masculine supremacy?

Even if it takes another 200 years until Mary Wollstonecraft openly demands man’s and woman’s equality in her feminist work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, certain tendencies of acknowledgement of female performance and potential can already be noticed during the English Renaissance. After all, it is an exceptional woman’s reign that lets England triumph over its crises and become a world power. Nevertheless, the popularity of Queen Elizabeth I. is not only due to her political or cultural achievements but also to her enigmatic, unapproachable and extraordinary personality, a fact which mirrors that female mysteriousness is a source of attraction.

Indeed, in the analyzed Renaissance dramas women are mostly presented as mysterious and eccentric. The ensuing analysis will show that in Hamlet and Macbeth as well as in the Revenger’s Tragedy various facets of the human self are depicted but some of them are explicitly presented as epitomizing female traits. Nevertheless, due to the drama’s versatile characterization, the carefully shaped female personalities in the plays such as Gertude, Lady Macbeth or Gratiana are always perceived to be balanced and never portrayed one-sided, such as categorically good or evil, since all of them undergo particular developments.

Nonetheless, women remain obscure beings and are often connected with negative features or events like suicide, murder, ambition or weakness. In the following, this issue will be examined and, furthermore, it shall be taken into consideration if such negative associations can also be interpreted differently from the first glance view.


[i] (?),T he Revenger’s Tragedy in: Four Revenge Tragedies, Katharine Eisaman Maus (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, 1.1.131

[ii] Genesis 3.16

[iii] John Knox in: Zito, George, The Sociology of Shakespeare: explorations in a sociology of literature, New York: Peter Lang, 1991, 26

[iv] I Corinthians 11.8-9

[v] Sirach 26.13

[vi] Compare: Findlay, Alison, A feminist perspective on Renaissance drama, Oxford: Blackwell, 1999, 14

[vii] John Calvin in: Findlay (1999), 12-13


ISBN (eBook)
File size
529 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald
Frailty Revenger Tragedy Shakespeare Hamlet Macbeth



Title: 'Frailty, thy name is woman': The depiction of women in The Revenger's Tragedy and in Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth