When researching the role and presence of women in Shakespeare’s plays, Timon of Athens initially (and erroneously) appears to be unremarkable:
Like Timon of Athens, which we discussed in the previous post of this series, Julius Caesar sports a particularly low percentage of female lines, the second lowest of the tragedies at just 4.6%. However, Julius Caesar also stands out in its use (or lack of use) of feminine pronouns.
William Shakespeare has often been hailed as a feminist writer, but what does that really mean? Feminism today holds a different significance than it did in the 1940s, and it is undoubtedly different from the 16th century, as the word itself wouldn’t even be coined until some three hundred years later. However, the absence of the word doesn’t mean that the phenomenon itself didn’t exist. Gender equality wasn’t a foreign notion during Shakespeare’s lifetime at the height of the English Renaissance. The Renaissance itself was a time of reformation and questioning, with the Puritans in particular supporting a more liberal attitude towards women, challenging long standing ideals about marriage, and criticising the double standards surrounding adultery and virginity.1 So does all of this reform mean that Shakespeare could have been a feminist? Frankly, the question is a complex and flawed one. Would Shakespeare have to portray women as equal in every play in order to qualify as a feminist? If not, would there at least need to be a message about attitudes towards women in every play? Again, if not, how many “feminist” plays would have to exist in his folios for Shakespeare to be considered a feminist?