Melissa Boyd is Curriculum Coordinator at Cedar Mount Academy and is a LitDrive Regional Advocate for South Manchester. A career changer, from higher education, her PhD is in history and sometimes it shows! She is obsessed with literary contexts! She tweets at @DrMBoyd and is always looking for book recommendations.

I am in the middle of rewriting our ‘Introduction to Shakespeare’ unit for Year 7. I must confess I’ve been in the middle of it for a few months. 

The context: an 11-16 secondary school in East Manchester – our cohort includes a high percentage of EAL students (approx. 75%), a number of INA/mid-year intake students, and last September only approximately 25% of our Y7 intake were on or above the expected for reading. 

The brief: 11 weeks, 4 hours per week, ‘An Introduction to Shakespeare’. They study Much Ado in Year 8 and Romeo and Juliet in Year 10. Some will have had some background knowledge on Shakespeare from primary, many will not. Most of our students who arrive from abroad are likely to recognise versions of the stories but will not have necessarily read them or attribute them to Shakespeare.  

I knew two things for certain: 

  1. I wanted them to start Year 8 with a good grounding in the man and his works – including filling in any gaps that students may have if they have not studied Shakespeare at primary.
  2. I wanted to change how we read, study and discuss Shakespeare’s women because I have found a very dire view of what it was to be a woman then: repressed, no freedom, no power. Worse, this is often compared with how women are doing now! In the words of Lena Cowen Orlin – ‘if we have enjoyed this construction of women perhaps it is because it offers us the comforting reassurance that history has made progress and that we have come a long way from our early modern predecessors’ (Cowen Orlin, unpublished, in Rackin, 2013). We owe it to our real life Beatrices, Portias and Lady Macbeths to give them their place in history.

As with all my planning I began by considering what I wanted them to know:

  • Who he was? Tick. 
  • That he wrote plays and poems? Tick. 
  • The conventions of Shakespearean tragedy, comedy and history? Tick. 
  • About some of his best known and most loved (and hated) plays and characters? Tick. 
  • About his social and historical context? Tick.
  • About women in Shakespeare’s time and in Shakespeare’s plays? Tick. 

In my training year I set my Year 9 class a research homework – “Find out 5 facts about women in Shakespeare’s time”. Leaving the absence of my teaching research skills aside –  a topic for another blog –  (all but two had found their answer on Bitesize), I want to focus on the results; most students brought me variations of the following: 

  1. Women belonged to their fathers or another male. 
  2. Women had no power + a link to Queen Elizabeth’s unwillingness to marry.
  3. Widows did have some power. 
  4. Women (girls!) could get married at 12 and their father chose to whom. 
  5. Women could not do a lot of jobs, including being an actor. 

In class, the children were asked what had changed. “Women are free”, “women can have any job they want”, “women don’t get married at 12”, “women can be actors”. Are either of these sets of facts incorrect? No. Yes. It depends. Herein lies the problem. 

My students seem to grasp quite early in the academic year that there are different interpretations of a text – they are typically happy to disagree with what others in the class say about a character, or what a metaphor evokes, or the effect of a specific setting. History, however, they seem to see as fixed: it happened, or it did not happen. It was, or it was not. Their class arguments are peppered with historical ‘facts’ when what they are actually brandishing are interpretations. 

A month ago I went to ResearchEd Birmingham and, alongside hearing from Christine Counsell (the power of narrative) and Mary Myatt (the power of concepts) I saw Martin Robinson, who spoke ‘On Curriculum and Cultural Capital’. Among many things he talked about avoiding reductionism and bringing students into the conversation; “we should aspire to subjectivity”. He was talking about students accessing ‘cultural capital’ and giving them the tools to judge something and support their judgment. I realised, though, that this was at what was missing from what I was trying to do with women and Shakespeare. Yes, my Year 7 students needed to acquire the power of knowledge, the power of narrative and the power of concepts but they also need to embrace and understand subjectivity – in this case, of history. I can’t tell them “all about” Shakespeare’s women because we simply don’t know it, but I can bring them into the conversation.  

It is this that brings me to where I am today – the realisation that I need to teach them about historiography first**. I want them to understand that history is malleable, manipulated by historians and open for debate. That some events are well recorded while others ignored, that one historian will look at a source and write one history, and another will completely disagree, that  there are far fewer historical records of women than of men and this imbalance can be reflected in many histories. I want them to enter into the same argument with their historical sources as they do with their literary ones. It is essential if in Year 11 I will be demanding they contextualise Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, or Blake’s London. I want them to grapple with the layers of historical context in the same way the grapple with layers of meaning and effects. 

The tricky part comes in considering where I want them to start that journey when it comes to Shakespeare and women. We are going to learn facts and figures, we are going to acquire indisputable knowledge but we are also going to embrace, and criticise, subjectivity – ours and that of literary critics and historians. 

So – yes, we will learn that women could get married at 12, but most did not: ‘mean marriage ages for women ranged between twenty-three and twenty-five’ and, in fact, Shakespeare’s audience would have been as shocked to see Capulet bartering his 13 year old as we are today. Yes, fathers sometimes arranged the marriage ‘but a great many women exercised their own choice in negotiating marriages for themselves and for other women as well’. We will probably talk about Mary Baldrye and the fact that she ‘told John Turner that before deciding whether to marry him ‘she would go first and see his lands and house and as she liked them so would she do’’ (Rackin, 2013).

Yes, marriage was important, and The Law’s Resolutions of Women’s Rights in 1632 stated that all women were ‘understood either married or to be married’ but, at the same time, this was being written at a time when ‘most adult women in the population at any given time were not married—they were either widowed or had never been married’ (Racking, 2013). 

So – yes, we will learn that there were many constraints put upon women and they were expected to be ‘chaste, silent, and obedient’ by the contemporary conservative literature, but that ‘the figure of the unruly women was also valorised during the period as a rallying point for protest against social injustice’. (Rackin, 2013) Hopefully they will remember this when it comes to building comparisons, in Year 8 between Beatrice and Hero. 

So – yes, we will learn about the criticism thrown at powerful women. We may look at how John Knox riled against women in authority, suggesting that ‘any authority held by a woman above a man was a monstrous usurpation, forbidden by God, repellent to nature’ (Knox, 1558 in Rackin, 2013) Yet we must, however, also note that he made these accusations only for as long as a Catholic queen was on the throne. With Protestant Elizabeth’s accession, Knox swiftly quietened down. 

So – yes, we will learn about theatre companies run by men, stages on which only men performed, but we will also discuss that Shakespeare was raised by women. ‘Most of the women in Shakespeare’s family outlived their brothers and husbands. He had multiple sisters and eight aunts – one on whom outlived her husband by forty-one years! The women in his family ‘controlled considerable property’, ‘bequeathed property’, ‘served as executors of wills’, ‘engaged in litigation’. His mother had 11 older siblings, including two brothers, but it was her who inherited her father’s only freehold property, and served as one of only two executors on his will. (Rackin, 2013). She was involved in ‘the sale and conveyancing of […] property’ and her name is on documents, alongside her husband’s detailing her participation in litigation. When we talk of women existing in the domestic sphere, we will also discuss the fact that the domestic sphere was very different to what has come to be seen as the work of a housewife in the mid 20th century – women are expected to provide for their own needs and contribute to the economic wealth. In some cases through the money and property they brought in to marriage but also in trades such as ‘carpenter, plumber, cordwainer, silversmith, housepainter’ (Rackin, 2013). Indeed, a woman could be apprenticed to become a ‘housewife’ in 16th century England – it had nothing to do with a husband or children but was rather a relationship to a house!  

So – yes, my Year 7 will consider the big questions, and learn the facts, and memorise the quotes, but above all they will embrace subjectivity and enter into a conversation with history and historians. 

* The title is not mine, it is from a book titled Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays by Tina Packer.

** Historiography can be used in a number of ways, for the purpose of this blog I am referring to the principles, theory, and history of historical writing.

Note on sources and resources. 

All the above extracts and quotations come from the first work I read in depth – Rackin. However, I am currently working my way through a number of other books, articles and sources – from 17th century female critics, to 2020 podcasts on gender through the diatribes of 19th century clergymen. I will practice what I preach and read as widely as I have time for. I too will embrace subjectivity. 

Gay, Penny. As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women. Routledge: London/New York (1994)

Hedlam Wells, Robin. Shakespeare’s Politics: A Contextual Introduction. Continuum: New York/London (2009

Maguire, L and Smith, E. 30 Great Myths about Shakespeare. Blackwell: Oxford (2013)

Murphy Jameson, Anna. Shakespeare’s Heroines. Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical and Historical. George Bell and Sons: London (1832)

Packer, Tina. Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Play. Alfred Knoff, New York (2015) 

Rackin, Phyllis. Shakespeare and Women. Oxford University Press, Oxford (2005)

Thompson, A and Roberts, S (Eds.). Women reading Shakespeare 1660 to 1900. An Anthology of Criticism. Manchester University Press, Manchester (1997)

Wayne, Valerie, (Ed.). The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare.

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