Shakespeare’s Take on Women in Society

Author: Elizabeth Simon

When Shakespeare’s play “Love’s Labour’s Lost” was first performed in the mid-1590’s it was common in society to view women as lesser than men. Although it was expected that most women would have less education and be of lower intelligence than the majority of men, in the play of “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, Shakespeare goes against the societal norm and gives the women intelligent personalities. He might have done this because his play was originally made to be performed in front of Queen Elizabeth I, or maybe he considered women the same way he considered lower classes and wanted to give them a way to rise above the expectations of the day. Either way, throughout the play there are numerous instances where the women portray higher intelligences and general common sense over the men.


The character of the Princess of France shows this contrast the most through her witty comments and well thought out conversations with the other characters. Soon after the Princess first arrives, she jests with Boyet saying, “…my beauty though but mean, / Needs not the painted flourish of your praise: / Beauty is bought by judgment of the eye, / Not uttered by base sale of chapmen’s tongues,”. In saying this, Shakespeare is addressing the common issue of women being judged on their looks and in turn gives the Princess the ability to recognize that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This type of in depth self-evaluation speaks to her intelligence and comfort in her position as to not need to worry about her looks.


Again related to beauty, the Princess often makes comments about how her wisdom will benefit her more than her looks. She says, “See see, my beauty will-be sav’d by merit. / O heresy in fair, fit for these days, / A giving hand, though foul, shall have fair praise,”. Here, she is saying that her intelligence will hold more influence than her looks, and that in general, someone who helps others will be praised even if they aren’t attractive. Shakespeare is addressing the fact that in society women were only known for their looks and their ability to run a household. Contradicting that societal value, the Princess was made out to be able to hold her own and match up to the men in the play.


Contrary to the women, Shakespeare portrayed the men in the King’s court to be foolish, lovesick, and have no general direction throughout the play other than to converse with the Princess and her court. On the other hand, the Princess and her court are level headed and can hold their own against the men. The Princess says, “The effect of my intent is to cross their: / They do it but in mockery merriment, / And mock for mock is only my intent,” to draw attention to how the men use their antics just to mess with the women, but the women act with more purpose than just “mockery merriment,”. More than just compared to the women in society at the time, the women compared to the men in the play come out more intelligent and able to handle their wits. Not only was Shakespeare saying that women can be more influential than they are in society, he was saying that they can be as influential, if not more, than the men of the time, too.


Throughout the entire play, the Princess and her court remain witty and highly respectable, even as the confusion of the last few scenes takes place. Through all of the disguises and pairings of men with women, in the end, the Princess still has level headed advice about what to do with the men. She says “Your oath I will not trust but go with speed / To some forlorn and naked hermitage, / Remote from all the pleasures of the world; / There stay, until the twelve celestial signs,” and then “…at the expiration of the year, / Come challenge me, challenge me by these deserts, / And, by this virgin palm now kissing thine, / I will be thine…”. Even when she’s in love, instead of acting crazy like the men, the Princess stays smart and thinks through her feelings to make the best decision.


Shakespeare constantly portrays the women as level headed and intelligent compared to the men in the play. This type of modern thinking is not uncommon for Shakespeare, and his play “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is no exception. The women, especially the character of the Princess of France, prove to be able to hold their own against the King and his court as well as among themselves. They partake in witty banter with others, successfully trick the men, and remain level headed in love without becoming foolish and lovesick. Tackling the societal norms for women during the 1590s, Shakespeare gives the women in his play positions of power and the ability to speak their minds, offering a glimpse of what could be if society were to change its views.


Painting of French Monarch Maria de’Medici who reigned in the early 1600’s. Tito, Santi di. Portrait of Maria de’Medici. Circa 1601. Galleria Palatina, Museums of Florence. Accessed March 27, 2018.,_Queen_of_France_in_circa_1600_by_an_unkown_artist.jpg