In Elizabethan times women belonged to their fathers (or their brothers if their father died), and then to their husbands. Women could not own property of their own. This is one of the reasons Queen Elizabeth never married – she did not want to give up her power to a man.

The only exceptions were widows – women whose husbands had died. A widow was in charge of her own life and property, but would be likely to marry again to find someone to protect her and to be the legal guardian to her children.

Women were allowed to marry from the age of 12 in Shakespeare’s time, but often only women from wealthy families would marry so young. In the play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is 13, but her mother says by that age she was already married with a child. Many marriages were arranged for the good of the family and small children might be ‘betrothed’ to each other in order to join the families together before they were old enough to get married. Many women did not marry until their mid-20s. Men had to be able to support a household when they married.

Women were not allowed on the stage. All the female parts in plays at the time were played by boys whose voices hadn’t broken yet – the apprentices. In several of the plays the female characters disguise themselves as men – so the audience would have seen a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man. This happens in Twelfth Night, As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice.

Did you know?

  • Women were first allowed on the stage in 1660, when Charles II took the throne, after being exiled during the English Civil War. He saw women on the stage in Europe, and thought it would be a good thing to have in London.
  • The age at which you could get married was only raised to 16 in 1929 – less than a hundred years ago! Before then you could get married younger with your parents’ consent – just like in Elizabethan times, over three hundred years earlier.