Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Five astonishing facts about women in Shakespeare

What would Macbeth be without Lady Macbeth? Or Romeo and Juliet with only Romeo? Yet there’s an enormous disparity between female and male representation in Shakespeare’s play. Few, great female characters deliver as many lines or impressive speeches as their male counterparts. While this may not be surprising considering 16th century society and theater, data can reveal a wider disparity than previously thought. As cinemetrics and filmonomics examine the gender gap in cinema through screen time, Shakespeare scholars have counted lines and roles to better understand gender on Shakespeare’s stage.

Female characters have less than half the amount of lines compared to male characters. Rosalind, from As You Like It, is the largest female role in all of Shakespeare’s plays, yet only speaks 721 lines. Hamlet, the largest male role, speaks a total of 1,506 lines.

The women with the most speeches also have less than half as many as their male counterparts. Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra) and Rosalind (As You Like It) deliver 204 and 201 speeches respectively, the most out of all female Shakespeare characters. The male characters with the most speeches are Falstaff (Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and The Merry Wives of Windsor) and Richard III (Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III), with 471 and 409 speeches respectively.

There are seven times as many roles for men as there are for women in Shakespeare’s plays. Of the total 981 characters, 826 are men while only 155 are women; that means that women account for less than 16% of all Shakespearean characters.

Even fewer women actually performed on stage since most female roles were portrayed by men until the mid-seventeenth century. The first professional female actress recorded on the English stage, Margaret Hughes (c. 1630-1719), initally performed as Desdemona in Othello on 8 December 1660. Alternately, the last notable actor who performed female roles on stage was Edward Kynaston (1640-1712), who later gained popularity in Shakespeare’s Henry IV.

Nearly 40% of the lines in Shakespeare’s As You Like It are spoken by women, an impressively high percentage of female lines compared to his other plays. Romeo and Juliet, despite being about a tragic love story between a man and a woman, is only 31% female lines. Timon of Athens has the least amount of female lines in all of Shakespeare’s plays, amounting to a minuscule 0.67%.

Featured Image: “Rosalind and Celia” by William Henry Simmons (1870). Folger Shakespeare Library. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Rob Spence

    Why is this a surprise? Shakespeare is writing in a milieu where all the players were male, and where most of the stories he adapted for the stage centred around the doings of men – kings, etc.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *