The Influence of Women in the Life of Shakespeare

University of New Orleans English and women’s studies professor Catherine Loomis discusses the lives of 16th century women and female influences in the life of William Shakespeare at the Women’s Studies colloquium.

Catherine Loomis WS Colloquium PROVO, Utah (Oct. 23, 2014)—Did Shakespeare’s dynamic female characters materialize merely from Shakespeare’s literary genius, or is there more to the life of the man Shakespeare than meets the eye? Professor Catherine Loomis, English and Women’s Studies professor at the University of New Orleans, discussed the importance of understanding the influence of the women who shaped Shakespeare’s world at a Women’s Studies colloquium.

“What I want to talk about are the women who brought Shakespeare into the world and kept him in touch with it,” said Loomis. “Both his poems and his plays feature a number of very dynamic women. They are vivid and memorable.”

Loomis argued that Shakespeare was surrounded by a number of influential women. His mother, aunts and grandmothers had a degree of independence or influence in their social spheres that the majority of 16th century women did not have, something which may have contributed to his portrayal of female characters in his plays and writing.

Loomis also discussed the many inequalities women faced in the 16th century and how those constraints would have affected the lives of the women in Shakespeare’s life.

“Girls’ lives were very different compared to boys’ lives. Their behavior was very carefully monitored and very carefully controlled,” said Loomis. “A woman’s legal status is what’s called ‘feme covert,’ or a covered woman. That is to say a woman had no legal existence of her own. She was classified not as a person under the law but as property or chattel.”

In spite of the glaring inequalities and repression women faced at this time, many of Shakespeare’s female characters reflect great intelligence, independence, and magnetism. Loomis argued that the influence of Shakespeare’s female relatives should not go unnoted, and that there is a great possibility that these women inspired many of Shakespeare’s female characters, as well as the themes he explores throughout his plays.

One example Loomis discussed was the role of mothers in Shakespeare’s plays and how his own mother might have influenced the ways in which he portrays them. She said, “Throughout his career, Shakespeare has missing mothers. This may be a function of his own life. He was living and working in London while they were living in Stratford. The mothers in his plays may have been a reaction of what was going on in his life.”

She continued, “The absence of mothers in some of Shakespeare’s plays has led scholars to speculate what the relationship might have been between Shakespeare and his own mother.”IMG_2677

Loomis also discussed the influence Shakespeare’s daughters might have had in his life and how much of his work reflected his concerns surrounding them. She said,  “By 1598 he had two teenage daughters in the house. The plays where he’s writing about young women in love may indeed have been influenced by what his daughters were up to, or what he was afraid they were up to.”

Loomis concluded, “Even though Shakespeare is not always positive about women, he’s still creating both characters and situations where women are given far more to do and are far more equal to men than any other creative writer from this period.”

For more information about Professor Catherine Loomis and her research, visit her university webpage.

Sylvia Cutler (BA English ’17)