Shakespeare and early modern girlhood

The word “girl” means different things to us today than it meant in the Middle Ages, and Shakespeare was writing at a time when that meaning was changing, as Deanne Williams of York University in Toronto explains on a recent episode of Shakespeare Unlimited.


Williams talks about the girls in Shakespeare’s plays, how he portrays them, and how that reflects attitudes about girlhood in early modern England. We’ve selected six of these characters that she’s paired in unexpected ways. The excerpts below are taken from the podcast transcript.

Juliet and Miranda

There’s [a] distinction between a “child” and a “girl,” a young child and a girl. So, in Romeo and Juliet, the Nurse asks us to imagine Juliet as a child, as a toddler, falling on her back. And then when she has a mind of her own and wants to choose her own husband, she becomes a girl, this word “girl,” that all of a sudden becomes associated with a sort of challenge to patriarchal authority.

We also see that in The Tempest, when Prospero imagines his little girl Miranda as a child, as a cherubim, when she was three, when they were on the boat together, fleeing across the Mediterranean. And when she falls in love with Ferdinand, all of a sudden she becomes a girl. So, the word “girl” brings with it a certain kind of danger, a certain kind of heedlessness to patriarchal authority.

Ophelia and Cordelia

We imagine Ophelia as a victim of circumstance, rejected by Hamlet, bereaved by the death of her father Polonius, and unhinged by this grief. What we have in the Ophelia [from the First Quarto] instead is a character who’s much more of a cool customer. And the main difference, one major difference between these two different versions of Ophelia that we get, is that in the Q1 Hamlet, Ophelia is carrying a lute.

And so her entire mad scene where she’s singing these songs, which in the other versions of Hamlet that are more familiar she’s singing snippets here and snippets there and it’s all this kind of jumble and mess, in the Q1 Hamlet it’s in fact a very coherent playlist that she performs, accompanying herself on the lute.


[…] So, the lute symbolizes a lot of the expectations that were placed on girlhood in the early modern period. You have its curvy shape, its quiet gentle notes. King Lear talks about the voice of Cordelia, “Her voice was ever soft/ Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman,” and we can almost hear the quiet sounds of the lute strings.

Bianca and Lavinia

Shakespeare certainly does have “good girls” in his plays. One example would be Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew. Bianca is described as a “young modest girl.” And so, there definitely are those associations with innocence, also with victimhood: Lavinia in Titus Andronicus is called “a girl who should not survive her shame,” and [the fact that] she’s murdered by her father at the end of the play, reflects this idea of her victimhood, the idea that she’s been sexually victimized and therefore she cannot outlive this shame that has been placed upon her.

There’s also the idea of the girl as sort of tearful and weepy—again, in The Taming of the Shrew, Kate is beating up her sister Bianca and her father Baptista says, “Oh, poor girl, she weeps.”

Listen to the podcast to hear more about these characters and other girls in Shakespeare’s plays.

One Comment

  • I am having my students investigate this very issue in Romeo and Juliet in class right now. It is interesting how forward thinking Shakespeare was in portraying his two main characters in reverse stereotypical manners. Romeo is seen as sensitive and crying, while Juliet is seen being strong and standing up to her father (and mother). Romeo chooses to end his life in the bloodless less violent manner (“True apothecary, thy drugs are quick…”), while Juliet snatches Rome’s dagger from his lifeless body, makes a bold declaration, and kills herself brutally (O happy dagger! This is thy sheath!).

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)