On Shakespeare’s histories:

Shakespeare’s history plays “show an awareness that the old feudal world had gone and that in its place was a new world in which monarchs demanded absolute power . . . [claimed] God’s support” while justifying their authority by their “more or less convincing performances in the monarch’s role” in an emerging modern, market-based, capital-led economy where profit is regarded as more important than personal loyalty (McEvoy, Shakespeare: The Basics 196, 171).


“These plays show that royal power is actually not very different, either in content or execution, from the actions of thieves and fraudsters” (McEvoy 178).

“Women’s potential for undermining men’s right to inherit is in these plays kept in check by the threat of violence” (McEvoy 197); “Men in Shakespeare’s plays are constantly in fear of losing these [masculine qualities of reason and self-control]. . . and so falling back into a state of womanhood” (McEvoy 189).

 “By the time he wrote 1 and 2 Henry IV, Shakespeare had developed what can only be called a rich contrapuntal style of dramatizing history in which the actions of one group of characters mirror, comment upon, and offer other alternatives to the actions of other groups of characters” (Jean E. Howard, "Shakespearean History" The Norton Shakespeare, Second edition, Essential Plays/The Sonnets 588).

McEvoy argues that "Power in the history plays comes down to one of three things: first, having the military force to take what you want; second, being able to persuade people; or, third, being able to put on a convincing performance which makes effective use of the most powerful beliefs of the time" (Shakespeare: The Basics, Second Ed. 194).

In Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (1991), Karen Newman analyzes the ways that a sense of English national identity is fashioned through opposition to others, including women as well as the Welsh, Irish, and Scots, and particularly via contrasting uses of language (dialect and register). For example, in Henry V, Henry's speech before the walls of Harfleur (3.3.33) as well as in other scenes, Newman finds that "expansionist aims of the nation state are worked out on and through the woman's body” (101-102).

On Shakespeare’s comedies:


“Given that Shakespeare was writing in a very male-dominated society, some critics read these plays as a kind of playful rebellion in sexual matters by young people against the authority of parents.  That rebellion is, however, always absorbed by those in authority.  At the end passionate love is transformed into safe, socially sanctioned, marriage.  Other critics argue that although a kind of social order is imposed by the event of marriage at the end, the subversive comic energy of the ‘rebellion’ is such that it demonstrates that a more equal kind of relationship between men and women is possible, and indeed desirable.  [In addition] The playful, riddling language of some of the comedies in performance not only delights the audience but draws attention to itself, sometimes to radical effect.”  (Sean McEvoy, Shakespeare: The Basics, Third Edition 162)

In Shakespeare’s comedies, “No single story, no single individual, has a monopoly on the stage nor, implicitly, a monopoly on the truth. . . . One effect of this refocusing of perspective [from matters of state politics and war that dominate the history plays] is that women, typically excluded from politics but central to domestic life, become likewise central to Shakespearean comedy. . . . Shakespeare’s comic women are highly realized and distinctive. He [Shakespeare] has a special partiality for vocal, opinionated heroines. . . . the premarital virginity of Shakespeare’s comic heroines is a nonnegotiable requirement . . . . The wit of Shakespeare’s heroines, then, is not simply anarchic or subversive; it coexists with implicit constraints upon their conduct” (Katherine Eisaman Maus,  “Shakespearean Comedy” The Norton Shakespeare: Essential Plays, Second edition 108-111).

“Shakespeare’s comedies thus hold in suspension two apparently disparate views of love: one highly idealized and idealizing, the other subjecting the idealism to critique and mockery” (Katherine Eisaman Maus,  “Shakespearean Comedy” The Norton Shakespeare: Essential Plays, Second edition 114).

“In many of his plays, Shakespeare manifests keen interest in the psychological mechanism by which people project their faults onto others and the way uniting against a despised ‘outsider’ can help a community cohere more tightly” (Katherine Eisaman Maus,  “Shakespearean Comedy” The Norton Shakespeare: Essential Plays, Second edition 117).

On Shakespeare’s tragedies:


 “Shakespeare lived at a time when the medieval world was giving way to the modern one.  The principal characters in tragedies can be destroyed because they are trying to live in a world that no longer has any secure basis, or, more often, because the contradictions within the way they understand the world makes their lives impossible.  The tragedies show the operations of power in society by revealing how the stories and displays of those in authority convince those without power of their superiors’ right to rule, baseless though these stories may well be.  In particular, the tragedies reveal the ideological means by which men at this time ensured dominance over women.  The tragedies have also recently been seen as telling us something about other philosophical issues: the nature of representation in the theatre itself, or general ethical principles about how we should live our lives now.” (Sean McEvoy, Shakespeare: The Basics, Third Edition 227-228)

“There are strange moments in these plays in which the principal characters seem to have an intimation of forces that are compelling them to act and react as they do . . . . but the characters themselves cannot and do not live as if they had no agency at all . . . they are never merely victims. . . . almost all of Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists are socially important people, people whose inherited rank, office, and wealth accustom them to the exercise of power. The power, as they learn to their cost, is never absolute. . . . Shakespearean tragedies are political as well as psychological . . . . and searching explorations of moral ambivalence. . . . Each play is a complex hall of mirrors, cunningly constructed to examine certain key motivations and relationships from multiple perspectives.” (Stephen Greenblatt, “Shakespearean Tragedy” The Norton Shakespeare: Essential Plays, Second edition 921-923)

Other selected quotes from scholars on Shakespeare, including quotes specifically on As You Like It and Hamlet (and also The Merchant of Venice):

Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield explain that the "principal strategy of ideology is to legitimate inequality and exploitation by representing the social order which perpetuates these things as immutable and unalterable—as decreed by God or simply natural" (“History and Ideology” 211-12). They also observe that the "more ideology (necessarily) engages with the conflict and contradiction which it is its raison d'être to occlude, the more it becomes susceptible to incorporating them within itself. It faces the contradictory situation whereby to silence dissent one must first give it a voice, to misrepresent it one must first present it" (215).

On The Merchant of Venice:
McEvoy states that "it can be argued that this is a play that ends with a woman very much empowered, while the men have been embarrassed and outwitted" (Shakespeare: The Basics p.165 in Second Edition) and he suggests that the play also may pose the question: "Could a woman be the sort of friend (/lover) to a man that Antonio was to Bassanio?" (168).

On As You Like It:

As You Like It is poised carefully on the razor’s edge separating fantasy from harsh reality. . . . [the play] is to a remarkable degree open to the infinite malleability of human beings and their social practices. . . . It is with the heroine, however, that As You Like It offers its richest dramatization of a figure who plays endlessly with the limits and possibilities of her circumstances. . . . this he/she, continues to the end to defy the fixed identities and the exclusionary choices of the everyday world, offering instead a world of multiple possibilities and transformable identities.”  (Jean E. Howard, The Norton Shakespeare, 378-384)

“Male friendship, exemplified by the reconciliation of Duke Senior and Orlando, provides a framework that diminishes and contains Rosalind’s apparent power. . . . Concentration on Rosalind to the neglect of other issues distorts the overall design of As You Like It, one that is governed by male ends. . . . as the play returns to the normal world, [Rosalind] will be reduced to the traditional woman who is subservient to men” (Peter Erickson, Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare’s Drama 16, 21).

“The play is not over when it is over. There is something yet to be done. . . . This complex ending leaves us in doubt about its central affirmation, that the good has been re-installed in the courtly heart of society . . .” (Nick Potter and Graham Holderness, Shakespeare, "Out of Court" 104)

As You Like It transforms the problem of sexual relations insofar as it suggests a world of possibility for the continued negotiation of these differences.  (Barbara J. Bono, “Mixed Gender, Mixed Genre in As You Like It” 147)

On Hamlet:
 “. . . the play as a whole explores the twin hierarchies of the family and of the state.  In both, there is a polarization of those who command and those who are commanded, those who act and those who are acted upon, those who speak and those who remain silent” (Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, “Hamlet” in Shakespeare: Texts and Contexts 175).


 “This split between words and thought, words and meaning, is essential to the way Hamlet works.  When the everyday language of human beings cannot be trusted, the only ‘safe’ language is deliberate fiction, plays and lies.  The only safe world is the world of the imagination, not the corrupt and uncontrollable world of politics.” (Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All 483)