Gendered language in Shakespeare

By Gordon Rugg

To what extent does the language of Shakespeare’s plays indicate a male-dominated world? One way to see is by looking at the distribution of gendered words within the texts.

The figure below shows the location of the words he, him, his, she and her in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Each of the tiny rectangles represents a word in the text; the coloured words represent the keywords, and the blank rectangles represent the other words. This representation ignores linebreaks in the original text. The images are roughly equivalent to a miniaturised image of the text laid out as a scroll, with the keywords marked with coloured highlighter.

In each pair of images below, the nominative forms of the keywords are in red, and the other forms such as accusatives are in green, to show whether one gender appears more often in an active role.

(Apologies to any readers who are red/green colour blind; the Search Visualizer software itself takes account of colour blindness in its options, but shrinking the images down to fit into blog format loses the contrast.)

The column on the left shows the distribution of the words he/him/his in Midsummer Night’s Dream. The column on the right shows the distribution of the words she/her in the same play.

There are more male pronouns, but the difference is not huge; both male and female pronouns occur frequently throughout the play.

Here, for comparison, is the corresponding figure for Romeo and Juliet.

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