Today we mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and to celebrate the bard’s legacy, I decided to take a look at some of our favourite women in his many, many plays. Shakespeare is known for writing diverse characters and while the list is extensive, it is not all encompassing. Notable mentions should go to Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Imogen in Cymbeline and Viola in Twelfth Night. I’m sorry folks, but you won’t be seeing Juliet here – she’s just not my cup-of-tea.
Onwards and upwards, here are some powerful Shakespearean women who we love for a very wide variety reasons.
Desdemona – Othello
Shakespeare’s Desdemona is a Venetian beauty who enrages and disappoints her father, a Venetian senator, when she elopes with Othello, a man several years her senior who is also a moor. The bard loves his star-crossed lovers and these two are no different. When her husband is deployed to Cyprus in the service of the Republic of Venice, Desdemona accompanies him. There, her husband is manipulated by his ensign Iago into believing she is an adulteress, and, in the last act, she is murdered by her estranged spouse. Desdemona is beloved because not only is she a beauty, but she’s also adventurous, bold and at all times, until the end, positive. Despite being tragic, we still love her for her spirit and the fact she married her man no matter what. Who doesn’t love a woman who defies expectations?
She’s also not shy about her sexuality, professing her desire for Othello in the following passage:
“That I did love the Moor to live with him
My downright violence and storm of fortunes
May trumpet to the world. My heart’s subdued
Even to the very quality of my lord.
I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,
And to his honor and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.
So that, dear lords, if I be left behind,
A moth of peace, and he go to the war,
The rites for which I love him are bereft me
And I a heavy interim shall support
By his dear absence. Let me go with him.” (1.3.283-294)
We’re drooling over his “valiant parts” too, don’t worry.
Katharina – The Taming of the Shrew
While we’re not all that convinced about the ‘taming’ of a woman into an obedient wife, we still love Katharina. The eldest and unmarried daughter of Baptista Minola, no man wants anything to do with her because she’s got a hot temper, slaps people around when they make her mad, and shreds men to bits with her razor sharp tongue. Her knack for verbal repartee and her ability to call it as she sees it reveals her incredible wit and intelligence, which we can’t help but appreciate. Katherine’s temper is notorious, and it is thought that no man would ever wish to marry her. While this may seem like one of Shakespeare’s misogynistic archetypes, it realistically shows her as a product of an intelligent mind who doesn’t fit into society and rebels against her father’s ill-treatment.
“If either of you both love Katharine,
Because I know you well and love you well,
Leave shall you have to court her at your pleasure.” (1.1.52-54)
Translation: “Hey, guys, my youngest girl isn’t on the market right now. But, I like both of you guys a whole lot so, if either one of you thinks my oldest girl is hot, feel free to have a go at her. I’m sure we can work out a deal.” Who can blame Katharina for not wanting to be treated like a piece of meat; a mere commodity to be traded? This is exactly why we love her. The Katherina at the beginning of the play is the majority of 21st century feminists who demand autonomy. The role was also iconically taken on by Elizabeth Taylor. So, how can you not fall in love with the role after that?
Rosalind – As You Like It
The heroine and protagonist of As You Like it, Rosalind is the beautiful daughter of the exiled Duke Senior and niece to his usurping brother Duke Frederick. Her father is banished from the kingdom which breaks her heart. She then meets Orlando, one of her father’s friends’ son and falls in love with him. After angering her uncle, she leaves his court for exile in the Forest of Arden. Disguised as a shepherd named Ganymede, Rosalind lives with her sweet and devoted cousin, Celia (who is disguised as Ganymede’s sister, Aliena), and Duke Frederick’s fool Touchstone. Eventually, Rosalind is reunited with her father and married to her faithful lover, Orlando.
Rosalind is one of Shakespeare’s most recognised heroines. She is often admired for her intelligence, quick wit, and beauty. Most commonly seen next to her beloved cousin Celia, Rosalind is also a faithful friend, leader, and schemer. Who run the world? Girls! She stays true to her family and friends throughout the entire story, no matter how dangerous the consequences. Rosalind is also coincidentally the female character Shakespeare gave the most lines to – 685 in all – and she dominates the play.
She’s also incredibly feisty. When Rosalind runs away to the forest, she knows that rape and robbery are very real possibilities on the road, so she decides to disguise herself as a young man named Ganymede. When our bossy, opinionated, and gutsy girl dons her disguise and ventures into Arden, she challenges all kinds of traditional 16th-century assumptions about women being passive, silent, and helpless.
“A gallant curtal-ax upon my thigh,
A boar-spear in my hand, and in my heart
Lie there what hidden woman’s fear there will
We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside—
As many other mannish cowards have
That do outface it with their semblances.” (1.3.124-129)
Lady Macbeth – Macbeth
One of our most famous Shakespeare ladies, She is the wife of the play’s antagonist, Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman. After goading him into committing regicide, she becomes Queen of Scotland, but later suffers pangs of guilt for her part in the crime. She dies off-stage in the last act, an apparent suicide.
Lady Macbeth is a powerful presence in the play, most notably in the first two acts. Her fifth act sleepwalking scene is a turning point in the play, and her line, “Out, damned spot!,” has become a phrase familiar to all fans of the bard. The report of her death late in the fifth act provides the inspiration for Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech.
Analysts see in the character of Lady Macbeth the conflict between femininity and masculinity, as they are impressed in cultural norms. Lady Macbeth suppresses her instincts toward compassion, motherhood, and fragility — associated with femininity — in favour of ambition, ruthlessness, and the singleminded pursuit of power. This conflict colours the entire drama, and sheds light on gender-based preconceptions from Shakespearean England to the present.
We love Lady Macbeth because she’s not a heroine but she has some of the most powerful speeches in Shakespeare and also breaks down gender barriers. Also, who doesn’t love a manipulative witchy woman?
“The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!'” (1.5.45-61)
Beatrice – Much Ado About Nothing
And finally we finish with my personal favourite. Beatrice is the niece of Leonato, a wealthy governor of Messina. Though she is close friends with her cousin Hero, Leonato’s daughter, the two could not be less alike. Whereas Hero is polite, quiet, respectful, and gentle, Beatrice is feisty, cynical, witty, and sharp. Beatrice keeps up a “merry war” of wits with Benedick, a lord and soldier from Padua. The play suggests that she was once in love with Benedick but that he led her on and their relationship ended. Now when they meet, the two constantly compete to outdo one another with clever insults.
Although she appears hardened and sharp, Beatrice is really vulnerable. Once she overhears Hero describing that Benedick is in love with her (Beatrice), she opens herself to the sensitivities and weaknesses of love. Beatrice is a prime example of one of Shakespeare’s strong female characters. She refuses to marry because she has not discovered the perfect, equal partner and because she is unwilling to eschew her liberty and submit to the will of a controlling husband.
What do we love most about from this kick-ass female? She’s also fiercely protective and aware of how women are viewed in society. When Hero has been humiliated and accused of violating her chastity, Beatrice explodes with fury at Claudio for mistreating her cousin.
In her frustration and rage about Hero’s mistreatment, Beatrice rebels against the unequal status of women in Renaissance society.
“O that I were a man for his sake!
Or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake!” she passionately exclaims.
“I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving” (4.1.312–318).
She was also taken on by our favourite Shakespeare thespian, Emma Thompson. Interestingly, her Benedict was portrayed by her husband at the time Kenneth Branagh.