Shakespeare’s Heroines: Lovers, Haters, and Fighters-of-the-Patriarchy

Edited by Rachel Mans McKenny

One of the first things you learn studying the history of Shakespeare was that all of the roles were originally performed by men. It wasn’t until December 1660 when an actress named Anne Marshall was the first recorded woman to perform a Shakespearean character on a major stage. Taking the role of Desdemona, Marshall didn’t exactly start a shock-wave that meant equal participation or being taken seriously. Critics remarked that she was “lovely” but that her “voice was not very good.”

Today, Shakespeare’s female characters are often performed by both men and women. While Shakespeare has written some of the meatiest parts in his plays for these characters, this hasn’t always meant they– or the actors portraying them– get their due.

Today, on Shakespeare’s birthday, we reflect over some of Shakespeare’s most interesting heroines–from Meg Elison’s stirring description of the Lady MacBeth to more personal reflections from Morrigan Hollis.

Without further ado, seven of Shakespeare’s most striking characters.

The Comedies

Rosalind, As You Like It

Rosalind knows what she’ll stand for in life, and what she won’t. She goes for what she wants. Rosalind runs into the unknown—a city girl in the forest—and dresses like a boy so that she can do what she pleases. She crushes on Orlando but he doesn’t quite know how to handle a woman like her. Fine. She’ll teach him.

But life isn’t that straightforward, and neither is Rosalind. She hides behind a mask, pretending to be a boy when she interacts with Orlando. Okay, so she’s downright manipulative to get what she wants. I like that. When Rosalind struggles with whether and when to reveal her true self, she shows her vulnerability.

I relate to Rosalind’s struggle, balancing being a go-getter “strong woman” with being true to myself, vulnerabilities and all. She can be boy crazy and a decisive, independent woman. Rosalind is complex because women are complex. – Abbie Fine

Abbie Fine is a writer and director in the DC area. Her most recent production was Much Ado About Nothing at the NextStop Theater in March 2017.

Viola, Twelfth Night

Viola is exactly the kind of character I wish seven-year-old me could have seen growing up. Viola is fluid, passes as male and female, but exists somewhere in between. When she dons her masculine clothing, she dons the gender as well, and Shakespeare embraces this.

“Cesario, come, / For so you shall be, while you are a man.”

Viola’s identity as man is not questioned while she is in men’s garb, and neither is she when

Lucie Hoflich in a 1907 production of Twelfth Night in Germany (Wikipedia)

in women’s habit. Her gender is simply accepted the way she expresses it, and while of course it was likely not Shakespeare’s intention at all to provide representation for those of us who fall under the gender-nonconforming umbrella, it is revitalizing to see gender portrayed this way on the stage. Viola means everything to me as a genderfluid person, and as a child who grew up without any representation at all, she could have been everything to me, showed me I was valid when I needed it most. But as a child, I never thought I’d find someone like me in Shakespeare’s works. For those of us who grow up forgotten in the shadows of society, representation matters. It really does.– Morrigan Hallis.

Morrigan Hallis reads and plays videos and talks about both on their Tumblr and Twitter.

Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing

I love Beatrice for many reasons, but mostly for her contradictions. She is delightful and hilarious but also deadly serious: when she says:

“Oh God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace”

hero and beatrice
Emma Thompson (Beatrice) and Kate Beckinsale (Hero) in Branagh’s Much Ado

I tend to believe her. She’s cynical but allows herself to be charmed; she’s a gentle soul, but wholeheartedly encourages violence against an enemy; she is, by turns, both manipulative and manipulated. She’s less innocent than Juliet, more prudent than Lady Macbeth, more triumphant in the end than Kate. She’s a grownup, and it looks good on her. 

What we think of as contradictions in Beatrice’s character can also be seen as balance. I spent eight weeks in a Shakespearean acting class where each of us explored a single character, and of all the women in the class, I had the hardest challenge finding a monologue to perform — because Beatrice does not monologue. In her sparring match with Benedick that lasts most of the play, neither of them keeps the upper hand long. Love, for these two, is a balancing act. In a world where we all struggle for balance, I like to think Beatrice has it figured out. –Greer Macallister

Greer Macallister‘s newest book, Girl in Disguise, was released in March, 2017. You can find her much shorter—but no less awesome– Twitter here.

The Tragedies, Etc.

Ilinca Kiss as Lady MacBeth, 2016 (Playbill)

Lady Macbeth, Macbeth

Lady Macbeth may not be traditionally viewed as a heroine, but she’s always been the best of Shakespeare’s women to me. She is the master of her ambition; so much so that she masters that of others to get shit done. When she says ‘unsex me here,’ she doesn’t mean so that she can get closer to a crush or pretend to play judge. She means to do the manliest of murders and seize a crown. Lady Macbeth has conviction enough to get them all convicted, and worse. She is allowed to lust. She is allowed to rage. She schemes and plots so that we know who is the brains of this operation, and she acts so that we know the same thing about the guts. She faces odds any woman would recognize: isolation, disenfranchisement, the expectation of domestic and emotional labor when she was born to rule ruthlessly. She is shrew, harridan, and villainess, but can you blame her? Her destiny is never under her own control; it never was. Whereas so many women in her position turn the knife inward, she turned hers out. And she never looked back. 

Lady Macbeth is an antihero, playing by her own rules and betting everything on herself while mediocre men fail all around d her. Among Shakespeare’s women, she is the dark queen. – Meg Elison
Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick Award-winning writer. Her most recent book is The Book of Etta. She tweets, not surprisingly, @megelison.

Lady MacDuff, Macbeth

Among Shakespeare’s memorable heroines, the Wife in Macbeth is my favorite example of his brilliance when portraying women. Lady MacDuff has only a single scene (IV.2) and 42 lines, but hers is an indelible portrayal of a woman struggling to maintain order in family life, in a play that is heavy in violence, treachery, and  disorder.

When she speaks with Ross or the Messenger, she is formal and angry, using poetry to sustain her dignity and emphasize the pathos of her situation:

“All is the fear and nothing is the love,”

she says, as though hoping to be contradicted. With her son, she uses mournfully playful, informal prose; “sirrah” she calls him, and “poor bird” and “poor monkey.”  

Throughout the scene, she uses the imagery of birds. The imagery rebukes her husband’s sudden and unexplained flight, and inspires  her self-description as a poor wren who fights the owl to protect her young.  Others adopt her imagery: when she asks her son how he shall live, he responds, “As birds do, mother.”  Even the heartless murderer who slays the boy calls him “egg.” The Wife regrets that she has only the womanly defense of innocence, unable to fly.- Mary Jenkins

Mary Jenkins is a lawyer, writer, and a theater lover, not necessarily in that order.


Juliet, Romeo and Juliet

Juliet (of “Romeo and Juliet” fame) sometimes gets a bad rap and usually second billing.

romeo and juliet
Romeo and Juliet, 1884, Frank Bernard Dicksee (The Daily Mail)

In a story about young, impetuous “star-crossed” love, she is at times more acted upon than a powerhouse of agency herself. But my favorite thing about her, this girl of 13, is how she defies the patriarch of the Capulets—and by extension the very patriarchy itself of Verona—by going against rigid codes of conduct to follow her own wishes and desires. Yes, ultimately it leads to death by suicide (when with a kiss she dies), but before that final stop on the melodramatic plot line train, she defies and deceives her “masters” and dignifies her own desires by the very act of pursuing them in the face of censure.

Complicated heroine, to be sure, but definitely a girl-woman with a mind of her own, and willing to follow her own heart. And that, I think, makes her a real heroine and not just a beautiful puppet in a tragic love story.  – Penny Perkins

Penny Perkins is a writer, educator, and activist living in Albany, NY; she is eagerly awaiting the collected works of Judith Shakespeare as edited by Virginia Woolf.  She tweets @PeriodicDose.

My Mistress, Sonnet 130

It’s with a poet’s heart I claim as my favourite woman in all of Shakespeare the subject of Sonnet 130: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” In school we studied several of Shakespeare’s plays before an inspired and ambitious teacher drove us determinedly through the sonnets. After the previous parade of Ophelias, Juliets, and Titanias, I thrilled at Shakespeare’s earthy frankness in celebrating not only that a woman could be portrayed as human, but that as such she was more compelling than any idealization, caricature, or fancy.

      My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
     Coral is far more red than her lips’ red. . .
Sonnet 130’s mistress always struck me as more profoundly real than the villain, the madwoman, the ephemeral beauty. Even feisty heroine-adventurers pale in my imagination to this lady’s wiry black hair, the brownness of her un-snowy breasts, the all-too-human reek of her un-perfumed breath. There’s a realism to this woman that has stuck with me through the years more than numerous deconstructions, reconstructions, and much-enjoyed modernizations of Shakespeare’s vaunted heroines and other female subjects — more indeed than any she belied with false compare. – Alexandra Renwick
Alexandra Renwick is a writer whose genres include mythpunk. She tweets, and her short story collection Push of the Sky was nominated for an Endeavor Award.

We had lots of wonderful submissions, and it was hard to cull it down to such a small batch. However, we hope this selection of sometimes sharped-tongued characters will only mark the beginning of an annual tradition.

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