It’s Shakespeare Day here in the UK, the 400th anniversary of his death in 1616 (and arguably his birthday, although we don’t have a definitive date of birth). The works of William Shakespeare cover a whole range of themes and span the breadth of human emotion, from love to hatred, from grief to vengeance. The portrayal of women in his plays can tell us a lot about the attitudes of the time, as well as presenting challenges for directors and actors performing for a modern audience (looking at you, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and your weird “I’ll force thee yield to my desire”).
You might not think of Tudor England as a utopia with a progressive outlook on life, but Shakespeare was a man who wrote about racism 350 years before the Civil Rights Movement took off, a man who wrote about a mentally ill prince – I read Hamlet as clinically depressed, personally – before the complex field of psychiatry was even a concept.
He was also the creator of some of the most wonderful women in literature.
So, without further ado (about nothing)*, here are my five favourite Shakespearean ladies:
5. Ophelia, Hamlet
“Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?”
Ophelia might not strike you as a particularly feminist character. She is one of just two female speaking roles in the play (indicative of the fact that Hamlet is not a particularly feminist play, either). She is in love with Prince Hamlet, but when it seems that he loves her no longer, she kills herself in his absence. Not exactly what you’d call a role-model.
However, I still like her very much. It’s very easy to empathise with Ophelia – she’s caught between all the influential men in her life: her father, her brother, and the man she loves. There’s also an interesting gendered distinction drawn between the madness of Ophelia and the madness of Hamlet. You’re probably familiar with the “flower” scene, in which Ophelia sings and hands out flowers. Her madness is depicted on a starkly emotional level, but Hamlet’s status as an intellectual means we’re never sure if he truly has gone mad. It’s worth mentioning that, up until the 20th century, “hysteria” – an alleged (and fictitious) mental illness caused by the uterus – was a common diagnosis for women. The artist Emilie Autumn explored these themes in her song Opheliac, which gives you an idea of the enduring symbolism Ophelia possesses as a woman struggling to fulfill an ideal.
Sian Brooke as Ophelia, Barbican Theatre (2015)
4. Mistress Quickly, Henry IV (Parts 1 & 2); Henry V; The Merry Wives of Windsor
“Pray ye, pacify yourself, Sir John: there comes no swaggerers here.”
Mistress Nell Quickly is totally dissimilar to all the other women on this list. She’s no noblewoman or queen; she’s the landlady of the Boar’s Head Tavern, the usual haunt for Falstaff and crew. True to her name, she’s a lively lass (she’s practically the medieval Peggy Mitchell). She’s closely linked with the criminal underworld, but, nonetheless, you’ll find no woman with a more *ahem* respectable reputation.
Honestly, she’s just great. I often find that the women in Shakespeare’s comedies are depicted far better than in his tragedies – none of that damsel in distress nonsense! They’re just ordinary, lower-class women, brawling and gambling and double-dealing with the men. And if that’s not equality, I’ll eat a leek.**
Sarah Parks as Mistress Quickly, RSC (2015)
3. Desdemona, Othello
“I am not merry; but I do beguile
The thing I am, by seeming otherwise.”
In Othello, Desdemona elopes with the eponymous general, much to her father’s dismay. They leave for Cyprus, where Othello takes command of the troops on the island. Throughout the course of the play, Othello’s close friend and comrade Iago persuades him that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio – a white soldier – and Othello, consumed by jealousy, eventually murders his wife. At the discovery of her innocence, he commits suicide.
Desdemona falls in love with Othello after listening to his life story. I think that’s beautiful – she falls in love with, not despite, his humble beginnings. But it’s her willingness to disobey her father that unsettles Othello; he fears she might just as easily betray him and this is ultimately her undoing. It’s a story reflected throughout history – take Anne Boleyn, for example. Her boldness is what attracted Henry VIII to her, but it was also the thing that led to her execution.
Irene Jacob as Desdemona (1995 film)
2. Titania, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
And for her sake I will not part with him.”
Titania is the queen of the faeries in the play. In a parallel plotline – the main plot concerns four Athenian lovers – her husband Oberon tricks her into falling in love with Bottom, an amateur actor with (courtesy of the mischievous Puck’s magic) a donkey’s head. She and her husband make amends by the end of the play, fortunately enough for everyone else! It’s their refusal to yield to one another that causes much of the chaos that ensues.
I really like Titania (although I like Hermia and especially Helena too, who are the play’s other female protagonists). She’s stubborn and she doesn’t back down. And why should she? She’s the faerie queen, after all. It also amuses me that Benedict Cumberbatch played her when he was at school. 🙂
- Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing
“I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.”
Beatrice isn’t just my favourite lady on this list. She’s my favourite Shakespearean character of all time. She’s witty and she takes exactly zero shit from anybody. It’s definitely worth noting*** that Much Ado About Nothing is fantastic at turning gender roles on their head. Beatrice and her love interest Benedick make jokes at each other’s expense and their conversations are barbed. Beatrice gives as good as she gets, and it honestly feels more like a quirky modern rom-com than a 16th century play.
You could argue that the fact that Beatrice has to change herself and accept marriage, rather than continuing self-sufficiently, isn’t very progressive. It’s not perfect. But Benedick has to change too – it’s not a play about a woman realising that marriage should be her aspiration, it’s a play about two people learning to compromise, cultivating not just a relationship but a friendship too.
Meera Syal as Beatrice, RSC (2012)
Shakespeare is a defining figure in this country’s literary heritage. What we should take away from his work is that we are not so different from his contemporary Elizabethan audience. His work endures because of its innate humanity. We can perform his plays anywhere, anytime, to any audience. No matter if it’s a traditional production or one set in India or Afghanistan or the Second World War, the Bard’s words will always ring true.
As his friend and rival Ben Jonson once said, “He was not of an age, but for all time!”
Thank you for reading! As you can probably tell, I’m passionate about Shakespeare! I’d really appreciate it if you would share this on Facebook/Twitter/Google+!
Glossary of geeky jokes:
* From Much Ado about Nothing
**From a brilliant scene in Henry V, in which the Welshman Fluellen makes Pistol eat the leek on his cap
***Really nerdy joke. In Shakespeare’s day, “nothing” would have been pronounced “noting”, which adds a whole new level of pun to the play.
You can find out more from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.