Scholars have long pondered Shakespeare’s attitude to women, his sexuality, the misogyny demonstrated at times towards the Dark Lady of the sonnets, and his relationship with his wife, Anne Hathaway. But there’s no denying that he wrote marvellous roles for women. His heroines dazzle.
Shakespeare gives his women the finest lines, say E. Foley and B. Coates in their book, Shakespeare Basics for Grown-Ups: “In Shakespeare’s works, women are often the heart of the action, the characters around whom the dramatic impetus revolves, getting the largest piece of the pie when it comes to the choicest lines.”
Foley and Coates extol Rosalind, Viola, Beatrice and Portia for their vivacity and enterprise, Juliet for her passion and courage, and Cleopatra for sheer personality.
They include Lady Macbeth, too, in their list of “Shakespeare’s most redoubtable women”.
They don’t explain why they omit Cordelia, Desdemona and the other heroines from the list.
But the seven women they have named are indeed among Shakespeare’s greatest creations.
I like their brief descriptions of the women.
So, over to Foley and Coates, summing up the magnificent seven:
Lady Macbeth in Macbeth
Murderous, ambitious, manipulative, dangerously charismatic, and prepared to fight for her husband’s right to power at any cost, Lady Macbeth is probably the most infamous of Shakespeare’s women. But her inability to escape the crushing guilt she feels, her descent into madness and eventual suicide are both moving and deeply shocking.
Best lines, hissed at her husband in an attempt to get him to man up:
My hands are of your colour, but I shame
To wear a heart so white.
(Act II, Scene 2)
Viola in Twelfth Night
Just one of Shakespeare’s many gender-bending girls, Viola is probably the most likeable: bold, feisty and, critically true. In a play full of characters who can’t seem to commit to one person or another she knows whom she loves and never errs from the path. Despite finding herself at the centre of a sticky love triangle, she emerges triumphant — though we have to admit we’re not sure exactly what it is she sees in the pompous narcissist that is Orsino.
Best lines, on the nature of cross-dressing:
This fellow is wise enough to play the fool,
And to do that well, craves a kind of wit.
(Act III, Scene 1)
Rosalind in As You Like It
Another cross-dresser, Rosalind has to be one of Shakespeare’s best-loved female roles. As Ganymede, she takes control of her unfortunate circumstances and heads into the forest to change her destiny. As legendary critic Harold Bloom pointed out, one of Rosalind’s greatest attributes is her self-knowledge: she can be cynical about love, or romantic, but she is never deluded.
Best lines, when winding up the love-struck Orlando:
Love is merely a madness, and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do: and the reason why they are not so punished and cured is, that the lunacy is so ordinary that the whippers are in love too.
(Act III, Scene 2)
Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing
Like Rosalind, Beatrice is another of Will’s most quick-witted women. Her verbal bantering with Benedick is among the most lively, flirtatious and, occasionally, caustic you’re ever likely to come across in literature. There’s a vulnerability that her pride masks which is very appealing, as is her fierce loyalty to the rather (drippy) Hero. And her request of Benedick after Hero has been unceremoniously dumped is worthy of any Lady Macbeth.
Benedick: Come, bid me do any thing for thee.
Beatrice: Kill Claudio!
Benedick: Ha, not for the wide world!
Beatrice: You kill me to deny it. Farewell.
.(Act IV, Scene 1)
Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra
Cleopatra is an extraordinary character. A fierce lover, warrior, shrewd politician and propagandist, she refused to bend to the will of any man, even in death. She has bewitched audiences and readers down the ages, and a fascinating prism through which to view her is that of celebrity. She is a woman who is hyper-conscious of her public image, and determined to play her role to its final conclusion.
Best lines, accusing Antony of betraying her with his own wife (this takes some chutzpah).
Why should I think you can be mine and true,
Though you in swearing shake the throned gods,
Who have been false to Fulvia? Riotous madness,
To be entangled with these mouth-made vows,
Which break themselves in swearing!
(Act 1, Scene 3)
Portia in The Merchant of Venice
At first glance, Portia’s lot is a fairly desperate one, despite appearances. Yes, she’s rich and beautiful, but she’s pursued by a bunch of money-grabbing knaves who are after only one thing, and, worse, her choice in which of these knaves she has to marry has been set by her father from beyond the grave. By the end of the play, however, she has held her own in a male-dominated court of law and turned all expectations about cosseted wealthy women on their head; both Antonio and Bassanio owe her big-time.
Best lines, in disguise while defending Antonio in court:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.
(Act IV, Scene 1)
Juliet in Romeo and Juliet
Juliet’s fate isn’t quite as happy as Portia’s, Rosalind’s or Beatrice’s, but along the way she does prove herself to be more than a match for the men around her. It is, after all, Juliet who proposes to Romeo, rather than the other way around. And she is brave enough to abandon her family and all that she knows for a love she really believes in.
Best lines, spoken to Romeo in the orchard:
O, swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.
(Act II, Scene 2)