While we don’t have anything like as many to choose from, the smaller numbers of female characters in Shakespeare’s plays means the ones who are there tend to be the vivid splashes of colour in a field of grey Lords. Be they virtuous, evil, complex or intermittently disturbingly underwritten, they all do tend to be memorable.
Do you favour the ingenues, the grand queens, or the lowly comic matrons?
Rosalind in As You Like It was probably Shakespeare’s most popular heroine for a long time, with Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing running a close second. Perhaps Juliet is his most famous female creation, though Lady Macbeth may be the most discussed. Cressida would be the most maligned, though the contrarian Bernard Shaw found her delightful. However, not all his wonderful women are leads. Emilia’s willingness to die to defend Desdemona’s reputation means she commands the final act of Othello. The Winter’s Tale is full of women, as is The Merry Wives of Windsor. Vanessa Redgrave reminded us how riveting Volumnia can be. And did you know that Joan of Arc appears in Henry VI?
Crucially, one of Shakespeare’s identifying characteristics as a playwright is his depiction of friendship between women. Women in Shakespeare frequently put love of a friend ahead of love for a husband, father or country. He often wrote his women in pairs, and frequently had the more outspoken of the two offer a vigorous defence of her quieter companion, or of women in general.
I tend to have favourite moments, rather than favourite characters or plays. This is one of my favourite speeches. It comes from Titania, Queen of the Faeries, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as she explains to her husband Oberon why she will not let him have a little human boy. I love what it says about female friendship, and how it shows us a character whose elevated status doesn’t prevent her from sitting on the sand on the beach chatting with a friend. I love her loyalty and her steadfastness. I also love that Shakespeare knew what a heavily pregnant woman looks like when she moves, and made that into intimate humour shared between women.
Set your heart at rest:
The fairy land buys not the child of me.
His mother was a votaress of my order:
And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip’d by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking the embarked traders on the flood,
When we have laugh’d to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
Following, her womb then rich with my young squire,
Would imitate, and sail upon the land,
To fetch me trifles, and return again,
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
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.
This post is cross-posted at my personal blog, Flaming Moth, where comments are open if you would like to share your favourite Shakespearean woman.