Category Archives: history

International Women’s Day: who is your favourite Shakespearean woman?

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.

Judi Dench, very young, in medieval garb.
Judi Dench as the Princess of France in Henry V

Do you favour the ingenues, the grand queens, or the lowly comic matrons?

Katharine Hepburn in puffy blouse holding a mask on a stick, next to masked man.
Katharine Hepburn as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing

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?

Young black woman in Victorian riding dress, with top hat, carrying bow.
Josette Simon as Rosaline in Love’s Labours Lost

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.

Young white woman in floaty dress behind gauze curtain.
Cate Blanchett as Miranda in The Tempest

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.

Silent Shakespeare

21 March, Adelaide.

The University of Adelaide and Silents Now are having a special screening of the Asta Neilsen Hamlet, accompanied by live, improvised music.

The first Hamlet ever to appear on film was Sarah Bernhardt, in a roughly ten minute piece designed to demonstrate the possibilities of film. The first full length feature film version of Hamlet also starred a woman as the Prince, Danish actress Asta Neilsen.

“To my mind there were just two geniuses of the silent film era: Asta and Chaplin. It is very hard for anyone now to conceive the huge scale of Asta’s personality in Germany. Wherever we went, even in the smallest towns, crowds immediately gathered round her.” – Sven Gade, Director of Hamlet, in The Screenplay of My Life (1941).

For those interested in the extensive, expansive history of actresses playing Hamlet, Women As Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation by Tony Howard details the whole story.

One chance only to get the Asta Neilsen experience, and see the first Hamlet feature film on the big screen.

Tickets are free and can be booked HERE.

Flyer advertising Silent Shakespeare event (details repeated above).

Shakespeare and the Drover’s Wife

#fundTrove

“When the Shakespeare Tercentenary Memorial Fund was established in Sydney in 1912 … the goal of the organisation was to raise enough money for a fitting memorial to Shakespeare to be created by the date of the three-hundredth anniversary of his death, in April 1916. Upon the announcement of the formation of the fund, an anonymous woman wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald to speak of the enthusiasm and support the organisation could expect from Australian women: ‘Whatever work there is to do by which we women may show our gratitude and love and devotion to our Shakespeare, we only ask, do not spare us, let us work side by side with men. Our power and ability to work for a fitting memorial of a beloved idol are as great, our devotion to the cause no less.'”

This is an extract from an article I wrote for the online journal Australian Studies.

B&W text: A Grand Spectacular Pageant Ball.
Advertisement for the 1914 Shakespeare Ball

The research for this article about the way Australians commemorated the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was only possible because of the remarkable capabilities of the Trove service, at the National Library of Australia. I was able to look up every column written about the Shakespeare Balls and other spectacular fundraising efforts, reported in minute detail in the Sydney newspapers from 1912 – 1916. I could do this at no charge, and without needing to travel to the Library in Canberra and ferret through their archives. This astonishing, useful, used resource is under threat from funding cuts, like so many other services supporting Australia’s intellectual and cultural life.

The idea of something that is already working so well, working for any Australian who cares to make use of it, and getting better all the time being curtailed is an unconscionable false economy.

Here you can read Mike Jones and Deb Verhoeven on Treasure Trove: why defunding Trove leaves Australia poorer.

The full article on the Shakespeare Tercentenary Memorial is available in downloadable PDF form here, as yet another free service from our National Library:

Shakespeare and the Drover’s Wife: the work of women in the Australian Cultural Landscape

(Australian Studies, volume 4, series 2)

#fundTrove