Shakespeare's Women

Shakespeare’s Women #

Jamie Q Roberts, Lecturer, University of Sydney, writing in The Conversation, claims:

the Shakespeare of the plays is god-like: he is everywhere in his creations as a masterful and unifying presence, and yet he is aloof. If I had to take a punt, I’d say he was wise, wry — the kind of person who knew how to do life right.

Thus it is a shock to meet the Shakespeare of the sonnets. This Shakespeare is frail (sonnets 29 and 145), obsessed (28), judgmental (130), fickle (110) and self-pitying (72). And so we are drawn in. We begin to ponder how much of himself Shakespeare reveals in the sonnets, and, if he is in there, how one of the most remarkable humans could be so like the rest of us.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are about love. But they take us into love’s maelstrom. The sonnets speak, often in the most raw fashion, of jealousy (61), fear (48), infidelity (120) and love triangles (41, 42), but also of the simple happiness that love can bring (25). Because of this, according to poet and essayist Anthony Hecht, young lovers make up the most substantial readership of the sonnets.

The bulk of the sonnets (1-126) are addressed to a young man, often referred to as the “fair youth”. Jamie Q Roberts The Conversation

Germaine Greer #

Greer’s special area of interest. Her PhD, The Ethic of Love and Marriage in Shakespeare’s Early Comedies, was awarded in 1968. She had studied four of his plays: Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew and Love’s Labour’s Lost.

She concluded:

‘It is by now commonplace to point out that in feudal literature romantic love was essentially anti-social and adulterous.

Shakespeare is unromantic in his view of marriage: his practical view is summarised approvingly:

‘He recognised it as a difficult state of life, requiring discipline, sexual energy, mutual respect and great forbearance: he knew there were no easy answers to marital problems, and that infatuation was no basis for continued cohabitation.‘

Shakespeare used “transvestite heroines”, girls in men’s clothing who:

“win the men they love by a more laborious means”.

“When the choice lies between the ultra-feminine and the virago, Shakespeare’s sympathy lies with the virago,”

Greer writes in The Eunuch section on love and marriage. A virago is a bad-tempered or violent woman, a woman of “masculine strength or spirit, a female warrior”. Voluminia from Coriolanus and Lady Macbeth spring to mind. Others? - Emilia in Othello

John Bell #

Bell claims women play strong roles in Shakespeare’s Plays, indicating he understands them well. All female roles were played by young male actors.

Most end up dead. Cordelia, Goneril, Regan – all die. Gertrude and Ophelia – die, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Desdemona. Four, kill themselves, including Juliet.

Bell also claims women are smarter than men and frequently display greater wisdom and maturity than men. He lauds the extraordinary generosity and forgiveness of Cordelia, Desdemona, and Hermione. His women find it easier to forgive than men do.

Much has and will be said about the comportment of Andrea Jenkyns, MP and newly appointed minister in the education department, who flipped the bird at crowds as she entered Downing Street and shouted furiously at them as she departed. But it was her choice of outfit that most interested me: a dress in the most vibrant and vivid yellow.

Thoughts of Malvolio, the pompous steward from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and the trick played on him by the play’s comic cast, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

They convince him that the beautiful Olivia is in love with him and, to win her favour further, he might parade around in cross-gartered yellow stockings. When finally the deception is uncovered, Malvolio quits the scene with one of the play’s most quoted lines:

“I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.”

Some do survive – Rosalind in As You Like It ends up alive and stronger than ever, as do most in the comedies.

Some claim that Shakespeare is a misogynist in the way he presents the female characters, others see him as merely reflecting his society’s values.

Taming of the Shrew #

Due to the treatment of the women’s roles in Taming of the Shrew it is often considered to be a controversial play. Most of the power is held by male characters, Baptista over his daughter, Petruchio over Katherina clearly reflecting the values of patriarchal society. The treatment of the female characters is now something we would see as degrading and sometimes abusive when it comes to Petruchio’s method of taming. They were often seen as objects; however, it is unclear whether Shakespeare was merely reflecting his society or trying to challenge it.

Often forgotten is the opening sequence with Sly, where his treatment of his ‘wife’ is different to that of the noblemen,

“Are you my wife, and will not call me husband?” (…….)

He also later insists that he personalise his wife’s name by calling her “Alice Madam, Joan Madam” and finally calls her “Madam Wife.”

We are not sure whether Shakespeare is mocking Sly, who is really a drunken tinker, or if he using Sly’s way of thinking to juxtapose the other men in Taming of the Shrew. However due to what would be considered extremely sexist in a post? -feminism world, adaptations are made which can change the meaning of the play.

Shakespeare is surely sending up the men suitors in the play as their acts and words are over the top. You really can’t take Petruchio’s outrageous behavior and speeches seriously. Katherina had no freedom to choose a husband. In this play the Kath’s lack of any discussion with her father about her future, conveys that it was unlikely for a girl or women to even think to stand up against her father in this period. However ironically, Bianca, the character who first seems to conform to her place in her society ends up eloping with Lucentio (however not totally against father’s will).

John Bell sees the farcical or comedic nature of the play.

Coriolanus #


Marcius’ mother, is a dominant figure throughout the play. While she is ineligible to be a consul, she wields significant power vicariously through the glory of her son. She represents the archetypal warrior culture as a incubator of soildiers.

had I a dozen sons, each in my
love alike and none less dear than thine and my
good Martius, I had rather had eleven die nobly
for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out
of action.
II.3. 23 - 27

She finally persuades Coriolanus that though he has lost his loyalty to the city state, he should not attack his own city because he might kill his offspring (family) and thereby lose his immortality. His only chance for lasting honour is via Rome.


An arranged, political, marriage wife, a rather timid ineffective partner showing little affection, devotion or warmth. Virgilia, is submissive and compliant, compared to ice and the silent type.

CORIOLANUS calls her: “My gracious silence”. The final scene between them is warm and tender.

CORIOLANUS values his wife’s companion, Valeria, for her chastity.

The noble sister of Publicola,
The moon of Rome, chaste as the icicle
That’s curdied by the frost from purest snow
And hangs on Dian’s temple!—Dear Valeria.
IV. 3. 74 – 77

[ Diana (Artemis), the goddess of the hunt, who turns Aceton into a stag and unleashes his hounds to purse and kill him, then return home to wait for him. She also demands the sacrifice of a virgin before Agamemnon’s flotilla of a thousand ships is given fair winds to sail ].

Antony and Cleopatra #

Complex, charismatic, fierce. Cleopatra is a mother, a lover, a Queen. A woman not to be defied. Variously described as an Egyptian dish:

A morsel for a monarch/My salad days, / When I was green in judgment: cold in blood, or in sensual terms of Venus or Isis, the goddess who could not die:


Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy (sicken)
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies.

As AGRIPPA crudely describes her: (perhaps indicative of the philistine Augustus)

“Royal wench/ She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed:/ He plough’d her, and she cropp’d”.

This is a clever play on the biblical words of Isaiah:

“they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks”.

Making productive love, not destructive war.


Octavia is of a/holy, cold, and still conversation.

MENAS Who would not have his wife so?

Cleopatra, echoing Antony’s former assertion that kingdoms are just “clay”, dismisses Augustus’ triumph as “owner of so much clay” and refuses to put herself under his shroud choosing a noble death by her own hand.

Hamlet #

T.S Eliot suggests that Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is a play dealing with the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son. Hamlet appears to put more blame on his mother for betraying his father than anyone else.

–Frailty, thy name is woman!–
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow’d my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears:–why she, even she–
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn’d longer–married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month:
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.

Gertrude appears totally loyal to Claudius, dependent on his power for her power. Gertrude watches Ophelia drown without sending for help. Why such callousness?

As one incapable of her own distress/floats downstream until her garments heavy with drink/ Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay/ To muddy death”.

She later says she had hoped Ophelia to marry Hamlet. But Gertrude knows what side her bread is buttered and she must serve the crown. Ophelia is trouble. She knows the truth and could threaten the power constructs. It is only after Hamlet is threatened that Gertrude is willing to defy the King.

Ophelia is the epitome of subservience. She is totally in awe of Hamlet, but is a “good girl” and when her father, Polonius, tells her to give back Hamlet’s gifts, she does so without question, even spying on him. She accepts her brother’s patronising advice without demur. When Hamlet questions her honesty, and abuses her, the stress becomes too great and she feels conflicted and rejected, goes mad, committing suicide.

At the Performance of the Play:


……………..for, look you, how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within these two hours.


Nay, ’tis twice two months, my lord.


So long?………. . O heavens! die two months ago, and not forgotten yet?
Then there’s hope a great man’s memory may outlive his life half a year:

Later as she comments on the Prologue of the Play:


‘Tis brief, my lord.


As woman’s love.

The beguiling femininity of women is illustrated when Hamlet accuses all women of affectations and cosmetic ruses to seduce men.

I have heard of your paintings too, well enough;
God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another:
you jig, you amble, and you lisp,

Hamlet suspects her of betrayal due to her obedience to her father, Polonius, however Ophelia claims the last words:

“I was the greater deceived”.

As You Like It #

Rosalind is eventually banished from the paranoid usurper’s court because he fears her popularity threatens his rule. Celia, the daughter of Frederick, loyally accompanies her. She adopts a new name and male disguise, Ganymede, Jove’s page or Zeus’s cup bearer, noted for bi-sexuality and homosexual relationships. Dressed as a man she commands more respect than as a woman.

She represents one of Shakespeare’s most powerful women, but mainly because she dresses like a man. She is a strong forceful character who organizes those around her.

Her father’s kingdom has been usurped by his brother so Rosalind disguised as a man follows her father to the Forest of Ardenne to support him. As a man, she is free to do things a woman could not do, such as gather resources, jewels, dress in trousers, buy a cottage, look after her sister, teach the young man who is in love with her, how to court her, free as a bird.
Rosalind in ends up alive and stronger than ever, as do most in the comedies.

Orlando is the youngest son of Sir Rowland de Bois and younger brother of Oliver. His inheritance has been swindled by his elder brother and he too is banished and finds refuge in Ardenne Forest where he finds acceptance, comfort and support.

He has fallen madly in love with Rosalind and later not recognizing her in disguise, laments his longing for her.

In Neil Bartlett’s new adaptation, as in Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, a poetic young aristocrat named Orlando catches the eye of Queen Elizabeth, embarks on various amorous adventures, falls into a coma, and wakes up changed into a woman.

In the book, which is styled as a biography, Woolf’s narrator tracks Orlando’s transformation, and, for a single paragraph, the text’s “he” changes to “they,” before pivoting to “she.” (Woolf wrote, “The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity.”) The show uses they/them pronouns, the gender-fluid use of which Woolf may have pioneered a hundred years ago. This synchrony feels like fate.

In Woolf’s feminist, modernist protofantasy, Orlando lives forever, passing through Jacobean intrigue, the reign of Queen Anne, the sex-hating Victorian nineteenth century, and the burning phosphor of the early twentieth. From: New York Review 2023


Merry Lives of Windsor #

Shakespeare had to write a new kind of play, “The Merry Wives of Windsor, ” his only play of middle-class England, she says, “about empowered women . . . and ethical female behaviour.”

Melbourne’s The Merry Wives of Windsor is a hilarious look at gender politics in suburbia, celebrating the wisdom and strength of women and poking fun at the men who think they know better. Reading the play, Emma and Kate were struck by the thought, “gee whizz, this is all sounding a little too familiar,” and knew that 2022 would be the perfect time to tell this story. Set in the 1970s amidst the simmering frustration of the women’s liberation movement, the play begins with Anne Page returning home from university for the summer, determined to bring the feminist revolution with her. The show not only features the clever titular wives, but also one of Shakespeare’s funniest characters, the loveable buffoon John Falstaff.

Queen Elizabeth was fascinated by the creation of Falstaff and urged the company to see more of him, but then eventually recommended he be terminated.

Othello #

Desdemona would have to go down in history as the most innocent victim of male paranoid “green-eyed” jealousy.

Desdemona is the daughter of a Venetian senator, wedded to Othello. She is often portrayed as an innocent, sympathetic lady who possesses great beauty.

Even when bestial imagery is used by Iago to describe sexual acts with the Moor and Desdemona she is still referred to as the “white ewe”, with “white” representing innocence and purity. Epithets of jewellery are also often used in connotation to Desdemona and her beauty by referring to her as “the riches of the ship” and “the pearl” to describe her.

Shakespeare developed Desdemona to be a stark contrast to Iago in nearly every possible way. Iago plays on Desdemona’s honesty and willingness to take up causes such as assuring Cassio “I will have my lord and you again, as friendly as you were”.

However, Iago uses the warning Brabantio said to Othello, “she has deceiv’d her father, and may thee” to use as a basis to “poison” Othello’s trust of her.

Desdemona was a character of greatness, which had touched the lives of many, as she Shakespeare’s symbol of love and kindness. Desdemona reflected upon many of the outcomes of the play as the first of the great characters to fall, which then resulted in the other characters downfall. The importance of Desdemona as a character is that without her there would not have been the basis of Othello’s jealousy, nor the ability for Iago to manipulate Othello into self-destruction.

Desdemona in Othello

Although Desdemona submits passively to her husband, Othello, as he strangles her to death, she demonstrates her strength at the beginning of the play when her father asks the Duke of Venice to stop her marriage to the Moor, Othello. He has ideas about who he wants to marry her to but she has fallen in love with a black man and he is opposed to their marriage, which has already taken place in secret by that time. The Duke asks her to give an account of herself and in a remarkable speech, she convinces him. In that speech she comes across as a modern woman – an independent woman who has been a good daughter but is now ready to ally herself with her husband. If her father doesn’t like that then it’s just too bad. It isn’t his business anymore. It required enormous strength to say things like that in a room full of powerful men at that time.


‘Tis not a year or two shows us a man:
They are all but stomachs, and we all but food;
To eat us hungerly, and when they are full,
They belch us. Look you, Cassio and my husband!

Emilia understands her husband well when she asks rhetorically why men exchange their wives for others and answers,

“Is it sport?/ I think it is.”

Emilia famously speaks to Desdemona about the infectious infidelity of husbands, saying:

Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.

When she learns that her husband, Iago encouraged Othello to murder Desdemona, she defiantly condemns both:


She’s, like a liar, gone to burning hell:
‘Twas I that kill’d her.


O, the more angel she, And you the blacker devil!


She turn’d to folly, and she was a whore.


Thou dost belie her, and thou art a devil.


She was false as water.


Thou art rash as fire, to say
That she was false: O, she was heavenly true!


Cassio did top her; ask thy husband else.
O, I were damn’d beneath all depth in hell,
But that I did proceed upon just grounds
To this extremity. Thy husband knew it all.


If he say so, may his pernicious soul
Rot half a grain a day! he lies to the heart:
She was too fond of her most filthy bargain.

Do thy worst:
This deed of thine is no more worthy heaven
Than thou wast worthy her.


Peace, you were best.


Thou hast not half that power to do me harm
As I have to be hurt. O gull! O dolt!
As ignorant as dirt! thou hast done a deed–
I care not for thy sword; I’ll make thee known,
Though I lost twenty lives.–Help! help, ho! help!
The Moor hath kill’d my mistress! Murder! murder!