Shakespeare’s plays are chock-full of great female characters whose stories can inspire readers to be their best selves.
In my grad school studies at The Shakespeare Institute, I sometimes hear my fellow female students complain about Shakespeare’s women, labeling them everything from weaklings to violators. First, let’s get one thing clear: Will valued women. His fictional females reflect this respect, whether the character in question ends badly (as a warning), or happily (as a positive role model).
His fictional females reflect this respect, whether the character in question ends badly (as a warning), or happily (as a positive role model).
Let’s see how this applies to three particular heroines – what are the messages Shakespeare’s encoded in the plays, and how can we put these lessons into practice in our own lives, as 21st-century women?
Joy, Persistence, and Integrity:
Katherine – we’ll call her “Kate” – in The Taming of the Shrew begins the play enraged, because her dad plays favorites with his kids and prefers her little sister. And little sis has loads of suitors, while Kate’s single and seething.
Then a suitor shows up – Petruchio, who answers her anger with wit, holding his own. After a whirlwind wooing and a rocky start to the marriage, Kate finally gives in, realizing that arguing is pointless because it prevents you from accomplishing anything. Once she gets this, they’re able to embark on a loving partnership. Petruchio has helped her to become her best self, ready to fulfill her feminine calling. From Eve onward, women have had a particular purpose: to make the world a more beautiful, joyful place by their nurturing presence. However, negativity (pettiness, envy, frustration, anxiety – the list goes on) mucks this up, as Kate remarks:
"A woman moved is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it."
We can’t spread beauty and joy if we aren’t joyful ourselves.
Key Takeaway: Cultivate joy, any way you can – do something that stimulates your spirits, whether that’s writing down things you’re grateful for, going for a walk outside, getting coffee with a friend, or watching a favorite movie – whatever warms your heart and brings a smile to your face, because the saying holds true: happy women are the most beautiful.
Next up, we have Helena, in All’s Well That Ends Well. She’s basically the walking definition of ‘resilience.’ Circumstances are against her from the get-go: she’s a servant, in love with Bertram, the son of her wealthy boss, the Countess of Roussillon. Realistically, there’s no way that they could ever be together, and he certainly doesn’t have any romantic feelings for her. Through a series of convoluted ruses, she overcomes her many obstacles and wins his heart.
Key Takeaway: Persistence produces peace. When you face a challenge, stay the course and resolve the conflict. In the long run, you’ll be grateful to yourself.
Last, but not least, there’s Isabella, my favorite of Shakespeare’s heroines, from Measure for Measure. She’s about to enter a convent when her older brother Claudio is sentenced to death for fornication by Angelo, the rigid deputy in power over the debauched city of Vienna while the Duke is on a trip. Isabella pleads with Angelo for her brother’s life, and he agrees to spare Claudio if she sleeps with him. Horrified, she refuses.
The Duke, who’s actually been hanging around town disguised as a friar to better observe the city’s corruption and figure out a solution, comes to her help. In the end, everything is resolved; then, the Duke unexpectedly proposes to Isabella. Shakespeare gives her no lines in reply. In performance, it depends a lot on how the Duke is played, and the overall production itself – personally, I believe the most empowering response is for her to accept. She could use her integrity and wisdom to help legislate better laws to make Vienna a more nurturing environment for her fellow women.
Key Takeaway: Stick to your principles. You may be laughed at, but you’ll have the respect of those who love you. Win your battles without compromising your convictions. Isabella puts it best: “I have spirit to do anything that appears not foul in the truth of my spirit.” The Duke answers: “Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful.” Be boldly virtuous.
Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg – all of Shakespeare’s major female characters, with their narratives both inspiring and cautionary, equip us to improve ourselves continually. Be a joy-bearer. Dream lavishly, and work to bring your goals to fruition. Hold your head high, because you are a woman, placed on this planet to promote virtue, enabling others to lead their best lives. In that, we find our own truest happiness.
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