Many of Shakespeare’s most renowned plays focus on the male characters at the centre of the narrative; we only have to look at titles such as Othello, Hamlet and Macbeth to understand that the men in these plays are the top dogs.
This may be due to the illegality of women performing on stage in the Early Modern Era or perhaps Shakespeare preferred exploring the effect his murderous/jealous/mentally ill/wealthy/selfish male characters had on the theatres of London. But, to commemorate the upcoming 400th anniversary of his death, here’s the top five best FEMALE characters that the Bard created…
The play King Lear is clearly about a bloke called Lear, who is a King. However, Shakespeare gives us three very different and powerful women in the form of Lear’s daughters. Compared with her manipulative and greedy sisters, Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia, is the symbol of integrity and honesty which is why she only appears in four scenes in this tragedy… in her final scene is basically dead for all of it.
Cordelia shows forgiveness towards her father after she is banished, and remains stoic in her principles. Even though Shakespeare only allows this character limited stage time, she is immensely important because she embodies the idea of morality in a play obsessed with wealth and avarice.
Best Line: ‘I’m sure my loves more ponderous than my tongue’ (I.i.78)
Twelfth Night is about a pair of shipwrecked twins who fall in love with random aristocrats in Cornwall. Basically.
Viola, is the protagonist of this Shakespearean comedy; she disguises herself as her brother and takes on the name Cesario in order to get a job working for Duke Orsino. Her farcical plight takes centre stage, indicating that a woman in drag (who would have been a male actor dressed as woman dressed as a man in the 1600s) was a hilarious concept in Elizabethan theatre. Ultimately, Viola’s cross-dressing is demonstrative of the character’s adaptability in desperate situations. Moreover, she fearlessly enters the household of a single man who has eyes for another woman, and successfully diverts his gaze back to her fake moustache and her proactive personality.
Best Line: ‘Oh time, thou must untangle this, not I. It is to hard a knot for me t’ untie.’ (II.ii.38)
Okay, so Ophelia may not be typically seen as a bold Shakespearean heroine, but she is a woman identifiable to modern audiences. She is one of the only major female characters in Hamlet and is constantly defined by the male characters around her. Her family epitomise her as the most glorious of virgins, yet her suitor hypersexualises her and perceives her as a shady lady. Hamlet is a play which famously contemplates suicide, and in consequence to the outrageous pressures placed on her, Ophelia becomes ‘incapable of her own distress’ (IV.vii.175) and is discovered drowned.
Best Line(s): ‘Alack and fie for shame, Young men will do ‘t, if they come to ‘t; By Cock, they are to blame.’ (IV.v.64-66)
Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing is filled with frivolity and buckets of sass, the majority of which come from Beatrice. She notoriously challenges the men in her life and her many insults towards her eventual husband contribute to the lashings of comedy in this play. Although she contradicts herself by marrying Benedick, she is still a vibrant and strong character whose opinions are not oppressed by the Elizabethan patriarchy.
Best Line: ‘I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.’ (I.i.104)
- LADY MACBETH
Lady Macbeth tops this list as the craziest, scariest and most powerful woman of Shakespeare’s creative genius. Nothing gets in Lady M’s way. She manipulates her husband into embarking on a murder spree so that she may be queen. Her dominance in this play is somewhat frightening because it is not quite clear whether her actions are borne of her authority or her mental instability. Regardless, she makes for an interesting character who can be presented on stage in a variety of ways.
Best Line: ‘Come, you spirits, That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty.’ (I.v.30)
Image credit: Tom Watchorn