Women like Lady Macbeth, Rosalind (As You Like It) and Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing) might be the first ones that come to mind when we talk about strong Shakespeare women, but there are others who are every bit as empowered and independent. Here are some of those women and the traits that made then rogue.
Paulina (The Winter’s Tale)
Paulina is from the aristocracy of Sicily and a friend to King Leontes wife Hermione who is pregnant when the play opens. The King becomes irrationally paranoid, believing his wife is unfaithful and has her jailed. Paulina steps in to care for the new baby and console her friend, but also to admonish the king. For this act of defiance, Paulina could be put to death, but despite this, she continues to confront the king when he defames Hermoine. She stands firm in her beliefs with courage and fights for justice against a mighty power that could destroy her.
Imogen is the master of her own fate. Her father, King Cymbeline of Britain, insists that she marry his new Queen’s vile son. Imogen refuses and secretly weds the man she loves, a man of low birth, defying her father and his evil wife. False accusations are flung against her, all of which she fights and defeats. In the end, she forgives those who have wronged her, proving that forgiveness often takes courage and strength that is rare.
Portia (The Merchant of Venice)
Viola (Twelfth Night)
Viola is shipwrecked and has lost her twin brother at sea. When she finds herself on the beach at Ilyria, she refuses to play the role of a helpless woman and instead disguises herself as a man. She gains employment in the household of the Duke and as a “man” (re-named Cesario) and gains a freedom of speech that would be inconceivable for a woman. She expresses thoughts forbidden to her by society and becomes a more fully realized woman. Despite being raised by protective men who made all her decisions, her cunning and adaptability illustrate her innate strength. In the end, through her clever manipulations, she gets what she wants––marriage with the Duke.
Desdemona exhibits her inner strength at the very beginning of the play, when her father asks the Duke of Venice to stop her marriage to Othello. She has fallen in love with a black man, the Moor, and she convinces the Duke to support the marriage in a brilliant speech. She comes across as an independent woman, sure of herself and her intentions, something that required tremendous strength and courage when confronted by a room full of powerful men. She asserts herself throughout the play, asking Othello to keep her informed of military plans. As his mistreatment of her increases, she holds firm, refusing to lie, even though her
faithfulness to truth is what ultimately results in her death.
Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra)
The difference here is that Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare’s strong women who was a real person, however, his portrayal of her is the epitome of female power and strength. Cleopatra defies description, he says, and yet he chronicles the first time Antony meets her with a description that is both gripping and breathtaking. Her barge is “like a burnished throne/Burned upon the water.” Her magnetism is so incredibly powerful that all the citizens of Egypt rush to the banks of the Nile as her barge arrives. She is portrayed not only as a superbly desirable woman but also as a ruler firmly in control of her domain and revered by her subjects. She is a woman of intelligence, quick wit, and political acuity. She can be “all woman” to a man while still ruling a great nation and not hiding her intellect. She can possess the strength, intelligence, and power that make her a “man” while maintaining the glorious qualities that make her quintessentially woman.
What do we see in all these women that can inform our own fictional characters? They are true to what they believe; they fight back when injustice takes place, they push the boundaries and believe in themselves.
Who are some of your favorite Shakespeare women?