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Lipstick Shakespeare: Defending the Heroine

Updated on August 17, 2012
Production photograph of Judi Dench as Cleopatra in William Shakespeare’s 'Antony and Cleopatra', London, 1987, photograph by Graham Brandon.
Production photograph of Judi Dench as Cleopatra in William Shakespeare’s 'Antony and Cleopatra', London, 1987, photograph by Graham Brandon. | Source

Warning: I'm a real butthead about Shakespeare.

But for a good reason! The number of English classes I've sat through where the professor has insisted that Shakespeare doesn't write strong women... too many. Today I read a post on the interwebs that insisted Shakespeare's only heroines worth respecting are Beatrice of Much Ado About Nothing and Katherine of The Taming of the Shrew. Imagine my chagrin at reading this, when I have spent my whole reading life thinking that Shakespeare is a champion of women! First of all, the fact that he wrote women as major leading characters at all is astounding. Yes, men played those roles back in the day, but men didn't want to play boring characters and women in the audience, especially her majesty Queen Elizabeth, didn't want to see boring versions of themselves. Shakespeare was an entertainer and he knew his audience! There was many-a-broad in the cheap seats, prostitutes and otherwise, and they wouldn't have enjoyed plays without women, let alone with boring women. So, let's get down to the nitty gritty.

Argument 1: Being in love indicates weakness

Oh, please. Falling in love is the ultimate act of strength! In order to be successful in love, you have to be willing to sacrifice your pride and ego, not to mention be subjected to potential heartbreak. Love, like war, is one of the most popular subjects in literature because it is a real human experience. Women are identified with love for a lot of reasons, the most obvious being the story of Adam and Eve.

To summarize, God makes Adam, God makes Eve from Adam's rib, Snake tempts Eve, Eve tempts Adam, boom, kicked out of paradise. Adam loves Eve so much, he takes the apple because she offers it. The argument comes in like a flash of lightning! Love equals weakness.

Okay. I get it. I see it. But I don't agree with it.

Love doesn't make you do anything. Love didn't hold a knife to Adam's throat and say "take the apple, or you'll get what's coming to ya!" Love might be a catalyst for action, or inaction as the case may be, but Love itself is not a weakness. Let's get to Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet is the best known Shakespearean play and thought to be a highly romantic story. Assess: an eighteen-year-old boy (Romeo) is in love with some lady we never see called Rosaline. He is over-the-moon about her, rants and raves about her-- until he meets Juliet and falls madly in love with her at first sight. Romeo isn't weak because he's in love, he's weak because he's so easily swayed! He's changeable, insincere. If you'll pardon the crass tone, he's not in love with Rosaline, he just wants to bang her. He lusts after both Rosaline and Juliet like any eighteen-year-old boy does after a pretty girl. Juliet on the other hand, is about thirteen-years-old. She doesn't know what love is any more than she knows about sex! But a cute boy shows interest in her, and to top it off, there is an element of danger because he is from the rival family. He's a bad boy! He's older! He climbs up to her balcony to kiss her late at night, he wants her to run off with him. This isn't love, this is adventure. And then they begin to get to know each other and a mutual affection begins to develop. Some might argue that affection becomes love when both people are invested in the emotions, and that's ultimately where Romeo and Juliet find themselves.

Argument 2: A strong woman can't be a fool for love and remain respectable

What about Lady Macbeth (Macbeth), who convinces her husband to do the unthinkable and kill the King he serves for her own advancement?

What about Portia (Merchant of Venice), who disguises herself as a man and convinces a bunch of lordy men that she is a judge in order to save the mentor of the man she loves? And succeeds?

What about Rosalind (As You Like It), who, in spite of being exiled by her evil uncle, manages to convince a forest worth of people that she is a young page in order to get to know Orlando better and make sure he doesn’t love her simply for her looks?

And then we have Beatrice of Much Ado About Nothing. Beatrice is arguably the most interesting and lively heroine Shakespeare wrote (and a bit of a butthead too, we have that in common). In one of her best speeches, she insists that she cannot marry a man without a beard because he's less than a man, but she cannot marry a man with a beard because he is more than a youth. Because of this, she claims she won't marry anyone at all but instead die a bachelor woman. Even the Prince can't convince her to marry him because she is too set on keeping her independence, and yet she ends the play betrothed to Benedick. Beatrice’s affection for Benedick is realized through the power of suggestion, after she overhears a conversation between Hero and Ursula in which they claim that he is secretly in love with her. She has rallied the whole play that she’ll never find a husband and never fall in love, no matter what, and yet she falls for the scheme after hearing a few words in passing. Some might argue that it isn’t possible for you to convince yourself of anything that isn’t at least partly true in the first place, so in this matter, she has already been secretly and maybe even unconsciously drawn to Benedick BEFORE the suggestion is made. She declares her love for Benedick in the end and means it, having made a fool of her headstrong oaths. But never once does Benedick as Beatrice to sacrifice her strength in order to be with him; he accepts her for all her flaws and she is able to keep her dignity while still being in love with him. See previous section if you doubt that Beatrice's strength in the face of love.

As for Katherine of The Taming of the Shrew, she has an entire speech at the end of the play about bending to her husband’s will! She tells Bianca that she has to serve her husband. Is she not a fool for love? And yet there is an air of respect between Kate and Petruchio; yes, he has abused her pride, but it was in the interest of showing her that she doesn't have to fight in order to be respected. Kate would likely NEVER have found a husband able to handle her, let alone a man that she could develop any kind of rapport with. She is still strong, but her strength manifests in a respectful and harmonious relationship with her husband. They become equals.

Argument 3: The ingénues are worthless

Get real! Ingénues exist in this world with the same frequency that bull-headed shrews do (no offense to the shrews out there). Notable Shakespearean ingenues:

  • Juliet, Romeo and Juliet
  • Phoebe, As You Like It
  • Hermia, A Midsummer Night's Dream
  • Olivia, Twelfth Night
  • Bianca, Taming of the Shrew
  • Miranda, The Tempest

In the basic formula for an ingénue, the lady must merely be innocent or unsophisticated. To be more precise, they are less experienced in the ways of the world. Often, they have been sheltered by either an over-protective parent or their social situation. This kind of women really do exist and I even know a few! They are often overly trusting because they don't understand deception. They haven't experienced heartbreak, so they are quick to fall for a handsome stranger. These women are by no means weak or worthless, but are actually a fantastic foil for the dynamic leading ladies. They show things like how jaded the other woman is, how difficult she has it by comparison. At the same time, they also often teach the leading man something about himself. Romeo doesn't realize how lust and love differ until he falls for Juliet. The ingénues are just as important as the strong leading ladies.

To sum up:

I could go on about this for ages. Shakespeare wrote a plethora of amazing female characters! The most well-rounded, most realistic characters he wrote are often women. I'll let you in on a little secret: I'm biased. I'm an actress! But who better to convince you of the nature of these characters than someone who has played them? Lady Macbeth is by far the most challenging and dynamic role I've ever had the honor to play because she is highly disturbed. She isn't purely evil, but rather so completely driven by a lust for power that she is compelled to increase her position in the world. She knows that she cannot gain a higher status by herself because of the limitation of being a woman, so she manipulates her husband into killing his way to the top. By the time she is Queen, Lady M is completely tortured by what she has done and she is arguably more haunted by it than her husband is by ghosts. Shakespeare wrote Lady M to be completely dynamic and have flaws because he understood the need for fleshed-out characters. In order for the story to succeed, the motivations of the character have to be justified. Yes, Lady M is evil, but she is also mentally unstable and driven.

Shakespeare rules. Shakespeare's ladies rule. This is not a hard concept.

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