Women In Shakespeare

Written by: Teaching Assistant Bianca-Oana Petrut,
‘Petru Maior’ Univeristy Of Tg. Mures, Romania


This essay intends to prove that the female character is just as significant and full of meanings and symbols as the male character in some of the most important Shakespearean tragedies.

In order to proceed in exploring the women’s role in Shakespearean plays, one should consider first the social context to which they belong, i.e. the Elisabethan society, as well as the theme and the plot in which they appear. Despite the power of Elisabeth I, women during this time had very little authority, autonomy, or recognition. Women gained their status based on the position of either their father or their husband. Even more restricting than economic rights were the social and political rights of women. They were expected to be silent observers, submissive to their husbands. Women who attempted to assert their views were seen as a threat to social order. This is significant in that the maintenance of social order was an extremely important aspect of Elizabethan society.

Shakespeare is highly sensitive to his target audience in every step of the writing process. He actively plays upon the beliefs and fears of the Elizabethans. With characters such as Goneril and Cleopatra, Shakespeare demonstrates the devastating effects of female rebellion against social order. Shakespeare invokes sympathy in the audience by creating characters of extreme feminine virtue such as Cordelia, Miranda. However, Shakespeare often creates ambiguous emotions in the audience by introducing an element of intelligence and boldness in the case of Isabella and Desdemona.

Despite the relative insignificance of women in Elisabethan social order, Shakespeare uses them in many significant ways. He seems to be extremely sensitive to the importance of women in society even though they are often overlooked. The idea that men are often a product of the women in their lives is indirectly suggested in the significant impact women have on men in the plays. Isabella has a profound influence in the lives of Angelo and Claudio; Desdemona, by no true fault of her own, turns out to be both a blessing and a curse in the life of Othello; Cleopatra is a major cause of Antony’s downfall. Although having little respect in the social order of Elisabethan society, Shakespeare recognises women as a real and significant part of society. Like all aspects of Shakespeare’s plays, the female characters play a significant role in contributing to plot and theme.
Therefore, both the comedies and the tragedies bear the mark of women, one way or another. In Shakespeare, women do not constitute main characters and yet, they play main parts, meaning that beside every strong male character, there is a woman. For instance, the tragedy of Othello is unlike many other Shakespearean plays, in that the leading female characters are wiser and more rational than the main male characters. Throughout the play, quite often the women are the ones who offer reason to the chaotic world led by men. Emilia continually attempts to convince Othello of Desdemona’s innocence, but he will not listen to her reasoning. Desdemona, despite Iago’s innuendoes, is an ideal wife to Othello. Iago, with his devilish plans and Othello, with his uncontrollable jealousy represent the evil in the play while the women reflect the goodness and sanity.

Desdemona is the prototype of womanhood[1]. She is very charming, symbolising the woman ready to face the unknown of marriage being lured into the mystery that surrounds her husband. Very beautiful and tender, she is a true gentle woman, but becomes the naive victim in this tragedy. She falls in love with a man who is older, poorer, and uglier than she is. She pities him because of his tragic life and respects him for his endurance for pain. She displays her rational and brave characteristics when she stands up to her father and tells him that, like her mother, she must show her ‘duty’ to her husband. This young woman also boldly asks the Duke if she can go with Othello to Cyprus so that she will not just be a ‘moth of peace’ while her noble husband is fighting for their country. The Duke, like all of the characters in the play, respects Desdemona and her wishes and allows her to leave with Othello.

Every person, both male and female, respects and praises Desdemona. Iago repeatedly speaks of Desdemona’s ‘honest’ and ‘goodness’. Both he and Cassio agree that she is a ‘most exquisite lady’. Emilia also shows her admiration of her when she defends Desdemona’s honour to Othello. She tries to convince him that his wife is ‘honest, chaste, and true’. Desdemona is a loyal spouse who will do absolutely anything for her husband. Even when he is falsely accusing her of adultery and sin, Desdemona defends Othello. Desdemona does not blame him; she tries to understand what has upset him. She is an unselfish victim who defends her husband to the very end of her life. Even when Othello kills her in a jealous rage, Desdemona does not want her husband to be responsible for her death. She claims that ‘nobody, I myself’ committed this tragic deed. Her death does not destroy either the ideal of the ideal marriage, or that of love, but only that of the impulsive and hazardous marriage.

Another important female character in Othello is Emilia. Like Desdemona, she is a brave and respectable character. However, she is not naive like Desdemona. Emilia repeatedly attempts to teach the innocent Desdemona about the evils of life. She has to convince Desdemona that there are women who betray their husbands. Carefully watching over Desdemona, Emilia constantly tries to warn her that jealousy is a ‘monster’. She is not at all afraid of men and does not think twice about defending Desdemona’s honour to the raging Othello. Emilia is confident, calm, and rational when dealing with the men in this play. When Iago mocks her uncontrollable ‘tongue’, Emilia does not overreact to his insults. She mostly ignores his comments and says just enough to defend herself. She knows that her husband is just trying to make himself look better, showing off for the people around him. Emilia is a loyal wife to Iago and helps him unknowingly carry out his evil plans. However, when she discovers the truth behind his lies, she fearlessly exposes him and all of his schemes. Emilia is a stout-hearted woman who will do anything to defend innocent Desdemona and the truth.

Another important gentle-hearted female character is Ophelia, Hamlet’s unfortunate lover. She is a naive young woman, who seems lost in the world surrounding her; she is an obedient, childish and loving woman through her clothing, yet maiden through her desires. She is involved in a tensioned human world, always torn between fateful decisions. She seems to belong to another world, to another dimension; therefore, she does not belong to the world she has to live in. This will eventually kill her, as she is incapable to fit in, to understand her own father and her lover. Because her naivety, she is lost in a world too cruel for her fragile soul. This character, who seems like having feminine perfume running in her veins rather than human blood[2], lives an unhappy life, being torn between her father’s death, her lover’s not respecting her deep feelings and her brother’s treating her like a child.

The very same tragedy is also marked by another feminine presence: i.e. queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. She is trapped into living with her husband’s murderer, but her gesture is not to be justified in any way. She becomes the prisoner of the secret she has to keep, thus becoming the symbol of sin she displays with duplicity. Her behaviour, wrapped up in some mysterious deeds known only be herself, constitute the example of virtuosity of those possessed by power. She is constant with herself, but fate has her killed by the very same poison and by the very same man who caused her husband’s death. Therefore, fate’s fury, does not allow her to live anylonger. She has to die, and her death does not aggrieve anyone.

Another female character even more obsessed with power, is Lady Macbeth. She is a ‘sexless’ character who seems to have forgotten that she was born a woman. Together with her husband, she seems to have been built after a devilish pattern. Evil and ambition gradually take control over her soul and deeds, worsening her consciousness. We assist to a process of desperation, slowly gliding towards death. She is pushing her husband towards fulfilling the witches’ prophecies, as her strongest desire is that of becoming queen at any costs. As a consequence, her soul is emptied by feelings, becoming insensitive to murder. Therefore, she does not hesitate to push her husband into killing the king. She even humiliates him, calling him a coward; her strong will destroys Macbeth’s doubts, as she’s the one leading the dagger in her husband’s hands: his hands are but tools of her criminal mind. Very self possessed, (at least, in the beginning), she directs the whole crime stage, but little by little, her security seems like fading, as internal turmoil fills her soul and marks her behaviour. She loses control and becomes insane. Therefore, Lady Macbeth, who used to think that consciousness is only for the coward ones, is ruined by the sentiment of guilt, and her only salvation is death. But the one who dies is not as much the female as it is a person dominated by the distorted sense of power.

Another female characters obsessed with power, but not to such a great extent as Lady Macbeth, are King Lear’s elder daughters, Goneril and Regan. Their deeds are wicked, their morality is overridden, trampled, their cruelty has no limits. They develop the Godly feeling about themselves, considering that they are allowed to encroach upon the obligations towards their father, that a kingdom can be ruled according to their own wish, without any sense of responsibility. After becoming powerful, their character becomes primitive, selfish.

With all the evil residing in this play, Cordelia is the epitome of goodness. She is loving, virtuous, and forgiving. She also demonstrates law and order in that she is a devoted daughter and has great respect for her father and his position. Cordelia, though, is a tragic character, for her kindness and her staying on the boundaries of the social norms of the Elisabethan age, ironically turned out to be her tragic downfall. Many people have been quite moved and bemused by her death, many of which deemed it as injustice.
Cordelia’s role in the play may be that of an angel – like the character who makes the distinction between good and evil more visible, or who makes us more aware of a crumbling society where many things were opposite to what one might think it should be, with evil generally prevailing over the good (which to some degree is prophetic to today’s society). The truth is that her presence is needed in order to counterbalance the effect of her two elder sisters’ cruel deeds.

Somewhere in between Cordelia’s tenderness, on the one hand, and Lady Macbeth’s cruelty, on the other, lies the ‘Queen of love’, Cleopatra. Her character is one dominated by love. She’s forever waiting for the man, and even though she’s a queen, her kingdom is limited to her love. She embodies the feminine eternity. The wars outside are but ‘children’s play’ as compared to the wars inside her soul. She takes control over life through love’s strings but when something happens and she loses control over theses strings, she becomes heartless, cruel. She’s both an angel and a demon in the same time. Tenderness and cruelty mingle in her soul and these two keep inter-reacting all the time under different shapes. Shakespeare also emphasises on how, by acting in such an aggressive manner, Cleopatra upsets the natural order of a male dominated society. By encapsulating in one person what all men want, sex and power, Shakespeare created a character that can direct men even if they are not aware that they are being used for her selfish goals.

Cleopatra is contrasted by Octavia who yields in every matter to men. This would parallel the Jacobean mindset that women were subservient to men and should not voice their own opinions. Octavia is the chaste and pure ‘white beauty’, while Cleopatra is the ‘black’ seductress. It is these exotic qualities that lure Anthony back to Egypt like a moth to a flame. It is this tension between two opposing natures that adds tension to the tragedy. By placing importance on their differences Shakespeare covers a broad spectrum of womanhood.

Another well-defined representative of womanhood is the character of Miranda from ‘The Tempest’ who is extremely compelling for two reasons. First, it is important to note that Miranda is the only female character who appears in the entire play. This is the only Shakespearen play where a character has this kind of outstanding distinction. This is not just a fluke on the part of Shakespeare, for it is very important that the character of Miranda appears by herself. The reader is not able to compare her beauty and virtue to any other female in the world of ‘The Tempest’, and this serves both to show her value as a character and the fact that no other living women has the virtue of Miranda. While Miranda may not have many outstanding lines or soliloquies, she makes up for this in sheer presence alone. Miranda’s character encompasses all the elements of perfectionism and goodness which is lacking in all the other respective characters. All of the other characters in ‘The Tempest‘ are reflected by Miranda, and even if she did not speak one line she would still serve this important purpose.

Secondly, Miranda also serves as the ultimate fantasy for any bachelor. She is extremely beautiful, intelligent and she has never been touched (or even seen) by another male. Shakespeare makes Miranda even more desirable by including the fact that she has never seen or even talked to another man (with the obvious exception of Prospero). Miranda personifies the ultimate source of good in the play, and provides the ultimate foil for the evil character of Caliban. Finding a woman this humble in the world of Shakespeare is almost impossible. Miranda shows a positive attitude which is almost awkward when compared to the other characters. In all of the collected works of Shakespeare, not one character is as overwhelmingly pure as Miranda. Even the nun Isabella in ‘Measure for Measure’ wouldn’t perform the virtuous act of sacrificing her virginity to save her brother’s life. Miranda certainly would perform this act, because unlike Isabella she would place value on another person’s life before protecting her own ego. In this and all the facets of her character Miranda appears almost Christ-like, and it is this extreme propensity towards goodness and purity which enables Miranda to become an unreplaceble character.

The analysis of Shakespearean female characters is, by far, complete. What I intended to do in my essay was to bring into the foreground only some of the most important women in Shakespeare’s tragedies. I am aware that I couldn’t have taken all of them into discussion, nor that I have said all there is to say about them. In the same time, I did not intend to draw a final conclusion as to whether Shakespeare was looking down on his female characters (as someone might think) or that he was giving them too much power. The only conclusion I considered to be fit is that his plays couldn’t have existed without them, they wouldn’t have had the same value.


  • Dumitriu, Corneliu Arheologia Dramelor Shakespeariene, tragediile, Editura Allfa, Bucuresti, 1996
  • Knight, Wilson Studii Shakespeariene, Editura  Univers, Bucuresti, 1975
  • Levitchi, Leon Istoria Literaturii Engleze si Americane, vol I,II, Editura All, Bucuresti, 1998
  • Olaru, Alexandru Shakespeare si Psihiatria Dramatica, Editura Aius, Craiova, 1997
  • Vasiliu, DanDe Ce Surade Shakespeare?, Editura Aius, Craiova, 1994
  • Web sites (Google search)

Corneliu Dumitriu, Arheologia Dramelor Shakespeariene, tragediile, Editura Allfa, Bucuresti, 1996, pg. 83
idem, pg. 84

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