Shakespeare and Powerful Women: Characters on the Stage

We often hear about Shakespeare's famous plays about powerful men, like Hamlet. Macbeth. Othello. King Lear. 

Photo by Alice Alinari on Unsplash

But what you'll notice, if you read or watch any of these plays, is that he actually quite often places the emphasis on the female characters in them.

Who is Macbeth, without his conniving, ambitious wife who pushes him to victory - and ultimate destruction? How could that fragile balance of power have been otherwise explored if she had played a passive, doting role to her starring husband? It's Lady Macbeth after all that drives the story, has the idea of murdering the king and allows herself in the end, to become timid, vulnerable and prone to a spot of midnight hand-washing. 

Shakespeare uses Ophelia too, to explore Hamlet's relationships with other characters, the consequences of his actions and reinforces the play's links to death. His pretending not to be in love with her to trick his uncle leads her to madness, singing about flowers until she ends up drowned in a river. The harm done by Hamlet's mind games wouldn't have been quite as poignant if Ophelia had been removed from the story where she adds her emotional power to it. 

It goes on. Titania in Midsummer Night's Dream - the powerful fairy queen who is tricked into a love affair with donkey-eared Bottom but then goes on to reunite, happily, with her husband. The courageous and brave Cordelia in King Lear, who stands up for what she believes in and ends up being his only true and faithful child. The rebellious Juliet and her forbidden love for Romeo. Rosalind, who is able to cleverly manipulate the rest of the characters to her advantage in As You Like It, while dressed as a man.

All these female characters - and more - are used to drive forward the plot, provide empathy and explore topics like relationships, social expectations, love, marriage, expectations and power. There's some debate as to who Shakespeare actually was, but whoever he (or she?) was, this was a writer who saw the importance of women and portrayed them as both powerful and vulnerable. 

Remember too, that at this time, women were not allowed to perform as actors on the stage, and were played by men or young boys. In spite of this, Shakespeare doesn't give them watered-down, supporting roles where they smile on from the wings. they have fleshed-out, complex characters. 

Let's face it. When you think of the play Macbeth, who first jumps to mind, the husband or wife? 

Yes, the plays are about ambitious, and sometimes ruthless, men. 

But look closer at what's really driving the story. 

You might also like this recipe for Tudor Stuffed Eggs or this post about Murderesses of Stuart London. 

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