Women in Shakespeare's works

Women in Shakespeare is a topic within the especially general discussion of Shakespeare's dramatic and poetic works. Women appear as supporting and central characters in Shakespeare's plays, and these characters, as well as the Dark Lady of the sonnets, have elicited a substantial amount of criticism, which received added impetus during the second-wave feminism of the 1960s. A considerable number of book-length studies and academic articles investigate the topic, and several moons of Uranus are named after women in Shakespeare.

In Shakespeare's tragedies and his plays in general, there are several types of female characters. They influence other characters, but are also often underestimated. Women in Shakespearean plays have always had important roles, sometimes the leading role. Whether they create the main conflicts and base of the plays, or bring up interesting moral and cultural questions, they are put in challenging situations. Some women are stronger than others, and their effect on the play is different for each one. They often surpass the male heroes.


19th-century criticism

Depiction of Lady Macbeth from Anna Jameson's 1832 Characteristics of Women

Early criticism of female characters in Shakespeare's drama focused on the positive attributes the dramatist bestows on them and often claimed that Shakespeare realistically captured the "essence" of femininity. Helen Zimmern, in the preface to the English translation of Louis Lewes's study The Women of Shakespeare, argued in 1895 that "of Shakespeare's dramatis personae, his women are perhaps the most attractive, and also, in a sense, his most original creations, so different are they, as a whole, from the ideals of the feminine type prevalent in the literature of his day."[1] Lewes himself strikes a similar tone of praise in his conclusion: "The poet's magic wand has laid open the depths of woman's nature, wherein, beside lovely and exquisite emotion, terrible passions play their dangerous and fatal part."[2]

This early period of women in Shakespeare, which ends in the beginning of the twentieth century, is characterised by a very conventional tone and treatment and the confirmation of female submission. The editors of a 1983 collection called The Woman's Part, referencing three books by women authors from the 19th century (an authoritative book, Shakespeare's Heroines: Characteristics of Women by Anna Jameson, originally published 1832, and two fictional biographies in novel form of two of Shakespeare's heroines from 1885) conclude that these early critics are "uneasy" when Shakespeare's heroines behave "unwomanly", and that adaptations of their stories "praise girlish sweetness and modesty in a style that today appears effusive." These are, they say, "culturally induced limitations" on the part of the female critics and authors studying and adapting Shakespeare's women.[3]

Modern criticism

Recent critics take a variety of approaches to the topic. For feminist critics influenced by French feminism, the analysis of the female body in Shakespeare's plays has proven fruitful. Carol Chillington Rutter, author of Enter the Body: Women and Representation on Shakespeare's Stage (2001), focuses for instance on the body of Cordelia, as her father, King Lear, carries her on to the stage; on the body of Ophelia in the grave; and on the bodies of the two women on the bed at the end of Othello, "a play that destroys women."[4]

Notable female characters

An 1896 depiction of Cordelia by William Frederick Yeams, from The Graphic Gallery of Shakespeare's Heroines


  1. Lewesn, Louis; Helen Zimmern (trans.) (1895). The Women of Shakespeare. Hodder. p. vi.
  2. Lewes, The Women of Shakespeare, 369.
  3. Lenz, Carolyn Ruth Swift; Gayle Greene; Carol Thomas Neely (1983). The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. U of Illinois P. pp. 10–11. ISBN 978-0-252-01016-3.
  4. Rutter, Carol Chillington (2001). Enter the Body: Women and Representation on Shakespeare's Stage. Routledge. p. 151. ISBN 978-0-415-14163-5.


External links

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