Where Are Shakespeare’s Women?

Shakespeare 2

As we become increasingly aware of the ways in which women have been written out of history, we look back at Shakespeare and we might find ourselves saddened or annoyed at the lack of women in his plays.  However, we have to keep in mind that in Shakespeare’s time, women did not perform on stage.  Any female roles were performed by boy actors.  Thus Shakespeare could only write as many female roles as there were boys in the company.

When Restoration theatre companies began staging Shakespeare’s plays, they were bothered by the lack of female characters, too–because they introduced the actress to the stage in England.  Eager to show off their new talent, companies performed adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays with added female characters including a sister for Caliban, a love interest (or two) for Timon of Athens, and a lady companion for Imogen (from Cymbeline).

Today we tend to stage the original Shakespeare and not the Restoration adaptations.  However, though this means that female roles have once again decreased, Shakespeare, when he writes women, often makes them remarkable.  A few of my favorites include:

  • Paulina from The Winter’s Tale: The only one bold enough to tell King Leontes he’s mad.
  • Hermione from The Winter’s Tale: She possesses great nobility and grace, even when threatened with death.
  • Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing: Sharp-witted and fun!
  • Cordelia from King Lear: She holds fast to her principles and remains loyal to her father, despite adversity.

Who are some of your favorite women in Shakespeare?

16 thoughts on “Where Are Shakespeare’s Women?

  1. readbooksanddrinkcoffee says:

    Lady Macbeth from Macbeth and Portia from The Merchant of Venice. The Merchant of Venice wasnt one of my favourite plays but Portias character was quite interesting, generally I hated the play due to the discrimination of Jewish people. but Portia’s character was quite smart and I liked that.
    – Yasmin


  2. rebeccabennet says:

    This is a really interesting post! When I think about women in Shakespeare I always notice the lack of Mothers; in King Lear, Titus Andronicus and Othello I find their absence to be particularly blatant. If you are interested in adaptations with female characters, in 2010 there was a version of The Tempest where Prospero became Prospera!


    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I’m familiar with that adaptation. It is interesting to think how the gender roles play into the interpretation. How do we feel, for example, about a mother and her daughter being cast away on a ship rather than a man and his daughter?


      • rebeccabennet says:

        Yes, it certainly changed my perception; when it was a father and his daughter I did not give much thought to their being cast away, but with a mother and child I found myself feeling much more sympathy. Biased, I know, but as you say the gender roles impact our interpretation!


  3. pakwriter1 says:

    I like how you point out that Shakespeare is limited by the number of boy actors in his company to write female roles. It’s an often overlooked fact.
    As for other female characters in Shakespeare, I also like Rosalind in As You Like It. She is disguised as a man throughout, until the end, and is able to organize everyone to fit in with her needs and desires. Her aim is to turn the man she wants to marry into someone who can match her qualities and be as strong as she is.

    But this is precisely why I find strong female characters very important, and why I include them in my webnovel http://www.pakauthor.com.


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