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?