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William
Shakespeare's

Heroines

Young, beautiful girl

Intelligent and intrepid, truthful and true

What a man feels about women says a great deal about him.


Lady Macbeth is a monster, Hamlet's mother is seduced by her husband's brother, and Lear’s elder daughters are deeply unpleasant. No man has evoked evil scheming women better than Shakespeare, but no other man has created heroines as “wise, fair, and true,” as witty, tender, loyal, just, and charming as Shakespeare.

We think of Julia, say, in Two Gentlemen of Verona, who remains steadfast in love, despite Proteus’ vacillations, or Hermia in Midsummer Night’s Dream who courageously defies father and Duke to declare her love for a man not of their choosing. “My soul consents not to give sovereignty” to a man I do not love. We instantly think of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, who defies her tribe and the terror of death to be with the man she loves.

Due in part to Shakespeare, people of the Anglosphere think it natural that a man and woman should choose to love and marry each other. This is a wonderful gift, one we take for granted, and it remains a gift even though so many marriages freely entered into end in divorce.

When young men and women are forced to marry according to the dictates of clan or tribe, the most fundamental unit of organisation – the family - has become a tyranny. It was partly to free the individual and wrest power from the patriarchal family, that the Catholic Church forbade the marrying of cousins or second cousins in the Middle Ages. At a stroke the Church broke the powerful, embedded network of family relationships while improving the genetic pool.

Shakespeare's heroines wrest the right to choose from their families, but cultural oppression is only one of the perils they face. Rosalind is exiled to the Forest of Arden in As You Like It. Facing dangers from wilderness and strangers, she retains her gaiety, courage, and generosity. Her cousin Celia has no reason to share her exile, but affectionately goes with her “to liberty, and not to banishment”. In Measure for Measure, Isabella appears to regard her freedom as more important than her brother's life, but unsympathetic though she may at first be, she is the most vulnerable person in Vienna, and the only one to risk her life for a principle on which civilization depends - freedom of conscience.

Amid the confusions of Twelfth Night, Olivia, who marries for love rather than wealth or title, gives us a motto for Shakespeare's heroines. She urges a woman disguised as a man to “Be that thou know’st thou art, and then thou art / As great as that thou fear’st.” Be all you know you are, for then you are as great as anything or anyone you fear. It's a motto to live by.

Shakespeare’s heroines are remarkable for their intelligence, for their ability to put thought into action, and for their love – for their willingness to love despite fear and suffering. Shakespeare, who uses reason to measure justice, makes the women in his plays mistresses of logic and knights of justice since the men, alas, are often missing-in-action at crucial moments. In Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice fiercely defends her wronged cousin Hero, and spurs Benedick to help. In King Lear, Cordelia leads an army to rescue her father. In the Merchant of Venice, Portia disguises herself as a lawyer advocate to defend Antonio.

Shylock poignantly describes how some Christians have dealt cruelly and vengefully with Jews, yet Portia understands that to sink to the ethical level of one’s persecutors and meet evil with evil is wrong. In her famous speech she says that persecution never justifies evil in response and that only mercy can break the chain of evil:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Shakespeare’s heroines are fearless in love, and love is one of Shakespeare’s spirit levels - a way of evaluating and revealing character. Not all love is mature. Titania’s befuddled sweetness leads her to dote on an ass. Cleopatra, despite her “infinite variety,” destroys Mark Anthony and herself.

Adult love, Shakespeare subtly suggests, needs wisdom and forgiveness. In Cymbeline, Imogen shows forbearance under provocation and grace under attack. In Winter's Tale , Hermione forgives the husband who once doubted and almost killed her. In King Lear, Cordelia refuses to place a price on love.

Lear:
Tell me , my daughters, . . .
Which of you shall we say doth love us
most. . .
Cordelia:
What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.
Lear:
. . .what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
Cordelia:
Nothing, my lord.
Lear:
Nothing?
Cordelia:
Nothing.
Lear:
Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.
Cordelia:
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. . .

Cordelia will risk her life to help her father after her sisters beggar him. The silence of her death will be her last loving word, unbearable for her father to hear.

Happily, in his romantic comedies, Shakespeare's heroines challenge the men who love them, and the men rise to the occasion.

Along with wisdom and forgiveness, I think Shakespeare sees another essential quality for love. That quality is the amused, tender laughter of men and women. After mishaps, misunderstandings, and miscommunications, Shakespeare's heroines and heroes laugh with each other because they respect and enjoy each other. Their exhilarating sense of equality – unprecedented in the 16th century and rare in many parts of the world today – contributed to their greatness, for how else can we be at our best except by valuing each other.

 

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass