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The Study of Construction of Heroines in Shakespeare's Plays

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The Study of Construction of Heroines in Shakespeare's Plays essay

Throughout the span of the comedies, Shakespeare allows his female characters to establish a greater amount of independence and freedom than they would have actually been allowed for the time period. This freedom is not necessarily a feminist action on Shakespeare’s part, but mainly serves to disrupt the normal standards of society so as to create a comic situation. The very concept of a feminist action was unheard of in Shakespeare’s time period. While his tragic heroines are more limited in their roles, it is the very nature of the comic heroines breaking out of their prescribed roles that allows for the unpredictable scenarios of comedy to take place. The earlier comedies present a more subdued heroine than will be seen in later comedies; however, she is nonetheless the driving force behind the direction of her play. The act of masking or disguising allows the comic heroine to express herself in a way she would have been unable to had she not pretended to be someone other than herself. Underneath her mask, however, she retains her true identity. The comic heroine does not depend solely upon her male counterpart. In Shakespeare’s festive comedies, there is a great dependence of the female characters upon each other’s friendship that nearly overshadows the male hero. Although Shakespeare used his comic heroines as a plot device, today they serve as examples of vibrant, independent women during a time period when such a thing was scarcely imagined.

The heroines in Shakespeare’s comedies act in ways that would be seen as unseemly, improper, or even vulgar during the time that Shakespeare wrote them. He depended on this social upheaval to create the sense of chaos which leads to comedy. When the chaos is settled and the heroine is generally returned to the proper social graces, the comedy is at an end.

The possibility of betrayal in this world is very slight. The women will not betray the men, the comic world will not betray its chosen people, the playwright will not betray our expectations of a happy ending” (Bamber 21).

No matter how greatly chaotic the situation or the comic heroine, we are assured that all will be resolved into a happy ending. The heroine will assume her proper societal place as a bride next to the comic hero, though he is generally much less interesting than his female counterpart. The comic heroine does not always create discord overtly. She has also been accused of using her sexuality as a form of societal disruption. The supposed virginity and innocence of a female character can cause enough disruption to create a comic situation.

Shakespeare’s first comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, presents a confusing subject as its comic heroine. The role of Katherine has divided modern-day readers into two factions. In one opinion, the play represents Shakespeare’s misogynistic attitudes against women. In the other opinion, the play is actually making a mockery of misogyny, and Katherine remains in control of her independence throughout the text. John C. Bean, in his essay “Comic Structure and the Humanizing of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew,” argues the second viewpoint. He asserts that Katherine’s shrewishness at the beginning of the play is the out-of-place element that creates the comedy; yet rather than being tamed or subdued by a domineering husband, Katherine learns to direct her fury into a form of banter or “play” that creates a relationship of equality between her and Petruchio (Bean 72). This newly subdued Katherine, Bean argues, is no less independent than the Katherine in the first act; but by learning to direct her wit into a socially acceptable form, she has ended the disruption she caused in the first acts and allows the play to end with everything in its proper societal place. “If shrewishness is a kind of rigidity, a behavioral pattern locked into closed, predictable responses, then the chaos of play is a liberating force, and Kate’s initial bad temper is directly related to her failure to embrace it” (Bean 72). Once Katherine embraces her ability to play, she is free to live without reproach within the confines of society.

The Merchant of Venice, another early comedy, shows two slightly more independent female characters; although they are both still tied to their respective male oppressors. Jessica is dependent on her fiancé Lancelot to free her from her unfortunate situation of being a Jewess and make her a respectable, Christian member of society. The character of Portia demonstrates a more independent heroine; however her life is still dominated by the stipulations of her dead father. Jessica dares to go against her father’s wishes by leaving him, robbing him, and marrying a Christian man. Portia presides over her home of Belmont, but she does not disregard her father’s wishes by simply choosing her own suitor. “Her will happens to coincide with the terms of her father’s will” (Bamber 117), and she is not forced to choose her own will over her father’s. Jessica’s decision, though brave, does little to advance the plot. It does heighten the comedic aspect of the play by further disrupting the social order of the world of Venice. In the end it is Portia who becomes the stage manager of the play, taking control at the end of act four to save her husband’s best friend. She again eliminates the need for a choice to be made between the maintaining of social order by the death of Antonio versus letting the villain get his way and allowing a respected community figure to die. “The course of law is upheld and Antonio is saved; because of the comic heroine we can have things both ways” (Bamber 118). It is through Portia’s decision to disguise herself as a man and enter the courtroom, a place she would not have been allowed as a woman, that the play is able to resolve itself to its original social order.

It is through the festive comedies that Shakespeare truly lets his comic heroines shine; their character development is more expansive than that of Katherine’s. “When the shrew challenges the social order, it reasserts itself in response; the comic heroine, by contrast, comes into her own when and where the social order may be taken for granted” (Bamber 36). It is by taking the social order for granted that gives the festive comedies their sense of play and merriment. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written before the three traditionally accepted festive comedies, yet it shares more in common with them than with other earlier comedies. As early as Act One, Scene One, Hermia decides to disobey her father and run away with the man she loves. She makes the choice that Portia was able to avoid in The Merchant of Venice. She chooses her own husband; she does not allow her father to choose for her, although she has to venture to the Green World to have her desire fulfilled. Helena disrupts social convention completely by refusing to wait to be wooed by a man. She knows that she wants Demetrius, and she pursues him completely and comically. It is because she breaks the social conventions of sitting quietly and waiting for a man to choose her that her pursuit of Demetrius is made comical. The character of Titania is strong-willed without being shrewish. The female heroine is best able to challenge social order in the Green World, where chaos reigns supreme. Unlike the Green Worlds of other festive comedies however, in the Green World of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is Oberon who plays the stage manager and controls the actions of the other characters. While Hermia and Helena eventually get their way and receive the approval of Egeus and Theseus, Titania must ultimately submit to Oberon’s rule after he makes a fool of her by causing her to fall in love with Bottom.

The remaining three festive comedies feature strong, independent comic heroines whose intentions and desires guide the course of their respective plays. Hero is the young, beauteous virgin in Much Ado About Nothing, but she is not the comic heroine. She is too passive, too accommodating; she is the receiver of the action of her play, not the stage manager. Beatrice, with her wit, charm and commanding presence, steps confidently into the role of comic heroine for this play. “Beatrice [is a woman] set free from her father, and [her] voice is that of the adult world, where Hero is still a child” (Dusinberre 96). Being free from a father figure, Beatrice also has the freedom to choose her own husband and to reject a suitor as regal as the Prince, whereas Hero was under orders from her father not to turn down the Prince’s offer of betrothal, should it be put forth. Beatrice has the same sharp tongue as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, and she is even referred to by her uncle as shrewish: “By my troth, niece, thou wilt never get thee a husband if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue” (Shakespeare, Much 1397). Unlike Katherine, Beatrice is never punished for her shrewishness, but is instead paired with a man with as sharp a wit as she possesses. When Hero is slandered at her first wedding, Beatrice charges Benedick to kill Claudio. Benedick at first refuses, but Beatrice is able to persuade him to change his mind with her words of fury and desperation. “O God that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market place,” (Shakespeare, Much 1429) Beatrice cries. As the heroines in the later festive comedies will realize, there are limitations to being a woman. Beatrice cannot avenge Hero in her womanly form. She must instead persuade Benedick to act for her. Shakespeare gives her character enough verbal wit to eventually persuade Benedick to agree to kill his friend. Beatrice may be limited in her actions, but she can manipulate with her words.

The festive comedy As You Like It belongs entirely to the comic heroine Rosalind. She takes the act of masking, a common comic element, to a heightened level by assuming not only the countenance but also the personality of the young man, Ganymede. Rosalind accepts her limitations as a woman in the same manner as Beatrice; however she does not depend on a man to follow through with her plans. She simply assumes the identity of a man herself. This new identity frees Rosalind of the constraints of the court, and it allows her to move the play to the Green World in order to bring about resolution (Claiborne Park 108). When she encounters the object of her affections as Ganymede, she encourages him to woo her as if Ganymede were Rosalind. In doing so she is able to control the manner in which their relationship will eventually take form; she is in not passive in her role as a lover. She is the director of the play. Writer Claiborne Park states that “Rosalind’s decisions control the progress of As You Like It, and it is by her agency that the four couples assemble in the concluding nuptial dance which…embodies for the audience the harmony restored that is the essence of Shakespearean comedy” (107).

When the shepherdess Phoebe falls in love with Ganymede, Rosalind is able to manipulate the situation in such a way that Phoebe finally ends up marrying Silvius in the end. Rosalind is also given the task of reciting the epilogue to the play, which she acknowledges is not typical for a female role. It is her strength of character that leads the audience to trust her enough to wrap up the play. She has resumed her role as a woman, submitted to her husband, though he is now trained – by her – and the social order has been restored. Yet she still manages to have the last word.

The culmination of the festive comedies presents two intelligent and formidable heroines. Twelfth Night features Olivia, a countess under no constraints but her own, and Viola, who has been shipwrecked in an unfamiliar town. Instead of accepting aid from the captain of the ship, she chooses to fend for herself by assuming the identity of a man and enlisting the captain as her servant. Viola does not appear to relish her masking as greatly as Rosalind. The difference may be that Rosalind, though disguised as Ganymede, was assured of Orlando’s love, while Viola, disguised as Cesario, must deliver messages of love from the man she desires to another woman. Viola is the only heroine to be engaged in a duel, and she draws her sword bravely, though she admits to the audience that she is afraid. “Pray God defend me. A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man” (Shakespeare, Twelfth 1805). The character of Olivia is strong, but she is overshadowed by Viola’s wit and tenacity. Olivia rules her household; she does not answer to her dead father or her brutish, living uncle. Olivia does not have to change her gender to maintain her strength, but she does mask herself with her mourning veil. She uses her brother’s death as an excuse to avoid a marriage she does not favor, yet abandons the prohibition when she falls in love with Cesario. She will marry only whom she chooses, and she will not stand to be wooed by those who do not hold her interest.

Shakespeare devotes a significant portion of his later comedies to the close relationships between his female characters. Helena chides Hermia for mocking her pain after “all the counsel [they] two have shared – / The sisters’ vows, the hours we have spent” (Shakespeare, Midsummer 839). It is true that Hermia does seem to be abandoning Helena as she flees the city with Lysander. The friendship in this earlier play lasts only as long as the love of the right man. When everyone is paired correctly, Helena and Hermia are friends again. Beatrice and Hero have a relationship so close they sleep in the same bed. Hero knows of Beatrice’s night-time habits of waking herself with laughter should she have a disagreeable dream. When Hero is slandered, Beatrice is enraged enough to demand Claudio’s death. Rosalind and Celia “learned, played, eat together, / And whereso’er we went, like Juno’s swans / Still we went coupled and inseparable” (Shakespeare, As You 1610). It is through these close relationships that the characters are free to truly express themselves. This expression is especially important for Rosalind and Celia, who are masked from the rest of the world. “In this open air, far from court, where fathers laugh and let daughters go, Ganymede and Aliena shape women’s talk into a dynamic art form” (McKewin 123). Celia is the only person Rosalind can speak with of her love for Orlando while she is disguised as Ganymede.

Shakespeare has given the heroines of his comedies strong voices and memorable personalities. They deftly steal the spotlight from the forgettable heroes; the comedies belong to the women. “Women are forced to be watchers in a world ruled by men, and the power of Shakespeare’s heroines over the male world in the comedies comes from their detachment from it, their standing aside from its assumptions” (Dusinberre 156). Shakespeare needs his women to be unruly and out of place. Without their audacity, there would be no discord leading to a comic situation. Shakespeare’s early comic heroines, as we have seen, are no match for their later sisters. Katherine and Portia are each beautifully written and command their respective stories; however Beatrice, Rosalind, Olivia, and Viola outshine them by far. Each character wears a mask that she must eventually shed by the end of the play in order to return the world to its proper social order. Shakespeare takes the time to craft careful and deep relationships between his female characters. This brings a depth to their character which only serves to make them stronger. Perhaps these bold women brought the women of Shakespeare’s era some hope for their futures. Today these comic heroines should be celebrated for their audacity, their charm, and their strength of character.


Bamber, Linda. Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982.

Bean, John C., “Comic Structure and the Humanizing of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.” The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Swift Lenz, Carolyn R., Gayle Greene, and Carol T. Neely, eds. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1980. 65-75.

Claiborne Park, Clara. “As We Like It: How a Girl Can Be Smart and Still Popular.” The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Swift Lenz, Carolyn R., Gayle Greene, and Carol T. Neely, eds. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1980. 100-116.

Draper, R P. Shakespeare: The Comedies. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. 3rd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1975.

Jameson, Anna. Shakespeare’s Heroines. 2nd ed. London: George Bell & Sons, 1833.

McKewin, Carole. “Counsels of Gall and Grace: Intimate Conversations between Women in Shakespeare’s Plays.” The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Swift Lenz, Carolyn R., Gayle Greene, and Carol T. Neely, eds. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1980. 117-132.

Shakespeare, William. “As You Like It.” The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. New York: Norton, 1997. 1591-1657.

Shakespeare, William. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. New York: Norton, 1997. 805-863.

Shakespeare, William. “The Merchant of Venice.” The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. New York: Norton, 1997. 1081-1145.

Shakespeare, William. “Much Ado About Nothing.” The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. New York: Norton, 1997. 1381-1444.

Shakespeare, William. “The Taming of the Shrew.” The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. New York: Norton, 1997. 133-201.

Shakespeare, William. “Twelfth Night.” The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. New York: Norton, 1997. 1761-1821.

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