William Shakespeare seems to have been taught to find in the women of his stories the staple source of his pathos. Shakespeare’s heroines are not with out initiative and courage; indeed, in many cases, these are among their most distinctive traits. But therein lies, it may be said, much of their appealing quality. Despite the power of Elizabeth I, women during this time had very little authority, autonomy, or recognition. Shakespeare treats his heroines with very sensitive touches, with bolder highlights, and therefore, both his comedies and the tragedies bear the mark of women, one way or another.
And on this note, I would like to note, in my opinion, the three most striking female characters ever etched out by the world’s greatest playwright.
1. Lady Macbeth (in Macbeth) :
She stands out far beyond the rest because of her remarkable ambition, strength of will, cruelty, and dissimulation. At the commencement of the play, she has far greater strength of will than her husband. While he hesitates and is distrustful of his powers, she never wavers. She needs no supernatural temptations to urge her on. She is loving to her husband but at the same time very ambitious, as shown by her immediate determination for Macbeth to be king.”Referred to as “our honored hostess” by King Duncan, she is indeed one of the most sublime tragic heroines of Shakespeare – simply by her virtue of her grandeur and strength.”
Her uncaring attitude and boldness in tongue is meant to lift the spirit of her husband, the Thane of Cawdor, the Lord of Inverness, Macbeth. One of the main ways by which she plants the seed of provocation to kill King Duncan, was by questioning his manhood and courage, and also by rebuking him as though he did not love her. It is however Macbeth himself, and solely his own decision and over-ambitiousness that leads him from the hallucination of a bloody dagger, to the performing of the heinous task of regicide. Lady Macbeth however, after the crime is committed, says that had the king not resembled her father in his sleep, she would have been able to carry out the task herself. And although she is able to preserve her conscience to some extent, it later snowballs in the play when we see her conscience feeding off of her, and she is unable to wash of the blood off her hands, while sleepwalking.
At the end, the strongest female character in the play, the one who initially called the spirits to ‘unsex’ her, chooses death when unable to bear the torments of her guilt.
2. Rosalind (in As You Like It) :
The hero/heroine of the play, Rosalind ranks among Shakespeare’s unforgettable characters and is definitely one of his most interesting female creations. Outspoken, quick-witted, bold, creative and wildly gifted with language, Rosalind’s function in the plot of As You Like It is vital. Circumstances wittily developed by the playwright drive all the major characters to the Forest of Arden, and Rosalind either causes or contributes to all the major conflicts and highlights of the play. She is a three dimensional figure that Shakespeare sketches to project the rational, quick-witted, lively, clever, remarkably beautiful character of a woman who can make her own path in distress.
She, in the guise of a young shepherd boy named Ganymede, is able to match wits with the philosophical cynic, Jacques. Able to keep cover from her own father, the exiled Duke, Rosalind is able to handle the most surprising of events with great clarity of mind, and always with a ready plan in action. She, in the guise of a young shepherd boy named Ganymede, is able to match wits with the philosophical cynic, Jacques. Able to keep cover from her own father, the exiled Duke, Rosalind is able to handle the most surprising of events with great clarity of mind, and always with a ready plan in action. Rosalind, also succeeds in being able to get her lover, Orlando, to confess his true love for her in a bizarre series of games of courtship, where Orlando professes his love for Ganymede (Rosalind in disguise), as if ‘he’ were Rosalind ‘himself’.
3. Portia (in Merchant of Venice) :
Portia presence in the play possesses two major objectives she wishes to accomplish: the first objective is to find a suitor who manages to choose the right casket, and marry the worthy gentleman; the other objective is to help her dear husband save his best friend Antonio from death. A fair-haired damsel, tempered with goodness and virtue, the way in which one of Shakespeare’s greatest heroines manages her authority and control is exemplary. She finds her suitable mate, as her father had willed, in Bassanio, after he is able to work out the tricks with respect to the casket that Portia’s father had left her.
She also demonstrates brilliant presence of mind in court, when she dresses up as a young lawyer to save the life of Bassanio’s friend, Antonio. Portia takes upon herself the task to beat the money-lending Jew, Shylock, at his own game, by strictly interpreting the law that prevents Shylock from taking even a single drop of Antonio’s blood while acquiring a pound of flesh. The impossible task is repeatedly protested at by the Jew, who then begs to be returned just his money, but Portia remains unmoved from her stance. After citing another law that stated that any alien who tried to take the life of a Venetian was to be punished by having his property split between the state and the apparent victim, Shylock loses all his wealth, Antonio is saved, Bassanio is relieved and all the conflicts are resolved.