Top 10 Greatest Women in Shakespeare – Numbers 5, 4, 3, 2
3 Oct 2017
We asked an expert panel to name their favourite female characters in Shakespeare. Today we begin the countdown with numbers ten, nine, eight, seven and six.
Compiled by Andy McLean
Oceans of ink have been used to debate and fixate over the impossible dilemma faced by the young lovers Romeo and Juliet. But there is another (often overlooked) character in the play who has the thankless task of trying to hold it all together when everything falls apart around her.
“Spare a thought for the Nurse, because nobody else does,” says cruciverbalist and word nerd David Astle. “As lovers vow and woo around Verona, this nameless in-betweener tries to be all things to Juliet, her pseudo-daughter.”
The Nurse is worried sick, like any parent would be, says Astle: “She’s a wannabe bestie, left stranded by romance, awash in what-ifs.” Throw in some of the funniest one liners in the play (memorably delivered by Michelle Doake in her 2016 Helpmann-nominated performance) and you’ve got one of the most entertaining and underrated female roles in Shakespeare.
Shakespeare academic Dr Huw Griffiths also picked a woman in Shakespeare who is often overlooked: Emilia from The Two Noble Kinsmen “for her impassioned resistance against the patriarchy”.
Griffiths makes a compelling case: “‘True love ‘tween maid and maid’, she tells us, ‘may be / more than in sex dividual’. When Hippolyta puts it to Emilia that she might end up having to marry a man, Emilia responds tersely ‘I am sure I shall not’, and ‘I am not against your faith, yet I continue mine’.”
“Emilia also works on behalf of three women whose husbands have been killed by ‘cruel Creon’, refusing to allow them to kneel to her, claiming that, ‘What woman I may stead that is distressed / Does bind me to her’. That is, she is there to help any woman that finds herself in trouble at the hands of men. Of course, she does end up having to get married against her will to a man who is probably more in love with his dead male friend than he is with her. But she closes the play by joining this prospective husband in mourning the loss of his dear friend.”
Feisty, funny and fiercely loyal, Beatrice is one of Shakespeare’s true romantic and comic heroes. All the highlights in Much Ado About Nothing stem from the chemistry between Beatrice and Benedick. In their early verbal jousting, Beatrice proves more than a match for her husband-to-be. And it is her unswerving allegiance to Hero that propels Benedick to risk his life defending her cousin’s honour.
Shakespeare also gives Beatrice the best lines in the play. A prime example being the exquisite moment when she finally, somewhat reluctantly, reveals her affections to Benedick: “I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.”
Bell Shakespeare’s Associate Director James Evans picked Rosalind, who spends most of As You Like It in disguise, running rings around her would-be husband Orlando.
“Rosalind is obviously extremely intelligent but also extremely compassionate,” says Evans. “She knows what she wants and she’s in control of her life. And what I particularly love is that she teaches the young man in her life how to treat her. She actually schools him in how to be a good man in a relationship and I think that’s wonderful.
“In Shakespeare’s comedies, the men are always clueless and fickle and have absolutely no idea what’s going on. It’s the women who ground them and the women who are in control – and there is none better than Rosalind. She’s got a way with words that’s absolutely brilliant, she’s got great respect for family and also for herself and other people. I just think she’s the best. She’s my favourite.”
Sometimes misrepresented as a helpless victim, Juliet is actually the gunpowder in the plot – rebelling against the overbearing and hapless men in her life. When Romeo’s impulsiveness places them both in peril, Juliet is the brains of the operation.
When playing the character for Bell Shakespeare in 2016, actor Kelly Paterniti pointed out the amazing journey that Juliet goes upon in the play: “She transforms in front of our eyes from this very young dutiful daughter to this mature young woman who disobeys her parents and goes for what she wants. She’s very headstrong and incredibly imaginative.”
Actor Ray Chong Nee chose Juliet as his favourite female in Shakespeare: “Juliet’s strength and determination prove to be her undoing, but her love cannot be denied nor matched by any other character in the play for its poetry and beauty: ‘My bounty is as boundless as the sea. My love as deep. The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite’.”