Top 10 Greatest Women in Shakespeare – Numbers 5, 4, 3, 2

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03.10.2017

The countdown continues as we name the ten greatest women in Shakespeare. Today our expert panel picks numbers five, four, three and two.

Compiled by Andy McLean

  1. CLEOPATRA (Antony And Cleopatra)

“Cleopatra is one of those special Shakespeare characters who outlive the plays – you can imagine her existing outside the bounds of the play,” says Bell Shakespeare’s Artistic Director Peter Evans. “Her strengths and her faults are out there for everyone to see. She has enormous intelligence and wit and verbal dexterity, but then there is insecurity and paranoia which makes her very human.”

Despite moments of romance and frivolity, Cleopatra must also lead her people during a time of war, says Evans. “She’s burdened with huge responsibility and pressure, and Shakespeare leaves a lot of ambiguity over Cleopatra’s actions. When she abandons Antony in battle, is she just frightened, as she says? Or is she actually looking after the future of her people and playing the two Roman sides off against one another? Ultimately, Cleopatra is unknowable and that’s why she’s endlessly fascinating.”

  1. VIOLA (Twelfth Night)

When asked to name his favourite female in Shakespeare, academic Dr Will Sharpe immediately thought of Viola in Twelfth Night and her ‘patience on a monument’ speech. “Which, if you don’t know – you must go and read right away!”

Sharpe says: “Ovid’s Metamorphoses was close to Shakespeare when he wrote Twelfth Night, and the play explores many metamorphoses that seem to centre on Viola: of gender, of desire, of the living into the dead and back again.

“Pushing the comic potential of androgyny and homoerotic desire into more serious emotional concerns, Viola is described as ‘Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy’, in similar terms to Ovid’s Narcissus.”

Sharpe points out that, in the version of the myth which Shakespeare probably read, Narcissus does not drown but wastes away, fixating on his own image. “Echo is unable to do anything but pity him and echo his cries. In her guise as a man, Viola shows an Echo-like sympathy with the suffering of others, though, paradoxically, the daughter of the story who pines away as Echo did, is herself.”

  1. QUEEN MARGARET (Henry VI Parts I, II, 3 and Richard III)

Like all of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, Queen Margaret is a marvellous tangle of contradictions: a seemingly helpless hostage who, even in her weakest moments, controls everyone around her. We first meet Margaret of Anjou in a desperate moment in Henry VI part I when she is captured by Suffolk. Apparently powerless, Margaret remains quietly defiant and shrewdly plays her way out of trouble. Soon she is married to King Henry VI, where she displays a level of opportunism that would make Iago green-eyed with envy.

While her young husband dithers, Margaret gets stuck in. She strikes decisive blows in the power plays at court, successfully plotting the downfall of Humphrey, the Lord Protector. She later raises an army to fight with York, before stabbing him to death. And when the War Of The Roses begins to go pear shaped, Margaret secures reinforcements from France.

Sadly for Margaret the battle is eventually lost and, by the time the Henry VI trilogy ends and Richard III begins, Margaret is a hostage once more. Yet even when she is publicly belittled and ridiculed, Margaret isn’t done. The embittered curses she places upon her captors near the start of Richard III have all come true by the end of it.

  1. PORTIA (The Merchant Of Venice)

In The Merchant Of Venice, Shakespeare gave Portia considerably more lines than any other character for a good reason: She’s one of the greatest characters in all of his plays. The finest legal minds in Venice fail to undo Shylock’s bloodthirsty quest for revenge but Portia succeeds where they have failed, armed with nothing but a disguise and her wits.

Actor Mitchell Butel who played Shylock in Bell Shakespeare’s 2017 production of The Merchant of Venice: “Her ‘quality of mercy’ speech has become one of the most famous speeches in all of western literature,” says Butel. “Shakespeare, perhaps more than any other English writer, wrote female characters with intense intelligence, integrity and often more wisdom than men. I think that’s one reason why Portia is so popular with audiences.”

Author Jane Caro chose Portia as her favourite woman in Shakespeare: “I love the way she sticks it to the blokes, even though they never actually realise it. I also love and hate that her moment of subversion and liberation from sexism comes amidst Shylock’s misery and defeat at the hands of racism.”

Alice Grundy, associate publisher at Brio and editor of Seizure, also picked Portia: “When I studied The Merchant of Venice in high school, I was delighted to encounter Portia. A feverishly clever woman who also happens to be beautiful. At the time, feeling frustrated by the arbitrary rules of my school, I loved the way she managed to turn the conventions of the law and her father’s prescriptions on marriage to her advantage.”

Greatest women: Number 1

Greatest women: Numbers 10, 9, 8, 7 and 6