I have loved Shakespeare since I was seven years old. Throughout my long career of school Shakespeare productions, I have played everything from the boisterous Stephano the drunken butler in The Tempest (my first role, and still my most acclaimed) to the meek Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. I’ve always loved playing the male roles in Shakespeare – they are beautifully written, meaty parts, and who wouldn’t love them? But one of the first reasons I was drawn to Shakespeare was his female characters. At first it was because I was seven, and playing a girl meant I got to wear a pretty Elizabethan dress. But as I became more and more serious about acting, the more I loved the female characters for their weight and passion. The more I have studied Shakespeare and the more I have become a feminist, the more I find myself returning to Shakespeare for examples of strong, feminist women.
One of the first times I found the feminism in Shakespeare was when I played Katherine of Aragon in Henry VIII. Speaking her impassioned speeches about justice was exhillirating. I had never felt so connected to a character, and it was one of the first times that I really connected more to a speech that didn’t involve me getting to be silly.
When it comes to statistics, Shakespeare doesn’t look particularly feminist. Shakespeare doesn’t fare very well on the Bechdel test – a simple test designed to gauge sexism. All that’s required is for two women to speak to each other during the course of the play or movie, about something other than a man. In addition, depending on whether you classify various spirits as male or female or something else, there are almost 1000 male characters in the Shakespeare canon, and around 160 female characters. A paltry sum, to say the least.
But it was not through these statistics that I first found the feminism in Shakespeare – it was through speaking the words of his women and imagining their positions. To me, Shakespeare is, and always will be, who I turn to when I no longer know how to express myself, and although his women may have fewer speeches, they are some of the most important and most powerful speeches in all of Shakespeare.
In The Winter’s Tale it is Hermione who bravely chooses honour over life long before Leontes learns the importance of treating people honourably. Paulina is the one who teaches Leontes to value life and love, beginning with her speech “What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?” Rosalind, Viola, Portia and Julia all dress as men to get what they want – the sheer willpower, courage, and intelligence it would take to pull that off in the 1500’s is awe-inspiring. Portia even successfully settles a court case while she’s at it! Queen Margaret successfully manipulates Henry VI and practically rules England through him. Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew fights against Petruchio’s efforts to force her into submission for as long as she can.
A few years ago I was in a production of Richard III at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival.In Act IV, Scene IV, after Richard has killed many of his relatives, his mother, the Duchess of York, forces him to listen to her curse. Although in most productions this curse is wrathful, in this particular production mother and son embraced and wept as she asked for his death. This illuminated so potently the incredible mother-child relationship; even though he had killed most of her family, the Duchess still loved her son. If that isn’t a strong female character, I don’t know what is.
Shakespeare’s women may not have careers, and may rarely talk to each other about anything aside from their lovers, but they are some of the most active, determined, and intelligent characters in Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s women express themselves and speak. They have voices. They are not always listened to by their fellow characters, but they are always listened to by the audience, and that is what makes the real difference.