Saturday, 2 May 2015

What Makes a Strong Shakespearean Woman?

What is it about Shakespeare's
women that makes them so
fascinating?
In As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson's character is asked how he writes such convincing female characters. His response? "I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability."

As far as I recall, the film never gives us an opportunity to judge for ourselves whether Melvin really does write women "so well". But the fact the question was asked is interesting.

We, on the whole, don't expect someone of the opposite sex to write our own gender well. Women can't know how a man thinks and feels. And men can't know how a woman thinks and feels. We believe, in order to really understand how a female brain works, we need to have one.

I'm not sure that's true. I can think of many men who have written tremendously good female characters: Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Miller, Willy Russell - these are just a few off the top of my head.

Yet, arguably the best was Shakespeare. Shakespeare created some of the finest female characters not just of his generation, but of any generation. And I might be wrong, but I don't think his approach was anything like Mr Udall's.

What is it About Shakespeare's Women?


So, what is it about Shakespeare's women that works so well? Why, centuries later, do his female characters still seem so thoroughly rich, full of truth, and abundant in strength?

Shakespeare never approached
his writing from a simplistic point
Well, I tend to think it's that Shakespeare wrote them as people. I'm not being facetious when I say that, well, all right, maybe a little.

But what I really mean is, Shakespeare's characters; male or female, rich or poor, goodies or baddies, human or fairy, kings or clowns, are all fully-rounded people. Nothing about any of them is one-dimensional.

Even the butt of a joke, like The Rude Mechanicals, have some depth of character.

Shakespeare never seems to approach any human being from a simplistic place. His women are, therefore, just as complex, contradictory, funny, tragic, ambitious, virtuous, loving, loyal, jealous, smart or silly as any of his men.

There is one very simple facet of all of Shakespeare's women, though, that makes them stronger than the average gal of their era. And that is, almost without exception, they refuse to do what they're told.

Whether it's the rules of society, the orders of their husbands, or the instructions of their fathers, Shakespearean women ignore them. And it's this, I think, that makes them so timelessly fascinating.

Unruliness in Shakespeare's Female Characters


Brutus' Portia refuses to let it go, when he says, "I don't feel well, just leave it woman." (I'm paraphrasing)

Desdemona angers her father and much of Venetian society by marrying her choice of husband.

Lady Macbeth won't be told what femininity
forbids her to do
Lady Macbeth goes against everything we think we know about femininity to participate in a murder most foul.

Hermia elopes with Lysander when given the choice between marrying Demetirus, marrying Jesus, or death.

Rosalind goes against social convention and poses as a man - she, of course, isn't the only Shakespearean lass to do so.

Even Cordelia, who is an incredibly loyal (and forgiving) daughter, refuses to go along with Lear's 'who loves me most?' game.

Isabella's a well-behaved lass, but she doesn't submit to her brother's pleas to let Angelo have his wicked way with her and, thereby, save his life.

The point is, all of these women, and many others I haven't listed, are very much in charge of their own person. They do not allow themselves to be constricted by gender roles, by society or by the demands of the men in their lives.

There are the odd exceptions, like Anne in Richard III, whose sudden agreement to marry Richard is inexplicable - and even she is not without some chutzpah. But, by and large, every Shakespearean woman is a 'damn right, I'm not going to be told what to do' kind of girl.

And it's this that makes them fascinating. It's this that makes them strong. It's this that makes them vibrant, complicated characters.