The Four Women Shakespeare Knew (And Wrote About)

By Abigail Hummel, Sophomore, Biology major

 Shakespeare was a visionary poet and playwright – there’s no denying that. But he was by no means perfect. One of his fatal flaws was his tendency to create complex, multidimensional, often controversial leading men…and then force his women into boxes, showcasing only one or two aspects of their characters.

Photograph by Phaedra Brady

Whether this typification of women reflects the status of women in 16th-century England, or merely Shakespeare’s own view of them, it’s clear that old Will must have known only a few women in his lifetime. Here’s who they were…

1. The Ingénue

Ingénues are young, innocent, starry-eyed, and blissfully unaware of the evils of the world. Take, for instance, Miranda, heroine of The Tempest. Stuck on a deserted island since toddlerhood, she is isolated and naïve in the highest degree. Miranda falls madly in love with the third man she’s ever seen in her life…the first two being her father and the monster who lives on the island!

Fortunately, Miranda’s story ends with marriage and a coronation, but most of Shakespeare’s Ingénues are not so lucky. Hamlet’s Ophelia and Romeo and Juliet’s Juliet both kill themselves at the ends of their plays. Maybe ignorance is not bliss after all.

Ingénues that we know: Snow White, Sandy (Grease), Cosette (Les Misérables)

Catchphrase: “O brave new world, that has such people in’t!” – Miranda, The Tempest

 

2. The Spitfire

Spitfires are clever, bold, and perpetually snarky. In the beginnings of their plays, they are typically considered unmarriable, and happily so—Shakespeare’s fiercely independent Spitfires have no interest in love or marriage. They often serve as foils to their Ingénue sisters or cousins, who quickly fall in love or long for married life.

However, Spitfires never stay this way for long. Throughout their plays, they are transformed by the power of love—or, more likely, the power of a male-dominated society—into perfect wives: calm, domestic, and willing to tend to their husband’s every whim. In The Taming of the Shrew, Katharina celebrates her metamorphosis and urges other Spitfires to follow suit: “My mind hath been as big as one of yours, my heart as great, my reason haply more […] but now I see our lances are but straws […] in token of which duty, if he please, my hand is ready, may it do him ease.”

 Spitfires that we know: Merida (Brave), Ginny Weasley (Harry Potter), Pepper Potts (Iron Man)

Catchphrase: “If I be waspish, best beware my sting.” – Katherina, The Taming of the Shrew

 

3. The Mad One

The Mad One is the woman who, quite simply, loses her mind, due to either a fragile nature, a traumatic event, or a combination of the two. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth begins the play as a strong character, urging her husband to seize power and perform whatever deeds necessary to maintain it. These Machiavellian tendencies, however, end in disaster when Lady Macbeth, sick with guilt over her husband’s crimes, finally snaps and takes her own life.

Shakespeare’s other most famous Mad One, Hamlet’s Ophelia, is initially an Ingénue who falls apart as a result of her (apparently) unrequited love for Hamlet and her father’s death. Ophelia’s madness is iconic: she dances wildly with a floral bouquet, sings incoherently, and eventually drowns herself in a river. In modern media, when Mad Ones appear, they are often surrounded by flowers or water.

Mad Ones that we know: Mal (Inception), Annie (The Hunger Games), Professor Trelawney (Harry Potter)

Catchphrase: “These deeds must not be thought after these ways. So, it will make us mad.” – Lady Macbeth, Macbeth

 

4. The Polly Oliver

The Polly Oliver is the crafty woman who understands her place in society but vehemently rejects it…by dressing as a man! Shakespeare is a huge fan of Polly Olivers, but two of his most famous examples are Rosalind from As You Like It and Viola from Twelfth Night, both spirited young women who assume male identities as a matter of safety, and as a way to fulfill some goal that would have been difficult to accomplish as women.

Fun fact: the popular movie She’s the Man is actually an adaptation of Twelfth Night! Amanda Bynes’ Viola pretends to be her brother Sebastian in order to play on an all-male soccer team, whereas Shakespeare’s Viola takes on an entirely new persona so she can work for the Duke of Orsino. In both cases, hilarity ensues as the gender bending results in confusion, chaos, and love triangles.

Polly Olivers that we know: Mulan, Éowyn (Lord of the Rings), Arya Stark (Game of Thrones)

Catchphrase: “I’ll have no worse a name than Jove’s own page, and therefore look you call me Ganymede.” – Rosalind, As You Like It

 

Although Shakespeare may have been guilty of “typing” his women, he did create a number of fascinating female tropes that are still widespread in the media today. Interested in learning more about Shakespeare’s immense impact?  Check out UF’s own Shakespeare in the Park, a performance group that aims to make Shakespeare’s works more accessible to the community at large.  Our main stage production of The Tempest will be taking place March 13-16 in the Plaza of the Americas.

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