Friday, 21 September 2012

Top 5 Unruly Women in Shakespeare's Plays

In the past, when I've written about Shakespeare's women, I've mentioned that almost all of them are 'unruly' in some respect. Whether it's defiance of a parent, social convention or expected feminine sensibilities, many of Shakespeare's gals live by their own rules.

However, some of Shakespeare's women are more spunky than others. So, let's take a look at the top five unconventional, unmatchable and unruly Shakespearean women.

5. Portia (from The Merchant of Venice)

Is Portia the most intelligent character
in The Merchant of Venice?

On the face of it, Portia doesn't seem like an 'unruly' gal. After all, she follows her deceased father's rather unusual wish that she marry a man who passes the 'casket test'. 

So, you'd assume she's an obedient, young Elizabethan woman. However, she does something incredibly unexpected when she dresses as a man and poses as a doctor of law at the Duke's chambers, in Venice. 

What results is the revelation that she's more intelligent than any of the men in the play, as she's the only one to notice the little loophole in Shylock's bond. 

She also plays a trick on her new husband (or perhaps she's just testing Bassanio) when, as Balthazar, she asks for his wedding ring. It could be argued that this, and the aftermath of it, restores her to the status of 'silly and emotional' woman. But she's still one of Shakespeare's most unconventional women.

Read more about Portia here.

4. Rosalind

Rosalind is one of Shakespeare's
most unruly women

Another cross-dressing, lover-testing Shakespearean woman is Rosalind from As You Like It

Forced to go on the run in the forest of Arden, Rosalind protects herself and her cousin, Celia, by suiting herself "all points like a man". And, while dressed as Ganymede, she runs into a young suitor Orlando and devises a plan to test the endurance of his love. 

This leads to some hilariously funny scenes, during which Orlando woos Rosalind believing her to be Ganymede, who is trying to 'cure' him of his sickness. 

And although Rosalind/Ganymede reverts to a giddy, 'typical female' at times, "What did he when thou sawest him? What said he? How looked he? Wherein went he? What makes him here? Did he ask for me? Where remains he? How parted he with thee? and when shalt thou see him again? Answer me in one word", it's worth bearing in mind that she is the one who orchestrates the resolution for herself, Orlando, Phebe and Silvius.

3. Goneril and Regan

Goneril & Regan defy 'natural' femininity
by not only refusing to care of their
father, but also seeking to destroy him

Goneril and Regan probably wouldn't appreciate sharing a position in the top five. They certainly didn't appreciate having to share Edmund. Nevertheless, they both deserve a place among Shakespeare's most unruly women. 

And for fairly obvious reasons. They go against conventional 'femininity' by turning on their father and then waging war against their sister.

Of course, their reputation is not helped by their possibly adulterous (at least in the case of Goneril) affairs with Edmund and the way in which they are even prepared to turn on each other when it comes to their lust for him. 

Whether Goneril and Regan really deserve the label 'she wolves' rather depends upon your point of view. Certainly, if you were to examine the play from their angle, there may be reasons for their unconventional and unruly behaviour.

2. Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most popular
female characters

When it comes to Shakespeare's women, Lady Macbeth is up there with the most famous and most popular. However, she's also among the most hated, which, in my opinion, is a little unfair on the old gal.

In terms of being a 'good wife', she pretty much lives up to expectation - supporting her husband, being strong in the face of his weakness and protecting him from incriminating himself in the act of murder. 

However, where she really breaks with feminine tradition and, I believe, earns the hatred of some people, is in her request to relinquish her femininity in the great "unsex me" speech.

In short, she doesn't behave as we think a woman should; she's tough, she doesn't shy away from the thought of murder (although, in actual fact, it does make her more uneasy than she's willing to admit), and she has the balls to tell it to Macbeth the way it is. That didn't sit comfortably with the average Jacobean audience any more than it sits with a modern audience of a film like Fatal Attraction

In general, we are repulsed by women who act in a masculine way - the comedy gals who dress as guys can get away with it, partly because their cross-dressing for humour and partly because they're apologetic about their (in the words of Viola) "masculine usurp'd attire". 

1. Katharina

As far as unruly girls go, they don't come
much more unruly than Katharina

Fiery, funky and funny, Katharina is my vote for top Shakespearean unruly woman, because she is a match for any man who crosses her path.

She is (almost) a thoroughly modern woman in an over four-hundred-year-old play, which in itself is telling of Shakespeare's genius....or our strange society, I'm not sure which.

In any event, Katharina is tempestuous and fights against every one of the conventions placed upon her. She does not want to obey her father, although she is forced into marriage; she is unprepared to temper her character or her intelligence to snare a man; she is unwilling to obey her husband (at least at first); and she is uncaring of the names she is called.

Whether, of course, the fiery Kate is 'broken' by the end of the play is debatable. If so, then it wipes out all of the things that put her top of the unruly girls list - which is a shame.

However, if, as I suspect, there is more to her final soliloquy then a simple, 'men are wonderful and we women should appreciate them more'. It's open to interpretation and what we actually reach, by the end of The Taming of The Shrew, could be an embryonic form of sexual equality.

What are your thoughts? Who is your favourite unruly Shakespearean woman?


  1. I agree, Katharina takes first place!

    In the last scene of Shrew, Kate is particularly unruly as she mocks biblical passages about how women must remain subservient to their husbands. One should remember Shakespeare wrote in the time of Queen Elizabeth (and indeed had a close relationship with her), when a big question was whether she would marry and have children. It's hilarious to picture Elizabeth being subservient to a husband in the way Kate describes, even if that's what the Bible says she must do. No wonder the Queen never married!

    I would also add Helena from "All's Well That Ends Well" to the list. Nothing stops Helena on her quest to capture Bertram as she outsmarts all the men.

    1. Hello Richard, thanks for reading the post and taking the time to comment. You make great points about Elizabeth I - her independence and unwillingness to go along with what was expected of her are likely to have influenced Shakespeare when it came to his women.

      You're right, Helena from 'All's Well' is another great unruly gal. Like Debbie Harry, one way or another, she's gonna find him!

  2. Don't forget about Beatrice from 'Much Ado About Nothing'. :)

    1. Ah, she's another top gal that's for sure! Lot of similarities between her and Katharina, I think.