Whenever I see Shakespeare performed well, I'm not only inspired to achieve more in my own art, I'm reminded of the heart and passion all of us as human beings are capable of in a way other plays can't express. He's able to blend four core aspects of humanity with his language: mind, heart, body, and soul. As a performer, acting Shakespeare is a truly athletic endeavor, demanding vocal and physical precision. It's not for sissies! And one of the most interesting aspects of Shakespeare was his ability to create some of the most fascinating and unforgettable women in drama.
I asked the head of UNC School of the Arts' voice and speech department, Mary Irwin, who she believed were the strongest women in the entire Shakespearean canon. These were her top five. Enjoy!
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Constance from King John
“O, that my tongue were in the thunder’s mouth!
Then with a passion would I shake the world;”
Constance is a prime example of “mother knows best.” And she does! Her son, Arthur, should be king, but he’s not! Throughout the play, Constance plots to bring her son to his rightful place. She’s always looking out for Arthur’s best interests. Though powerless after her ally, King Philip of France, ruins her son’s chances of ever ascending to the throne (through a marriage between his son and King John’s daughter), Constance fearlessly calls out Philip’s betrayal. Constance is an example of a woman who has a strong willingness to stand up to authority with fierceness.
Engraving of Constance and Arthur
Paulina from A Winter’s Tale
“I’ll use that tongue I have; if wit flow from’t
As boldness from my bosom, let ‘t not be doubted
I shall do good.”
Paulina is a loyal, loving, and trustworthy friend to Queen Hermione, who is with child at the beginning of the play. King Leontes, Hermione’s husband and ruler of Sicily, charges his wife with infidelity, believing she has had an affair with Polixines, the king of Bohemia. Paulina is quick to defend her friend’s virtue. Nevertheless, Leontes is firm in his belief, concluding that the child Hermione will have must be illegitimate. Paulina is relentless in her condemnation of Leontes when Hermione dies of grief from her husband’s jealous and wrongful accusations. Paulina has a strong willingness to speak the truth to power.
Paulina and the statue of Hermione Act V Scene III By William Hamilton from The American Edition of Boydell’s Illustrations of the Dramatic Il
Emilia from Othello
“Let heaven and men and devils, let them all
All, all, cry shame against me, yet I’ll speak.”
This is the wife of one of Shakespeare’s most surreptitious, sinister, sociopathic supervillains: Iago. Iago masterminds, manipulates, and murders his way throughout Othello. His most evil act is convincing Othello that his wife, the pure and innocent Desdemona, has been unfaithful to him. The enraged and jealous Othello kills Desdemona. Iago plays everyone like a fiddle…EXCEPT for Emilia who brings to light Iago’s true character. Emilia, like Paulina, speaks the truth, though it takes her a little longer to get there. And that is an interesting journey in and of itself.
Desdemona’s Death Song—Emilia with Desdemona by Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1878-1881)
Viola from Twelfth Night
“Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house…”
One of the first rules to acting comedy: NOTHING is funny, because the stakes for every character are so ridiculously high. This is definitely the case for Viola, the heroine of Twelfth Night. Shipwrecked, alone, believing her twin brother is dead, Viola disguises herself as a man, and it is through her we come to understand the strange land of Illyria. Viola manages to not only find her bearings, she manages to find love. She is ultimately guided, however, by her devotion and strong sense of duty to her brother. Viola is able to be both moony over Count Orsino and no-nonsense simultaneously.
Viola and Count Orsino painted by Frederick Richard Pickersgill (mid 1800s)
Gertrude from Hamlet
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
Okay, okay…one might argue that Queen Gertrude might’ve married a bit too quickly after her husband’s death…and that the fact that she married her husband’s killer is a bit of a double-whammy. BUT! It can be interpreted that she remains unaware of Claudius’ guilt until it is tragically too late. Gertrude is a woman who ultimately wants what’s best for her son and acts with only the best intentions. She ultimately sees the truth after Hamlet presents it to her.
The Queen in Hamlet painted by Edwin Austin Abbey (1895)