Within Shakespeare’s works, it is interesting to note the evolution of his female heroines as he developed his craft as a playwright. His first characters were very stereotypical and played into the general view of women in his day. However, as he continued to write, his heroines developed more unique strengths of their own, independent personalities, and fully equipped minds that dared to rival their male counterparts. These are ten Shakespearean heroines that women can still learn from today.
1. Portia (The Merchant of Venice)
Portia is arguably the first female heroine that Shakespeare crafted that remarkably veers from his previous stereotypes. She is a unique creation that embodies matchless intelligence and unswerving courage. However, she is not so taken aback by her own wisdom to become cold and emotionless. It’s a healthy, even balance. When she falls for Bassanio, she undoubtedly forgets herself, but makes a comeback again in court when she (in disguise) defends an innocent man. From this Shakespearean heroine, women today can learn that they can follow their heart…just as long as they take their brain with them. Graciousness is a jewel, but wisdom is the crown.
Quote: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d…. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
2. Katharina (The Taming of the Shrew)
Although Taming of the Shrew at first appears to be a very controversial play by today’s standards (any standards, actually), there is something that women can learn from this Shakespearean heroine that has nothing to do with her strong will and or submission. On the contrary, her hot temper is anything but admirable. The key here, despite the means Petruchio used to “tame” her is that she learns to honor those who are willing to love and honor her and not abrasively cast them off. Respect brings more respect. Strong-headedness, when it abuses those around you, is not admirable in the slightest.
Quote: “Such duty as the subject owes the princes even such a woman oweth to her husband; and when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour, and not obedient to his honest will, what is she but a foul contending rebel.”
3. Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing)
Beatrice is a woman who knows her mind, what she wants, and when she wants it. And if there’s not a man that meets everything on her list, she would rather stay single. Who can blame her? Who wants to go through the guessing game of dating? She knows who she is and doesn’t want a relationship with a man to make her question that. But plans just don’t always happen the way we want it. Beatrice doesn’t necessarily change—but her timing does,and she allows herself to love whole-heartedly when the opportunity arises. She is one of the most noteworthy Shakespearean heroines.
Quote: “A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.”
4. Rosalind (As You Like It)
Banished into the woods with her cousin from their place of luxury in the palace, Rosalind soon finds her lover Orlando banished into the same woods as well. The only problem is that she’s disguised as a peasant man named Ganymede. No matter. Instead of revealing her identity to the flighty, uncouth Orlando (though he doesn’t mean to be), Rosalind decides that she will tutor him on how to properly treat his love, Rosalind. Rosalind’s story is poignant because she retains her femininity even in a man’s world. She works with Orlando man-to-man and doesn’t toy with his emotions. She just tells it like it is and watches him grow because of the respect she gives him. All women today can learn so many lesson from this clever Shakespearean heroine.
Quote: “Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.”
5. Viola (Twelfth Night)
And here we have yet another woman who assumes a man’s role. Throughout the play, Viola (disguised as a man) stays quiet about her love but doesn’t play games with it or make light of the situation. Viola is not a flirtatious women (it’s also kind of hard to do that when masquerading as a guy), but instead uses her mind and her wits to display her true character for the man she loves.
Quote: “O time, thou must untangle this, not I. It is too hard a knot for me t’untie.”
6. Calpurnia (Julius Caesar)
Despite being Julius Caesar’s third wife who knows that he has cheated on her multiple times (very notably with Cleopatra), this woman displays a whole lot of concern for this man’s wellbeing. However, Caesar is a man who refuses to listen to anyone but himself—and especially not to her. But women like Calpurnia have incredible intuition that deserves some attention. In Julius Caesar, if the emperor had listened to his wife and not gone to the senate, he would not have been murdered (at least according to Shakespeare). Calpurnia spoke her piece reasonably and calmly even though she knew that her husband would probably just blow her off.
Quote: “When beggars die, there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”
7. Desdemona (Othello)
This is one incredibly strong woman. At first glance, Desdemona seems to be quiet, docile sweetheart, but her devotion to Othello in the midst of trial and confusion displays the fire in her spirit. Even under false accusations by her husband about her supposed infidelity, she refuses to give up on her man and fights for their marriage until the very end when he strangles her. It is also important to note that she married a Moor and endured racial criticism because of her decision. She should be noted as one of the most selfless Shakespearean heroines women can learn from. She is one of the most noteworthy Shakespearean heroines.
Quote: “I understand a fury in your words, but not the words.”
8. Emilia (Othello)
Very simply put, this woman stood for right despite her husband’s evilness. Her husband, Iago, is the mastermind driving Othello to believe that his wife, Desdemona, is cheating on him. But even after learning this, Emilia refuses to gloss over her husband’s wrong at the end of the play and brings his treachery to light. For this, he murders her. Throughout the play, she remains loyal to her friend despite the accusations thrown at Desdemona and never wonders how this devotion might harm her own reputation.
Quote: “But I do think it is their husbands’ faults if wives do fall…though we have some grace, yet have we some revenge… Then let them use us well, else let them know, the ills we do, their ills instruct us so.”
9. Cordelia (King Lear)
When King Lear demands his daughters make a show of affection so he can determine which one loves him the most, Cordelia remains silent. She doesn’t believe that it’s right to flatter her father and gush empty words of love like her sister do before her, and realizes that words aren’t enough to tell someone you love them. This is done through actions and not flattery. Yet, for this genuine dedication, Lear disowns her. Cordelia is the embodiment of forgiveness, and maintains her love for her father throughout his downward spiral into insanity. She is one of the most noteworthy Shakespearean heroines.
Quote: “And yet not so, since I am sure my love’s more ponderous than my tongue.”
10. Paulina (The Winter’s Tale)
And, among all these young women comes Paulina, a middle-aged wise woman in the court of King Leontes. She harnesses everything that is truth and refuses to back down even when the king goes mad and threatens her life multiple times. Throughout the play, Paulina maintains her loyalty to the royal family and doesn’t give up on them. She is the crown of all Shakespearean heroines that women can look up to today.
Quote: “But here it is: prepare to see the life as lively mock’d as ever still sleep mock’d death: behold, and say ‘tis well. I like your silence, it the more shows off your wonder.”
Like all women throughout history, these ten Shakespearean heroines exercise their strengths in many different ways—from up-front confrontation to silent understanding. For this, they can be used as models for all women today from many different walks of life. Their characters are, indeed, timeless masterpieces.