Shakespeare is hailed for having created a broad range of strong female characters. It's hard not to point out that, in the downright misogynistic context of Elizabethan England, creating strong female characters was remarkable. I would say that something that defines these characteres is that most of them are, in one way or another, determined to break the rules society imposes on them. So, if we're to break away with a patriarchal system, re-reading these characters is a good place to start.
Juliet is such a Leo. At just thirteen years old, she knows exactly what she wants and what she doesn't want: she doesn't want to marry Paris, and she does want to have a secret romance with Romeo. When Romeo approaches her, she's already interested (having seen him across the room), but he delivers a sonnet wanting to woo her by using clichés. Juliet isn't buying it, so she rebuffs him by telling him he needs to try harder. But the fact that she kisses him anyway is a sign she only plays by her rules.
She's an active character who tries to rationalize her options before making a rash decision. Just the fact that she creates choices for herself is an enormous act of rebellion. Her father imposes a husband for her, and society expects her to act a certain way, but she elopes with Romeo. Then, when the situation explodes, Friar Laurence, who has been giving the worst advice ever, tells her he'll take her to a convent? F that, she says. "I'm not leaving this place." And then she stabs herself. While it might seem naive and something worthy of a teenage drama queen, Juliet is actually fighting for her self-determination. Sure, the result seems a bit extreme, but it was a clear-cut solution to the problem of men trying to make decisions for her.
Juliet's lesson is not for you to kill yourself, obviously, but to fight for your right to live your life in spite of what people expect from you.
In The Merchant of Venice, Antonio acquires a huge debt with Shylock, a local Jew who has been mistreated time and again by Venetians. Shylock seizes this as an opportunity for payback, by singing a contract that says Antonio will be forced to pay him in flesh if he fails on his debt. When the deadline is due, Antonio has no money, much to Portia's dismay. But she has a plan. She disguises herself as a lawyer and pleads with Shylock, telling him he'll get paid three times as much as he's owed.
She pleads with him, but Shylock refuses. He's now gone full Old Testament God, and Portia proceeds to grant him three pounds of Antonio's flesh. But here's the catch: Shylock can take some flesh, but no amount of blood. So, if he spills as much as a drop of Antonio's blood , he will get his possessions confiscated. This is perhaps the most famous scene involving law knowledge and where Portia outsmarts everyone, thereby crowning herself as Queen of badassery. What's a shame is that Portia was forced to disguise herself as man to pull this off, so I guess her lesson is: don't let the haters keep you from doing your thang.
Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing has a sharp tongue, which she uses against Benedick, a former love interest who was a total douche to her. Every time they meet, the two compete to outdo one another with clever insults. Beatrice has been hurt in the love department, but that's something she'll work through along the play. Still, she's a good role model for saying what she means and putting men, especially mean men, in their place. She's a fun character who always steals the show.
Macbeth's crime, and just straight-up evil. Sure, she can be all of those things, but beneath all of these layers lies the essence of who she really is: a woman relegated to a place within the household desperate to take matters into her own hands. Granted, she uses her persuasive abilities to guide her husband into committing murder, but what's regicide compared to a country mired in violence, civil war, and treason? Lady Macbeth dares to challenge this violent, hierarchical social order, and she does so in the most extreme of forms, but she succeeds in contributing (merely contributing, for much of the responsibility falls on Macbeth, and rightly so) to the chaos that ensues in the play. And if the choices are either living imprisoned in a world of men or chaos, I would choose chaos.Lady Macbeth is often described as ambitious, a pusher, a bully, the mastermind behind
There's no better contrast to Lady Macbeth than Cordelia. Cordelia is so good, she basically borders on unrealistic, but she still has much to teach everyone.
King Lear decides to play a sick sadistic game: he's about to divide his kingdom in three parts, one for each of his three daughters, and the size of the piece will depend on how much they say they love him. Regan and Goneril, Cordelia's sisters, are quick to flatter the king. But Cordelia says she loves him the normal amount, no more no less, which Lear interprets as treason rather than seeing through his daughters' empty words. Cordelia is then banished from the kingdom, and then, a whole set of terrible things happen. You might think Cordelia is foolish, but it's best to remember her as a character who stood her ground despite pressure to become a flatterer or a liar, and in spite of her whole life falling apart after doing it. Cordelia is all about integrity and honesty even when facing the edge of doom.
These might seem a bit off-track, but they certainly provide great examples of Shakespeare's literary genius. Do you think there are stronger Shakespearean characters?
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