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Women of Shakespeare

What was Shakespeare’s type? Well, he had a few. But here are some of the female ones. #archetypes

The Nurses: sexy and sexualized, cheeky and flirtatious. Like the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, Margaret in Much Ado about Nothing, or Audrey in As You Like It these women are working-class and open with their thoughts, which would be in prose to match their casual attitudes and low social status. These are rough and lovable women, full of life and laughs.

The Ophelias: the tragic and innocent. Chaste and chased at the start; ruined and killed in the end. Their tragedy is in their lost innocence and Shakespeare’s rough treatment. Their fall from innocence is generally also paired with a fall from nobility, too, being gently raised and courtly women. Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, Lavinia from Titus Andronicus, and Ophelia from Hamlet being top examples. They fall under “too beautiful to live.”

The Lady Macbeths: the femme fatal going toe-to-toe with the men. Complicated and cunning, women like Lady Macbeth and King Lear’s daughters, Goneril and Regan, plot and whisper and murder. These are highly intelligent and highly dissatisfied women with sticky and brutal ends. Our black widows and world-shakers.

The Katherines: the witty and unsuitable. The beautiful and “unwed-able” lost causes with Katherine from The Taming of the Shrew as their champion and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing a close second. Shakespeare seems to lovingly appreciate their clever wit and boldness of spirit….and lovingly describes breaking them of it. These are the women that could have been the Lady Macbeths of the world, but got their “happy” ending instead. But all-in-all, our redeemed party girls with a 4.0.

The Heros: the married off. Sweet, well-bred, and desirable. And young enough that Shakespeare gives them a father to hand these delicate beauties into the care of husbands, as well. These are our shy and beautiful wallflowers found in The Tempest’s Miranda, A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Helena and Hermia, and Much Ado About Nothing’s Hero.

The Rosalinds: the male day-trippers. These women have realized that pants are life-hacks. Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night both play actively equal roles in their plays as their male counterparts…because they are brilliantly eloquent and resourceful...but mostly because they are “male.” These are our tomboys and adventurers.

The Desdemonas: the innocent adulteress. Aggrieved and slandered, Shakespeare makes these women suffer greatly (a notable exception in The Merry Wives of Windsor) for their doubted innocence. Famously Desdemona pays with her life in Othello but Hero, too, in Much Ado About Nothing falls gravely ill after being accused by Claudio. But a woman's word isn't good enough, she usually has to die to be believed.

And then there was Portia.

Somehow all of these women and none of them, Portia from The Merchant of Venice is the MVP of Shakespeare’s women. With Katherine’s bold spirit, Beatrice’s sharp wit, Juliet’s loving heart, Viola’s educated reasoning, Ophelia’s grace, Hero’s modesty, Margaret’s audacity, Lady Macbeth’s political mind, and even with a father calling the shots, Portia manages to reap all the rewards and none of the setbacks of all the other Shakespearean female archetypes. So she gets to be her own category. Far and away the pinnacle of Shakespearean women, Portia is a truly blessed existence for the 16c woman: brilliant, unbroken, happy, and loved.

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