Shakespeare’s best roles for women? These are Will’s fierce female forces.
The 2019 CSF season is jam-packed with what many audiences and scholars consider to be Shakespeare’s “best” roles for women. Complex, interesting, heroic characters like “Twelfth Night”’s Viola, “As You Like It”’s Rosalind and the famed Juliet Capulet will grace the Mary Rippon and University Theatre stages throughout the summer.
Here, we unpack what makes these fierce females especially memorable in Shakespeare’s canon.
The Elizabethan woman
CSF audiences who have been with us since 2012 will remember Tina Packer’s “Women of Will”, a five-part play that examines Shakespeare’s relationship with his female characters and how he used those roles to voice some of his most subversive ideas. In her production notes, CSF dramaturg Hadley Kamminga-Peck unpacked what normal life was like for an Englishwoman in the Elizabethan era.
“A 16th-century Englishwoman’s life depended almost exclusively on the men around her … She was expected to be obedient to her husband, quiet and yielding, throughout their marriage; a man’s worst curse was having a shrew for a wife, since a husband should always be able to control her.”
Elizabethan women were often married in their early teens, and they would bear (on average) 15 children before dying in their mid-forties. It was—to put it lightly—not a great time to be a woman.
But, as Kamminga-Peck and Packer both point out, the typical Elizabethan woman is not the sort of woman Shakespeare wrote in his plays. The women of Shakespeare’s written world are extraordinary.
Viola in “Twelfth Night”
Known for her wit and resilience, Viola is a force to be reckoned with. After being shipwrecked in a foreign land and losing her twin brother in the process, Viola promptly takes charge of her circumstances. She disguises herself as a man and gets a servant job in the household of Duke Orsino. No damsel in distress here!
“She’s brave, she’s fearless, and she has a real drive to keep going, no matter how hard things get,” says dramaturg Amanda Giguere. “But Viola also knows the difference between things she can change and things beyond her control.”
“I admire how resourceful and bold she is,” agrees Managing Director Wendy Franz. “She quickly thinks on her feet to problem solve and make her way in the world in spite of her circumstances.”
Rosalind in “As You Like It”
Rosalind from “As You Like It”—another famed cross-dressing Shakespearean character—is beloved for many of the same reasons as Viola. Rosalind is incredibly loyal to her family, but that trait coincides with fierce independence and autonomy.
Upon being exiled from court with her cousin Celia, Rosalind is determined to stay alive and survive by disguising both herself and Celia while living in the woods.
Exploring the forest of Arden as “Ganymede,” Rosalind finds herself and creates a great deal of mischief along the way, as she aims to turn the man she wants to marry into someone who can match her own intelligence and strength.
“There’s something so liberating about women putting on pants and suddenly finding themselves free to speak their minds,” says production dramaturg Heidi Schmidt. “For me, it’s all about women occupying traditionally male spaces and finding some power in that.”
Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet”
The other iconic female featured this summer is the famed Juliet Capulet. Besides being one of Shakespeare’s most recognized women, Juliet is also headstrong, passionate and decisive about herself and her future. Her actions throughout the course of “Romeo and Juliet” reflect her transition from adolescence to adulthood, circumnavigating relevant historical social expectations of women in the process.
Despite Romeo being a Montague—sworn enemies of the Capulets—Juliet adamantly declares her love for him, taking control of her fate by convincing him to marry her. She later stands up for her choices when she defies her father’s insistence that she marry Paris, something practically unheard of for the typical Elizabethan women sitting in Shakespeare’s first audiences.
And famously, she decides to fake her death in an attempt to be with Romeo, and when the plan goes awry, she continues to steer her own fate, even at the cost of her own life.
“I do think Shakespeare accomplishes a really interesting gender flip—Romeo uses poison, a method usually associated with women, while Juliet puts a dagger through her own heart,” ponders Schmidt. “She’s got a spine of steel. Imagine what she could have done if her parents and their feud hadn’t gotten in her way.”
Other critics consider Juliet to be Shakespeare’s first fully formed female character, one who accurately represented womanhood, with her character being written with as much depth as Romeo, something that had not been seen in his earlier plays.
Step aside, the Duchess of Cambridge comes to Colorado
Standing among these strong female Shakespearean characters are many other female forces, including the role of Kate Middleton (yes, that Kate Middleton) in “King Charles III”, a future history play by Mike Bartlett that reimagines the current royal family in the days following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Throughout the play, the Duchess of Cambridge fights for the needs of her family above all, repeatedly reminding William how his actions, and the actions of his father, will impact their own children as the decades go by.
These stand-out women of the Shakespearean world are considered theatre icons, showing that women of strength, determination and depth have been present on the stage for hundreds of years and continue to be to this day.
Don’t miss the chance to see Shakespeare’s most famous femmes onstage this summer at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Purchase tickets for “Twelfth Night”, “As You Like It”, “Romeo and Juliet” and “King Charles III” below.