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The Underrated Heroines of Shakespeare

We all know of Beatrice, Rosalind, and Viola – some of Shakespeare's strongest and most well-known female characters – but for International Women's Day we're shedding light on some of Shakespeare's lesser known (but in no way less empowering) heroines.

Rio Turnbull

Women like Beatrice, Rosalind, and Viola are the first that come to the minds of most when one enquires about “strong female characters from Shakespeare plays”. But Shakespeare created several other female characters who were every bit as empowering as the rest – they just tend to go unnoticed. For International Women’s Day 2018, here's a list of some of the most underrated female characters of Shakespeare’s plays.

Cordelia (King Lear)

Cordelia William Frederick Yeames
"Cordelia" by William Frederick Yeames, 1888

What shall Cordelia do? Love, and be silent.

— Cordelia, "King Lear", Act I Scene i

Cordelia is the daughter of King Lear, a lunatic of a man who demands his daughters profess their love for him in order to get their fair share of his land. Knowing that she shouldn't have to do such a thing, and that her actions should speak just as loud as her words, Cordelia says nothing while her manipulative sisters lay it all on their father as thickly as they can. Because Cordelia doesn't bend to the delusional wishes of her mad (or soon-to-be mad) father, she's disowned, which leads to her leaving to France, married to the king of France (who has been courting her). Her absence ends up meaning King Lear's downfall.

Cordelia's strength lies in her quiet stoicism, as she refuses to stoop to the level of her horrid sisters and stays true to what she knows is right. Despite her disinherited state, she remains loving and kind - in fact, if it weren't for her unending compassion, she likely would (spoiler alert) still be alive by the end of the play. Instead, however, her death instigates the change that needed to happen in King Lear, who, upon the death of his most beloved (and only good) daughter, finally realises all that he has lost by his foolish actions and dies of his grief. Ultimately, Cordelia's the perfect example of being steadfast in the midst of immoral chaos that are all beyond one's control.

Imogen (Cymbeline)

imogen herbert gustave schmalz
"Imogen" by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (1856-1935), 1888

O, men's vows are women's traitors! All good seeming, by thy revolt, o husband, shall be thought put on for villany; not born where't grows, but worn a bait for ladies.

— Imogen, "Cymbeline", Act III Scene iv

One of my personal favourites of Shakespeare’s is also, in my opinion, one of his most underrated. Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays, but it contains one of Shakespeare’s greater female characters: ‘Innogen’, as was originally printed, but more commonly known as ‘Imogen’.

The thing about Cymbeline is that several things that take place in the play also occur in several others of Shakespeare’s works (I tend to refer to it as the “melting pot” play, myself). For example, Imogen is cast out by her father, King Cymbeline, because she refuses his wishes –which are for her to marry someone she doesn’t love (read: Rosalind from As You Like It meets Hermia from A Midsummer Night’s Dream). She is framed by a diabolical man, whose deceptions lead her husband to lose faith in her loyalty and demand her death (read: Desdemona, Iago, and Othello from Othello), and she, during an endeavour to go after her husband, ends up drinking a potion that causes her to fall into a deep sleep – like unto death – and wakes up next to who she thinks is her dead husband (read: Juliet from Romeo and Juliet). 

However, unlike Desdemona and Juliet, she never falls so deep into despair that she ceases to be capable of action. Instead, she remains impeccably strong. She fights against the accusations lain against her, and takes control of her own fate rather than falling prey to it. When she's reunited with her still-alive husband (who has since been wracked with guilt over ordering for her to be killed), she forgives both him and the man who was the cause of all of their troubles instantly. Some may think that's a weakness, but sometimes the ability to forgive and let go is a strength few can possess.

Paulina (The Winter's Tale)

The Winter's Tale
"Winter's Tale, Act V, Scene iii" by William Hamilton (for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery) (1751–1801)

LEONTES: I'll ha' thee burnt. PAULINA: I care not: It is an heretic that makes the fire, not she which burns in't.

— King Leontes and Paulina, "The Winter's Tale", Act II Scene iii

In The Winter's Tale, we find one of Shakespeare's greatest women ever (in fact, if she weren't fictional, she would probably be one of the greatest women ever, period). Paulina is a Sicilian noble-woman and friend to Hermione, the latter of whom is the wife of King Leontes. King Leontes, due to the fact that his wife was able to persuade their friend to stay when the king had been unable to, becomes ridiculously paranoid and believes his pregnant wife is cheating on him. As a result, he throws her into prison against the pleas of every person around him. 

Enter Paulina, who not only comes to care for the new-born babe and comfort her friend, but also to rebuke King Leontes (despite the fact that she could be put to death for doing so). She brings his new child to him with the hopes of softening his heart, and, when the king slanders his wife, sharply puts him in his place. One of her best quotes (immediately following the excerpt above) goes as follows: "I'll not call you tyrant; but this most cruel usage of your queen, not able to produce more accusation than your own weak-hinged fancy, something savours of tyranny and will ignoble make you, yea, scandalous to the world." 

She's got a lot of gumption, she fights for justice, and, at the end of the play, she shepherds in salvation: it's probably safe to call her a saint (but really, though: her name is the feminine version of Paul, who is a Saint in the Christian faith, and it's altogether possible Shakespeare took that into account whilst naming her).

Miranda (The Tempest)

Miranda from The Tempest
"Miranda—The Tempest" by John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), 1916

O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in't!

— Miranda, "The Tempest", Act V Scene i

Miranda is one of those who might not be an obvious choice for this list, but she’s a great example of feminine strength in the quieter form. When most people think of strength, we think of those who are bold: they spit in the face of injustice and abrasively fight against the system. However, Miranda's strength is found more within her sweetness.

Miranda grew up completely sequestered away from the rest of the world. Because of this, she grows up having little idea of how people (both men and women) work. Though she might seem childlike in her innocence, that’s part of what makes her so endearing. In addition to this, she doesn't let her naivety bother her. Instead, she approaches life as she always has. and in turn falls into no category of what it means to be a "proper" woman. The best instance of this takes place when she comes to the conclusion that she and Ferdinand love each other. Instead of waiting for him to make an overly flowery and ambiguous remark, she cuts to the chase and suggests marriage – not because she's a fed-up feminist, but because she's never learned to put up with frilly practices that sometimes society gets too caught up in.

Miranda is also a brave woman, and is willing to stand up for what she believes in. When Prospero is stirring up a storm in the ocean that might cause its occupants to drown, she sympathises with the men at sea and implores her father not to do so, saying "If by your art, my dearest father, you have put the wild waters in this roar, allay them. ... O, I have suffered with those that I saw suffer: a brave vessel, who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her, dash'd all to pieces. O, the cry did knock against my very heart." She also fights for her love for Ferdinand despite her belief that her father is against such a union. It is by this union, in the end, that her father and his enemy are brought together and are made to forgive each other – so Miranda's actions led to further peace and mercy in the end.

Perhaps there’s value in adopting a Miranda-like attitude in the way we approach life: with less cynicism and more empathy, self-assurance, and child-like wonder.

Portia (The Merchant of Venice)

"Portia" by Sir John Everett Millais, 1886

The quality of mercy is not strain'd, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath: ... it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

— Portia, "The Merchant of Venice", Act III Scene iv

What makes Portia an impressive and empowering woman is her cleverness. She, as a woman, has very few rights in her society, but she figures out ways to subvert the system and make it work in her favour. For example, Portia's father created a test that her suitors must pass in order to marry her, so that despite his passing, he can have control over the man that Portia can call her husband. Unfortunately, Portia dislikes every man that comes her way, so she finds loopholes that enable her to help Bassanio (the only man she is interested in) choose the correct casket.

She also knows that Bassanio is more interested in her money than in her – so after their marriage, she gives him a ring that he must swear not to part with. Later, when she disguises herself as a lawyer to help out Bassanio's dear friend Antonio, she demands her own ring from Bassanio as a gift of gratitude for her help. This enables her to guilt-trip Bassanio (when she's back to being her regular self) about parting with the object so easily, thus ensuring that he'll think more carefully about he treats their marriage going forward. It's rather manipulative and not necessarily the greatest thing to do, but she comes from a place where she will be tread upon if she doesn't firmly make her place known. By doing what she does, she establishes the level of respect she expects to receive, and it all works out in her favour.

The lesson then, possibly, is to not only be cleverer than those who might be in a more powerful position than you, but to also know your own worth and not settle for being treated worse than you deserve.

What might we all learn from these women, then? I suppose the 'morals of the story' that stick out the most are as follows: be true to what you believe; fight back when injustice takes place (against yourself or those around you); be kind, loyal, and compassionate; and don't be afraid to value who you are.