Richard Nisley

Shakespeare's Heroines
History - World Released - Mar 01, 2015

Was Shakespeare a feminist? In almost all of his comedies women are shown to be sensible, plucky, and pure of purpose, while men not so much. Take the following three plays. In each case, the young woman is rewarded with the young man she wants despite many obstacles, but we are left wondering if the object of her affection is truly worthy.


"All's Well That Ends Well" is one of Shakespeare's "problem comedies" because the conventional workings of comedy are stretched to the breaking point. We wonder what Helena sees in snobbish, ungracious and stiff-necked Bertram. Helena is pure-hearted, resourceful, and not easily defeated. Bertram is high-born and a louse. He disdains her obvious virtue and beauty, and, due to her lowly birth as a physician’s daughter, finds her ludicrous as a prospective mate. So, what does Helena see in him? Shakespeare never gives us a satisfactory answer. We are left with what amounts to a cliche: love is blind.

"All's Well that Ends Well" may have originally been titled "Love's Labor's Won," a play thought to have been lost, and a companion play to "Love's Labor's Lost," written around 1590-92. Some critics think so, and point to a line in the play as evidence, uttered by Helena: "This is done; Will you be mine, now you are doubly won?"

There is a consistent theme regarding men and women in Shakespeare's comedies and "All's Well That Ends Well" is no exception. Shakespeare adored women, and praised the marriage covenant as the very cement holding civilization together. He portrayed a good marriage as not merely romantic but as heroic. He created a series of female characters who were both passionate and pure, who gave their hearts spontaneously and remained true to the bargain in the face of tremendous odds. Men, on the other hand, were not nearly so pure and required chastening before they were allowed to get the girl. Indeed, men were fickle and quick to shy away from commitment. They did not recognize true love when it was staring them in the face. These are the very qualities that describe Helena and Bertram.

Helena overcomes great odds and in the end gets her man, but we are left wondering if Bertram has been sufficiently chastened as the play suggests, and will honor his marriage vows. And we can't help wondering: was he worth the effort?

"All's Well that Ends Well" is filled with marvelous characters. Bertram's mother, the Countess of Rousillon, is one of Shakespeare's great dames. And Parolles, Bertram's friend, is one of Shakespeare's great rats. And Helena of course is one of Shakespeare's great heroines, even if she does have questionable taste in men.


It was a deal between two businessmen: a loan of three-thousand ducats, interest free. There was a catch: if the loan was not paid in full at the end of three months the penalty would be a pound of human flesh. Both parties agree to the "merry sport" and the deal is notarized. The lender is Shylock, a Jew, and the borrower is Antonio, a Christian. Thus begins Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice."

In the Middle Ages, money-lending was the only decent job Jews could get, because usury (charging interest) was considered a sin by the Catholic Church. Thus, Jews were bankers. Shylock is a well-to-do money-lender, and as a Jew well-persecuted. Among his antagonists is Antonio, "The Merchant of Venice." That Antonio will be unable to pay the debt and that Shylock will therefore demand his pound of flesh is a foregone conclusion. "The Merchant of Venice" is among Shakespeare's comedies, but critics generally agree Shylock is among the Bard's great tragic figures.

The two other central characters are Antonio's friend, Bassanio, and the lady of Belmont, Portia. Bassanio is smitten by Portia's beauty and great wealth. In order for the two to be married, he must (1) borrow three thousand ducats for a new set of clothes and travel expenses to Belmont, and (2) win her in a bizarre game of caskets. Antonio wants to lend the money to his friend, but he's fresh out of cash and must borrow from Shylock. The plot thickens as Shylock's daughter runs off to marry Lorenzo, a Christian, enraging Shylock; Bassanio travels to Belmont and wins Portia in the game of caskets; and Antonio's ships are lost at sea and therefore he is unable to pay back the loan. Portia steps forward with the money to cover the debt and offers Shylock ten-times the amount due. He refuses. Angry and bitter, Shylock demands his pound of flesh. Antonio is jailed and a court date is set. Not to worry. Not only is Portia fabulously rich and generous, she is very smart and cunning. She crams a bit of law, disguises herself as Balthasar (a doctor of law called upon to adjudicate the case), and in a stirring courtroom scene wins the day. Shylock doesn't merely lose the case, he is humiliated and emotionally devastated. Seeing him reduced to a mere shell of a man is one of Shakespeare's truly poignant moments.

Portia is yet another of Shakespeare's great heroines. She is feminine and gracious, resourceful, and not easily defeated. She rescues Antonio and Bassanio from a foolhardy bet that very nearly costs Antonio his life. Men get themselves in the darnedest fixes, Shakespeare seems to be saying. They put themselves in dangerous situations without hardly a second thought, something a woman would never do. And, having imperiled themselves, it takes a woman's wit to get them out of it. Not only is Antonio legally ensnared by the terms of the loan, but all the men inside the courtroom--the Duke and his Magnificoes, Bassanio and his friends--are unable to help him. Dressed as a man, only Portia has the answer. First, she appeals to Shylock to be merciful, with words of Biblical proportion: "The quality of mercy is not strain'd / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; / It blesses him that gives, and him that takes: / 'Tis mightiest in the mightiest . . . It is enthroned in the heart of kings, / It is an attribute to God himself." Shylock is unmoved, and when it appears he will get his pound of flesh--with Bassanio, the Duke and his Magnificoes looking on helplessly--Portia reveals a loophole in the law that stops Shylock just short of cutting into Antonio's chest.

Portia is a woman ahead of her time. That's the opinion of critic John Weiss who wrote: "In the elements which compose the character of Portia, Shakespeare anticipated, but without intention, the intellect of those modern women who can wield so gracefully many of the tools which have been hitherto monopolized by men." Indeed, Portia is more of our world than of Shakespeare’s; today, women are attorneys, teach at universities, manage corporations, and rule nations. Two of the justices on the Supreme Court are women. Lest we forget, Shakespeare did have as a model one woman unafraid to demonstrate her superior intellect in a man's world--Queen Elizabeth.


Can a comedy be both madcap and melancholy? It can, if Shakespeare is the playwright. "Twelfth Night" is perhaps the Bard's best comedy. It was written around the time he was penning "Hamlet" which may explain the comedy's darker side. The storyline: a ship has foundered off the coast of Illyria, and among the few survivors is Viola. Her twin brother Sebastian is feared drowned. She disguises herself as a man (Cesario) and becomes employed as a page to Orsino, Duke of Illyria. Orsino is lovestruck by Olivia, a countess in mourning over the death of her father and brother. She hasn't the slightest interest in the Duke. Orsino is frustrated but determined. He sends Cesario to change her mind, and promises his page: "Prosper in this, and thou shalt live as freely as thy lord to call his fortunes thine." Instead of changing her mind, Olivia falls head-over-heels in love with Cesario. How's that for mistaken identity? To further complicate matters, Cesario has fallen head-over-heels in love with Orsino, something she dare not admit to anyone while dressed as a man.

Viola is one of Shakespeare's heroines, faithful, long-suffering, fully accepting that her master Orsino is crazy-in-love with someone else. Disguised as a boy, she will follow the fortunes of her lord, and she will even plead his cause, as a lover, with the beautiful woman who has captured his heart. "A woman, under such circumstances, commonly hates her rival with the bitterness of death," writes one critic. "Viola never harbors hate, never speaks one word of antagonism or malice. She does not assume that Orsino is her property because she happens to love him, or that he is in any way responsible for the condition of her feelings, or that Olivia is reprehensible because she has fascinated him. She knows Orsino's sorrows by her own, and pities him and would help him if she could." In a soliloquy (II.2), Viola confesses: "My state is desperate for my master's love. / As I am woman (now alas the day!), / What thriftless sigh shall poor Olivia breathe? / O Time, thou must untangle this, not I; / It is too hard a knot for me t'untie."

By the way, Olivia has captured three other hearts as well: that of Sir Andrew, who, having learned Olivia is in love with Cesario, challenges the page to a duel of swords; that of humorless, self-righteous Malvolio, Olivia's steward and the killjoy of the play; and that of Feste, the melancholy clown, who, like Cesario, suffers in silence. The other main characters are Sir Toby, a knight down on his luck, who is Olivia's uncle and Sir Andrew's drinking companion; and Maria, Olivia's woman-in-waiting, who hatches a plot that will make a fool of Malvolio and have him locked in jail. Sebastian, Viola's twin brother, who did not drown, makes his first appearance in the Fourth Act, initiating the play's denouement.

In Elizabethan England, Twelfth Night, falling on January 6, was both a festive occasion and the date, twelve days after Christmas, on which the festive season traditionally ended. The clown in "Twelfth Night" is appropriately named Feste, festivity incarnate. Although Twelfth Night has no relevance to the plot, it's appropriate to the revelry that infuses the play.

"Twelfth Night" begins and ends with a song. The first: "If music be the food of love, play on, / Give me excess of it, that surfeiting, / The appetitive may sicken and die." In Act II is another song, sung by Feste: "O mistress mine, where are you roaming? / O, stay and hear! your true-love's coming, / That can sing both and low." The third I'll get to in moment.

The "knot" as Viola so aptly called it, is untied in Act Five. Her twin bother Sebastian returns to take her place in the heart of Olivia; Viola gets the man she loves, Orsino; Sir Toby marries Maria; and Malvolio is released from prison, threatening revenge for being so cruelly tricked and mistreated. A number of critics have speculated on the meaning of this, suggesting the play's happy ending may not be so happy after all. I think not. How can the ending be unhappy when the play concludes with a happy song, sung by Feste: "A great while ago the world begun, / With hey, ho, the wind and the rain; But that's all one, our play is done, / And we'll strive to please you every day."

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