Froward Women

The plays resonate with a pattern of strong-willed women, many of whom are minor characters and rarely discussed in Shakespearean criticism. Certain big names come up regularly, such as Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, Viola, Paulina. But a closer look at the plays reveals an intriguing thread of minor female characters who consistently show themselves to be brave, resourceful, intelligent, determined, and literate.

I offer the following list not as any “proof” that a woman wrote these plays, but merely as food for thought. However, it does make one wonder — if William Shakespeare were the creator of all these froward, literate, and often powerful women, why did he let his own daughters* grow up illiterate?

These links also list intriguing patterns:
Men behaving badly
Female Relationships
Male Relationships

froward: Disposed to go counter to what is demanded or what is reasonable; perverse, difficult to deal with, hard to please; refractory, ungovernable

Woman Play Description
Hero Much Ado About Nothing She is a virtuous woman unjustly accused of gross infidelity by her fiancé and thus also spurned by her own father and Don Pedro.
Hermione The Winter’s Tale She is a virtuous wife unjustly accused of infidelity by a jealous husband. With her waiting woman, she hides herself for fifteen years, until exonerated.
Mrs. Ford The Merry Wives of Windsor She is a virtuous wife unjustly accused by a jealous husband, whom she brings around with humor and a good nature. She also humiliates a lecherous and sleazy knight.
Desdemona Othello She is a virtuous wife unjustly accused of gross infidelity by her husband. She defies her father and society to marry the man of her choice.
Juliet Romeo and Juliet She defies her father to marry the man of her choice.
Lavinia Titus Andronicus She defies her father to marry the man of her choice.
Anne Page The Merry Wives of Windsor She defies her father and mother to marry the man of her choice.
Hermia A Midsummer Night’s Dream She defies her father to marry the man of her choice.
Sylvia The Two Gentlemen of Verona She defies her father to marry the man of her choice. Her father throws her in jail, she escapes, and is captured by outlaws.
Bianca The Taming of the Shrew She defies her father to marry the man of her choice.
Perdita The Winter’s Tale She defies her lover’s father to marry the man of her choice.
Imogen Cymbeline She defies her father and wicked stepmother to marry the man of her choice. She dresses as a man, runs away, and later joins the Roman army.
Jessica The Merchant of Venice She defies her father to marry the man of her choice. She dresses as a man and runs away.
Portia The Merchant of Venice She dresses as a man (a judge) and wins an eminent court case. She is the head of a large estate. She manipulates and shames her new husband for his fickleness.
Nerissa The Merchant of Venice She dresses as a man (a law clerk) to appear in court. She manipulates and shames her new husband for his fickleness.
Rosalind As You Like It She dresses as a man, runs away into the forest, buys property, arranges the forest society, and marries the man of her choice.
Viola Twelfth Night She dresses as a man, takes a job, and marries the man of her choice.
Joan of Arc 1 Henry vI She dresses as a man and leads armies into battle. In this play she possibly has lovers.
Julia The Two Gentlemen of Verona She dresses as a man and runs away. She is a steadfast woman scorned by an inconstant lover.
Helena A Midsummer Night’s Dream She is a steadfast woman scorned by an inconstant lover.
Celia As You Like It She runs away from her father to be true to herself and to her girlfriend. She marries the man of her choice.
Cordelia King Lear She defies her father to be true to herself.
Olivia Twelfth Night She runs an estate and marries the man of her choice.
Beatrice Much Ado About Nothing She is a brilliant woman who wittily chooses not to marry (but eventually does marry the man of her choice). Against several men, she is true to her female cousin.
Helena All’s Well That Ends Well With her medical knowledge, she cures a king of a fatal disease that his male doctors have been unable to treat. She travels from Paris to Florence as a pilgrim. She manipulates events to marry the man of her choice.
Isabella Measure for Measure She is a noble, virtuous woman who manipulates a powerful leader. She dupes a man with the bed-trick. There is no indication that she chooses to accept the twice-offered marriage proposal from the Duke.
Diana All’s Well That Ends Well She conspires to hoodwink a profligate man and plays the bed-trick on him.
Maria Twelfth Night She devises a plot to make a fool of a man.
Mrs. Page The Merry Wives of Windsor She is a middle-aged woman, wise and witty, who humiliates a sleazy knight. She defies her husband’s preference of a marriage choice for her daughter.
Mistress Quickly The Merry Wives of Windsor She takes advantage of all the men and makes buffoons of them.
Princess of France & her ladies Rosaline, Maria, and Katharine Love’s Labor’s Lost The Princess is the political emissary for her country. These self-possessed women baffle and torment the men. They consign the men to a year of meditation and celibacy before they will even consider marrying them.
Regan and Goneril King Lear Indomitable, power-hungry sisters who defy their father and husbands. Each takes a lover.
Queen Margaret 1, 2, 3 Henry VI and Richard III She rules her husband, leads an army into battle for the sake of her son, murders the usurper, takes a lover, and prophesies truths.
Queen Elizabeth (Grey) 3 Henry vIand Richard III She refuses the sexual advances of the King until he marries her and then manipulates life at court for the betterment of her family. She scorns Richard III and refuses him her daughter.
Constance of Bretagne King John She goes into battle for the sake of her son. Her intense grief over the death of her son is scorned by the men.
Eleanor of Aquitaine King John Almost 80 years old, she marches off to battle in France.
Volumnia Coriolanus She rules the country while her son is away. She saves Rome from destruction by controlling her son, the country’s most forceful man.
Cleopatra Antony and Cleopatra She is a powerful ruler of her country. She loves whom she pleases.
Fulvia Julius Caesar She leads a Roman army into war and is first on the field.
Tamora, Queen of the Goths Titus Andronicus She leads an army, fights for her sons, murders when necessary, loves whom she pleases.
Queen Katherine of Aragon Henry VIII She is a virtuous, steadfast woman who perseveres with grace through her husband’s perfidy.
Lady Macbeth Macbeth She has the strength and mettle “of a man” to do what needs to be done to have power. Wishes she could be a man so she would have the capability to be cruel.
Portia and Calpurnia Julius Caesar Their quiet wisdom and family values are ignored by their husbands. Portia commits suicide by holding hot coals in her mouth to avoid the shame of her husband’s defeat.
Adriana and her sister Luciana The Comedy of Errors They debate “obedience” to a husband vs. “servitude.”
Katharina The Taming of the Shrew A complex woman who defies men and their marriage plans for her until “wooed” by one of her own mettle.
Mistress Quickly 1, 2 Henry IV and Henry V She runs a business, a tavern.
Paulina The Winter’s Tale Strong and undaunted, she stands up to powerful men, including the King. She keeps a secret with another woman for fifteen years, until the oracle is proven true.
Charmian Antony and Cleopatra Her loyalty is so strong that she commits suicide with Cleopatra.

Professor Juliet Dusinberre concludes her thought-provoking book, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, with this:
“Shakespeare saw men and women as equal in a world which declared them unequal. He did not divide human nature into the masculine and the feminine, but observed in the individual woman or man an infinite variety of union between opposing impulses. To talk about Shakespeare’s women is to talk about his men, because he refused to separate their worlds physically, intellectually, or spiritually. Where in every other field understanding of Shakespeare’s art grows, reactions to his women continually recycle, because critics are still immersed in preconceptions which Shakespeare discarded about the nature of women.”

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*One of Shakespeare’s daughters, Judith, signed her name with an X. His other daughter Susanna’s first name is on a deed (nothing else in her writing has been found), but she could not read nor even recognize her husband’s handwriting when asked. Her name is written is in a style called “secretary hand,” a style of writing that was not taught to women at the time.