froward: Disposed to go counter to what is demanded or what is reasonable; perverse, difficult to deal with, hard to please; refractory, ungovernable.
“That wench is stark mad or wonderful froward.”
Tranio, in The Taming of the Shrew
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.
The following list is certainly not intended as proof that a woman wrote these plays, but is merely 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 would he let his own daughters* grow up illiterate?
The Froward Women
Hero in Much Ado About Nothing is a virtuous woman unjustly accused of gross infidelity by her fiancé and thus also spurned by her own father and Don Pedro. She agrees to fake her death until her honor is restored.
Hermione in The Winter’s Tale is a virtuous wife unjustly accused of infidelity by a jealous husband. With her waiting woman, she fakes her death and hides herself for fifteen years, until exonerated.
Mrs. Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor 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 in Othello 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 in Romeo and Juliet defies her belligerent father to marry the man of her choice.
Lavinia in Titus Andronicus defies her father to marry the man of her choice.
Anne Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor defies her father and mother to marry the man of her choice.
Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream defies her father to marry the man of her choice.
Sylvia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona defies her father to marry the man of her choice. Her father throws her in jail, she escapes, and is captured by outlaws.
Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew defies her father to marry the man of her choice.
Perdita in The Winter’s Tale defies her lover’s father to marry the man of her choice.
Imogen in Cymbeline 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 in The Merchant of Venice defies her father to marry the man of her choice. She dresses as a man and runs away.
Portia in The Merchant of Venice 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 in The Merchant of Venice dresses as a man (a law clerk) to appear in court. She manipulates and shames her new husband for his fickleness.
Rosalind in As You Like It dresses as a man, runs away into the forest, buys property, arranges the forest society, and marries the man of her choice.
Viola in Twelfth Night dresses as a man, takes a job, and marries the man of her choice.
Joan of Arc in 1 Henry VI dresses as a man and leads armies into battle. In this play she possibly has lovers.
Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona dresses as a man and runs away. She is a steadfast woman scorned by an inconstant lover.
Helen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a steadfast woman scorned by an inconstant lover.
Celia in As You Like It runs away from her father to be true to herself and to her girlfriend. She marries the man of her choice.
Cordelia in King Lear defies her father to be true to herself.
Olivia in Twelfth Night runs an estate and marries the man of her choice.
Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing 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 in 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 in Measure for Measure 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 in All’s Well That Ends Well conspires to hoodwink a profligate man and plays the bed-trick on him.
Maria in Twelfth Night devises a plot to make a fool of a man.
Mrs. Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor 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 in The Merry Wives of Windsor takes advantage of all the men and makes buffoons of them.
Princess of France & her ladies Rosaline, Maria, and Katharine in 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 in King Lear are indomitable, power-hungry sisters who defy their father and husbands. Each takes a lover.
Queen Margaret in 1, 2, 3 Henry VI and Richard III 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) in 3 Henry VI and Richard III 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 in King John 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 in King John, almost 80 years old, marches off to battle in France to support her son.
Volumnia in Coriolanus rules the country while her son is away. She saves Rome from destruction by controlling her son, the country’s most forceful man.
Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra is a powerful ruler of her country. She loves whom she pleases.
Fulvia in Julius Caesar leads a Roman army into war and is first on the field.
Tamora, Queen of the Goths in Titus Andronicus leads an army, fights for her sons, murders when necessary, loves whom she pleases.
Queen Katherine of Aragon in Henry VIII is a virtuous, steadfast woman who perseveres with grace through her husband’s perfidy.
Lady Macbeth in Macbeth has the strength and mettle “of a man” to do what needs to be done to have power. She wishes she could be a man so she would have the capacity to be cruel.
Portia and Calpurnia in Julius Caesar, exhibit quiet wisdom and family values that 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 in The Comedy of Errors debate “obedience” to a husband vs. “servitude.”
Emilia in Othello, after long being obedient to her husband, Iago, finally stands up for what is true, speaking truth to power and proving her husband’s guilt.
Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew is a strong, complex woman who defies men (and their marriage plans for her) until she permits “wooing” by one of her own mettle.
Mistress Quickly in 1, 2 Henry IV and Henry V runs a business, a tavern.
Paulina in The Winter’s Tale is 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 in Antony and Cleopatra, is so absolutely loyal that she commits suicide with Cleopatra.
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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.”
*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.