Female roles in Shakespeare

Female Roles in Shakespeare. 

Shakespeare has written some of the most complex, detailed and human characters in theatre history. If we look beyond the fact that most of these well written people are male, and focus on the females that are there, we can see that there is a cache of strong, multi- layered and endlessly fascinating women that an actor would be privileged to play.

It is also worth keeping in mind that, although often strongly feminist for their time (Beatrice, Kate, Titania), a lot of female roles in Shakespeare are often submissive, passive or ‘male lead focussed’. However, as with all theatre that stands the test of time, modern day approaches can change the angle on the way these parts are interpreted, and a good director will help the actor to play them in nuanced, thought provoking ways that challenge the way they were initially written.

Also, (as in Shakespeare’s time when the female roles would be played by men,) we are currently in an age of theatre where there is nothing stopping women playing the male roles, and as countless actresses have done so recently, women now have the opportunity to play Hamlet, King Lear, or Prospero. The characters are written so well, that with the focus being on the words, and not the gender of the character (Twelfth night, As You Like It and more already focus on gender-bending anyway) each play can be brought alive by actors regardless of their gender.

  •        Maxine Peak played Hamlet at The Royal Exchange in Manchester.
  •      Tamsin Greig played Malvolia (A female reimagining of the role) at The National
  •     Glenda Jackson played King Lear at The Old Vic
  •      And Helen Mirren played ‘Prospera’ – a reimagining of Prospero, Miranda’s father in ‘Tempest’ – a film of the play.

Here is a look at five of Shakespeare best parts for women.

Lady Macbeth.

“Infirm of purpose!
Give me the daggers. The sleeping and the dead
Are but as pictures; 'tis the eye of childhood
that fears a painted devil.”

Lady Macbeth is arguably Shakespeare’s strongest female lead. The ruthlessness she shows on her quest for power (albeit via her husband, Macbeth) goes beyond all expected of a ‘woman’ in that time. As indicated in the quotation above, she pushes her husband to extremes, insisting that unless he do as she says, he is ‘childish’ and ‘weak’. She is unforgiving in her quest for power, ungentle and ceases to relent before it is too late. It is a not-so-subtle form of bullying and this mature, dark role is full of layers. It is not a role without complexity, as later in the play the guilt finally hits her with abominable strength, eventually costing her her life, and we see a weaker, much more vulnerable side to her as she watches her husband become possessed with the monster that she has awoken in him.

Watch actress Kate Fleetwood perform the famous ‘Come, you spirits’ scene here:


Beatrice is one of the most brilliantly witty and straight talking of Shakespeare’s female characters. She is feminist not just for Shakespeare’s standards but for also for today. Her dialogue with Benedick is some of the most fast paced and funny in Shakespeare’s plays –

Beatrice: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signor Benedick: nobody marks you.
Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?
Beatrice: Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signor Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.
Benedick: Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.
Beatrice: A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me. “

At the start of the play she is adamant that she will never be made to marry as she sees no use of a husband, independent and strong willed enough without one. When she does finally fall for Benedick it is on an equal with him and her strength of character and quick wit is not muted.

Emma Thompson famously played Beatrice in Kenneth Branaghs 1993 film version of the play –

More recently Catherine Tate played opposite David Tennant in The Wyndham Theatre’s production of Much Ado in 2011. Their comic chemistry worked perfectly for the quarrelling (yet in love!) Beatrice and Benedick:

David Tennant in The Wyndham Theatre’s production of Much Ado in 2011


The Taming of the Shrew has famously become a ‘problem’ play in this day and age due to its controversial conclusion, where, a once feisty, independent and strong willed Kate gives a monologue that is submissive, passive and husband-worshipping, opposing her original opinion that independence is key:

“A woman moved is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty,
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee
And for thy maintenance; commits his body
To painful labor both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou li'st warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience--
Too little payment for so great a debt.”

There is great debate about whether this speech is an intentional statement from Shakespeare, highlighting the patriarchal system and how women were broken down to become nothing more than subservient and obedient to their husbands.

 Some modern day interpretations of the text have managed to use this final soliloquy as such – but, regardless of this problem ending, Kate, throughout the play is a feisty, complex and brilliant female role in Shakespeare.

Here is an interesting read on the end of ‘Taming of the Shrew’ and the complexity of Kate:



Titania, Queen of the fairies, is another of Shakespeare’s feisty and brilliant women. An equal with her husband, Oberon, with whom she rules the fairy kingdom, she is a force to be reckoned with. Titania begins the play in a row with Oberon over a little boy that belonged to her friend. Honouring her female friends wish over her husband’s orders shows her as a woman’s woman through and through!

As with many of Shakespeare’s plays, Titania is eventually controlled by the powers of the male- presence in the play, and when Oberon enchants her to fall in love with Bottom – who has been transformed to look like an ass, it diminishes her strength and power. However if we look past this and see the character as she is at the start of the play, we can see the sensual and free willed person she really is, and how she encapsulates enchantment and single minded-ness, all with a good dose of humour.

Watch Judi Dench as Titania here:

And the trailer a more modern day version, directed by Russel T Davies with Maxine peak playing Titania, here:

Russel T Davies with Maxine Peak playing Titania


Twelfth Night’s brilliant female protagonist, Viola, decides to go under-cover as a man in order to navigate her way through life and obtain respect and privilege. This brave and unique decision, although creating some problems and throwing up confusion along the way, is a strong choice that enables her to manipulate what occurs for her own benefit. The way Orsino falls for her whilst she is still disguised as a boy may also be a comment on gender and sexuality from Shakespeare. Overall, Twelfth Night is a rarity in that the lead character whose story we follow is female, even if she is cross dressing throughout!

Joanna Lumley gives a brilliant reading of the famous ‘Ring’ speech here:

Article by: Bebe Sanders.