Margaret isn’t the only woman in Shakespeare’s works to rule! Let’s look at how The Bard has portrayed three other ladies in positions of power – and how his writing depicted women in leadership at the time.
Good old Lady M. from Macbeth is probably one of the first characters to come to mind when you think of “powerful Shakespearean women.” But powerful doesn’t necessarily mean “morally good.”
Lady Macbeth convinces her husband to murder the king of Scotland for the throne. She knows exactly how to manipulate Macbeth into doing so by questioning his manhood and strength. Yet beyond the Scottish play’s first act, Lady Macbeth fades into the background, plagued by guilt and spending her nights sleepwalking through the castle. She ultimately kills herself off-stage.
Interpretations of Lady Macbeth’s character vary widely: is she an intelligent, powerful person who is ultimately “punished” for having more ambition than women were expected to at the time? A devoted wife who would do anything to help her husband get ahead, no matter the cost? Or just a manipulative person who performs horrible deeds for her own sake? Regardless of how you view her, Lady Macbeth has admirable willpower and bold ambition – perhaps more than any other Shakespearean woman.
Unlike Lady Macbeth, Titania isn’t a noblewoman from a real-life kingdom, but rather the queen of mythical fairies. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also a comedy and not a tragedy. Do these factors have an impact on Titania’s fate?
At the beginning of the play, Titania appears to jointly rule the fairy kingdom alongside her husband Oberon and demonstrates both political and magical prowess. However, Oberon and Titania come into conflict when Titania adopts a changeling boy whose mother, a mortal friend of Titania’s, died during childbirth. Titania wants to raise the child, but Oberon thinks he’d make a better henchman. Oberon decides to punish Titania for her “disobedience” by having his servant Puck slip her a potion that causes the consumer to fall in love with the first person they see. For poor Titania, this ends up being Nick Bottom, a man who was cursed by Puck to have a donkey’s head.
Titania spends most of the play literally in love with an ass, but to be fair, it’s not like she had a choice. But even after Oberon reverses the curse, Titania seems to have submitted to her husband’s wish regarding the changeling — and other matters. Is this Shakespeare’s way of encouraging “unruly” women to submit their power to men? Or maybe it’s not that deep and Shakespeare just thought it would be funny to watch someone fall head-over-heels for a donkey-man.
Did you know that Antony and Cleopatra is one of the few Shakespeare works never staged at Trinity Rep? Regardless, its leading lady is an interesting example of how Shakespeare deconstructs female power.
Shakespeare’s Cleopatra can be described as a go-to example of a femme fatale: She is unapologetically passionate, sensual, and rules Egypt completely independently as queen, all while having the Roman general Antony wrapped around her finger. Yet the men of the play objectify and exoticize Cleo, call her a “witch,” and belittle Antony for being “emasculated” by Cleopatra’s power. Through a series of miscommunication and tragedies, Cleopatra ultimately meets a dark fate. In the final act, Cleopatra laments that if she were to turn herself over to the Romans, she and her people would be treated simply as “mechanical slaves,” forced into a submissive role without agency. And just like Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra also dies at her own hand, albeit not out of shame for her actions, but to avoid living without agency under Roman rule.
In some productions, Cleopatra is portrayed as a seductress who leads Antony to his doom: Cleo and her fleet ditch Antony during an important battle, and he kills himself for her. In recent years, however, Cleopatra has been seen as more of a tragic figure: one who didn’t want to submit to a patriarchal society and was punished for it.
These are just a few observations we can make, and there’s no way of completely knowing Shakespeare’s true intentions. As such, it’s ultimately up for readers and audiences to decide how they want to interpret the works. Let us know what you think!