Young women in Shakespeare’s comedies

Bachelor Thesis, 2008

43 Pages, Grade: 1,7



I. Introduction.

II. Main Part
A. Young women in their plays
1. Miranda
2. Rosalind and Celia
3. Viola
4. Hermia and Helena
5. Hero and Beatrice
B. Shakespeare’s heroines – compared and contrasted

III. Conclusion



I. Introduction

Compared to other writers of his time, Shakespeare introduces an unusual amount of deep female characters in his comedies. His representation of women, in particular the ways in which his female roles are interpreted and put on stage, have become topics of scientific interest. Especially the young women often show vitality, great intelligence, and a strong sense of personal independence, which marks them as “queen[s] of comedy” (Palmer 72). Therefore, they are often referred to as Shakespeare’s heroines.

In the following, I want to show their importance and point out that each heroine, although they all share character traits, has distinct and unique qualities. In doing so, I will occasionally refer to a secondary literature and involve positions of different critics. Though, my attention will be focussed on the plays treated in this research paper: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night. On the basis of these romantic comedies, I will analyse how the young women are presented and subsequently compare them among one another.

In the first part I will look at each heroine individually and introduce their plays. Then I will develop possible similarities between them: Beautiful but unworldly Miranda seems to be totally controlled by her father Prospero, but she shows a strong will in planning a shared future with Ferdinand and she is aware of her superiority to the savage Caliban. Hermia’s father similarly chooses her husband. With magic help, however, she and Helena manage to come together with the right partner. Moreover, Helena reveals that she believes in the transformative power of love (MND I.2, 233-4).

Viola in Twelfth Night is in a way almost the opposite of Rosalind in As You Like It, although both plays deal with a cross-dressed heroine. Whereas Rosalind can tease Orlando, always knowing that he is in love with her and being moreover able to reveal herself to him whenever she wants, Viola feels trapped in her disguise and has to work for the man she is in love with and even woo another woman on his behalf. Beatrice may not disguise herself in order to show her power like Rosalind, but she is nevertheless a strong female character: she marries only after asserting her dislike for the traditionally minor role of women in marriage and courtship in that time.

At the end, I will shortly summarise my results in a conclusion and demonstrate that each heroine plays a crucial role and that the young women have rightly become a trademark for Shakespeare’s romantic comedies.

II. Main

A. The young women in their plays

1. Miranda

Shakespeare’s play The Tempest fascinates its readers and audience with “its intricate blend of magic, music, humour, intrigue and tenderness” (Vaughan pp. 1). Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, has been dispelled by his jealous brother Antonio and Alonso, the King of Naples. With the help of the old and honest lord Gonzales, Prospero manages to flee in a boat, which is well-provided with food, water, and a great library. He strands on an island, which has been inhabited by a number of spirits and Caliban, a savage who is frequently referred to as a monster by the other characters (e.g. II.2, 30). Caliban becomes a slave to Prospero and teaches him how to survive on the island, whereas Prospero teaches him religion and his language. Another servant of Prospero is the airy spirit Ariel, whom he has rescued from imprisonment in a tree.

Among these creatures lives the young and beautiful Miranda. She is Prospero’s only offspring and was not older than three years when she arrived on the island; in the course of the play she is approximately fifteen years old (Vaughan 24). The character of Miranda is important for at least two reasons. First of all, she is the only female character who appears in the entire play. The reader is not able to compare her beauty to any other female in the world of The Tempest. Although she does not speak many lines, her role is crucial for the developments of the events in the play. Prospero tells her that he has started everything “but in care of thee” (I.2, 16). In the same scene the slavery of Caliban is presented as the consequence of his attempt to rape her (I.2, 345). Nearly the whole action of the play can be traced to Miranda: Prospero summons the tempest in order to work out his well thought-out plan. Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples, should marry Miranda. Then, his grandchildren, as Gonzalo wonderingly points out, would rule his enemies’ land: “Was Milan thrust from Milan that his issue / Should become kings of Naples?” (V.1, 205-6). According to Bamber (182), Prospero’s control of Miranda is comparable to his control of his fortune itself. He knows that the only way to win the power struggle against Antonio is to involve his trustful daughter into his political plan, who serves as the ultimate fantasy for any male.

Her strong attraction is another reason for her importance in the play. Beside her beauty, she was taught by Prospero every day and is therefore very intelligent, and she has never been touched by another male. Shakespeare makes Miranda even more desirable by including the fact that she has never seen or even talked to a man except to her father and Caliban. When she sees Ferdinand the first time she comments: “This / Is the third man that e’er I saw, […]” (I.2, 445-6).

Miranda appears to be a compassionate and gentle, but also quite passive heroine. In her very first lines in the play she has just seen the shipwreck and shows an honest and emotional nature:

O, I have suffered

With those that I saw suffer – a brave vessel

(Who had no doubt some noble creature in her)

Dashed all to pieces. O, the cry did knock

Against my very heart. (I.2, 5-9)

She has presumably never seen any grief or at least cannot remember her parents’ suffering and the narrow escape from Milan. That is why she is sad about any harm she sees or hears: When Prospero tells her about their escape from Milan, she answers: “I, not remeb’ring how I cried out then, / Will cry it o’er again.” (I.2, 134-5). Since her father was the only person she could talk to, she welcomes new strangers with great devotion. Except for Caliban, who attempted to rape her, she generally believes people to be good and “noble creature[s]” (I.2, 7). It is therefore not surprising that she falls in love with the first young men she has ever seen: “I might call him / A thing divine, for nothing natural / I ever saw so noble.” (I.2, 418-9). Like the rest of the ship’s crew, Ferdinand, the son to the King of Naples, stranded on the island. He, however, is led to Miranda by Ariel, who flies under orders of Prospero. At this point, the reader realizes that the two lovers do not accidentally meet each other. Prospero already knew that every man would desire beautiful Miranda and that she would instantly fall in love with Ferdinand at first sight. Therefore, he develops a plan to bring the two lovers together and to prove their love:

[aside] They are both in either’s powers, but this swift business

I must uneasy make, lest too light winning

Make the prize light. (I.2, 451-3)

Prospero does not want them to rush into marriage too fast because this is closely linked with a first sexual contact. In his opinion, the two lovers have to wait in order to increase their mutual desire. He intentionally accuses Ferdinand to be “a spy” (I.2, 456), “a traitor” (I.2, 461), and “an impostor” (I.2, 478) and thus lets him do Caliban’s work. Miranda however does not understand Prospero’s reaction: “Why speaks my father so ungently?” (I.2, 445), but since he raises and teaches her, she has to follow his “hest” (III.1, 37) not to meet Ferdinand or to tell him her name.

Prospero’s plan works out quite well; Ferdinand cannot stop thinking about Miranda and is therefore willing to do hard work for his love, whereas Miranda offers her help when he has to carry logs for a fire (III.1, 23). The lovers seem to be totally controlled by Prospero, but Miranda also shows that she is not as submissive as she seems to be initially. From her point of view, she secretly meets Ferdinand without permission, and when Ferdinand asks her “What is your name?” she replies “Miranda. – O my father, I have broken your hest to say so!”(III.1, 36-7). Furthermore, she organises her own marriage straightforwardly. “Do you love me?” she asks Ferdinand, who is surprised by her simplicity and answers:

O heaven, O earth, bear witness to this sound,

And crown what I profess with kind event

If I speak true; if hollowly, invert

What best is boded me to mischief! I,

Beyond all limit of what else I’th’ world,

Do love, prize, honour you. (III.1, 68-73)

Miranda continues directly with “My husband, then?” (III.1, 88) and consequently seals her future. The clarity of Miranda’s language can be seen as an indicator for her clear desires. Another example for her assertiveness is her stinging rebuke of Caliban after he tried to rape her: “Abhorred slave, / Which any print of goodness wilt not take, / Being capable of all ill; […]” (I.2, 352-63). Some editors have even adjusted these lines and have given it to Prospero, because this reproach seemed to be unsuitable for Miranda (White 125). This change, however, would not comply with her strong will she shows in order to arrange her future with Ferdinand.

Nevertheless, Miranda’s actions are controlled and predicted by her father. Her prior role is not to develop self-reliance, but to serve as a vehicle in order to solve a political problem. The story is framed by the power struggle between Prospero and his brother Antonio. According to Bamber (184), the plot of The Tempest is determined “by the masculine-historical question of ‘Who shall be king?’”. In Act V Miranda and Ferdinand confirm their part in the struggle for power when Prospero reveals them while they are playing chess. Prospero uses the two lovers like pieces on a chess board in his plan to regain power. He has helped Miranda to become man’s ultimate desire by nurturing her:

[…] and here

Have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit

Than other princes can that have more time

For vainer hours, and tutors not so careful. (I.2, 171-4)

As a consequence of their escape to the island, Prospero is able to use more time in order to teach Miranda. He seems to have raised one of the most wonderful women, whose name could not be chosen more aptly: Miranda probably derives from the feminine form of the gerundive of the Latin verb “miror” = wonder (Vaughan 142). Hence Ferdinand proclaims “O, you wonder!” (I.2, 427) when he sees her the first time, and Miranda shows that she instantly regards people as “goodly creatures” (V.1, 182) when at last she sees the other people of the shipwreck:

O wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world

That has such people in it! (V.1, 181-4)

Among the four main actors who are before her eyes, three are evil or used to be evil (Alonso, Antonio, Sebastian), but mannerly Miranda treats them as equal. Her trust in the honesty of mankind can be the basis for a new future. Having obviously never sinned in her life, she is able to overcome the faults of the older generation by marrying Ferdinand, the son and heir of the King of Naples.

Like most of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, The Tempest deals with a conflict which disturbs the natural order. Antonio overthrew his brother with help of Alonso and thus changed this order. Miranda’s love to Ferdinand is the only chance of reconciliation between the two parties. Under Prospero’s control she transfers the political conflict to a family level and solves it with a great marriage. Although her love and marriage was predicted by Prospero and she does not speak many lines in the play, Miranda is still a major and irreplaceable character because of her extreme propensity towards goodness and purity and her straightforwardness in planning her future.

2. Rosalind and Celia

The plot of As You Like It starts with the enraged Orlando, whose father Sir Rowland de Boys recently died. Being his youngest son, Orlando is angry with his older brother, Oliver, for giving him nothing from their father's estate. Oliver furthermore denies him the education and training which is proper for a gentleman and encourages the Duke’s wrestler Charles to be merciless in the upcoming fight with Orlando. According to Oliver “there is not one so young and so villainous this day living.”(I.1, 144-5)

Through Charles the reader also gets to know that Duke Senior has been usurped of his throne by his brother, Duke Frederick, and has fled to the Forest of Arden, where he lives like Robin Hood with a group of loyal followers. His daughter Rosalind however is still at the Duke’s palace; not only because Duke Frederick loves Rosalind as though she was his own daughter, but the Duke’s daughter, Celia, has a great friendship with her cousin and cannot bear to be parted from her. In her first appearance in the play Rosalind is melancholic about her father’s banishment. Celia meanwhile tries to cheer her up and even pledges by her honour (I.2, 20-1) to give the throne to Rosalind in the case of Duke Frederick’s death. As a result, Rosalind promises to be less depressed and the two young ladies wittily discuss the role of “Nature” and “Fortune” in their lives (I. 2, 30-55). Rosalind and Celia’s characters seem to correspond to each other as Charles states that “never two ladies loved as they do” (I.1, 106) in the world of As You Like It. But their love to each other is not sexual and does not prevent them from falling in love with a man. Therefore, Celia promotes Rosalind when she and Orlando immediately fall in love with each other, while the women try to dissuade him from his effort to defeat Charles.

Rosalind. The little strength that I have, I would it were with you.

Celia. And mine to eke hers. (I.2, 185-7)

They assume that Orlando is too young to fight against the successful wrestler, but when Rosalind realizes that she cannot persuade him, she hopes being deceived in him (I.2, 189). After Orlando has unexpectedly won the wrestling match, Rosalind loves him even more, since she hears that Orlando is the son of Sir Rowland de Boys, a good friend of her father, the Duke Senior (I.2, 235-9). In order to show her devotion, Rosalind makes further compliments and gives him a necklace, but Orlando seems to be speechless. He does not find the right words to tell her in a gentle way about the strong feelings he is sharing with her.

The love between Rosalind and Orlando is a love at the very first sight and makes the two lovers powerless: Orlando wonders why he cannot express his feelings, and Rosalind is again melancholic when she tells Celia about her love to Orlando. Moreover, she already thinks of sexual contact, calling her love her “child’s father” (I.3, 11). Celia subsequently asks her cousin how she could manage to fall in love with Orlando so quickly, but Rosalind asserts that her “father loved his father [, Sir Rowland de Boys,] dearly” (I.3, 28) and begs Celia to love him, too.

At this point, Shakespeare could have ended his romantic play with Orlando’s and Rosalind’s wedding; they both, however, have to leave the court for a while in order to prove their sudden love and to reconstitute the normal order. Duke Frederick regretfully hears that the son of his enemy, Sir Rowland de Boys, manages to beat his wrestler, and he does not want their family to cheapen his reputation. Therefore Orlando decides to flee from the tyrannical Duke. For the same reason, Duke Frederick banishes Rosalind from court, who could moreover derogate Celia. Because of their “loves [which] / Are dearer than the natural bond of sisters” (I.2, 264-5) Celia follows Rosalind into the Forest of Arden in order to search for her father, the Duke Senior.

The change of setting to the Forest of Arden also introduces changes on roles: Since the woods can be a dangerous place for gentlewomen, Rosalind and Celia decide to disguise themselves. Hence, Rosalind now calls herself Ganymede and is dressed as a shepherd boy, whereas Celia pretends to be his sister Aliena. According to Callaghan (292), the relations between the cousins also change. At the court Celia’s greater resources and greater affection make her Rosalind’s protector: “[…] Rosalind lacks then love / Which teacheth thee that thou and I am one. / Shall we be sundered? Shall we part, sweet girl? / No, let my father seek another heir!” (I.3, 93-6), but in the forest Rosalind takes the lead. Celia resists other loves so far and is therefore reduced to watch or mock Rosalind while she is fulfilled with love to Orlando.

After having arrived in the forest together with Touchstone, a clown at Duke Frederick’s court, who accompanies them in their flight, the two women meet the two shepherds Silvius and Corin. With the introduction of Silvius, the reader begins to identify the foolishness of love as opposed to its delightfulness. He laments to Corin that he is love’s only true victim and implies that never a man has loved so much as he loves Phoebe (II.4, 22-40). Rosalind at first pities Silvius’s situation and compares it to her own, but she then agrees with Touchstone on the silliness of being in love.

Touchstone. […]We that are true lovers run into strange capers. But as all is

mortal in nature, so is all nature in love mortal in folly” (II.4, 50-3)

Rosalind is presented with a lot of wit and is thus able to recognize that her sudden devotion to Orlando made her act foolishly. When she realises that the love poems composed in Rosalind’s honour, which hang on every tree, were written by Orlando, she is indeed full of delight,

From the east to western Inde

No jewel is like Rosalind.

Her worth being mounted on the wind

Through all the world bears Rosalind. (III.2, 85-8)

But she also notes that Orlando’s love, even if he praises her beauty and perfection, testifies to his immaturity and to his lack of communicative ability. His poems do not acknowledge Rosalind’s personality or individuality, comparing Rosalind to mere objects like “jewel[s]” (III.2, 86) and describing her by using features of goddesses and important women of Roman and Greek mythology (III.2, 142-4). Therefore, she decides to incite his desires and prove his love. Now, as Ganymede, she exploits her role, teases Orlando about this woman he is in love with, and pretends to cure his lovesickness.

Although Orlando does not see through Rosalind’s disguise and is completely convinced that Ganymede is male, it is interesting that he finds himself strangely fascinated by the youth and is even attracted to him (Orgel 57). A character in disguise generally fits in a comedy because his disguise is very obvious for the audience, but unnoticed by the characters in the play. The sometimes overlaying shifts of the character between his true and masquerade personality can lead to amusing misunderstandings. This is especially the case when a woman is impersonating a man, as Rosalind does, so that at one moment she is seen as a young loving woman and then she shifts her gender, becoming more masculine. When Rosalind tries to be convincingly male, her attempts are moreover very stereotypical:

Orlando. Did you ever cure any so?

Rosalind. Yes, one, and in hid manner, He was to imagine me his love, his

mistress, and I set him every day to woo me. At which time would I – being but a moonish youth – grieve, be effeminate, changeable, longing and liking, proud, fantastical, apish, shallow, inconstant, full of tears, full of smiles; for every passion something and for no passion truly anything, […] (III.2, 389-96)

She lists character traits, which are said to be feminine by many men – particularly being moody – in order to see if Orlando still loves her when he gets to know her bad side. In addition, Ganymede assures to Orlando: “I would cure you if you would but call me Rosalind and come every day to my cot and woo me” (III.2, 408-9). This Rosalind, played by Ganymede played by Rosalind, enables her to subordinate Orlando. She replaces the Rosalind of his love poems with another Rosalind: a moody but powerful women and wife. In doing so, she perhaps imagines herself into the role of this Rosalind in order to reduce her own fears of being subordinated to a lover or husband.


Excerpt out of 43 pages


Young women in Shakespeare’s comedies
University of Osnabrück
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Young, Shakespeare’s, comedy, women, tempest, as you like it, midsummernight's dream, much ado about nothing
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Theo Tebbe (Author), 2008, Young women in Shakespeare’s comedies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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