I wrote the essay adapted below for my Shakespeare class at Grove City College. Out of four heroines from Shakespeare, I chose the best heroine. Now, I haven’t read all of Shakespeare, so this is just out of these four plays: Much Ado About Nothing, Cymbeline, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It.
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
Shakespeare is famous for creating strong heroines who win over their audience with stunning lines and autonomous, creative decisions. To analyze these heroines properly, the definition of a heroine must be considered. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a heroine is a “woman distinguished by the performance of courageous or noble actions” and “a woman generally admired or acclaimed for her great qualities or achievements.” While this definition is suitable for real-life heroines, a great heroine in a play must have the added quality of being a great protagonist. To be a great protagonist, one should be a character who exhibits a range of emotions, changes over the course of the play, and is complex and engaging. Among Shakespeare’s heroines, those who stand out by fitting these criteria are Beatrice, Imogen, Viola, and Rosalind. Only one, however, can be considered Shakespeare’s greatest heroine. Arguably, the one who best demonstrates the qualities outlined above is Rosalind, the protagonist of Twelfth Night, who is distinguishable from the rest by her adaptability, by her role as deus ex machina, and by her function as the epilogue at the end of her play.
Another definition of heroine from the Oxford English Dictionary is “the central female character in a story, play, film, etc.; esp. one whom the reader or audience is intended to support or admire.” This definition is broader and thus applies easily to Beatrice, Imogen, Viola, and Rosalind. Due to its broadness, this definition alone is not sufficient for analyzing the heroines, but combined with the previous criteria, it does serve as a proper basis for analysis. As a result, the greatest heroine must be a distinguished woman who acts as a worthy protagonist and induces admiration in her audience; she also must be superior to the other heroines in some way.
The first heroine, Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, is the wittiest among the four. Her trained tongue always turns the conversation in her favor. When poking fun at Benedick and attempting to gauge his success during the war, Beatrice quips, “But how many hath he killed? For indeed I promised to eat all of his killing” (Much Ado About Nothing 1.2.41-42). Rather than simply stating that she believes Benedick is incompetent, she brings up a wager she made with Benedick that reveals her expectations of his failures. Beatrice has more fun at his expense, saying “he is no less a stuffed man. But for the stuffing—well, we are all mortal” (Much Ado About Nothing 1.1.55-56) This is to say that he has the personality of a scarecrow or taxidermic creation, lacking depth and only at best having the label of a mere mortal. Her wit is further demonstrated when she and Benedick are in disguise at a party. Knowing very well who it is she is speaking to, she says of Benedick that “he is the Prince’s jester, a very dull fool” (Much Ado About Nothing 2.1.131). Even Benedick comments on her masterful usage of wit, saying “Thou hast frighted the word out of his right sense, so forcible is thy wit” (Much Ado About Nothing 5.2.53-54).
Beatrice has other positive qualities, such as a deep sense of empathy for her family. Beatrice’s love for Hero is evident when her cousin is falsely slandered. The injustice done to Hero wounds Beatrice almost as much. “Lady Beatrice, have you wept all this while?” Benedick asks her, revealing her profound sorrow (Much Ado About Nothing 4.1.255). In general though, she is cheerful, which is demonstrated by Don Pedro’s comment: “In faith, lady, you have a merry heart” (Much Ado About Nothing 2.1.298). Moreover, her convictions are strong. When Benedick asks what he can do for her and their love, she says “Kill Claudio” without a second’s hesitation (Much Ado About Nothing 4.1.288). In addition, she is a well-rounded protagonist who changes to recognize the love within herself by the end of the play.
These qualities all are becoming of the ideal heroine, but Beatrice also has several shortcomings. For instance, “though Beatrice and Benedick pride themselves on the acuity of their mental eyesight, one of their most striking traits is a kind of tunnel vision not far removed from blindness” (King 148). Beatrice is no love expert; in fact, she is incapable of acknowledging her own feelings for Benedick until she thinks that he is fallen in love with her. It is almost as if she is tricked into loving Benedick, although she likely had some residual feelings for him after their first affair that was alluded to multiple times within the play. Furthermore, “Beatrice is far less aware that she is a superb illustration of self-admiration” (King 147). Part of the reason she is set on remaining a bachelor is because of her pride—no man is good enough for her, bearded or otherwise (Much Ado About Nothing 2.1.31-36). Because of her negative qualities, she falls short of the greatest heroine.
Imogen from the play Cymbeline embodies many of the traits expected in a heroine. According to Bonnie Lander, “Imogen was celebrated as the perfect embodiment of Victorian and feminine traits: she was the supreme product of her age, a textual figure shaped exclusively for and by her culture” (158). She is brave and autonomous, willing to go against her father — “His daughter…hath referred herself unto a poor but worthy gentleman” when she was “purposed to his wife’s sole son” (Cymbeline 1.1.5-7). Her integrity is worthy of remark, since she rejects Iachimo with indignation when he suggests they take revenge on Posthumus by having an affair. Imogen rejects Cloten just as firmly, indicating that even Posthumus’s garments are superior to anything Cloten has to offer, including himself. When she learns that Posthumus believes she is unfaithful, she is willing to die for her supposed crime, even though she knows she is innocent, because she feels that it is impossible to live while being regarded in this way by her husband. Indeed, “one would be quite justified in taking Imogen as an example of Shakespearean purity, undergoing extremes of personal suffering rather than giving in to corruption” (Lander 178).When Pisanio is unwilling to do the murderous deed, Imogen adapts well to her changing circumstances, donning the garments of a man and going undercover to avoid detection by her father and retribution from Posthumus. She makes this choice with conviction and trust, saying “I see into thy end and am almost a man already” (Cymbeline 3.4.167-168).
Additionally, Imogen fulfills the qualities of being an ideal protagonist. Her emotions are varied according to circumstance, rather than being regularly depicted as representative of a particular emotion—as a result, she is a dynamic character. She changes from being disobedient to her father’s wishes in the beginning to yielding to them in the end. As Lander explains, “the Shakespearean heroine willingly submits to masculine power” (162). Even though she and her husband Posthumus were next in line for the throne, she modestly cedes this right to her brothers when they are found. As for complexity, she conforms to the standards expected of her often enough that it makes her seem shallow.
Imogen has more negative traits that detract from her heroine status. For example, she shifts the blame for her actions on others, saying to her father “It is your fault that I have loved Posthumus” (Cymbeline 1.1.14). Furthermore, she is over-sensitive, as the queen explains to Cymbeline: “She’s a lady so tender of rebukes that words are strokes and strokes death to her” (Cymbeline 3.5.37-39). While Imogen is loyal to her husband, she does not show the same loyalty to Lucius, who has taken her into his service, indicating that his “life, good master, must shuffle for itself” even when he asks her to beg for his life (Cymbeline 5.5.105-106).
Viola from the play Twelfth Night is a strong heroine. She demonstrates her bravery when she decides to go disguised in a foreign land shortly after the supposed drowning of her brother. Unlike Imogen, Viola’s disguise is an idea that originates with her, revealing her adaptability. She is also a figure of integrity, wooing willingly on Orsino’s behalf even though she would rather be Orsino’s beloved. Even when Olivia offers her love, Viola preserves her integrity and her love for Orsino by refusing her unequivocally and without lying: “I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth, and that no woman has, nor never none shall mistress be of it save I alone” (Twelfth Night 3.1.158-160.) Only those who know of her disguise realize that she is saying she is a woman, and thus is mistress of her own heart. This shows her intelligence as well. Not only does she woo for Orsino, she also does her best to win Olivia over even though she does not have to and even though that works against her own interests. The language she uses to do so is masterful, befitting a heroine, as she says that Orsino loves Olivia “with adorations, fertile tears, with groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire” (Twelfth Night 1.5.250-251). In language reminiscent of Shakespeare’s early sonnets, she chastises Olivia, saying “Lady, you are the cruel’st she alive if you will lead these graces to the grave and leave the world no copy” (Twelfth Night 1.5.236-238). Viola is also remarkable for her generosity. For instance, “only Viola consistently gives freely and graciously with no expectation of profit or power” (Henze 269). As Richard Henze argues, by giving half her purse to Antonio and offering even her life to Orsino, “Viola becomes the embodiment of gracious, nearly divine Twelfth Night giving” (269).
Viola is a prime example of a protagonist. The change that she undergoes throughout the play is one that love wrought within her, as she becomes increasingly attracted to Orsino. As the play progresses, she becomes an expert in love, and she even tells Orsino “Too well what love women to men may owe. In faith, they are as true of heart as we,” for she has learned the depth of romantic and filial love her heart can bear (2.4.104-105). Her emotions vary from profound grief to deep happiness, as well as indignation. Overall, she is well-rounded and complex character with no clear weaknesses.
The final heroine, Rosalind of the play As You Like It, boasts many strengths. For one, she is as brave in the face of adversity as the aforementioned heroines. “Unless you could teach me to forget a banished father, you must not learn me how to remember any extraordinary pleasures,” she says to Celia and not long after is banished herself and has to deal with the repercussion (As You Like It 1.2.3-5). It is her suggestion that she dress as a man, “because I am more than common tall, that I did suit me all points like a man” (As You Like It 1.3.113-114). She further demonstrates her adaptability and quick thinking when she is questioned by others. When Orlando mentions that she speaks as if she lived a courtly life, she says “I have been told so of many. But indeed an old religious uncle of mine taught me to speak, who was in his youth an inland man, one that knew courtship too well” (As You Like It 3.2.336-339). During this meeting with Orlando, she thinks of a plan on the spot, to have him woo her and prove his love to Rosalind, once again showing her quick decision-making skills. Her cleverness is further shown by her interaction with her father while she is still disguised as a man: “I met the Duke yesterday and had much question with him. He asked me of what parentage I was. I told him as good as he” (As You Like It 3.4.33-35). Even when she is honest in speech, she is able to hide her true identity.
As a heroine, Rosalind is especially empathetic toward others. Even though she is dealing with adversities herself, she is able to appreciate when goodness befalls Celia. “Well, I will forget the condition of my estate to rejoice in yours,” she tells Celia (As You Like It 1.2.14-15). When Orlando is getting ready to wrestle against the infamous Charles, Rosalind implores that he call off the match. She shows remarkable insight into his feelings when she promises, “your reputation should not therefore be misprized. We shall make it our suit to the Duke that the wrestling might not go forward” (As You Like It 1.2.172-174). She recognizes the dignity of Orlando and offers him a way out of the situation that would not harm his honor. Rosalind shows similar empathy toward Silvius. “Alas, poor shepherd!” she laments, “Searching of thy wound, I have by hard adventure found mine own” (As You Like It 2.4.42-43). Upon seeing and hearing Silvius, she realizes that the pangs of her heart for Orlando mirror the way that Silvius longs for Phoebe. Finally, her empathy is shown when she faints at the sight of Orlando’s blood on a handkerchief.
Unlike Beatrice, Rosalind is an expert when it comes to love. Her first experience of romantic love in the play is when Orlando participates in the wrestling match. “Sir, you have wrestled well and overthrown more than your enemies,” she admits, revealing that her own heart has been overthrown by the prodigy (As You Like It 1.2.244-245.) It is truly love at first sight, occurring so quickly that Celia asks, “Is it possible, on such a sudden, you should fall into so strong a liking with old Sir Rowland’s youngest son?” (As You Like It 1.3.26-28). When questioned by Orlando, she not only fools him easily, she also poses to him a test of his love: “He was to imagine me his love, his mistress; and I set him every day to woo me” (As You Like It 3.2.397-399). It is clear that she does not believe the depth of Orlando’s love and seeks to find out if he truly loves her. Rosalind shows her expertise in love by looking for the signs of it in Orlando and finding him wanting— “There is none of my uncle’s marks upon you. He taught me how to know a man in love” (As You Like It 3.3.360-361). As Margaret Boerner Beckman suggests, Rosalind “is a woman presenting the voice of critical realism about love” (46-47). She is not one to believe without seeing proof. Furthermore, Rosalind demonstrates this realism when she is advising others on matter of love. When Phoebe is rejecting Silvius, Rosalind tells her wryly, “Sell when you can. You are not for all markets” (As You Like It 3.5.60). This may seem cruel, but it is a part of Rosalind’s honesty, and a sign of goodwill for the couple rather than any jealousy on her part. When Phoebe falls in love with Rosalind, who Phoebe knows by the name of Ganymede and thinks is a man, Rosalind adheres to the social mores of her time and rejects this love with repugnance. Knowing that Phoebe would not want to marry her if Phoebe knew she was a woman, Rosalind tries to reject her as firmly as possible. By the end of the play, Rosalind is well-versed in the language and experience of love.
Perhaps the reason that Rosalind stands out from the rest of the heroines is her importance and power as a character. According to Beckman, “while she seems as helpless as anyone in the play—under sentence of death, without a father or lover, without money, she also seems to have greater powers than anyone else in the play, directing others as she will and finally entering in Act V with the god of marriage himself” (51). Rosalind is truly a deus ex machina in the play, playing matchmaker for Orlando and herself as well as Phoebe and Silvius. In the end, she convinces Phoebe to marry Silvius and Orlando to marry herself by lifting her disguise at just the right moment, tying up all the loose ends in the play. Her importance is further underlined by her appearance as the epilogue at the end of play. It is Rosalind who gets the final word in As You Like It.
Rosalind is an example of a good protagonist because she demonstrates a range of emotions including sorrow, love, happiness, disgust, indignance, and frustration. Furthermore, she is complex due to her wit and creativity, which aided her during her period of banishment in the forest. Ultimately, Rosalind is the greatest heroine because of her profound empathy, her role of power within the play, her expertise when it comes to love, and her adaptability and intelligence.
- Beckman, Margaret Boerner. “The Figure of Rosalind In As You Like It.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 1, 1978, www.jstor.org/stable/2869168. Accessed 18 April 2020.
- Henze, Richard. “‘Twelfth Night’: Free Disposition on the Sea of Love.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 83, no. 2, 1975, www.jstor.org/stable/27542964. Accessed 18 April 2020.
- “heroine, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2020, www.oed.com/view/Entry/86311. Accessed 18 April 2020.
- King, Walter N. “Much Ado About Something.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 15, no. 3, 1964, www.jstor.org/stable/2868316. Accessed 18 April 2020.
- Lander, Bonnie. “Interpreting the Person: Tradition, Conflict, and Cymbeline’s Imogen.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 2, 2008, www.jstor.org/stable/40210262. Accessed 18 April 2020.
- Shakespeare, William. “As You Like It.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, Pearson Education, Inc., 2014, 298-332.
- —. “Cymbeline.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, Pearson Education, Inc., 2014, 1479-1526.
- —. “Much Ado About Nothing.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, Pearson Education, Inc., 2014, 223-255.
- —. “Twelfth Night.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, Pearson Education, Inc., 2014, 337-369.
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