Before there was Lorelei Gilmore of The Gilmore Girls, Emily from The Bob Newhart Show, or even Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show there was the willful wonderful women in William Shakespeare’s comedies. They are the original women of comedy. None of these women were doormats; rather they made their presence known with intelligence, thus holding a prominent part in their male dominated world. Women create tension. They are adversaries to the male characters. They add romance to the story. They help heighten the stakes of the story. They also add humor to the storylines. In this paper I will be comparing and contrasting the personalities and roles of female characters in Shakespeare’s comedic plays. I will also be explaining how those female characters have been adapted into film versions. These are the following stories I will be focusing on: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, and Much Ado About Nothing.
I am a fan of Shakespeare’s comedies. I do enjoy his tragedies, such as Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth, but I am drawn to the witty banter and silliness that makes up his humorous stories. One of my favorites is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This story is a wondrous mix of fantasy, romance, and folly. There are three main plots to this tale. The first storyline is the marriage of Hippolyta and Theseus with the second one being the love rhombus between Lysander, Helena, Demetrius, and Hermia. Oberon’s revenge on Titania is the last main plotline in this comedy. There are two things that link each story. Each story has a romantic plotline. And, at least one woman plays a critical role in the conclusion of each piece.
With the opening scene in both the play and the movie versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the viewer is introduced to Hippolyta. She is an Amazon queen who was won in battle by the Duke of Athens, Theseus. In the movie version, Hippolyta, one of the older women in the story, is portrayed as being excited about the prospect of wedding Theseus. In fact, I found her to be very eager about the wedding as she said,
Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;
Four nights will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.
(I, i, 7-10)
She is merry and blithe as she talks to Theseus about their future together. She wants time to speed up so that their wedding day would arrive sooner. Hippolyta is eager to marry this man.
Sophie Marceau, who plays Hippolyta, giggles and smiles quite often to show this carefree side of Hippolyta. I found her to be a bit of a nitwit. She is an emotionally driven woman, although her feelings seem to be a bit superficial. Throughout most of the film, she is laughing and agreeable with her husband-to-be. There are only two instances I notice that Sophie Marceau displays something other than cheerfulness. First, her face hardens with anger as she overhears Theseus’s decision that Hermia shall wed Demetrius, be killed, or go to the nunnery, even though she doesn’t say a word of defense for the girl. While watching her wedding reception’s play, her happiness is spoiled. She secretly weeps at the death of the character Thisbe.
I don’t think that the movie portrays Hippolyta properly. My understanding of the woman after I read the play is that she is stern and strong-willed. Hippolyta doesn’t seem happy about the wedding. In fact, there is a sense of dread in her words. She seems to want the freedom to roam around her lands as well as fight in any skirmishes that might take pace wars like she did prior to her captivity. I feel that before coming to Athens, she was a warrior queen – a ruler as well as a fighter. Although, she has a rebellious attitude towards marriage, she is wise about young love. Hippolyta understands that men and women in their late teens and early twenties can quickly change their minds about those they dislike. She demonstrates her knowledge of love in line 25 through 27 in act 5, scene 1,
But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And grows to something of great constancy;
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.
Another older female character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Titania. She is Queen of the fairies and the rival and eventual lover, of Oberon, King of the fairies. Titania is, by far, the most multi-dimensional being in this play because she has a wide variety of personality traits. Michelle Pfeiffer portrays her as kind and caring toward her adopted blue boy from India, calm around her fairy friends, dreamy when around Bottom, and cold around Oberon. She says to Oberon about her wrathful feelings,
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems' thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set. The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazèd world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
(II, i, 107-116)
Titania is a subtle character. Her expressions and gestures are not extreme or exaggerated. This fairy queen has a certain grace that Pfeiffer has masterfully incorporated into her performance. Her lips convey most of Titania’s emotions. She gives small, gentle smiles when discussing her son and when the movie calls for Titania to be angry, Pfeiffer presses her lips together tightly. She does flare her nostrils when furious at Oberon or when she is upset that donkey turned Bottom tries to escape from her side.
I feel that Michelle Pfeiffer was the perfect choice in playing the Queen of the fairies. The actress has a certain elfin look to her face and there is a knowing glint in her eyes that makes her to appear to be much older than she looks. Fairies are immortal after all. They have seen and experienced more of love and life than mere mortals have.
One character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that is not experienced in either love or life is young Hermia. Her one and only, Lysander, seems to be her first and one true love. In the movie, Anna Friel depicts her as soft, but well spoken young woman, which is how I imagined her to be like in the play. The actress shows that Hermia knows what she wants and is willing to go against her father, Egeus and also Theseus, the Duke of Athens, to get it. She demonstrates this self-assurance when she defends her wishes,
I do entreat your grace to pardon me.
I know not by what power I am made bold,
Nor how it may concern my modesty,
In such a presence here to plead my thoughts;
But I beseech your grace that I may know
The worst that may befall me in this case,
If I refuse to wed Demetrius.
Friel also shows Hermia’s boldness when she tells Demetrius, “Out, dog! Out, cur! Thou driv’st me past the bounds Of maiden's patience” ( III, ii, 65-66). There is also a certain aura of fragility to Hermia that Friel adds to this character. She plays the young maiden as modest when she asks Lysander if he would keep himself covered as well as away from her while they sleep in the woods. She is obedient to Lysander and is willing to leave with him. Tears come to her eyes when Theseus declares that she has to marry Demetrius or become a nun unless she wants to be killed. She also weeps when Demetrius tells her, “I love thee not, therefore pursue me not” (II, i,188-189). I believe that Friel did a decent job of portraying Hermia. I think she could have used more facial expressions. She rarely wrinkled her brow even when she wept or smiled.
Perhaps Calista Flockhart, who plays Helena, should have lent Friel some of her expressions. As Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Flockhart overuses her face, making the character seem overacted and melodramatic. I think Flockhart uses at least 10 facial movements in each scene, much like Carol Burnett did in her classic Barbra Stanwyck skit. She rolls her eyes, wrinkles her forehead, and her eyebrows were wild (up and down, up and down, and so on). When she isn’t using wild looks, she has no expression – we see a wide-eyed, blank stare. Her performance makes Helena seem crazy as well as a stalker. One line in particular that makes her seem off kilter is after Demetrius tells her he cannot love her,
And even for that do I love you the more.
I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me I will fawn on you.
Use me but as your spaniel
She also seems like a spoiled brat. Although Demetrius is adamant he does not have feelings for her, she wouldn’t take no for an answer. Helena decides she will lure him into the woods, where they would get lost and end up falling in love. After hearing of Hermia and Lysander’s plan to flee she says to herself,
I will go tell him of fair Hermia’s flight.
Then to the wood will he tomorrow night
Pursue herl and for this intelligence
If I have thanks, it is a dear expense.
But herein mean I to enrich my plain,
To have his sight thither and back again.
(I, i, 246-251)
I do believe that Helena is lovesick. She seems to have both low self-esteem as well as a dependency problem. Why else would she fawn over someone who dislikes her? She is also jealous of what Hermia had with Lysander. In the play, she is a bit more reasonable and more mature than she is portrayed in the movie. In the film Flockhart has Helena making a fool of herself and behaving childishly. Puck’s line, “Lord, what fools these mortals be” (III, ii, 115) sums up her story in the film because she’s running around begging Lysander for love.
A play and movie that did not have women making fools of themselves is Much Ado About Nothing. Unlike A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there is no fantasy, no fairies, and no spells. However, there is romance, trickery, and folly.
One of the leading ladies in this story is Beatrice. She is witty and shows this through her quick, sharp-tongued verbal parry with her lover and rival, Benedick. Even after Beatrice and Benedick fall in love, they banter,
Benedick: And, I pray thee now, tell me for
which of my bad parts didst thou first fall in love with me?
Beatrice: For them all together; which maintained so politic
a state of evil that they will not admit any good
part to intermingle with them. But for which of my
good parts did you first suffer love for me?
Benedick: Suffer love! a good epithet! I do suffer love
indeed, for I love thee against my will.
Beatrice: In spite of your heart, I think; alas, poor heart!
If you spite it for my sake, I will spite it for
yours; for I will never love that which my friend hates.
(V, ii, 57-67)
Beatrice is highly emotional. She is a passionate woman who loves deeply, with all her life, and fiercely hates those she detests. Her angry side shows when Hero’s honor is besmirched. She weeps and then asks Benedick to, “Kill Claudio” (IV, i,288). While in love, she is giddy and excited about the prospect of Benedick loving her. She is even willing to be tamed by him as she states in lines 107-112 of act 3, scene 1.
When Beatrice overhears Hero and Ursula pretending to discuss Benedick’s feelings towards her, she is easily hoodwinked. By the time she and Benedick find out about their friends scheme to get them together, neither character is angry. But why was Beatrice easily fooled? I think that she was already in love with Benedick, but her pride kept her from making the first move. Perhaps at their first meeting, Beatrice made a fool of herself in front of him; therefore she was too embarrassed to admit her feelings towards him. Hearing he loved her allowed her to put the past where it belonged – in the past – and move forward.
Emma Thompson, who plays Beatrice in the film version of Much Ado About Nothing, portrays this shrewd character perfectly. Her head cocks and arms cross over her chest when she studies Kenneth Branagh’s Benedick as she banters with him. These definite moves fit this character perfectly. It shows how she flirts with Benedick, even when she calls him a stuffed man (a scarecrow) or uses his name as a disease. Also, when she is making a point about men or honor, Thompson uses wide gestures. This shows Beatrice’s passion for life.
She also looked the part. Thompson is pretty, but there is a certain harshness to her features that highlight the character’s brusque humor. Her thick and expressive eyebrows allow for Thompson to convey the disdain she has towards the war and Benedick’s flighty nature.
Beatrice’s cousin, Hero, is quite the opposite of Beatrice. She isn’t scornful nor does she speak with sharp words. In fact, Hero is soft spoken. She is also a refined young woman who loves everyone; a happy girl who smiles and giggles often. Claudio, her betrothed, gave this girl her only cause to weep when she he accused her of having an affair.
She isn’t just a shallow, carefree girl. Hero is intelligent and a good at scheming. She helped plan the trick on Beatrice and Benedick. Hero might have been the original mind behind the idea, as hinted at when she says,
Now, Ursula, when Beatrice doth come,
As we do trace this alley up and down,
Our talk must only be of Benedick.
When I do name him, let it be thy part
To praise him more than ever man did merit:
My talk to thee must be how Benedick
Is sick in love with Beatrice. Of this matter
Is little Cupid's crafty arrow made,
That only wounds by hearsay.
(III, i, 15-24)
Further along in the dialogue, she does a lovely job convincing a hidden Beatrice (who Hero knew was eavesdropping) that Benedick is sick in his love for her. She also does a fine dramatic performance when she pretends to be dead.
Kate Beckinsale’s portrayal of Hero reminded me of a mime because she had so few speaking parts in the film. Most of the time when she is on the screen, she is standing around responding to the other characters with a glance or giggle. I don’t think she is the right person to play Hero. While she is pretty and looks as pure and pious as Hero was supposed to be, I didn’t think she used enough expressions. Her forehead is almost always smooth. When she weeps or smiles, there is no emotion backing up the expression. The tears look fake as they trickled down her face – her brow doesn’t furrow and her lips don’t quiver. Her laughter and her smile feels forced. For those reasons, I didn’t like her in that role however Beckinsdale did not have a lot to work with – Hero had few lines.
Another of my favorite Shakespearean comedies is Twelfth Night. Unlike Much Ado About Nothing, all the women have lots to say. But, like the play, all the women are intelligent and rational. Much like Hermia in, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the main female protagonist, Viola, will to do anything to survive.
Viola, a pretty youth, is tossed upon the shores of the foreign land of Illyria after surviving a shipwreck. We never actually read about the shipwreck in the play, Shakespeare just jumps into the scene on Illyria. Personally, I love that the boat crash is added to the movie. I think Shakespeare missed out by excluding this dramatic and action packed scene.
After arriving in Illyria, she spies Olivia, trudging to church, dressed in mourning clothes. Viola decides that because they both lost their brothers, she would like to be friends her. This could be a problem because Olivia prefers to be left alone. Soon enough, and by chance, a solution appears. As she and the captain of the shipwrecked vessel discuss who rules Illyria, Viola finds out that her father’s friend, Orsino, is the Duke, and he loves Olivia. This sparks an idea on how to go about befriending Olivia. Viola decides she would pretend to be a eunuch with the name Cesario and work for the Duke in hopes to get closer to Olivia. Viola figures Orsino will need someone to take Olivia messages. The created eunuch, Cesario, would circumvent Olivia’s shunning.
Viola is an interesting character, although not entirely well rounded. She is even-tempered and kind as well as very loving. Viola seems a bit naïve; she never considered the ramifications of impersonating a eunuch nor did she consider that her brother, Sebastian, didn’t die in the shipwreck and would reappear.
After her brother shows up, hilarity ensues. Sebastian asks for Oliva’s hand in marriage and then he beats up a man. This man, thinking that Cesario is who punched him, yells at the disguised Viola. Then, Olivia, with priest in tow, rushes over to Cesario and begs the eunuch to go with her to the church so they may marry. Luckily, the twin comes back into the scene. Viola and Sebastian figure out the misunderstandings. Then, they live happily ever after with their true loves – Viola with Orsino and Sebastian with Olivia.
I thought that Imogen Stubbs does a lovely job playing the main character. Stubbs uses little facial expressions – few brow raises and eyebrow movements – but it works for this character. Viola is a calm and collected woman who doesn’t get worked up easily. In addition, Viola is not a melodramatic person. Stubbs also explores Viola’s grief when she thinks she has lost her only remaining family member, her twin brother, with grace and dignity. I like how she portrays Viola as a go-getter type of woman, who doesn’t stay idle for long. To get over her grief, Viola quickly starts making plans for her future when she says to the character Captain,
There is a fair behavior in thee, captain;
And though that nature with a beauteous wall
Doth oft close in pollution, yet of thee
I will believe thou hast a mind that suits
With this thy fair and outward character.
I prithee, and I'll pay thee bounteously,
Conceal me what I am, and be my aid
For such disguise as haply shall become
The form of my intent. I'll serve this duke:
Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him:
It may be worth thy pains; for I can sing
And speak to him in many sorts of music
That will allow me very worth his service.
What else may hap to time I will commit;
Only shape thou thy silence to my wit.
(I, ii, 47-61)
I feel Stubbs really looked the part of Olivia. When Olivia cuts her hair and dons the fake mustache to become Cesario, Stubbs makes a good looking man. Olivia looks just like her twin brother! Even I had trouble differentiating between the two of them. However, when she wasn’t dressing as a man, she was feminine and lovely looking.
Another young and beautiful lady in the story is Olivia. She is far deeper than her good looks though. Olivia is witty and does not seem to want a man to love her based on her appearance; instead she wants someone to appreciate her mind. Olivia enjoys a good dialogue with people who can match her wit. She enjoys fine things as demonstrated in the film by clothes and possessions. There is an overdramatic air about this woman, especially when she grieves. For one full year she has mourned and wept for the deaths of her brother and a close friend. In her long drawn-out sadness, Fest thinks Olivia is a fool, as he points out one day,
Feste: Good madonna, why mourn’st thou?
Olivia: Good fool, for my brother's death.
Feste: I think his soul is in hell, madonna.
Olivia: I know his soul is in heaven, fool.
Feste: The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother's
soul being in heaven.
(I, v, 62-67)
Feste is pondering why Olivia is still mourning her brother. Was he a horrible man whose soul was sent to hell? If that is the case Olivia should mourn for him. But, if he was good enough to be sent to heaven, why would anyone want to mourn for him? His words are wise and Olivia sees this because she quickly changes the topic.
The actress, Helena Bonham Carter, plays Olivia in Twelfth Night. Carter has a natural morose appearance, which fits perfectly with the character. She is unnaturally pale with contrasting dark hair and her eyes are wide and dark making her look eerie. I believe that Olivia is a haunted woman; perhaps she even witnessed her brother and her friend die. Carter showed Olivia’s sadness with slow, delicate steps as well as vacant stares towards people as they speak with her. Then, when Viola (as the eunuch Cesario) comes into her life, she turns into a vibrant woman. Carter depicts her happiness by having her laugh and smile. The costume department came up with a clever means to show her moods. Carter dresses in black when Olivia is sad, whilst pinks and greens when happy. What a great way to visually demonstrate Olivia’s emotional transformation!
One character in Twelfth Night that doesn’t really change through the play or movie is Maria. Although seemingly firm, Maria is kind and enjoys reading, dancing and playing pranks. In fact, she helps create the ploy to trick the impudent, power hungry Malvolio into thinking Olivia loves him so that he would be kicked off the property and out of their lives. She is also a loving woman. Maria adores Olivia like a daughter and has a crush upon Sir Toby Belch, whom she eventually marries.
Imelda Staunton, the actress who plays Maria, understands the subtleness of the character. She shows the kindness and gruffness that is part of Maria’s personality whenever she presses her lips together and furrows her brow. Also, when Maria must act eager to tell the days gossip, Staunton leans forward and rests her elbows and hands on the table as she whispers in an excited tone.
I think I prefer the movie version of Maria rather than the play version. She seems much kinder and a bit of a gossip in the film, while in the play she seems harsh and cold. I find her particularly severe when she says,
The devil a puritan that he is, or any thing
constantly, but a time-pleaser; an affectioned ass,
that cons state without book and utters it by great
swarths: the best persuaded of himself, so
crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is
his grounds of faith that all that look on him love
him; and on that vice in him will my revenge find
notable cause to work.
(II, iii, 146-152)
There are many similarities between the three plays (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, and Much Ado About Nothing). The most obvious is that the plotlines and subplots center on willful women and their romances. In each story, at least one woman is an advisory to a man. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Titania was the opponent of Oberon and Helena was Demetrius’s thorn in the side. Beatrice is Benedick’s rival in the story of Much Ado About Nothing. In Twelfth Night Orsino has an antagonist in Olivia because he loves her and she pushes him away because she doesn’t love him.
In each play, there is one woman who is willful and full of self-confidence. Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sure of how she feels and is willing to defy both her father and authorities to keep what she wants. In Much Ado About Nothing Beatrice is the stubborn woman – she doesn’t admit her feelings of love, but she speaks her mind. And, in Twelfth Night, it is Viola who is the determined one - knows she wants to befriend Olivia and marry Orsino, therefore she is willing to cross-dress.
There is a meek woman in each story. Hippolyta, at least in the movie version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is compliant with her husband and does not talk back, even if she disagrees. Much Ado About Nothing has Hero, who is so soft spoken and agreeable she is a doormat. Although the women in the play and movie, Twelfth Night, are the strongest group of ladies of the three films, Olivia is the meekest among Viola, Maria, and herself. She allows herself to be controlled by her emotions and doesn’t grow until Cesario shows up.
One of the main storylines of each play centers around one of the women getting into trouble and figuring a way to fix the situation. It is Hermia, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that has to figure out how to stay with Lysander - her love – even after he forgets he loves her. In Much Ado About Nothing it is Hero who must restore her honor after being accused of cheating on Claudio. Viola, as Cesario, in Twelfth Night must ward off Olivia after Olivia falls in love with Cesario.
I think that Shakespeare wrote about romance so often because most people enjoy a romantic story. Everyone can relate to a romantic tale. Rich or poor, famous or common, old or young – we all have loved at one point or another in our lives. Relationships can be quite complicated. Sometimes, like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the parent doesn’t like the child’s significant other. Other times, as what happened in Twelfth Night, one of the two isn’t attracted to the other person. Once in awhile, a couple forms when neither person likes each other, like Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Love can also make people say and do laughable things, which make for a lifetime of memories much like Shakespeare’s plays have stayed with their audiences. Shakespeare’s plays imitate life – there is conflict and resolution as well as sadness and humor. We all relate to the women and their stories, which make these plays timeless.
A Midsummer Night's Dream. Dir. Michael Hoffman. Perf. Kevin Kline, et al. 1999.
Much Ado About Nothing. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, et al. 1993.
Shakespeare, William. "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Bevington, David. The Necessary
Shakespeare. New York: Pearson Longman , 2009. 46-73.
Shakespeare, William. "Much Ado About Nothing." Bevington, David. The Necessary
Shakespeare . New York : Pearson Longman , 2009. 117-149.
Twelfth Night. Dir. Trevor Nunn. Perf. Helena Bonham Carter, et al. 1996.