Shakespeare’s Heroines for the 21st Century

The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was this April 23rd; that date is also, according to tradition, his 452nd birthday.  In the spirit of celebrating the noble bard, let’s also celebrate some of his most memorable heroines.  Here, I consider their pros and cons as heroines, and imagine their lives if they were living in the 21st century.

Juliet from Romeo and Juliet

Pros: Juliet is as passionately romantic as Romeo, but a little more level-headed; she’s often the one who points out the practical side of their situation.  She refuses to marry someone she doesn’t love.  And let’s not forget that she’s the one who basically proposes to Romeo.

Cons: Juliet is thirteen.  Thus, Juliet is a little bit hasty and impetuous.

Juliet today: At thirteen, Juliet thought an unreturned text from her boyfriend meant the end of the world.  But ten years later and still very much alive, she and Romeo are still together, having ditched their families. Juliet fronts a rock band with angst-ridden but poetic lyrics, with the three Weird Sisters from Macbeth as her backup singers.  Romeo is her biggest fan.

Ophelia from Hamlet

Pros: Ophelia’s positive qualities are linked to her negative ones; she is affectionate, gentle, and eager to please. 

ophelia2.jpgCons: Ophelia is so submissive that she allows others to manipulate her like a pawn, ultimately at the expense of her own psychological health and even of her life.    

Ophelia today: Ophelia was a troubled adolescent, but years of therapy and journaling have helped her understand the futility of basing her own self-worth on the affection of emotionally distant men.  She is now an acclaimed poet; her latest volume, Sweets to the Sweet, was especially praised.  Now, if any of the mansplaining philosophy majors she dated in college were to tell her to go to a nunnery, or insulted women for wearing make-up and “nicknaming God’s creatures,” she would call them out.

Desdamona from Othello

Pros: Desdamona is a loving, innocent person.  She is admirably immune to the racial prejudices of those around her.

Cons: Desdamona is a little too trusting, and puts up with way more from Othello than she should (though, given the time period, wives didn’t have much alternative).  She is also for a long time surprisingly blind to how her talking about Cassio affects her jealous husband, though that’s obviously no excuse for his murdering her.

Desdamona today: Desi’s that impossibly gorgeous co-worker who is just a magnet for boy drama without even trying.  When you meet for martinis and she’s stressing over the conflicts between the men in her life, make sure you suggest a therapist who can help her recognize red flags of domestic violence that can quickly escalate.  And offer her a safe place to stay if she needs it.  Because she really shouldn’t put up with jealous and potentially homicidal tendencies in a partner.

Cordelia from King Lear

Pros: Cordelia doesn’t say much, but she’s honest to a fault when she speaks.  The catalyst for the play’s action is her refusal to flatter her father the way her sisters do when he is dividing up his kingdom.  Her unswerving loyalty to that father leads to her untimely demise.

Cons: She could possibly learn to be a little more tactful and diplomatic (without sacrificing her admirable integrity).

Cordelia today: Cordelia was that kid in your high school class who stayed silent all semester and then near the end came out with some zinger in the middle of class that was just so on point.  She’s now a family therapist, able to truly listen to her clients but also to tell them the truths they really need to hear.

Beatrice from Much Ado about Nothing

Pros: Beatrice is a witty, sharp-tongued but warm-hearted heroine with a delightfully amusing love-hate (eventually just love) relationship with Benedick.  Some of her insightful comments on gender and marriage show that her humor is rooted in real awareness of herself and her world.

Cons: Beatrice is a little stubborn; she also initially hides behind her humor to some extent, afraid to open herself to love.

Beatrice today: Beatrice and Benedick now have their own talk show, and they’re hilarious sparring with one another on political and social issues.  Beatrice is the show’s producer as well as one of the two stars.  Like the best comics, B & B use their humor to skewer social injustice.  They’re a husband-wife celebrity power couple.

Portia from The Merchant of Venice

Pros: Portia is extremely intelligent and resourceful.  She disguises herself as a man to preside as a judge over a court case, saving someone’s life in the process.

portiaCons:  Portia is unfortunately part of an anti-Semitic culture and doesn’t fully transcend its prejudices.  She also takes a practical joke involving rings just a little too far.

Portia today: Portia was top of her class at Harvard Law School, and has now worked her way up to Supreme Court Justice.  She’s best friends with Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  She has tirelessly advocated for women’s issues, but also refuses to tolerate anti-Semitism or any other kind of bigotry in her courtroom.  Her recent memoir, The Quality of Mercy, is a bestseller.

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