"Shakespeare and His 
Critics" Logo with Ophelia - by Meredith Dillman

On Shakespeare's Imitation
of Female Characters
(addressed to a friend)

By William Richardson

(First published in 1788)




Source Text : William Richardson, Essays on Some of Shakespeare's Dramatic Characters to which is added an Essay on the Faults of Shakespeare (London : J. Murray and S. Highley, 1797), 5th edition, pp. 338-363.

Transcribed and edited by Thomas Larque. Page numbers are given in the web text, in square brackets, at the start of each page.

This edition is Copyright Thomas Larque, 2003. See the copyright notice on http://shakespearean.org.uk for more details.


Return to the "Shakespeare and His Critics" Homepage


** On Shakespeare's Imitation **
** of Female Characters **

[338] I cannot agree with you, that Shakespeare has exerted more ability in his imitation of male, than of female characters.  Before you form a decided opinion on a subject so interesting to his reputation, let me request your attention to the following particulars.  If you consider them at all, it will be with candour:  and with so much the more attention, that they are in favour of a Poet whom you admire, and I might add, of a sex whom you adore.  If Shakespeare [339] with those embellishments which we expect in poetry, has allotted to the females on his theatre such stations as are suitable to their condition in society, and delineated them with sufficient discrimination, he has done all that we have any right to require.  According to this measure, and this measure alone, we are permitted to judge of him.  - I will not, you see, be indebted to the facile apologist you mention, who admits the charge; but pleads in extenuation of the offence, that Shakespeare did not bring forward his female characters into a full and striking light, "because female players were in his time unknown."  His defence must rest upon critical principles:  and if, "with those embellishments which we expect in poetry, he has allotted to the females on his theatre, such stations as are suitable to their situation in society; and if he has delineated them with sufficient discrimination, he has done all that we have any right to require."  I will now endeavour to shew, that he has fulfilled both these conditions.

    I.  Diversity of character depends a good [340] deal on diversity of situation:  and situations are diversified by variety of employment.  We meet, for example, with less variety in the occupations of mankind in countries governed by despots, and unacquainted with trade and manufactures, than among nations that are free and commercial.  The slaves of the despot display no greater diversity than depends upon the difference between poverty and riches:  for their modes of education never affect the mind; they extend no farther than to superinduce a varnish of external urbanity; and confer some grace or pliancy in the management of the body.  It would be a difficult enterprise, in a free country, to raise an illiterate and ignorant peasant from the lowest order to a distinguished rank in the state:  but under some despotic governments, persons with no other instruction than what regulates attitude, gesture, and some forms of external propriety, may be exalted even to gorgeous pre-eminence.  If situation influence the mind, and if uniformity of conduct be frequently occasioned by uniformity of condition; there must be greater diversity of male than [341] of female characters.  The employments of women, compared with those of men, are few; their condition and of course their manners, admit of less variety.  The poet, therefore, whether epic or dramatic, who would exhibit his heroines in occupations that did not properly belong to them; or who endeavoured to distinguish them by a greater diversity of habits, endowments, or dispositions, than their condition justified, would depart from the truth of nature; and, instead of meriting the praise of due decoration, would incur the blame of extravagant fiction.  I say not that the abilities and dispositions in both sexes may not be equal or alike.  There are few attainments in knowledge in which the pride of the male sex may not be alarmed, if such alarm be decent, by the progress of fair competitors:  and the history of modern Europe will attest, that even politics, a science of which men are particularly jealous, is not beyond the reach of adventurous females.  Difference, however, of condition restrains the exertion of female genius; and must [342] limit the display both of talents and dispositions.

Add to this, that the condition of women has been more restrained in some periods than in others.  In times of great rudeness, the wives1 and daughters of the fierce barbarian are domestic slaves.  Even in civilized nations, if polygamy be permitted, and no restraint imposed on the licentiousness of divorce, the fair-sex may be loved, if the passions of those who grant themselves such indulgence may be honoured with the appellation of love; but can never rise to esteem2.  They may contribute to the amusement or conveniency, but can never be the companions of men.  In all situations whatever, where the tendency to extreme profligacy becomes very flagrant, the respect due to female virtues, and confidence in female affection, decline and decay.  So great are the obligations of the fair-sex to those institutions, which, more than any other, by limiting the freedom of divorce, and by [343] other proper restrictions, have asserted the dignity of the female character!  Polished and even refined as were the manners of Athens and of Rome, the rank allowed to Athenian and Roman women was never so dignified, nor so suitable, in either of these republics, as among the nations of Christendom. - But as the subjects of dramatic poetry, and particularly of tragedy, are most commonly furnished by rude, remote, or antient ages, the poet must submit to such limitation, in his views of human life, as the manners of such periods require.  And if Shakespeare, like the great poets of antiquity, has not given his females so much to do, or displayed them as expressing all the violence of passion, or rendered them of so much importance in the conduct of dramatic events, as may have been done by his brethren of later times; he and the poets of antiquity have, in this instance at least, given a more faithful, and not a less interesting representation of that nature which they chose to display.

    II.  I proceed still farther, and venture to [344] assert, that there is not only as much variety in Shakespeare's female characters as we have any title to demand; but that they are distinguished with peculiar and appropriated features.  Let some of them pass in review before you.  If you find in Miranda, Isabella, Beatrice, Portia, and Cordelia, variety and discrimination enough, they may answer for their numerous sisterhood:  nor need we, on the present occasion, evoke the spirits of Queen Margaret or Dame Quickly, Juliet or Desdemona.

        1.  In the character of Miranda, simplicity is intended to be the most striking circumstance.  Consistent, however, with simplicity, is gentleness of disposition, flowing out in compassionate tenderness, and unrestrained by suspicion.  Miranda, seeing the danger of shipwrecked strangers, never supposes that they may be suffering punishment for heinous guilt, but expresses the most amiable commiseration:

        If by your art, my dearest father, you have
        Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them:
                                O I have suffer'd
        With those that I saw suffer.

[345] Conscious of no guile in herself, conscious of native truth, she believes that others are equally guileless, and reposes confidence in their professions.  Her easy belief does not proceed from weakness; but from innate candour, and an ingenuous undismayed propensity, which had never been abused or insulted.  If her simplicity and inexperience had rendered her shy and timid, the representation might have been reckoned natural:  but Shakespeare has exhibited a more delicate picture.  Miranda, under the care of a wise and affectionate father, an utter stranger to the rest of mankind, unacquainted with deceit either in others, or in herself, is more inclined to ingenuous confidence than to shy or reserved suspicion. - Moved in like manner by tender and ingenuous affection, she never practises dissimulation, never disguises her intention, either in the view of heightening the love or of trying the veracity of the person whom she prefers.  All these particulars are distinctly illustrated in the exquisite love-scene between Ferdinand and Miranda.

        Fer.  Admir'd Miranda,
       
[346] Indeed the top of admiration:  worth
        What's dearest to the world!  &c.

        Mir.  I do not know
        One of my sex; no woman's face remember, &c.

Thus simple, apt to wonder, guileless, and because guileless, of easy belief, compassionate and tender, Miranda exhibits not only a consistent, but a singular, and finely distinguished character.

        2.  Isabella is represented equally blameless, amiable, and affectionate:  she is particularly distinguished by intellectual ability.  Her understanding and good-sense are conspicuous:  her arguments are well-applied, and her pleading persuasive.  Yet her abilities do not offend by appearing too masculine:  they are mitigated and finely blended with female softness.  If she venture to argue, it is to save the life of a brother.  Even then, it is with such reluctance, hesitation, and diffidence, as need to be urged and encouraged.

        Luc.  To him again, intreat him,
        Kneel down before him, &c.

        Isab.  O it is excellent
       
[347] To have a giant's strength:  but it is tyrannous
        To use it like a giant

        Luc.  That's well said.

The transitions in Isabella's pleadings are natural and affecting.  Her introduction is timid and irresolute.

Lucio tells her,

                If you should need a pin,
        You could not with more tame a tongue desire it.
        To him, I say.

Thus prompted, she makes an effort; she speaks from her immediate feelings:  she has not acquired boldness enough to enter the lists of argument; and addresses Angelo merely as a suppliant:

        Not the King's crown, nor the deputed sword,
        The marshal's truncheon, nor the judge's robe,
        Become them with one half so good a grace
        As mercy does.

Animated by her exertion, she becomes more assured, and ventures to refute objections.  As she is a nun, and consequently acquainted with religious knowledge, the [348] argument she employs is suited to her profession.

        Is.  Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once,
        And he that might the vantage best have took,
        Found out the remedy.

At length, no longer abashed and irresolute, but fully collected, she reasons, so to say, on the merits of the cause.

                Good, good, my lord, bethink you:
        Who is it that hath died for this offence?
        There's many have committed it.

Nor is her argument unbecoming in the mouth even of a nun.  Her subsequent conduct vindicates her own character from aspersion.  Besides, she had with great delicacy and propriety, at the beginning of her pleading, expressed herself in such a manner, as to obviate any charge.

                There is a vice that I do most abhor,
        And most desire should meet the blow of Justice;
        For which I would not plead but that I must.

Emboldened by truth, and the feeling of [349] good intention, she passes, at the end of her debate, from the merits of the cause to a spirited appeal even to the consciousness of here judge.

                Go to your bosom,
        Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
        That's like my brother's fault.

Isabella is not only sensible and persuasive, but sagacious, and capable of becoming address.  In communicating to her brother the unworthy designs of Angelo, she seems aware of his weakness; she is not rash nor incautious, but gives her intimation by degrees, and with studied dexterity.

It is not inconsistent with her gentleness, modesty, and reserve that, endowed as she is with understanding, and strongly impressed with a sense of duty, she should form resolutions respecting her own conduct without reluctance, and adhere to them without wavering.  Though tenderly attached to her brother, she spurns, without hesitation, the alternative proposed by Angelo, and never balances in her choice.

Neither is it incongruous, but a fine tint [350]  in the character, that she feels indignation, and expresses it strongly.  But it is not indignation against an adversary; it is not on account of injury; it is a disinterested emotion:  it is against a brother who does not respect himself, who expresses pusillanimous sentiments; and would have her act in an unworthy manner. - Such is the amiable, pious, sensible, resolute, determined, and eloquent Isabella.  She pleads powerfully for her brother; and no less powerfully for her poetical father.

        3.  But if the gentle , unsuspecting, and artless simplicity of Miranda; if the good sense and affecting eloquence of Isabella, should not induce you to acquit the poet, you will yield, perhaps, to the vivacity and wit of Beatrice. - No less amiable and affectionate than Miranda and Isabella, she expresses resentment, because she feels commiseration for the sufferings of her friend.

Is he not approved in the height a villain, that hath slandered, scorned, and dishonoured my kinswoman?

Like Isabella, too, she is distinguished by intellectual ability; but of a different kind.  [351] She does not defend herself, or make her attacks with grave, argumentative, and persuasive elocution:  but, endowed with the powers of wit, she employs them in raillery, banter, and repartee.

Ben.  What, my dear Lady Disdain!  are you yet living?

Beat. Is it possible Disdain should die, while she hath such
meet food to feed upon, as signor Benedict?  - The count is
neither sad, nor sick, nor merry, nor well; but civil count, civil
as an orange, and something of that jealous complexion.

Her smartness, however, proceeds from wit rather than from humour.  She does not attempt, or is not so successful in ludicrous description, as in lively sayings.

Beat.  My cousin tells him in his ear, that he is in her heart.

Claud.  And so she does, cousin.

Beat.  Good lord for alliance!  thus goes every one to the world,
but I, and I am sun-burned; I may sit in the corner, and cry heigh-ho
for a husband.

Pe.  Lady Beatrice, I will get you one.

Beat.  I would rather have one of your father's getting.

Another distinction, not unconnected with the preceding, is, that though lively, [352] she is nevertheless serious, and though witty, grave.  Possessed of talents for wit, she seems to employ them for the purposes of defence, or disguise.  She conceals the real and thoughtful seriousness of her disposition by a shew of vivacity.  Howsoever she may speak of them, she treats her own concerns, and those of her friends, with grave consideration.  A compliment, and the enticement of a playful allusion, almost betrays her into an actual confession.

Ped.  In faith, lady, you have a merry heart.

Beat.  Yea, my lord, I thank it, poor fool, it keeps on the windy side
of care.

She is desirous of being reputed very sprightly and disdainful:  but it is not of the qualities which we chiefly possess that we are usually most ostentatious.  Congreve wished to be thought a fine gentleman; Swift would be a politician; and Milton a divine.  What Beatrice, who is really amiable, would have herself thought to be, appears in the following passage, where Hero, pretending not to know she was present, describes her in her own hearing.

                [353] Nature never form'd a woman's heart
        Of prouder stuff than that of Beatrice.
        Disdain and scorn ride sparkling in her eyes,
        Misprizing what they look on, &c.

Tender, affectionate, and ingenuous; yet conscious of more weakness than Miranda, or not like her educated in a desert island, she is aware of mankind, affects to be mirthful when she is most in earnest, and employs her wit when she is most afraid.  - Nor is such dissimulation, if it may be so termed, to be accounted peculiarly characteristical of female manners.  It may be discovered in men of probity and tenderness, and who are actuated by serious principles; but who are rendered timid, either from some conscious imbecility; or who become suspicious by an early, too early an observation of designing persons.  If such men are endowed with so much liveliness of invention, as, in the society to which they belong, to be reckoned witty or humorous, they often employ this talent as an engine of defence.  Without it, they would perhaps fly from society, like the melancholy Jacques, who wished to have, but did not possess a very [354] distinguished, though some, portion of such ability.  Thus, while they seem to annoy, they only wish to prevent:  their mock encounter is a real combat:  while they seem for ever in the field, they conceive themselves always besieged:  though perfectly serious, they never appear in earnest:  and though they affect to set all men at defiance; and though they are not without understanding, yet they tremble for the censure and are tortured with the sneer of a fool.  Let them come to the school of Shakespeare.  He will give them, as he gives many others an useful lesson.  He will shew them an exemplary and natural reformation or exertion.  Beatrice is not to be ridiculed out of an honourable purpose; nor to forfeit, for fear of a witless joke, a connection with a person who is "of a noble strain, of approved valour, and confirmed honesty."

        4.  Portia is akin both  to Beatrice and Isabella.  She resembles them both in gentleness of disposition.  Like Beatrice, she is spirited, lively, and witty.  Her description of some of her lovers, is an obvious [355] illustration.  "First, there is the Neapolitan prince," &c.  Her vivacity, however, is not so brilliant, and approaches rather to sportive ingenuity than to wit.  Her situation renders her less grave, when in a serious mood, than Isabella:  but, like her, she has intellectual endowment.  She is observant, penetrating, and acute.  Her address is dextrous, and her apprehension extensive.  Though exposed to circumstances that might excite indignation, she never betrays any violent emotion, or unbecoming expression of anger.  But Isabella, on account of her religious seclusion, having had less intercourse with the world, though of a graver, and apparently of a more sedate disposition, expresses her displeasure with reproach; and inveighs with the holy wrath of a cloister.  To the acquaintance which both of them have of theology, Portia superadds some knowledge of law; and displays a dexterity of evasion, along with an ingenuity in detecting a latent or unobserved meaning, which do her no discredit as a barrister.  We may observe too, that the principal business in the Merchant of Venice is conducted by Portia.  [356] Nor is it foreign to remark, that as in the intimacy of Rosalind and Celia, Shakespeare has represented female friendship as no visionary attainment; so he has, by the mouth of Portia, expressed some striking particulars in the nature of that amiable connection.

                In companions
        That do converse, and waste the time together,
        Whose souls do bear an equal yoke of love,
        There must needs be a like proportion
        Of lineaments, of manners, and of spirit.

        5.  Our poet, in his Cordelia, has given us a fine example of exquisite sensibility, governed by reason, and guided by a sense of propriety.  This amiable character, indeed, is conceived and executed with no less skill and invention than that of her father.  Treated with rigour and injustice by Lear, she utters no violent resentment; but expresses becoming anxiety for reputation.

                I yet beseech your majesty,
        That you make known
        It is no vicious blot, murder, or foulness,
        No unchaste action or dishonour'd step,
        That hath depriv'd me of your grace and favour.

[357] She displays the same gentleness, accompanied with much delicacy of reproof, in her reply to a mercenary lover.

                Peace be with Burgundy!
        Since that respects of fortune are his love,
        I shall not be his wife.

Even to her sisters, though she has perfect discernment of their characters, and though her misfortune was owing to their dissimulation, she shows nothing virulent nor unbecoming.  She expresses, however, in a suitable manner, and with no improper irony, a sense of their deceit, and apprehensions of their disaffection to Lear.

                Ye jewels of our father, with wash'd eyes
        Cordelia leaves you; I know what you are,
        And like a sister am most loth to call
        Your faults as they are nam'd.

Towards the close of the tragedy, when she receives complete information concerning the violent outrages committed against her father, the sufferings he has undergone, the ruin of his understanding, and has the fullest evidence of the guilt and atrocity of [358] her sisters, she preserves the same consistency of character:  notwithstanding her wrongs, she feels and is affected with the deepest sorrow for the misfortunes of Lear:  she has the most entire abhorrence of the temper displayed by Goneril and Regan:  yet her sorrows, her resentment, and indignation are guided by that sense of propriety, which does not in the smallest degree impair her tenderness and sensibility; but directs them to that conduct and demeanour, which are suitable, amiable, and interesting.  Tenderness, affection, and sensibility, melting into grief, and mingled with sentiments of reluctant disapprobation, were never delineated with more delicacy than in the description of Cordelia, when she receives intelligence of her father's misfortunes.

        Kent.  Did your letters pierce the queen to any demonstration of grief?

        Gent.  Ay, Sir; she took them, read them in my presence;
        And now and then an ample tear trill'd down
        Her delicate cheek:  it seem'd she was a queen
        Over her passion, who, most rebel like,
        Sought to be king o'er her.

        Kent.  O, then it moved her.

        Gent.  Not to a rage.  Patience and sorrow strove
       
[359] Which should express her goodliest:  you have seen
        Sun-shine and rain at once.  - Those happy smiles
        That played on her ripe lip seem'd not to know
        What guests were in her eyes, which parted thence,
        As pearls from diamonds dropt.  - In brief,
        Sorrow would be a rarity most belov'd,
        If all could so become it.

        Kent.  Made she no verbal question?

        Gent.  Once or twice
        She heav'd the name of father
        Pantingly forth, as if it prest her heart,
        Cry'd, Sisters!  Sisters!  What?  i'th storm?  i'the night?
        Let pity ne'er believe it!  there she shook
        The holy water from her heav'nly eyes -
        Then away she started to deal with grief alone.

Minds highly enlightened, contemplating the same object, both reason, and are affected in a similar manner.  The tone of thought in the following passage, in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, accords perfectly with Shakespeare's account of Cordelia.  "What noble propriety and grace do we feel in the conduct of those who, in their own case, exert that recollection and self-command which constitute the dignity of every passion, and which bring it down to what others can enter into?  We are disgusted with that clamorous grief, which, [360] without any delicacy, calls upon our compassion with sighs and importunate lamentations.  But we reverence that reserved, that silent and majestic sorrow, which discovers itself only in the swelling of the eyes, in the quivering of the lips and cheeks, and in the distant but affecting coldness of the whole behaviour.  It imposes the like silence upon us.  We regard it with respectful attention, and watch with anxious concern over our whole behaviour, lest by any impropriety we should disturb that concerted tranquillity, which it requires so great an effort to support."  - Cordelia, full of affection, is grieved for the distress of her father:  her sense of propriety imposes restraint on her expressions of sorrow:  the conflict is painful:  full of sensibility, and of a delicate structure; the conflict is more than she can endure; she must indulge her emotions:  her sense of propriety again interposes; she must vent them in secret, and not with loud lamentation:  she shakes "The holy water from her heavenly eyes," and then retires "to deal with grief alone."

There are few instances in any poet, [361] where the influences of contending emotions are so nicely balanced and distinguished:  for while in this amiable picture we discern the corrected severity of that behaviour which a sense of propriety dictates, mitigated and brought down by fine sensiblity, and the softness of the female character; we also see this softness upheld, and this sensibility rendered still more engaging, by the influence of a sense of propriety.

Need I add to these illustrations, the sisterly and filial affections of Ophelia, leading her to such deference for a father, as to practice deceit at his suggestion on a generous lover, and strive to entangle him in the toils of political cunning?  Need I add the pride, the violence, the abilities, the disappointed ambition of Margaret?  Need I add Dame Quickly and Lady Anne?  - If, notwithstanding all these, you persist in saying that Shakespeare has produced no eminent female characters, because, in the words of the poet whom you quote, 'most women have no character at all;'  you must mean in the spirit or manner of the satirist, and with an eye to the personage last mentioned, [362] to pun rather than to refute.  But you tell me - "the gentle Desdemona is like the gentle Cordelia; the tender Imogen like the tender Juliet; the sensible Isabella like the sensible Portia; the violent Margaret like the violent Constance; and the cruel Regan like the cruel Goneril:  in short, that they are all copies of one another; that any differences appearing between them are occasioned by difference of external circumstances; that Portia, in Isabella's situation, would have been another Isabella:  and so with the rest."  - If this be urged as an objection, it cannot be admitted.  Desdemona, in the same situation with Margaret, would not have inveighed, nor vented imprecation.  Cordelia was situated in the same circumstances with Regan, but performed a very different part.  Notwithstanding the similarity in the instances above mentioned, there is still so much diversity as to obviate the objection.  - Still further, if you reason in this manner, allow me to say, in the words of the poet, you reason "too curiously:"  and would reduce the sum of dramatic characters, how different soever their [363] names and fortunes, to an inconsiderable number.  Does it not strike you too, that to disregard such discrimination as proceeds from external condition, is contrary to the truth of nature, and the justice of impartial criticism?  Many persons may have received from nature similar talents and dispositions; but being differently placed in society, they exert the same power, or gratify the same desire, with different degrees of force, and different modes of indulgence.  Their characters are therefore different, and if so in reality, so also in imitation.  Similarity of original structure does not constitute similarity or sameness of character, unless that similarity appear in the same circumstances, in the same manner, and with equal force.  I still therefore adhere to my former opinion: and have not ventured, I hope, in vain to assert the merits of Shakespeare's females.


1 Millar's Distinction of Ranks.

2 [Greek text].  Arist[otle].  Poet.


Return to the "Shakespeare and His Critics" Homepage