Porcia wounding her thigh. Elisbetta Sirani (1664) / Wikimedia
Shakespeare’s female characters do not seem wanting in personality and character. So said Virginia Woolf. Quite right she was too.
From Rosalind (As You Like It) to the Portias (Julius Caesar and Merchant of Venice), from Cordelia (King Lear) to Cleopatra (Anthony and Cleopatra) Shakespeare’s heroines were wise and witty, strong and bold – principled and courageous even in death.
Shakespeare’s praise for women knew no bounds: “O ye gods,/ Render me worthy of this noble wife!” This was Brutus’s call after Portia demanded he treat her as an equal — and after she had cut her thigh to prove her strength.
Where and when would you hear such paeans to women today? Not from any of our contemporary jaundiced writers.
As the world celebrates the 450th anniversary of his birth, you have to grant that Shakespeare himself would be hard put to find much inspiration in today’s “wimmin”.
Not since Mrs Thatcher has there been a leading political lady worthy of his pen.
In fact in our ever earnest women MPs he would find more to parody than to praise. For these beacons of womanhood just won’t stop moaning. Feminism has made them the frailer.
How else can we explain Pat Glass MP complaining during the prosaic proceedings of the water Bill committee of: “…. the bullying, particularly of women, in the Chamber” that she’d suffered since joining Parliament – which she’d found, “totally unacceptable”.
Can you imagine any of Shakespeare’s heroines indulging in such self-righteous whining?
Can you imagine him dramatising their volleys of non-stop complaints about “Punch and Judy”, sexism and parliamentary hours. Parliament, it seems, is just no place for a lady.
Yet who, ironically, have they enlisted in their cause but Parliament’s own mini Malvolio, in the shape of Speaker, John Bercow. It seems they need a man to speak up for them.
He has too. Members, he opined (women members actually) “from both sides of the House with a lot to contribute” were being put off attending the weekly session of Prime Minister’s questions. Indeed.
The “histrionics and cacophony of noise are so damaging as to cause them to look elsewhere,” the little pontificator warns.
These ladies are no shrinking violets, or delicate creatures at all, he insists, but “just embarrassed by it”.
Ms Campion (MP for Rotherham) put her head above the parapet to agree. The “braying and screaming” and the atmosphere at PMQs was “very, very testosterone-fuelled”. Oh dear.
So what better, on Shakespeare’s anniversary, than some over due lessons in wit and wisdom for our feeble female parliamentarians – lessons on how to cope from Shakespeare’s less retiring heroines.
First off they might open their copies of Twelfth Night and mark Maria, gentlewoman and Sir Toby Belch’s companion. In Act II she gives a masterclass in handling (men’s) verbal jousting and bawdiness. Read on and they’ll see her control her drunken friends and plot successfully to puncture Malvolio’s pomposity, at one and the same time.
Second, for a challenge to men generally, they’ll find no better than Rosalind’s warning in As You Like It: “Make the doors upon a woman’s wit, and it will out the casement; shut that and t’will out at the keyhole; stop that and t’will fly with the smoke out of the chimney.” Would it were so today.
Thirdly, to find out how to mitigate justice with mercy (a much needed lesson for their more strident colleagues) while winning respect all round, they’ll find Portia’s class act in the Merchant of Venice.
From the model of Miranda in The Tempest they can learn too that neither youth nor gentleness is a bar to speaking up for yourself, even on the most embarrassing of topics.
Would but young women today set out their marriage terms so clearly: “I am your wife, if you will marry me; / If not, I’ll die your maid”, Miranda asserts.
Finally, for a combination of simplicity, principle, courage and forgiveness they will find no better example than Shakespeare’s finest heroine of all, the ‘Love and be silent” Cordelia, King Lear’s long-suffering and noble daughter.
Brave and daring, kind and compassionate, independent, outspoken and demanding of equality of respect, these were the qualities in women that Shakespeare revered.
Yet for him, despite this, the difference between the two sexes was not just fundamental, but the principle upon which society and its humour was constructed.
So it should be today.
Kathy Gyngell is is British journalist and research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies in the UK. She is also co-editor of The Conservative Woman, a British website where this article was originally published.