Alison May’s Top 5 Shakespearean Heroines

The Cobbe portrait

The Cobbe portrait

It’s Shakespeare’s 450th birthday! And in honour of the occasion I’m getting all Shakespearean and nominating my favourite heroines and heroes who have sprung forth from the Bard’s quill. Today it’s the turn of the ladies.

Cue the Top of the Pops style countdown music…

5. Katherina, The Taming of The Shrew

Ok, so to modern eyes there’s an awful lot that’s wrong with The Taming of the Shrew. Essentially it’s a story about domestic abuse which ultimately breaks the spirit of the main character, but that’s not to say that we don’t love that main character. It’s the fact that we love her so much that makes her humiliation so hard to watch. Katherina is outspoken, bolshy and engaged in a ferocious bout of sibling rivalry with her sister. She’s not a ‘nice’ heroine but she grabs the audience by the throat and shakes them, and she’s inspired a Hollywood teen flick and a classic musical. Straight into my top 5 for Katherina.

4. Hermione, The Winter’s Tale

The Winter’s Tale deserves an honourable mention in any rundown of Shakespeare plays, mainly because it includes the epic stage direction ‘Exit stage left pursued by bear.’ But this is my top heroines, not my top stage directions, so let’s get back to Hermione. She’s a wronged woman. Accused by her husband, the King, of infidelity, she’s thrown out of the palace and her child is dispatched into the wilderness. Hermione doesn’t let this get her down. She bides her time, and reappears years later, pretending to be a statue of herself. The King repents; the lost child reappears; and Hermione reveals herself to be alive rather than made of marble, simultaneously securing one of the least plausible happy endings anywhere in literature, and inspiring generations of fake statue street performers. Kudos to Hermione.

3. Helena, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Helena is a heroine for any girl who’s ever felt that they were destined to always be the sidekick. For all of us who’ve ever thought we were just the plain friend who was never going to get the guy, Helena is the one to watch. Obviously she ends up blissfully in love with her man, with only a tiny bit assistance from fairies and magic potions, and she also gets to participate in one of the best cat fights ever written, where she describes her rival with the classic line ‘And though she be but little, she is fierce.’ It turns out that, once she gets going, quiet, compliant, sidekick Helena can be pretty fierce too.

2. Juliet, Romeo and Juliet

Oh Juliet. Poor unfortunate Juliet. You’ve made it to number two on this list for your appealing mix of impulsiveness, passion and quite a sensible head. Although when I say ‘sensible head’ that’s only really in comparison with Romeo, who is all passion and impulse with hardly a moment’s thought. Anyway, for passion, pure romance and taking a chance on love Juliet makes it into my top five. If she’d only had the good sense to think a little bit harder about the practicalities of the whole ‘faking her own death’ plan, she might have made it all the way to the number one.

1. Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing

No competition for the top spot in my list. For me Beatrice is the funniest, cleverest, and most passionate of all Shakespeare’s heroines. She’s a brilliantly loyal friend, and a very modern woman. She advises her cousin not simply to marry in line with her father’s wishes, but to find a husband who pleases her, and she out and out rejects the idea of getting married herself, which makes her confusion and horror when she realises that she is actually completely, utterly, irredeemably in love with Benedick all the more endearing.

So that’s my top five heroines. Come back on Friday when I’ll be running through Shakespeare’s top leading men.

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Heroines

Sue – Although I love my heroes and Choc Lit suits me down to the ground as they give so much emphasis to the hero, heroines are still the backbone of my books.

 

Amanda Seyfried - heroine material?

Amanda Seyfried - heroine material?

Tess, in ‘Starting Over’, began life by being more of a victim than she is now. I took a long hard look at her and realised that she was going to be irritating rather than endearing. So I gave her a really good talking to. She had to start dealing with Olly and her parents and facing up to all kinds of other things. When bad things happened, whether they were her fault or not, she had to stay around to face up to them – but it took her right to the end of the book to really get to grips with that one.

 

 

 

Tess came completely out of my head. She just came together. But Cleo, in ‘All That Mullarkey’, was a woman I saw in a magazine. It was one of those articles where six ordinary women (rather than air-brushed super models) explained what they hated about themselves so that stylists could tell them how to disguise those things. An early Trinny and Susannah thing. But this one woman stood out. She said that she knew her eyes turned down at the corners and she was top heavy and too curvy and too short. But that’s how she turned out and she didn’t particularly see any need to make herself over. I cheered! I cut the photo out of the magazine – just her, not the others – and Cleo was born.

 

Christina – I always start with the hero since for me he is the main ingredient in the book, then I try to imagine who would be the perfect heroine for him.  The way she looks isn’t always important – Jess in Trade Winds is the complete opposite of the type of girl the hero has always thought he preferred.  It’s the fact that she stands up to him and surprises him so that he grows to love her for different reasons that counts.  Jess is the kind of girl who looks meek and biddable on the outside, but just like the hero, I realised early on that she’s incredibly tough and stubborn.  She has the courage to stand up for herself and she doesn’t accept her fate without a fight.

 

Or Megan Fox perhaps??

Or Megan Fox perhaps??

I don’t usually base my heroines’ looks on anyone in particular.  Mostly I choose to have beautiful heroines, but even if they’re not, I like them to have something outstanding – perhaps lovely hair or eyes.  I’ve always loved long hair and writing historicals I can allow the heroines to have that in abundance.  That’s how my current heroine came to life – I saw her hair first because it’s a very unusual colour.  And since she stands out so much (which she hates), the hero is sure to notice her whether he wants to or not.  Whether he can persuade her to notice him is another matter.

 

 

 

Chris – Harry – Harriet – Watling, in ‘Turning The Tide’, appeared to me as a ‘pixie with attitude’ crouching by a river bank hugging her knees.  She looked like a hard worker, someone who’d overcome heartbreak and disappointment to find her place in the world.  Neither of us knew, at that stage, that her problems were only just beginning!  I adored Harry from the moment I met her. I admired her spirit and feisty nature, but I realised early on that she could sometimes be almost too assertive.  Once I’d listened to her properly and encouraged her to reveal her softer side too, I could show her for the sympathetic character she really is.

 

Listening to my current heroine has been important too.  Like Harry, she just turned up in my head one day, although, initially, I managed to get her name wrong.  If that wasn’t bad enough I also put her in clothes she would never wear until she corrected me.  So far she has been a sweet, forgiving person, but I don’t think she has any idea of what I’m about to put her through!