Here is a list of the Top 10 female Shakespeare roles as chosen by us, the StageMilk team. It’s no secret that Shakespeare and his contemporaries favoured writing parts for men; indeed, the few women that were written in his plays were played onstage by male actors. However, Shakespeare proved time and time again that he could write complex, meaty roles for both genders. His female characters are at points villainous, innocent, menacing, hilarious and heroic. They are brilliant and flawed, and showcase the unmatchable way Shakespeare gave his characters agency, strong wants and thrilling, dramatic arcs. And while they are certainly bound by the constrictions on their gender in history, they are nonetheless remarkable examples of human characters brought to life in drama.
Bear in mind that these roles are, by no means, the only ones available to women in Shakespeare’s plays. The list of the Bard’s terrific female characters is far longer than our hand-picked favourites (be sure to check out our Honourable Mentions below). However, this list is a solid Top 10 featuring some all-time heavy hitters: we hope this inspires you to appreciate Shakespeare’s writing of women, or even challenge your preconception that men are all that drive classic canonical work!
Lady Macbeth is not the kind of woman you’d want to accept a dinner party invitation from, but she is a fantastic character. Some see Lady Macbeth as the villain of the play—and she is, arguably, the driving force behind Macbeth’s murder of Duncan—but she is more multifaceted than simply being the ‘baddie’. Lady Macbeth lives in a world where men rule, and yet she is as ambitious and ruthless as they are. She throws off the feminine qualities she was born with and asks the spirits to ‘fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty’: perhaps in a hope to survive in a world that would rather have her bear children and be quiet. And when her evil plan is complete? She becomes wracked with guilt after the murder of Duncan and begins to question her own sanity.
As an audience, we don’t just love Lady Macbeth because of her terrifying rise and satisfying fall. We love her because she provides a rare glimpse inside the mind of a person confronting their own demons. At heart, she’s not some monster: she’s actually very human. Just like us.
For a taste of Lady Macbeth’s conniving villainy: Lady Macbeth Monologue and Breakdown
From the moment we meet Portia, we know she is not your average, demure Elizabethan lady. With a razor-sharp wit, she dismisses her potential suitors, slyly helps her lover unlock the secret to win her hand in marriage and—if all of that wasn’t enough—she saves the day. Upon hearing that her husband’s best friend in in trouble, Portia disguises herself as a young male lawyer and turns up to the Court to save Antonio. Like many of the women Shakespeare wrote, Portia is frustrated by the limitations of her gender and demonstrates a wit and capability that surpasses her male counterparts. For all of her grace and humour, Portia shows her ruthless side in her treatment of Shylock and her scheming against Bassanio, demonstrating again, she is no wallflower.
Portia is something of an iconoclast in the landscape of a play brimming with clear-cut social and cultural roles and identities. She offers the audience a proxy in this work to challenge the outmoded views of
Venetian society—resulting in a highly subversive play that still provokes to this day.
For a prime example of Portia’s wit (with ample punning included): Portia Monologue and Breakdown
Juliet may only be a teenager, but her fearlessness is undeniable. In the space of three days she defies her family, falls in love with the son of their sworn enemies, marries him, fakes her own death and then dies so that she and Romeo can be together forever. Despite her young age, Juliet is sharp-witted and intelligent. And to Shakespeare’s credit: he wrote her with complexity, might but most of all agency—transforming from innocent girl to commander of her own fate as the world of fair Verona crashes and burns around her. Shakespeare even gave her a hero’s end. Traditionally women committed suicide by poison (which is how Romeo dies), but Juliet bravely thrusts a dagger into her heart. She might be young, but she is not a role for the faint hearted.
All teenage naivety aside, Juliet has strong wants; she strives for these objectives in the play as hard as she possibly can. This makes her character feel infinitely fresh and relatable—and makes her character a strong entry point for younger or emerging actors looking to experience the joys of Shakespearean acting.
For a perfect sample of Shakespeare’s very best teen angst: Juliet Monologue and Breakdown
Emilia may not be the heroine of Othello but she is a hero. At the beginning of the play, Emilia conspires with her husband Iago, even though she doesn’t understand the sinister reason for his plot. She is quick-witted, clever and quite ahead of her time, seen in her famous monologue on the equality of sexuality in both men and women. Emilia’s love for Desdemona is evident when she fiercely protects her friend from Othello’s accusation of adultery. At the end of the play she makes the ultimate sacrifice for love. Emilia risks it all and exposes her husband’s villous plot to save Desdemona’s reputation. It’s an act that results in her murder but Emilia is brave and courageous to the end.
In a play filled with so many pig-headed characters unwilling to listen to fact or reason, Emilia’s strong redemptive arc is a fresh and welcome presence. She grows and changes, offering audiences a ray of hope in an otherwise tragic narrative.
Drink in some of Emilia’s way-ahead-of-her-time wisdom: Emilia Monologue and Breakdown
Antony and Cleopatra
A cunning politician, Cleopatra rules her land with both intelligence and feminine influence. While many characters in the play describe her as ‘witch’, ‘enchanting’ or ‘serpent’, it only serves to show her power and influence on everyone she meets. Cleopatra is multifaceted and moves within the play from ferocious, to seductress, to lover and to leader. Even after Egypt is defeated, she makes the noble choice to take her own life rather than be debased by Octavian and the Romans. Like the legend of the historical figure, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra kills herself with the poison from an Asp and dies at her own hand by her lover’s side.
Cleopatra is not one of Shakespeare’s ‘flashiest’ roles for female performers; however, she is very much worth knowing and seeing as a solid, complex character. Just like Lady Macbeth, she defies conventional villainy: making her a great vehicle for exploring the character and play in an unconventional, postmodern fashion.
As You Like It
Rosalind is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedic roles. Like many of his heroines, Rosalind takes charge of her life and comes out of top. Having been exiled to the Forest of Ardernne, Rosalind and her friend Celia dress as men for their protection. Similarly to Viola in Twelfth Night, Rosalind’s disguise garners unwanted romantic attention. But unlike Viola, Rosalind takes control of the situation and using her wit secures everyone’s happiness, including her own with a quadruple wedding. At the end the play Rosalind recites the Epilogue, a function usually reserved for a male character, once again showing that a woman can be accomplished in man’s job.
As You Like It divides audiences and critics: some call it a sharp comedy, while others feel it leans to heavily on the tropes of pastoral comedy or farcical plot contrivances. But Rosalind remains a compelling character, and her plot-driving actions and schemes make her a thrilling role very much worth your time.
Much Ado About Nothing
Outspoken, funny, charming and loyal: Beatrice is a comic heroine of the ages. Never to walk away from a good argument, Beatrice proves time and time again that no man can match her quick tongue, although they often try. Bold for her time, Beatrice is content in her independence, ‘I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me’. Beatrice is also incredibly devoted to her cousin Hero, whom she defends against Claudio. She rails against her position as a woman to fight. ‘O God, that I were a man. I would eat his heart in the market-place’. Her fire is only matched by her heart, and her joy and humour bring some of the best comedic moments of the play.
One of the exciting things about the character of Beatrice is how her importance and centrality in the play seems to grow as it progresses. You can almost imagine Shakespeare turning his attention to her and thinking “I’m onto something with this one…” No matter her prominence in a scene, Beatrice’s strong characterisation makes her a joy for any actor to play.
For a taste of Beatrice’s vim and passion: Beatrice Monologue and Breakdown
Queen of the Fairies in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania is a strong and loving matriarch. She rules with her husband Oberon and despite his anger and tantrums, she won’t be bossed around by him. Both King and Queen of the fairies have lovers outside of their marriage, so you could argue that Titania is quite a modern woman. Her strong maternal nature shows in her her refusal to give up the Indian boy she loves so dearly and her fears for upending of the natural world. For such a formidable character, Titania does get done over by the plot. Like many of the women in the play, she is drugged and tricked into falling in love with someone she doesn’t desire.
Titania offers great range to actors looking to play her: she can be both domineering and terrifying, as well as silly and love-stricken when she gazes upon her donkey-headed crush. Problematic? You betcha! But Titania, thematically, also stands in for figures of power and influence whose meddling actions in the lives of mere mortals can spectacularly backfire. It’s a crushing case of schadenfreude.
One of Shakespeare’s many cross-dressing heroines, Viola is a captivating character. When she washes up in a foreign land, Viola decides to dress as a boy and seek employment from the Duke rather than expose herself as a woman. She is brave, intelligent and quietly thoughtful. The heart of Viola lies in all of the desires that she can’t speak of; her grief for her brother, her secret love for Orsino and of course, her true female identity. Viola’s cross-dressing antics lead to all sorts of misunderstandings and comedy gold and it’s a role that requires a large range of skills. Like the best of all Shakespeare’s heroines, Viola choice to brave a man’s world offers her the ability to show her true self.
Check out: Viola Monologue and Breakdown
The Taming of the Shrew
Often forgotten because of the misogynistic end to the play, The Taming of the Shrew holds one of the great female roles; Katherine. Living in a man’s world where her choices are limited, Katherine rails against her lack of autonomy. While her father tries to marry her off, Katherine bares her teeth and her razor-sharp wit at any man that comes near her. ‘If I be waspish, best beware my sting’. Although many interpret the ending of the play as Kate being ‘tamed’ by her husband Petruccio, some scholars believe her final speech is more tongue in check on close analysis. Whatever your interpretation of the final scene, Kate’s fire and quick tongue earns her place among with great female roles in Shakespeare’s canon.
There you have it – some juicy female characters from Shakespeare’s repertoire that I would be delighted to work on! Whether you’re looking for a Shakespeare play to read, or a monologue to tackle – any of these roles would be a true delight! Here’s our list of female Shakespeare monologues.