It’s Hard to be a Woman: Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroines

By:  Sydney Vollmer

Cordelia, Desdemona, Juliet, Lavinia, and Ophelia: What do these strange names have in common? For one, they are all women in Shakespeare’s plays, as you might have guessed. More specifically, they are all characters from his tragedies. Based on their individual circumstances, it’s easy to see that Shakespeare was not kind to his women—but to be fair, he wasn’t very kind to the men in these plays either. Even so, I’d like to point out that none of these women died because they did something wrong. Most of these women died as a result of men acting irrationally. Most of them were pawns in games of power Laviniaor revenge. At least the men died because they were the ones that did something stupid, so some of them kind of deserved it. It’s hard to discern the order in which to rank these undeserved tragedies, but I’m going to go ahead and let Lavinia take the crown.

Poor Lavinia, from the devastating tragedy of Titus Andronicus, is the daughter of the play’s namesake. Her father deals in some shady business about who he is going to have her marry, and it ends with her being dragged through the woods by three men. It’s pretty easy to guess what they wanted to do with her in the woods. After they each had their fill, they cut off her hands and slit her tongue out of her mouth so she couldn’t reveal what had happened. Eventually, she was able to write out what had become of her by holding a stick in her mouth and writing in the dirt. Enraged, her father took revenge on the men. Then he realized that since his daughter was no longer innocent and this had happened out of wedlock, she was not fit for life. He then killed his daughter whom he had just worked so hard to avenge. Feel free to argue that another woman on this list had it worse, but I’m pretty sure we’re all in agreement on this one.

JulietGoing to the opposite end of my pity, Juliet is at the bottom of my list. Her story is very unfortunate, and the fact that it happened because of a lack of good communication is worse. Honestly though, I didn’t feel that sorry for her. I’ve liked plenty of guys in my day—some of which my parents probably wouldn’t approve—and yet here I am. Alive. We could get into a whole discussion about the society at that time, but let’s just keep this one at the surface level. It’s really great that these two kids fell in love and wanted to get married. Their plan wasn’t even that terrible. So, from that angle, it’s very sad. Romeo came, thought Juliet was dead, killed himself, she woke up, saw he was dead, she killed herself. That is a serious list of misfortune. If only Romeo could have grieved for a few more minutes. Everyone would have had a happy ending! But they didn’t. Alas, they did it to themselves.

The rest of them are a toss-up. When in doubt, go in alphabetical order. Cordelia! Ah, Cordelia, the youngest daughter of King Lear. Here’s the story: King Lear did something really stupid. He was getting his affairs in order and deciding how to divide up his kingdom among his three daughters. All of them were together for what would most likely be the last time, and King Lear asked his daughters to express their love for him, and he would divide the land based on how much love each showed him. Here’s the kicker—he had already divided the land, so their responses were merely for his own amusement.

CordeliaHis two eldest daughters were already married and not living with him anymore. They were first to express their love. Each over-emphatically fawned over their father, though neither particularly cared for him. Then it was Cordelia’s turn. She was known as her father’s favorite. Not yet married, she still lived with him. When it came time for her to express her love and devotion, she basically said that she didn’t have anything to say. She told him that her sisters weren’t really saying how they felt, so she felt that any words she used would be meaningless. This didn’t sit too well with the king. He banished her in an instant and divided the land between his two older daughters.

It’s not a crime for a father to want to hear his daughter say she loves him, but he completely overreacted. His first two daughters conspired to kill their father and it caused Lear to go mad. Eventually, Cordelia got word of what her sisters were doing and she returned. Her father doesn’t recognize her and by the time he does, they both get thrown in jail. A short time after, Cordelia gets hanged. The moral of this story: Tell your dad you love him, even if you’re lying. Otherwise, you might get banished and hanged.

DesdemonaNext up: Desdemona from Othello.

Her story is pretty simple. Desdemona is Othello’s wife. No one else likes Othello. Throughout the play, they work to sabotage him and try to gain the upper hand. One thing they do to torture Othello is convince him that Desdemona has been having an affair. Even though she hasn’t, Othello is so enraged he doesn’t bother listening to a rebuttal. Logically, his next move is to smother her in their bed. Well done, Othello. Well done.

Lastly, we have Ophelia. After Juliet, she is most likely the first name that pops into your head when you think of Shakespeare’s tragic women. She is Hamlet’s love interest, but her family warns her of him. As Hamlet appears to be going mad throughout the play, he makes aggressive remarks to her regarding her sexuality. In this day and age, we would probably consider what he does harassment. It deeply bothers Ophelia, and she grieves that she no longer feels close to the man she loves. Another tragedy strikes her when her father dies. Trying to escape her grief, she climbs into a willow tree. Unfortunately, the branch snaps, hurling her into a body of water where she tragically drowns.

OpheliaBased on his treatment of these five women it’s apparent that Shakespeare was not always generous to his female characters. These tragic women suffered the brunt of the Bard’s twisted mind. Thankfully, we live in a world where female characters aren’t always abused. Sometimes, they even get to decide the outcomes of their own stories. As we move forward, let us remember these tragic women, and understand that we don’t have to let our female characters simply play pawns in a male’s story.

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References and Call Numbers:

King Lear

  • The complete King Lear, 1608-1623 / William Shakespeare ; texts and parallel texts in photographic facsimile prepared by Michael Warren
    • Published Berkeley : University of California Press, c1989
    • A2 W37 1989 (Oversized)
  • King Lear. A tragedy in five acts. With the stage business, casts of characters, costumes, relative positions, etc
  • William Shakespeare’s King Lear: the second quarto, 1608, a facsimile (from the British museum copy, C. 34, k. 19.) / by Charles Praetorius with introductory notice by P. A. Daniel

Romeo and Juliet

  • Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy. With illus. by Ludovic Marchetti, Lucius Rossi, and Oreste Cortazzo
    • Published London, Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent [1890]
    • PR2831 .A1 1890
  • Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakspere. The undated quarto. A facsimile (from the British Museum copy, C.34, k.56) by Charles Praetorius. With introductory notice by Herbert A. Evans
  • Romeo and Juliet, by Mr. William Shakespeare


  • A tragedy in five acts. With the stage business, cast of characters, costumes, relative positions, &c
  • Othello: by William Shakespeare. The first quarto, 1622, a facsimile (from the British museum copy, C. 34. k. 32.) by Charles Praetorius … with introduction by Herbert A. Evans
  • Othello, the Moor of Venice, a tragedy. As it hath been divers times acted at the Globe, and at the Black-Friers : and now at the Theatre Royal, by Her Majesties servants. Written by W. Shakespeare
    • Published London, Printed for R. Wellington, at the Dolphin and Crown, at the West-End of St. Paul’s Church-Yard, 1705
    • PR2750 .B29 1705

Titus Andronicus

  • Titus Andronicus, partly by William Shakspere. The first quarto, 1600, a facsimile (from the copy in the University library, Edinburgh) by Charles Praetorius. With an introduction by Arthur Symons
  • Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus : facsimiled from the edition printed at London in the year 1611 / by Edmund William Ashbee