Ophelia, Desdemona, and Juliet vs Beatrice, Rosalind, and Viola — Is the Tragedy Bias in Schools Sexist?

This post is credit in part to Duane at ShakespeareGeek, because the idea came to me after perusing the responses to a post of his asking “What Shakespeare did you read in high school?” (And if you haven’t popped over there to tell him your experience — do so). The responses have been more or less what I expected — a lot of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar, occasionally subbing in Othello or King Lear. Only infrequently does a comedy make the list, almost always A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It — but even those are rare appearances in the curriculum.

It’s long perturbed me that so many high schools will insist on only beating kids over the heads with the tragedies. Now, don’t get me wrong. The tragedies have great material, obviously, and most of it is not beyond your average high-schooler’s capacity to grasp. I just think that you’re more likely to get the kind of excited, engaged reaction we hope for out of teaching the comedies. (I know plenty of folk may disagree with me and think that the comedies rely too much on obscure jokes and convoluted language; flatly, I just believe those naysayers are wrong). I think it’s far easier for teachers to fall into traps with the tragedies, and to get bogged down in the doom and gloom that might be off-putting. Ignoring the comedies causes teachers to miss out on so many opportunities — clever wordplay, cross-dressing heroines, puns galore, and the bawdy, earthy, genuine sexuality that would give teachers a better chance to hook kids on Shakespeare and to keep their attention. Then, once you’ve convinced them it’s good stuff, you’ll have better luck getting them interested in the tragedies.

But that particular pet peeve of mine is a fight for another day. What’s just occurred to me on reading Duane’s post and its responses, however, is the notion that there might be something a little more insidious clinging on to these curriculum choices. The tragedies, far more than the comedies, are boy-centric, peopled with male figures, concerned with the problems and personal journeys of men. I have to wonder — Is the dogged adherence to teaching the same few tragedies in high schools perhaps the legacy of centuries’ worth of education as a male-dominated institution? Teaching, at least at the pre-collegiate levels, has become a more female domain, but that certainly has not always been the case. Do we teach Hamlet and Caesar simply because that’s what has always been taught, never minding what cultural norms might have influenced those decisions centuries ago?

Of course there are women in the tragedies — but, in most cases, hardly women we’d want high-school students emulating. Half the women in the tragedies are the bad guys, after all — Lady M, Goneril, Regan. The heroines of these plays, in the meantime, come off as a little weak. Ophelia is most effective in poignancy, and Gertrude is either astonishingly naive, or her strongest moment is in drinking poison. Portia and Calpurnia barely get any stage time at all in one of the most-frequently-taught tragedies. Cordelia may be sweet and well-intentioned, but her dramatic purpose is pretty much to die to make Lear feel bad about himself. Additionally, the women of the tragedies almost universally act only in reaction to the male central figures. Lady Macbeth may be an exception at the beginning of Macbeth, but she loses that dynamism and that ability to affect events as the play goes on. Juliet is perhaps the most proactive female among the commonly-taught tragedies, but we’d hardly want our fourteen-year-old students following her example. Most of the tragic women, however, don’t have agendas of their own, they don’t take initiative — they respond (usually by dying).

And even when those women do appear, they hardly get the stage time or line counts of their male counterparts. The largest female role in a tragedy is Cleopatra, with close to 700, and she is the exception to pretty much everything I’ve said about women in tragedies so far — and she’s the central figure of a play most high schools don’t attempt. Juliet comes in 2nd, a little over 500, but after that it’s down to Desdemona, just under 400, and Emilia and Lady Macbeth, at around 250 each. Gertrude, Ophelia, all three of the Lear sisters — none of these ladies bank more than 200 lines. Compare that to Iago’s 1100, Othello’s nearly 900, Lear at close to 800, Antony (in Antony and Cleopatra) at around 750, Brutus at about 700, Romeo and Macbeth topping 600, and, of course, Hamlet trumping them all at over 1400 lines, nearly as long in his one role as some of Shakespeare’s shorter plays.

The girls, overall, get a much fairer shake in the comedies. Rosalind speaks more than twice as much as her male counterpart, almost 700 to Orlando’s almost 300. Helena speaks almost 100 more lines than Demetrius, and Lysander only has Hermia by about 10; Helena has the third-most lines in the play, falling only just short of Nick Bottom and Theseus. Viola and Olivia top 300, about the same as Feste and Sir Toby, and far more than the romantic heroes of Twelfth Night. Benedick only outstrips Beatrice by about 60 lines. There also tend to be, overall, more women in the comedies than in the tragedies. Midsummer has Helena, Hermia, Titania, and Hippolyta; Much Ado has Beatrice, Hero, Margaret, and Ursula; Love’s Labour’s Lost has the four ladies plus country-girl Jaquenetta; As You Like It has Rosalind, Celia, Phoebe, and Audrey. These women also tend to be in more scenes, making the female presence on stage far greater in the comedies than in the tragedies.

Furthermore, the women of the comedies make their own decisions and act as their own agents. They are, if not always the sole central characters, sharing the stage much more evenly, and they are certainly the characters whose decisions drive the plot in many of the comedies. They often act in defiance of men’s wishes or of societal expectations, rather than succumbing. And, perhaps most importantly, they live. Fiery and feisty and resilient, they live. They survive shipwrecks, heartbreaks, wildernesses, outlaws, exiles, threats of execution — and they go on to triumph. For this, I find the women of the comedies just plain more interesting that the women of the tragedies. Shakespeare seems to give them a lot more credit.

So why don’t we showcase Beatrice’s wit to our high-schoolers? Viola’s eloquence, Rosalind’s spirit, Hermia and Helena’s passions, Titania’s magic, Kate’s fire, Portia’s cleverness? Why does our focus default to the male perspective?

I wonder if it has something to do with something that’s more generally pervasive in our culture — the notion that it’s the male viewpoint that’s considered universal. This debate came up recently in the film world with Disney’s decision first to rebrand the film Rapunzel as Tangled, then to stop making fairy tales all together, because they don’t market as well to boys. Boys, after all, don’t want to go see a movie about a girl, but girls will readily see movies about boys, so Disney’s turning to the Pixar model of the male universal viewpoint. There was also a minor hullabaloo in the literary world this past summer over the marginalization of female authors and female-dominated genres. Publishers and production companies routinely appeal to male readers and male audiences, despite that women go to more movies and purchase more books — precisely because they know they can bank on the women turning up and forking over cash anyway. The bias continues to get validated.

So I don’t think it’s a stretch to suppose that this trend has carried over, even subconsciously, to how we teach Shakespeare and which of his plays we select. We can get a 16-year-old girl to consider Hamlet, to dig into his words and his psyche, even to identify with him and his struggle, but a 16-year-old boy is far less willing to extend that courtesy for Beatrice or Rosalind. Even within Hamlet, I’m sure it holds true — I’d love to hear from teachers about how many boys choose to write their essays on Ophelia or Gertrude, versus how many girls do. I know as a student in high school and college, I wrote my assignments on the female characters whenever possible, looking closely at Lady Macbeth’s language, trying to coax out Gertrude’s backbone, attempting to vindicate Goneril and Regan, positing Juliet as the far stronger character than Romeo — not out of any desire to make a stand for feminism, but simply because those were the characters, the arcs, and the issues that most interested me. It would’ve been nice, however, to have had the opportunity to consider a female character who was central, rather than marginal, who was the main focus of the play and the instigator of action, rather than a sidelined role.

The good news is that I don’t appear to be alone in desiring an appeal on behalf of the comedies. A few of the teachers who replied to Duane’s post say that, despite having been fed all the tragedies in their own high school years, they now turn to Much Ado about Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night, mixed in with the typical tragedies and a few histories. I’d be glad to see this turning of the tide as a continuing trend. Students should get a broader sampling of Shakespeare’s works as early on as possible, and we should be celebrating Shakespeare’s women as much as his men.

6 thoughts on “Ophelia, Desdemona, and Juliet vs Beatrice, Rosalind, and Viola — Is the Tragedy Bias in Schools Sexist?

  1. YES! I am in complete agreement; I would love to see more of the comedies taught in high school, and have concentrated more on them in our homeschooling. (As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, Taming of the Shrew, Midsummer Night's Dream…) Incidentally, the two plays I studied intensively in high school were R&J and Midsummer. While I enjoyed the former, the latter was the most fun, especially since I had the fun of playing Titania.


  2. I heartily agree ~ I would love to put this question to educational textbook editors. We had a textbook approval several years ago, and all the British genre texts that we looked at included MACBETH as the Shakespeare play. But, many of us are lucky enough to be able to purchase class sets of other titles.


  3. I don't know to what extent the situation has changed since I was in high school, but by and large, the Shakespeare plays we studied were the ones from which all references to sex could be easily ignored or expunged.


  4. Interesting question. It's true some of the biggest female parts are in comedies: Rosalind, Portia, Immogen.I disagree, however, that the tragedies are devoid of strong female characters. Cordelia deserves much more credit than you give her. She is a very powerful character, hardly a Desdemona or an Ophelia: she is the first character to "speak truth to power" in a play about speaking truth to power. She is hotheaded as her sisters and her father, but has a quality they lack: selflessness. This leads her to take a stand for integrity in her first scene. When she returns leading an army, she is an avenging angel. Her choice to forgive her father is an incredibly mature act. Cordelia is love at its most formidable. She is fiery, smart, and courageous. Her death is not "to make Lear feel bad." It is a world-shaking event like the death of Christ.To conclude, I agree that comedies could stand to be studied more in school. Comic heroines are great characters. But it's hardly fair to dismiss the tragic heroines, especially Cordelia, as weak and uninteresting. The plays just need to be taught in such a way to bring those qualities to light.What about the histories? Those are very rarely studied, but they have some of the best female characters of all.


  5. @Lark — What a great curriculum! How old are your kids? And what is it you find that the respond to the [email protected] — I've got to say, of the tragedies, I think Macbeth is the best choice for high-schoolers. It's definitely the sexiest and the most action-packed. But yes, I'd love to know exactly what is behind the decision-making. You'd think they could at least offer some sort of a *choice*[email protected] — Guh! What a shame! Bowdlerizing is about the dimmest thing that can be done if we actually want kids interested in Shakespeare. Of course, our country's Puritanical obsession with and fear of sexuality is a *whole* different discussion…@Alexi — I never said devoid — I just don't think they hold candles to the comedic heroines. Even when they're wonderful, they just don't get the time or the lines as their male counterparts. There's a huge discrepancy there. If you want to study the character of Lear, you've got a whole play to work with; if you want to study Cordelia, you've got four scenes, and in one of those, she only speaks once. It's that way with most of the women in the tragedies — if, as a student, you want to write your essays on them, you've got a lot less to work with compared to the men (as I found out repeatedly). Women's issues become "token," because there's just no way around the fact that the tragedies are male-centric. And that reflects a gender bias. The comedies give girls more bites at the apple.(My trouble is also that, in the tragedies, I tend to side with the villainesses — who are also, for some reason, the women Shakespeare tends to allow to speak more in the tragedies).And yeah, I'm afraid I just disagree with you on Cordelia, and I know it's a personal preference — I've never warmed to her. She's always seemed the simpering, holier-than-thou miss to me. I'm not sure she can be called Christ-like when her death doesn't lead to any sort of salvation for anyone, but rather just puts a capstone on all the horror and tragedy. For heroes in Lear, I like Kent and Edgar — I think they do more to actually affect matters, and the audience is given so much more opportunity to connect with them.I *love* the histories, but I think they're probably the greatest challenge for reaching most high-school students. I know a teacher who says that Richard III really grabs his kids, and I think that's wonderful, and I think you could get some real mileage out of either of the H4s — but, on the whole, I'm not sure the histories are the best possible introduction-level plays. And there, too, while you have wonderful female characters, they're still sidelined by the males, in stage time, line count, and focus. R3 may be the exception, but even there, the women are reactive, not proactive. Even Margaret's been reduced to reaction by that point, and the plays in which she's the powerhouse are probably the least likely to be done in high schools. She does win the prize for most lines to a female character in all of Shakespeare — but it's across four plays. In no one of them does she top the line count.


  6. Desdemona is hardly the passive character we often believe she is, and OTHELLO and LEAR are the most female-centered of the "major tragedies." (The women act, the men command and judge.) OTHELLO contains a great deal of talk about sex, which makes it suitable for teenagers but unsuitable for fundamentalist parents. Then there's the question of race, which alienates an entirely different set of parents, the well-intentioned ones who maintain HUCK FINN's place of eminence on the banned-books list. So, out OTHELLO goes from the American classroom.


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