Glad to Be Bad--Shakespeare's Evil Women
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Glad to Be Bad--Shakespeare's Evil Women

Some of ShakespeareÂ’s women are really good at being bad.

Queen Margaret in Henry VI Part 3 is not a nice person. She has the head of her political rival, the Duke of York, chopped right off. But first she taunts him by waving a handkerchief in his face-- soaked with the blood of his young son.

And Margaret’s not the only tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide to show up in Shakespeare’s plays. His dramas and histories are peppered with women who are—to put it mildly—not to be trifled with.

Margaret also appears in Henry VI Part 2, where she deliberately drops her fan, pretends to mistake the Duchess of Gloucester for a servant, and smacks her on the ear for not picking the fan up. The Duchess, no shrinking violet herself, threatens Margaret with her nails, and then retreats, snarling that she’ll be revenged. But first the Duchess has other business to take care of, including murdering King Henry with sorcery so her husband the Protector can be king. Unfortunately for the Duchess, she’s caught in the act and shipped off into exile. None of her evil plans come to fruition, but it isn’t for lack of trying.

The first character most people probably think of in terms of Shakespeare and evil women is Lady Macbeth. She has the characteristics that typify his female villains. She’s in a high position in society, which gives her some power and a taste for more power, in addition to the opportunity to get it. She’s totally focused on what she wants, unlike Macbeth, who’s often not too sure about this whole idea of killing Duncan. When he objects that they might fail, she retorts, "Screw your courage to the sticking place, and we'll not fail!" And she has no remorse whatsoever. True, she has waking nightmares about Duncan's murder that might indicate some sense of guilt, but it's not a guilt that will prompt her to repent. It's an impotent guilt from the fear of impending damnation, and by the time she dies, it doesn't even matter--emotionally and spiritually she's already dead.

No discussion of evil Shakespearean women can leave out King Lear's daughters Regan and Goneril, who make their good sister Cordelia roll her eyes more than once. They taunt Lear by deliberately neglecting him. They join together to show him disrespect by refusing to receive his knights. They egg each other on. And when Lear angrily reminds them he gave them everything, Regan mutters, "And in good time you gave it." Regan and Goneril devise a sadistic plan to get rid of Daddy, which only fails because they fight over their boy toy Edmund. That leads to Goneril's poisoning Regan, and then taking her own life; even she can't stand herself any more.

What's the motivation behind all this bad behavior? Can't anyone in these plays be nice? No, they can't afford to be. All these women are playing for high stakes, either trying to get a crown or keep the one they already have. Sitting on the throne was like winning the lottery in the Middle Ages. The winner, however, was never sure of keeping the prize; it had to be defended constantly.

Nasty noblewomen were a tradition that Shakespeare came by honestly. The ancient societies of northwestern Europe were generally violent, but they also saw women as full-fledged, power-sharing members. Women held property in their own right, and one Irish queen started a range war by bragging about how many head of cattle she owned. Later, the formidable Queen Boadicea effectively whomped the Romans.

By the time of the Crusades, the lady often took charge of the castle while the lord was away fighting, so royal women and noblewomen were used to defending what they had. This might sometimes mean a preemptive strike; in the winner-take-all world of medieval politics, the line between defense and offense could become very blurred indeed. From there it was only a short step to Lady Macbeth-style plotting. And the Elizabethans had models from more recent history, too, such as the horrible Queen Isabella, who murdered King Edward II in a most unpleasant way.

Constance and Eleanor of Aquitaine in King John are a good example of how aggressive women could be in fighting over turf. Richard the Lion-hearted is dead, and two factions have lined up to compete for the English crown: King John and his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine are on one side, and John's nephew Arthur and his mother Constance are on the other. Constance's argument is that Arthur's father was the older brother of both Richard and John, so Arthur should be king. John's argument is that he's already king, and he’s staying that way.

War, always an option, is inevitable. Constance recruits both the king of France and the duke of Austria to fight for Arthur (who's a little boy and really not interested in being king at all). When the French ambassador demands the throne for Arthur, Eleanor is so furious she gets John to send troops to France to teach the whole bunch of them a lesson. The attacks get personal, too. Eleanor accuses Constance of wanting power for herself, then each calls the other's son a bastard with no right to the throne. "There's a good mother, boy, that blots they father," Eleanor snarls at Arthur, and Constance retorts, "There's a good grandam, boy, that would blot thee."

Why have audiences always found these women so absorbing? Villains are fun, and woman villains are even more fun. The courtly tradition of the Middle Ages put women on a pedestal, as pure, exemplary beings, and much of that idea survived into Shakespeare's day. So the irony of women being as wicked as possible led to some interesting conflicts and dramatic possibilities. In Henry VI Part 3, the irony isn't lost on the Duke of York. Just before his beheading, he denounces Margaret bitterly, making it plain how she compares with the womanly ideal. “Tis virtue that doth make them most admired,” he rails at her, “the contrary doth make thee wondered at.”

Like many people in real life, these bad ladies never change. They never reach any kind of self-awareness. Queen Margaret, sent into exile in Richard III after losing the war she largely fueled, gloats that the victorious Yorks have turned against each other. She remains mean-spirited to the last. "These English woes," she sneers, "will make me smile in France."

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Comments (4)

You've given Shakespeare a whole new perspective for me. Interesting article.

Thanks. I like the conflict between Constance and Eleanor of Aquitaine. I recommend King John, I think it's very entertaining and a way underrated play.

Thank you. This is a wonderfully succinct and well-written piece. The exception in Shakespeare, of course, is "The Taming of the Shrew" as Kate, after much abuse, is finally "tamed" after a fashion, no? Of course, what is interesting about demure, well-behaved women. Exactly----nothing!

Thanks, Linda! I think you're absolutely right about Kate. She's a great character. Then after she's tamed she's boring--time to end the play!