Shakespeare's Female Characters Through the Years On Screen


Nov 11, 2013

Shakespeare's Female Characters Through the Years On Screen

The women of Shakespeare are some of the most memorable, complex characters to ever walk the stage. Shakespeare's female characters were traditionally played by all men, but now they have been interpreted and brought to life in a myriad of ways by some of the most capable film actresses of our time.

Each actress brings her own unique perspective to these characters. To some, Ophelia is a love-sick victim destroyed by Hamlet's rejection and the death of her father; to others she is a sharp and independent heroine who is driven to madness by her own powers of foresight.

Click through the gallery above to learn more about some of the most memorable portrayals of Shakespeare's heroines throughout the history of film and television.


Ophelia Jean Simmons received her first Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Ophelia in Laurence Olivier's 1948 film version of Hamlet. The film would go on to win the Oscar for best picture. Photo: Getty Images
Ophelia In the 1990 film directed by Franco Zeffirelli, Helena Bonham-Carter played Ophelia opposite Mel Gibson's Hamlet. In this film adaptation, Bohham-Carter changed the usual portrayal of tragic Ophelia. She's quoted in the LA Times saying, "I thought Franco would try to make me into this decorative thing...But, in fact, he sort of allowed me to make her a strong character. She can be quite wimpy and passive. There is no space these days to play Ophelia too passive or too obedient or too vapid. She has to have spirit and character." While the characters in the play want to dismiss Ophelia, Bonham-Carter chose to champion for her. Photo: Getty Images
Ophelia In Kenneth Branagh's 1996 Hamlet film, Kate Winslet portrayes Hamlet's romantic interest, Ophelia. In this version, the underlying sexual relationship that the text may or may not imply between Winslet's Ophelia and Branagh's Hamlet is brought to the surface. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Juliet The 1936 Romeo and Juliet film, directed by George Cukor, stars Norma Shearer as Juliet. Shearer was 34 years old when she filmed the role.  Photo: Getty Images
Juliet West Side Story takes place in the early 1960s in New York City, but the story is Shakespeare through and through. The 1961 film adaptation of the classic Romeo and Juliet stars Natalie Wood as Maria Nuñez (Juliet) who's in love with Tony Wyzek (Romeo). Photo: Getty Images
Juliet For the 1996 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, director Baz Luhrmann brought Shakespeare to 90s youth, casting Claire Danes as Juliet opposite Leonardo DiCaprio's Romeo. With an up-to-date soundtrack and a contemporary setting, Danes portrayed a modern Juliet, and one who was close in actual age to Shakespeare's Juliet! Photo: Getty Images
Katherina The 1929 Taming of the Shrew was the first sound film adaptation of the Shakespearean play of the same name. The movie was directed by Sam Taylor, adapted by Taylor from William Shakespeare's play, and stars Mary Pickford as Katherina. Photo: Getty Images
Katherina Franco Zeffirelli directed the 1967 film The Taming of the Shrew starring Elizabeth Taylor as Katherina and Richard Burton as Petruchio. Katherina's final speech in the play defines the tone of the entire production and what it says about female submission. Taylor's Katherina delivers the speech apparently without irony, yet her quick exit forces Petruchio to run after her and ultimately demonstrates the power women have over men. Photo: Getty Images
Katherina The 1999 teen film 10 Things I Hate About You is a modernization of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Julia Stiles plays Kat, a Riot Grrrl and Sylvia Plath enthusiast who battles a bittersweet romance with the male lead played by Heath Ledger. Photo: Getty Images
Olivia If you've never read the Twelfth Night and have 12 minutes to spare, watch this 1910 silent film version starring Julia Swayne Gordon as Olivia, the wealthy countess who falls in love with 'Cesario' who she does not realize is actually Viola in disguise. Unbelievably, Swayne Gordon appeared in 228 films between 1908 to 1933!  
Olivia She's the Man is a 2006 romantic comedy inspired by Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. In this version, Olivia is portrayed by actress Laura Ramsey. Photo: Getty Images
Olivia The 2013 Globe on Screen season included a production of Twelfth Night directed by Tim Carroll that returned to the Shakespearean era practice of using an all-male cast. The show starred a cross-dressing Mark Rylance as Olivia who falls in love with Viola who's disguised as a man, making it very much a comedy of errors.  Photo: Getty Images
Lady Macbeth In the Orson Welles screen adaption of Macbeth, Jeanette Nolan, a radio actress with no previous film or stage experience, plays the Queen of Scotland. Unlike the play, the film insinuates that Lady Macbeth fatally stabs Duncan prior to Macbeth's attack on the king.
Lady Macbeth George Schaefer's 1960 television film adaptation of Macbeth stars Judith Anderson as Lady Macbeth. Anderson was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1960 and often billed as "Dame Judith Anderson" after. Photo: Getty Images
Lady Macbeth Though not on screen, Sleep No More is an adapation worth a mention. The immersive theatrical experience takes place in a multi-floor 1940s hotel. It's the story of Macbeth, mostly told through dance and Lady MacBeth is portrayed as a Femme Fatal.
Portia In the 1922 The Merchant of Venice, Sybil Throndike plays Portia, one of the most prominent of Shakespeare's heroines as she is beautiful, gracious, rich, intelligent, and quick-witted. Thorndike was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1931, and Companion of Honour in 1970. Photo: Getty Images
Portia In the BBC's1972 Play of the Month, Portia was played by Maggie Smith. Photo: Getty Images
Portia In the 2004 adaptation, of The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, and Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins plays Portia. Photo: UK Press via Getty Images
Rosalind In the 1912 silent film adaptation of As You Like It, Shakespeare's heroine Rosalind is played by Rose Coghlan. At sixty years old, however, Coghlan was surely the world's oldest Rosalind.
Rosalind Elisabeth Bergner was an Austrian actress who played Rosalind in the 1936 film adaptation of As You Like It, and her German accent is apparent in most of her scenes. Many believe that Bergner was the inspiration for the character of Margo Channing in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's classic film, All About Eve. Photo: Getty Images
Rosalind In a 1963 UK version of As You Like It, Vanessa Redgrave plays Rosalind. Photo: Getty Images
Prospera Yes, you read that correctly: Prospera, not Prospero. In the 2010 film, director Julie Taymor made the bold decision to cast the traditionally male role of Prospero as a female role, Prospera. Taymor had had the notion in her head that Prospero could be a woman. In a chance meeting, Taymor learned Helen Mirren had the same idea and her Prospera was cast. While all the "he's" were changed to "she's", Taymor discovered there was one word that could not change: "the word master. We have no equivalent in the English language for 'master' for a woman. It certainly isn't mistress."
Julie Taymor talks about how she knew she wanted to bring "The Tempest" to film and the gender twist she had in mind for the traditionally male role of Prospero.

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