A Tale of Three Hysterical Women: Shakespeare’s Historical Plays and the Women He Based Them on

Shakespearean texts have a history of falling under critical theories established through feminist lenses, potentially in variations even before feminist studies were founded in the 60s. There is a fairly distinguishable literary trope in Renaissance dramas of female evil, specifically stemming from a cultural prejudice against women’s bodies—sometimes justified by humoralism and other times by hysteria. In theatrical performances of comedies, women oftentimes are rooted in caricature portrayals of one specific role or stereotype. So, yes, even Shakespeare’s women may be strong in characterization, but they are also pigeon holed into few select roles. There is the shrew, the unrequited lover, the avenger, or the naïve representation of a Renaissance woman—even in plays set outside the Renaissance timeframe and culture. The women portrayed in the plays are unarguably complex in their roles within their social and political spheres, but to dissect Shakespearean women further, it is beneficial to examine women who defy conventions within the genre of tragedy.


To be more specific, this paper will examine a few of Shakespeare’s historically adapted plays, and analyze the portrayal of historical women in the fictionalized platform, and uncover, if any, ways Shakespeare attempted to give them complexity or justice. Select elements I will focus on are how women serve as deflections for men in positions of power, how Renaissance dramas tend to romanticize supernatural or superstitious omens around or within women, and how women progressively alter their personalities throughout the plays. The specific texts under consideration are Henry VIII, Antony and Cleopatra, and the narrative poem Venus and Adonis.


The etymological and cultural definitions of the word hysteria, which roughly translates to uterus, will have a significant impact on the framework of each text’s analysis. How Cleopatra, Katherine of Aragon, and Venus are depicted are arguably hysterical at some moment. Differing from characters like Lady Macbeth, the aforementioned women were real, powerful figures in history, and their representation in literature did influence their images and that of other female rulers—Elizabeth I specifically. The women of Shakespeare’s historically adapted plays are developed with complex characteristics, positing them as erotic, yet hysterical creatures who prompt social and political upheaval.


The women of Shakespeare’s history plays are visceral instances of female authority figures who act to retain or take power, but are noticeably less adapted and romanticized compared to other women the bard had written about. There is a sort of condemnation that comes from audiences and critics of Juliet, Lady Macbeth, and the Lear sisters—a response that is not shared with their historical counterparts. One of the few commonalities between the two genres is the mention of madness, which for the sake of argument will be translated into hysteria when speaking of Shakespearean women. There is extensive scholarship surrounding hysteria in women in dramas. Cristina Leon Alfar argues the characters regarded as hysterical or evil in the tragedies are incorrectly labeled so, claiming women who, “become evil through a simple double standard, arrogating for themselves behaviors that would be laudable or at least condoned in men” (25). The concept of a double standard is difficult, because of the limited scope of the timeframe in which the plays were produced. However, it is possible to impose an argument of unjust diagnoses toward the passion and aggression acted on by women.


Rebecca Solnit’s landmark article “Cassandra Among the Creeps” may seem like a figurative world away from any of Shakespeare’s work, but her assertion that women have historically been discredited when their claims impugn a man’s is reminiscent of that of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and Katherine of Aragon. Solnit exposes how difficult it is for women to navigate the waters of gender wars, expressing how, “generations of women have been told they are delusional, confused, manipulative, malicious, conspiratorial, congenitally dishonest, often all at once” (CITE). And while Renaissance scholar Wymer Rowland addresses the ritualized stage Renaissance women were subjected to, he claims there was a particular imbalance in how monarchs were portrayed. So, in turn, female monarchs are especially written with flaws extreme enough to question their ability to successfully rule or act rationally on a national scale.


What is interesting about the dual imagery presented in Katherine of Aragon’s portrayal in Henry VIII, is rooted in the fact that Shakespeare appears to describe her compassionately as a possible revitalization for Catholicism, but her conflicts with powerful men like the King and Cardinal Wolsey leave her an unrequited widow to die alone. In act two, shortly after her monologue pleading with King Henry to know where she went wrong as a wife, Katherine goes head to head with Wolsey in what is exemplary of how women were treated in moments of conflict. Wolsey comments that Katherine seems unlike herself when she responds to men with just as much ferocity. His suggestion, in the public place, was an attempt to discredit her defense as an emotional outburst fueled by her hysteria for losing Henry. However, to Shakespeare’s credit, Katherine is not left humiliated and without agency. The Queen responds with, "I do refuse you for my judge," looks at her aggressors, Wolsey and Campeius, curtsies and leaves the hall (2.4.131). Katherine, historically, was cast away by Henry under the guise of an illegitimate marriage and, in turn, was a part of the English Reformation. Although her part in the political movement was minimal, compared to the influence of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cranmer. Katherine’s strength in the play could potentially be a gesture on Shakespeare’s behalf to recognize her role in trying to keep the Catholic church in tact. Katherine’s relationship with her nephew the Holy Roman Emperor factored into the mistrust of English court, along with how loved she was by Catholic masses in England. However, there isn’t much to support that Shakespeare was a Protestant or a Catholic, so her role as a Catholic martyr could have been a strategy to best give her conflict in the play’s plotline, without another hidden motive.


What is more to Katherine’s challenging temperament are the ways in which she calls out Henry for tossing her aside and using women impulsively. Lisa Hopkins discusses female rule and influence, primarily after 1559, and examines how female monarchs all over Europe were in existence, but sabotaged. Katherine of Aragon was first married to Henry VIII’s brother before his untimely passing and then essentially gifted to Henry as a way to keep intact Spain and England’s alliance. Hopkins observes how “a woman in succession was thought of, essentially, as a link between male rulers, rather than as an actual ruler" (76). Katherine gave Henry a daughter, Mary, but it was not her children that were representative of Hopkins theory, but rather herself. In Henry’s praise of Katherine, even after deciding on the divorce, Shakespeare outlines what made her such an ideal wife and woman:

                              “If thy rare qualities, sweet gentleness,

                               Thy meekness saintlike, wifelike government,

                               Obeying in commanding, and thy parts

                               Sovereign and pious else, could speak thee out—

                               The queen of earthly queens. She's noble born,” (2.4.153-157)

The acknowledgement is most likely Shakespeare attempting to capture how well-deserved Katherine was of Henry’s recognition, and probably was because she was one of his only wives to die of natural causes—though still younger than anticipated and alone. However, the language in the lines highlights qualities that do not empower Katherine as an independent woman or Queen. Descriptors such as “meekness” and “gentleness” are on the surface innocent enough, but are in actuality contrasts to how she acts after taking agency of her fate by calling out those who have wronged her. The list of Henry’s then appears wistful and idealistic.


Ironically, though not surprisingly, Shakespeare held off from writing Henry VIII until after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, and it appears difficult to find representations of the Renaissance monarch in the play. Instead, Elizabeth seems more like a mirror of the literary depiction of Cleopatra rather than of her mother Anne Boleyn. Shakespeare has a definitive allusion to Elizabeth in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but taking into account that she was alive and ruling at the time of its production, there is room for contention of whether or not his depiction was an honest one. By the time Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra, Elizabeth had been dead for over five years and James I was ruling, possibly allowing for English citizens to discuss their former Queen with impunity.


Helen Morris details in her research the ways in which Shakespeare’s Cleopatra reflected Queen Elizabeth and not just the image given in Plutarch’s translation of Lives. Her article “Queen Elizabeth I ‘Shadowed’ in Cleopatra” is a fantastic framework to center my above argument on, as Morris gives two examples where the scenes in Antony and Cleopatra parallel real-life exploits of Elizabeth. Memoirs by Sir James Melville, detailed in Morris’ work, describes his encounter with Queen Elizabeth as an emissary for Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth is depicted as an anxious, jealous woman who inquires about the beauty and successes of her rival cousin. The primary account by Melville is eerily reminiscent of Shakespeare’s scene when Cleopatra hears from a messenger that Antony married Octavia. Cleopatra demands:

                                “Go to the fellow, good Alexas; bid him

                                Report the feature of Octavia: her years,

                                Her inclination, let him not leave out

                                The colour of her hair....

                                Bring me word how tall she is” (2.5.111-114, 118).

Morris reports that Queen Elizabeth is documented asking similar questions of her cousin. The “fairness” of Octavia and Mary, Queen of Scots, is one of the more comparable features romanticized in literature. The takeaway from Shakespeare’s inclusion of Cleopatra’s jealousy is the reputation it manifests. The surface level obsession Cleopatra shows does little to emphasize her ability to manage affairs of economics or any type of leadership, and instead, links the Queen to intimate relationships of men through competition of other women.


The denigration of other women highlighted in literature posits Elizabeth and Cleopatra as women who can function exclusively as the only representation of womanhood. In a modern context, their glorified rivalries are similar to women in Hollywood vying for “It Girl,” which is fairly trivial and leaves little room for multiple successes for differing women. Shakespeare accomplishes what many other men do as historians and even in the current media, as he creates a spectacle of Cleopatra. Her anxiousness and obsession with men is turned into a comedy rather than a show of legitimate feelings. Shakespeare describes how Cleopatra switched clothes with Antony (2.2.229) and hung a dried fish from his fishing line to appear as if he mastered fishing (2.5.15-18). What is important to note in these two instances is Cleopatra’s innate boyishness coming through. Similar to Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra has masculine qualities that are unappealing in many respects, but at least for the Queen, her seductive nature gives way for an abused femininity by Shakespeare.


The sexual exploits of female monarchs were perhaps more legendary than their failures as political leaders—those two instances being the unfortunate representations of a woman’s reputation. Shakespeare furthers the hysterical woman trope in varying ways through Cleopatra’s image, as she is both hysterical emotionally and hysterical in her attempts at seduction. Pompey expresses in the play that her first encounter with Caesar was when she was carried to him, rolled in a rug naked (2.5.20-23).  The scene is so infamous in history, that it is unsurprising Shakespeare felt the need to include it, even flippantly, in his play. However, his perpetuation of Cleopatra’s reputation as an exaggerated seductress is disappointing at best.


The female monarch, or goddess in Venus’ case, is staged to poetically contextualize how romantic and chivalric values were not necessarily factors that played out as realities in the shifting of political power. Antony and Cleopatra seems to best reflect the juxtaposition of romance and political corruption, as Shakespeare’s Queen of the Nile is perhaps too closely mirroring her Renaissance equivalents in mannerisms and hysteria. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, described by T.S. Eliot as a “problem woman,” is also deconstructed by John P. McCombe as to, “[possess] a devouring sexuality that must be contained through a discourse that ‘knows’ her and thus diminishes her power” (23). Both of the men above attempt to discuss the Queen in a theoretical sphere, though Eliot does so poetically, and perhaps unknowingly, impose themselves in identities of “otherness” through her image. Their self-reflection, however, does very little for the understanding of Cleopatra. To take a note from McCombe, though, I do agree that scholars have a fetishization of Cleopatra, as well as Venus, but the sexualization sparked in criticism is done so because of the undertones found in the plays themselves. As Caesar gazes upon Cleopatra on her deathbed, he describes her detrimentally: “"She looks like sleep, / As she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grace" (5.2.336-38). The description suggests that even when dead, Cleopatra has the ability to ensnare men and her beauty was a “toil” men, like Marc Antony needed to avoid to remain a victorious source of power.


As explained above, Cleopatra’s image is a mixture of masculine and feminine, as she plays the role of hunting seductress and manipulative ruler. In a more dramatic portrayal of a masculine woman, Shakespeare’s Venus physically and mentally defies gender conventions. James Lake comments on the premise of the poem, by expressing, “At the beginning of the poem, Adonis is revealed as a masculine, if youthful, hunter; but he is immediately compelled to exchange roles with Venus, who assumes the unnatural position of ‘bold-fac'd suitor’ (Lake). The role reversal could be interpreted as a challenge toward the gendered stereotypes embeded in Shakespeare’s culture, but the aggressive nature of Venus suggests otherwise. Adonis is repeatedly presented almost like a hostage, as he even admits to being inexperienced compared to the goddess: "Measure my strange- ness with my unripe years" (1. 524). The imbalance of power is at times unsettling, which is not how a reader would approach the text had the genders been swapped.


James Lake further examines the aggressive nature of Venus by exposing how, “until Venus learns of the proposed boar hunt, she appears to be, as Adonis supposes, a self- seeking, love-sick woman guided solely by her passion” (Lake). Venus’ sensual desires mangle themselves into irrational hysteria, symbolic of the boar hunt. In The Courtier by Cardinal Bembo, the Cardinal reflects how the kiss in Shakespeare’s poem holds a greater significance in Elizabethan love theory: “Since a kisse is a knitting together both of bodie and soule, it is to bee feared, lest the sensuall lover will be more inclined to the part of the bodie, than of the soule” (CITE). Once again, Shakespeare exposes an obsession with the female body and insinuates a type of entrapment sparked by a woman’s vagina. Venus panics when she hears of the literal boar hunt and pulls Adonis on top of her as a last-ditch effort to keep him. The desperation to use her body is similar to Cleopatra when she is delivered to Caesar naked and even the descriptions of Anne Boleyn’s charm. Each of the three women are rejected in some form—hence the tragedies of them both theatrically and historically.


Another commonality that bonds the three women in the historical plays is their attempt to give good counsel and how their intelligence appears as a threat to the men they encounter. Venus’ constant attempts to assuage Adonis from the boar hunt go unheeded. Her hysteria over love shadows her good advice and impugns Adonis’ choice in hunting, which ultimately results in him refusing to listen to her. Katherine of Aragon is depicted to warn against Wolsey’s motives from the beginning. The fight against Wolsey is one of Katherine’s biggest sources of contention, but her warnings go unheard by King Henry. Circling back to Rebecca Solnit’s essay, it is clear that women are consistently discredited when positioned against a man, whether their insights are valid or not.


Solnit discusses the etymological definition of hysteria, and although she begins her analysis of texts in the late nineteenth century, the research is universally open enough to interpret in earlier texts. In her essay, Solnit details:

“Hysteria derives from the Greek word for “uterus,” and the extreme emotional state it denotes was once thought to be due to a wandering womb; men were by definition exempt from this diagnosis that now just means being incoherent, overwrought, and maybe confused” (26).

There are several occurrences in Shakespeare’s work when the playwright takes advantage of his female characters to perpetuate a hysterical nature. His historical tragedies are some of the best representations of that motive.  


Shakespeare’s accounts of historical women questions the authority and dignity behind the real women his characters were based on. Henry VIII, Antony and Cleopatra, and Venus and Adonis all serve as a type of propaganda against women’s hysteria in both a literary platform, as well as a realistic one. The staged performances during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods were more than mere entertainment. The representations of the historical women were influential to the crowds and those who critiqued the works thereafter. Literary theory is shaped by the ways in which literature is influenced by and in turn influences social and cultural contexts surrounding the periods of texts, and as a result, the reputation of those adapted.


Katherine of Aragon, Cleopatra, and Venus are just a small-scale sample of women who are recognized for scandal and lust, but not the most popular of Shakespeare’s women. Their characterization, though, presents a pattern of discretization based on men’s bruised egos and both genders strive to reclaim power.



Works Cited

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Hopkins, Lisa. “Christopher Marlowe and the Succession to the English Crown.” The Yearbook of English Studies, vol. 38, no. 1/2, 2008, pp. 183–          198.

Lake, James H. “Shakespeare's Venus: An Experiment in Tragedy.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 3, 1974, pp. 351–355.

Malcolmson, Cristina. “Shakespeare Quarterly.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 1, 2005, pp. 110–112.

Melville, James, Sir, 1535-1617. The Memoirs of Sir James Melville of Halhill, 1535-1617. London: G. Routledge & sons, ltd., 1929.

McCombe, John P. “Cleopatra and Her Problems: T.S. Eliot and the Fetishization of Shakespeare's Queen of the Nile.” Journal of Modern Literature,          vol. 31, no. 2, 2007, pp. 23–38.

Morris, Helen. “Queen Elizabeth I ‘Shadowed’ in Cleopatra.” Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 3, 1969, pp. 271–278.

Shakespeare, William. Henry VIII. A Collection of Great Drama. Ed. Tom Smith. Oxford: Globe Theater Press, 2005. 1235-1298. Print.

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Solnit, Rebecca. "Cassandra Among the Creeps". Harper's Magazine. 2014.

Stewart, James T. “Renaissance Psychology and the Ladder of Love in Castiglione and Spenser.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol.           56, no. 2, 1957, pp. 225–230.

Szonyi, Gyorgy E., and Rowland Wymer, eds. The Iconography of Power: Ideas and Images of Rulership on the English Renaissance Stage. Szeged:         JATE, 2000. 216 pp