Rebellious Daughters …. Shakespeare’s smart young women

Juliet’s death is, among other things, a supreme act of rebellion.

As a teenage undergraduate I had to read all of Shakespeare’s plays and write essays about themes and characterization, philosophy and structure. I recall an essay I wrote about female characters and rebellion: I was dreamily in love with an actress I had seen as Cordelia and Juliet in the same year, on stage. I was also in rebellion against my rather military and right-wing father, so these two characters seemed like soul mates. In fact, they still do, joined by Portia. It is only very recently that I have come to place the ‘shrew’ Kate in the same stable. At the same time I was reading Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millet, Angela Davis, Juliet Mitchell and Monique Wittig, writers who established the intellectual framework of feminism for the second half of the twentieth century. What struck me way back then, and strikes me now, is that these daughters in Shakespeare rebel against a patriarchal structure that has changed far less than we would like to think. Their rebellion engenders anger and fear in their fathers and other men in authority, leading ultimately to narratives of revenge and control.

In 2016 I was in London visiting my (also rebellious) daughters and sat in on a lecture at the British Library by Kim Ballard, a teacher at a sixth form college in England and the author of a number of books on language. She was talking about language and Shakespeare, and about the language of strong female characters. She introduced a debate about daughters in Shakespeare that I found very thought-provoking. The British Library published her essay about the topic on its website, in the section on Renaissance literature. I thought readers of these blogs would like to be thought-provoked too.

Kim Ballard, Daughters in Shakespeare: dreams, duty and defiance, British Library, 2016

A number of Shakespeare’s plays show daughters negotiating the demands of their fathers, often trying to reconcile duty with a desire for independence. Kim Ballard considers five of Shakespeare’s most memorable literary daughters: Juliet, Desdemona, Portia, Katherina and Cordelia.

When we consider that Shakespeare lived in an age when all actors were male and the subject matter of serious drama focused heavily on the exploits of men, it’s hardly surprising that female characters are in a minority in his plays. And yet Shakespeare created many complex and engaging female roles for his young male actors to perform. Parent-child relationships feature heavily, and a significant number of these involve fathers and daughters. Interestingly, mothers are often absent from the drama, throwing the daughter/father relationship into sharp relief. A father of two daughters himself, Shakespeare’s dramatic daughters make a formidable line-up of young women, most of them at a transitional stage between the protection of their childhood home and an adult life beyond it. The transition is rarely a smooth one: in both comedies and tragedies, tension rises as daughters go in search of love, adventure and independence. Here are just a few of their stories.

Juliet: ‘yet a stranger in the world’

Romeo and Juliet may be a love story, but a daughter/father relationship lies at the heart of the play’s events. Juliet is not yet 14 when the young nobleman Paris approaches her father Capulet for permission to woo his daughter. At first, Capulet seems protective of Juliet, his only surviving child, and proposes that ‘two more summers’ should pass before ‘we may think her ripe to be a bride’ (1.2.10–11). But Paris is a good prospect, a relative of the Prince of Verona, so Capulet agrees to Paris’s request, inviting him to a family feast that very evening which Juliet will be attending.

In Shakespeare’s time, daughters of respectable families, like Juliet, could expect their fathers to have a significant involvement in choosing their future husband. This reflected the subordinate position of women in a patriarchal society, and particularly the traditional view that daughters were a commodity and could be used in marriage to forge useful alliances. Paternal involvement in husband selection provided fertile material for Shakespeare in many of his plays, and he makes considerable dramatic use of the resulting family clashes. Initially, Capulet is seemingly kinder than many fathers in allowing Juliet some say over her future husband: ‘But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart, / My will to her consent is but a part…’ (1.2.16–17).

Later in the play, however, when the family is in shock after their kinsman Tybalt has been murdered, Capulet leaps ahead and sets an early date for the wedding without consulting his daughter first. ‘I think she will be rul’d / In all respects by me’ (3.4.13–14) he comments, clearly expecting Juliet to be compliant.

The obedient way young women of the 16th century were meant to behave towards their parents was not only reflected in religious teaching but also well documented in publications known as ‘conduct books’. At the beginning of the play, Lady Capulet – sent to speak to Juliet by her husband – tells Juliet about Paris’s interest in her, and encourages her to consider him. Juliet’s reply exemplifies the behaviour expected of her:

I’ll look to like, if looking liking move;
But no more deep will I endart mine eye
Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.

Unfortunately, Juliet’s dutiful words are soon forgotten when, overcome by her ‘warm youthful blood’, she falls in love with Romeo (the son of her father’s enemy) and marries him in secret. Inevitably then, she must disobey her father later in the play by refusing to marry Paris. Capulet is furious. Despite Juliet’s attempts to remain respectful towards him, ‘Good father, I beseech you on my knees / Hear me with patience but to speak a word’ (3.5.158–59), he threatens to disown her if she doesn’t comply with his wishes: ‘And you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend, / And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets’ (3.5.191–92).

It’s part of Juliet’s tragedy that she’s unable to tell her authoritarian father about her marriage to Romeo, even though she could express her love with an eloquence that could overcome anger and hatred. Capulet is determined to ‘give’ her to Paris (a father’s prerogative, even enshrined in the marriage ceremony) and she feels she has little option but to agree to Friar Laurence’s drastic plan to fake her own death in order to extricate herself from this situation – a plan that is doomed to go horribly wrong.

Desdemona: maker of a ‘gross revolt’

Juliet is just one of several daughters in Shakespeare who make their own choice of husband, even at the risk or expense of displeasing their fathers and finding themselves torn between conflicting loyalties. The tragedy of Othello begins with the news that Desdemona, the daughter of the respected Venetian senator Brabantio, has not only secretly eloped, but has chosen a man of a different race – Othello, a Moor (and actually her father’s friend) – for her husband. On discovering this, Brabantio is outraged:

BRABANTIO Now, Roderigo,
Where didst thou see her? – O unhappy girl! –
With the Moor, say’st thou? – Who would be a father! –
How didst thou know ’twas she? – O, she deceives me
Past thought! – What said she to you? – Get more tapers;
Raise all my kindred. – Are they married, think you?

RODERIGO Truly, I think they are.

BRABANTIO O heaven! how got she out? O treason of the blood!
Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters’ minds
By what you see them act.

Brabantio sees Desdemona’s actions as nothing less than treachery. He can hardly believe she managed to ‘escape’ from the house, let alone deceive him in this way. In fact, he finds her actions so uncharacteristic of his quiet and diffident daughter, he takes some convincing that Othello hasn’t drugged her ‘with some mixtures pow’rful o’er the blood’ (1.3.104). However, Othello explains how he won Desdemona’s love and how, when he visited Brabantio, she would hurry through the ‘house affairs’ for which she was responsible in order to listen to his exciting tales of travel and adventure. She even expressed envy of Othello’s experiences, wishing that ‘heaven had made her such a man’ (1.3.163). A picture emerges of a dutiful but stifled daughter looking for a life beyond the confines of her family home

Unlike Juliet, Desdemona at least manages to give an account of her position to her father. She may have married without Brabantio’s consent, but she acknowledges her ‘divided duty’ between him and her husband, while making clear what her new situation demands:

My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you; you are the lord of duty;
I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband;
And so much duty as my mother show’d
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor, my lord.

Perhaps softened by this declaration, Brabantio relents and (in another echo of the marriage ceremony) says to Othello:

I here do give thee that with all my heart
Which but thou hast already, with all my heart
I would keep from thee…

Before taking leave of the couple, however, he warns Othello about his new wife:

Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see;
She has deceiv’d her father, and may thee.

There’s an irony to this warning: Desdemona remains utterly faithful to her husband, but Othello’s willingness to believe she has indeed deceived him drives the play to its tragic conclusion.

Portia: ‘a lady richly left’

In his comedies too, Shakespeare exploits the dynamics of daughter/father relationships. While Juliet and Desdemona find themselves in direct confrontation with their fathers over their choice of husbands, Portia in The Merchant of Venice is ‘curb’d by the will’ of her deceased father (1.2.25). Thanks to her inheritance, she enjoys a degree of independence, but lacks the freedom to choose her husband. Instead, her suitors must undergo a test involving caskets of gold, silver and lead: the successful suitor – who cannot be refused – will be the one who finds her portrait within his chosen casket. Portia seems indignant at the imposition of this ‘lottery’, but her maid, Nerissa, reminds her that her father was ‘ever virtuous, and holy men at their death have good inspirations’ (1.2.27–28). Needless to say, it’s Portia’s hoped-for husband, Bassanio, who correctly opts for the casket of lead.

Having secured the man of her dreams by complying with her father’s wishes, Portia later takes on a role in which she acts independently of both her father and her new husband. Disguising herself as the highly capable lawyer Balthazar, she wins a legal case brought against her husband’s friend Antonio by Shylock the Jew. In a letter of introduction, Bellario (a lawyer who has sent Balthazar/Portia to act on his behalf) describes him in glowing terms:

He is furnish’d with my opinion, which better’d with his own learning, the greatness whereof I cannot enough commend, comes with him, at my importunity, to fill up your Grace’s request in my stead. I beseech you let his lack of years be no impediment to let him lack a reverend estimation, for I never knew so young a body with so old a head. (4.1.157–64)

In her scene as Balthazar, Portia certainly shows herself to be a highly educated woman. Although most daughters of the time were expected to occupy themselves primarily with domestic concerns (as Desdemona did), the tide was slowly turning against traditional patriarchal values and in favour of women’s education. The humanist scholar Juan Luis Vives, for example, who had tutored Elizabeth I’s half-sister Mary (Elizabeth’s predecessor as monarch), had written an influential conduct book on The Education of a Christian Woman (1524). By the reign of Elizabeth I – herself a highly educated woman, firm in her belief she could reign without marrying – a significant number of women from more privileged backgrounds were starting to enjoy a greater degree of freedom and learning. Portia may have submitted to the will of her father at the beginning of the play, but the ‘ring’ trick she plays on Bassanio at the end suggests she expects independence and equality within her marriage.


Katherina: ‘Renown’d in Padua for her scolding tongue’

Another comic heroine, Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, is the very opposite of the meek and dutiful daughter, a thorn in the side of her long-suffering father, Baptista. Modelled on the popular stereotype of the scolding woman, her behaviour appears particularly shrewish in contrast with her seemingly compliant younger sister Bianca. Wondering how he will ever marry off his older daughter, Baptista has decreed that Bianca will not be allowed to marry until a husband has been found for Kate. When Petruchio steps up to the challenge of taking her on, Baptista has to warn him to expect ‘some unhappy words’. Having met Petruchio, Kate even scolds her father for trying to organise a husband for her:

Call you me daughter? Now I promise you
You have show’d a tender fatherly regard,
To wish me wed to one half lunatic,
A madcap ruffian and a swearing Jack.

Against her will, however, Katherina is married to Petruchio who, wearing her down through hunger and exhaustion, succeeds in taming her, much to Baptista’s amazement.

Modern audiences can find qualities to admire in daughters like Juliet, Desdemona and Portia, who know their own minds and seek freedom from certain parental and social constraints. But Katherina presents us with a difficulty, changing as she does from independence to obedience. Here is an extract from her closing speech:

I am asham’d that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.

Many critics have grappled with the problem of Kate’s taming, not least because they find it hard to believe that Shakespeare could be so apparently sexist. They argue instead that the final twist is completely ironic, or that Shakespeare was really attacking those fathers and husbands who expected women to submit to them. Either way, The Taming of the Shrew contributes some thought-provoking material to any consideration of daughters in Shakespeare in terms of the wives they have become by the end of the play. However, in the last play included here, it is the daughter/father relationship that remains central to the drama to the very end.

Cordelia: ‘this unpriz’d precious maid’

The tragedy of King Lear is a play about the love between a father and his youngest and favourite daughter, Cordelia, the one he hopes will look after him in his old age. At the play’s opening, Lear has devised a game of flattery in order to divide the kingdom he no longer wishes to rule between Cordelia and her two older sisters, Goneril and Regan. Refusing to compete with the ‘glib and oily art’ (1.1.224) of their speeches, and pressed by Lear to say something more than ‘nothing’, Cordelia opts for simplicity and honesty in expressing her affection for him:

Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, lov’d me. I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all?


Unlike other daughters in Shakespeare, Cordelia’s defiance of her father is not about marriage, but about a principle. Lear’s disappointment with her speech earns her not land, but banishment.

Cordelia doesn’t reappear until the closing stages of the play, when she returns to Britain to rescue her father from madness and the cruel neglect meted out by her older sisters. In a moving reconciliation scene, Lear admits he was wrong to treat Cordelia as he did:

LEAR If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me, for your sisters
Have (as I do remember) done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.

CORDELIA No cause, no cause.

In his final speech to her, after Cordelia’s forces have been defeated, he imagines the closing years of his life with the daughter he loves:

Come let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage;
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies.

Lear is not alone among Shakespearean fathers in regretting the rash and foolish way he has treated his daughter. From a psychological point of view, the tyrannical behaviour of fathers seems to stem from their fears of facing old age alone, as well as from the hopes and strong feelings they have for their daughters. Some commentators have even found an incestuous element at work in the unfolding of the plot of King Lear. Despite Lear’s earlier treatment of her, Cordelia’s kindness towards him and her willingness to risk her life in order to save his, is testament to the unbroken bond that exists between this particular father and daughter.


0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply