Power players: the ultimate Shakespearean heroines according to women in theatre

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In commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, eight women from the theatre world nominate their ultimate Shakespearean heroine

Paper cut illustrations: Poppy Chancellor
Words: Alexandra Jones

Emilia, Othello

Charlene James, 33, actor and playwright. Her play Cuttin’ It opens at the Young Vic on 20 May

In Act IV, Scene 3, Emilia – who is wife of the scheming Iago – says: “Let husbands know their wives have sense like them: they see and smell and have their palates both for sweet and sour, as husbands have.” This speech isn’t just flirty and fun, there’s the spark of a feminist in there. She’s calling for equality between the sexes.

Throughout the play Iago underestimates Emilia but, in the end, she completely annihilates him. She reveals his evil schemes and keeps speaking even after he’s stabbed her – in that moment, she becomes the ultimate heroine for me. She teaches us to speak out against the bad and to strive for change. She’s able to topple one of Shakespeare’s biggest villains, who also happens to be her husband. What could be more iconic?

Rosalind, As You Like It

Elizabeth McGovern, 54, actor, performs in Sunset At The Villa Thalia at the National Theatre from 25 May

Rosalind is Shakespeare’s ultimate female protagonist. She has real wit and an insatiable sense of fun. Her motto is to kiss as many beards as please her – a huge amount of verve for a woman living in Shakespearean times and a pretty good rule to live by, if you ask me.

Cleopatra, Antony and Cleopatra

Nina Raine, 40, award-winning playwright and director. Her new play Consent is expected to start at The National Theatre this month

Cleopatra is maddening, mercurial and completely compelling to watch but above all, she is a fully fleshed-out woman. While I certainly admire her sexual charisma and wily politics, it’s the scene in which a messenger comes to tell her that Antony – the great love of her life – has married another woman (Octavia) that made me fall in love with her completely. The messenger can barely get a word in because she’s asking so many questions, things that we would all ask: How old is she? What does she look like? What colour’s her hair? Cleopatra might be queen, but she’s also devastatingly human. Reading her part really affected me as a playwright – I strive to write characters, particularly female characters, that are just as complex.

Cordelia, King Lear

Katy Owen, 33, actor. Currently playing Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe from 30 April - 11 September

Cordelia might seem like a leftfield pick – she refuses to make an overt display of love to her father, who banishes her for it – but she has real guts. As an actress, I’ve faced numerous rejections throughout my career and it never gets any easier. At my first ever audition, there were hundreds of girls and I got down to the final two. But when I didn’t get the part, I was devastated. I went to the pub, drank beer and cried. Cordelia is brave enough to point out that she shouldn’t need to prove her love, that this ‘proof’ is torrid and fake. Resilient, honest and a real fighter, I keep her in mind whenever I miss out on parts. It still stings but you won’t find me crying into a pint at the pub anymore.

Gertrude, Hamlet

Zoe Wilcox, 34, lead curator of Shakespeare In Ten Acts at the British Library from 15 April

I love Gertrude because she’s not wholly virtuous but a complex character, who goes through a process of self-discovery as the play progresses. She is Hamlet’s mother, who, after the death of Hamlet’s father, immediately marries his uncle. She’s initially blind to how much hurt this causes her son but slowly realises her error. I watched a number of Hamlet adaptations in preparation for the exhibition I’m curating and I realised Gertrude was almost always given a prominent role – she doesn’t have a huge amount of lines but she’s such an intriguing figure that directors have always been fascinated by her. Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude in the recent Lyndsey Turner adaptation [in which Benedict Cumberbatch played Hamlet] was, for me, the most mesmerising, particularly the scene in which she brings the news of Ophelia’s death to her distraught brother Laertes. It was heart-breaking and the perfect portrayal of such a flawed but brilliant character.

Lady Macbeth, Macbeth

Polly Stenham, 29, playwright and former winner of the Evening Standard’s Charles Wintour Award and the Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Most Promising Playwright

Even in modern plays, there aren’t many great female parts. It’s depressing to think that 400 years after Lady Macbeth first graced the stage, it’s still considered radical to present a woman as completely ruthless as her. The reaction to Claire Underwood in House Of Cards (a show I love) attests to the fact that people don’t want women to act aggressively or be calculating. It shouldn’t be that way. And that’s why I like Lady Macbeth – in her, Shakespeare gave us this compelling, unnerving woman who is virtually original on the stage. I first read the play at school when I was 14 and remember really struggling with Shakespeare before that. I feel like Macbeth – particularly Lady Macbeth – was my gateway into his world and work. It’s something I’ll be eternally grateful for.

Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, The Merry Wives of Windsor

Jessica Swale, 34, has written and directed several award winning plays, most recently Nell Gwynn

These are two brilliant, funny, feisty women. As opposed to a lot of Shakespeare’s other heroines, who are aged 20 and in love, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page are middle-aged, married women who just want to have some fun. When they’re sent the same love letter by Falstaff, a knight trying to woo them, they decide to play a series of tricks to punish him for his arrogance. It’s unusual to see examples of really great female friendship based on mutual respect and a love of a good time. In an era when your husband wasn’t necessarily your best friend and you married for convenience, the play drives home the importance of female friendship – I’d call them two of Shakespeare’s most progressive characters.

Paulina, The Winter's Tale

Erica Whyman, 46, deputy artistic director of The Royal Shakespeare Company. She is currently directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream

How could anyone not love Paulina? For a start, she’s a working woman [she is lady-inwaiting to the queen] – fairly unusual for a female character in Shakespeare’s canon, where most are royals or mythical figures. And though she’s not supposed to have the right status, she takes the king to task over his bad treatment of the queen. That takes incredible bravery – “What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?” she asks him in Act III. She is apoplectic with rage and unleashes this stream of marvellous, eloquent insults. And though, in the end, she reunites the king and queen, she still manages to punish him for the terrible way he treats his wife.

We could all learn from Paulina – to channel our passion and rage, to break the rules. To me, she’s the ultimate symbol for the fact that we have more power than others might give us credit for.

Photography: Getty Images, Jack Ladenburg