The Triumph of the Feminine in Shakespeare

first folio

Shakespeare’s First Folio 1623

I started writing this blog during the 2016 election campaign when I had hoped a woman would become President of the United States!  My hope is still strong.

The triumph of the feminine is the theme of the last but one of Shakespeare’s plays, The Winter’s Tale.  Shakespeare has created some of the strongest parts for women in all literature: Cleopatra, Juliet, Viola, Kate, Rosalind, and Portia are all powerful women and they dominate the plays they inhabit.  The Winter’s Tale has always been one of my favorites, because it is a statement of faith in the ultimate triumph of the feminine.   King Leontes gives way to an Othello-like jealousy and ends up alone, apparently bereft of his wife, Hermione, and his daughter, Perdita, and his best friend, Polixenes.  However, the apparent deaths of these loved ones are a ruse to punish Leontes for his folly and evil.  He has a 16 year intermission to contemplate the error of his ways and to find humility.   The reunion at the end of the play is delayed by Paulina (the midwife of reconciliation) who wants to make sure Leontes is genuine in his repentance.   The play concludes with a moving resurrection scene, as a new world comes to life and Leontes, Hermione and Perdita are re-united.  Parallels to the story of Jesus are easy to find and the play, in my opinion, offers a deeply felt Christian message.

The triumvirate of female characters shine.  Paulina has the courage to speak truth to power: telling Leontes off in the midst of his jealous rage and defying his commands.  Hermione is strong in her protest of innocence and in her loving endurance of separation and suffering.  Perdita has beauty, intelligence, wit and is a poet as well:

That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes
Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses
That die unmarried, ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength–a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and
The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one! O, these I lack,
To make you garlands of, and my sweet friend,
To strew him o’er and o’er!  (Act 4, scene 3)

All three women represent aspects of the love that will win over the enemy, as Jesus taught and lived.  The stupidity of tyrants will not prevail against this subversive love.

Carl Jung characterized the Feminine principle as receptivity, humility, steadfast and subversive love, and the Masculine principle as assertion, strength, protectiveness, justice.   But the feminine principle is not the sole domain of women, nor the masculine principle the sole domain of men.  Jung rightly believed that each of us as human beings has a masculine and a feminine side.  But the stereotype of manhood assumed by many men involves the control and abuse of the feminine.   The treatment of women in our society (and most societies around the world) has been shameful, especially the level of violence against women (and against those perceived as feminine like the LGBTQ community).  The poet John Bly is right in asserting that men take responsibility for themselves only when they are willing to grieve and express the deep sadness that underlies their frustration and anger, thus experiencing their feminine side.  Only then are they willing to seek help rather than strike out in anger.

Shakespeare understood all these things, as evidenced by the havoc unleashed in his plays by his male protagonists.  Thank God he gave to the feminine the last word.  As an earlier heroine Portia said:

The quality of mercy is not strained
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the earth beneath.  It is twice blessed;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest…  (Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene 1)

About John Fisk

I am a retired pastor, who served churches in New England for 33 years. I emigrated to the USA from England in 1974 and completed two graduate degrees in theology and pastoral practice at Andover-NewtonTheological School. In retirement I am focused on the teaching of Christian meditation, providing spiritual guidance, leading retreats and occasional preaching. I am particularly interested in contemplation, the mystical path and social justice.
This entry was posted in Justice, Spirituality, Theater and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Triumph of the Feminine in Shakespeare

  1. frank mello says:

    Whoa! John. Awesome!
    Peace and Hope, frank mello

  2. Jean Fisk says:

    I thought that was a wonderful post. I love the way you contrasted and wove together the masculine and feminine. Of course, the healthy masculine and feminine aren’t enemies they are two sides of the same coin and necessary for the other to be the best they can be.


    Sent from my iPad


  3. Rev Mary Bettencourt says:

    Thank you, John, for this very apt reflection. The treatment of women in our world is most often horrendous. I’m a huge believer in folks living out of Jung’s anima and animus. Both are needed for a truly balanced person, especially in our present societies. Thanks for your blog!
    Mary Bettencourt

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