Five Memorable Speeches by Shakespeare's Women

Updated on November 18, 2017
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Poet, blogger, college professor, literature, and film enthusiast. Excited about critical and creative writing. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English.

William Shakespeare's plays show remarkable portrayal of character when it comes to his women. It is often believed that his delineation of women characters surpass his portrayal of male characters. In both comedies and tragedies, Shakespeare's women leave their mark through their action and speeches.

Here are 5 of the most memorable speeches by Shakespeare's women characters. These speeches have such powerful appeal that they achieve timeless value, even when put out of context.

1. Miranda's Speech of Wonder

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't!

(The Tempest. Act V Sc I)

Miranda's speech is an outpour of her genuine amazement and even bewilderment when she discovers that the world is not just about her father and his subjects. She had never been blind, but this is the point when she actually begins to see things. Her speech, so very full of optimism and cheer makes her innocence all the more appealing.

The expression "brave new world" got so popular that it was used as the title of his famous novel by Aldous Huxley.

Miranda in The Tempest
Miranda in The Tempest | Source

2. Portia's Speech on Mercy

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.

(The Merchant of Venice. Act IV Sc i)

Portia's speech in the courtroom of Venice needs little introduction. This is both poetic and powerful. Portia promotes mercy as a divine trait, offering a christian alternative to the Jewish idea of "an eye for an eye". (However, critics have questioned her lack of mercy when Shylock begged for forgiveness later in the play.)

This speech is often quoted independent of context because of its everlasting and universal appeal.

Portia and Shylock in the Court of Venice
Portia and Shylock in the Court of Venice | Source

3. Ophelia's Lament

O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, scholar's, soldier's, eye, tongue, sword,
Th' expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th' observ'd of all observers- quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck'd the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatch'd form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. O, woe is me
T' have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

(Hamlet. Act III Sc I)

Ophelia's sorrowful outpour shows a genuine despair and agony. Her sadness is not just for being rejected as a beloved but for her real concern for Hamlet's well being. She is as much disturbed by the destruction of her relationship with Hamlet as she is with the destabilization of Hamlet's sanity. Her outpour reveals her unselfish love for the man whose heart she could never conquer. At the same time, the speech makes the audience aware of Hamlet's qualities and achievements prior to his episodes of lunacy.

Hamlet and Ophelia (painting by D.G.Rossetti)
Hamlet and Ophelia (painting by D.G.Rossetti)

4. Viola's "Willow Cabin"

Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out 'Olivia!' O, You should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me!

(Twelfth Night. Act I Sc v)

Viola, desperate to win Orsino away from Olivia only makes things worse by her most famous speech about how she (as Cesario) would have wooed Olivia had she/he been in love with her. Her Speech hits the weakest nerves of the female heart, which is certainly moved by bold gestures of romantic love.

No wonder Olivia gets weak in the knees.

Ironically, the words are spoken by a woman. After all, only a woman knows what moves a woman the most. (Shakespeare was an exception I guess).

Viola and Olivia  (Twelfth Night)
Viola and Olivia (Twelfth Night) | Source

5. Lady Macbeth's Invocation of Darkness

Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature 395
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it!

(Macbeth. Act I Sc v)

This is a speech that is perhaps the most powerful speech uttered on stage by any woman. Lady Macbeth invokes the dark spirits to transform her, "unsex" her. This speech is a rejection of conventional feminity, a celebration of power. This is the most controversial speech by Lady Macbeth, with its ironic echoes carried forward in the whole course of the play. Her dread of the compunctuous visitings of nature, her stirring conscience, her fear of losing focus, her doubt on her own strength because of her woman's instinct and her simultaneous faith in her ability to transcend her sexuality: all coalesce to make her utter such brilliant outpour.

No wonder, this speech deserves the top position when it comes to the list of famous speeches by Shakespeare's women.

Lady Macbeth's Invocation of Dark Spirits destabilizes the conventional notions of sexuality, feminity and power
Lady Macbeth's Invocation of Dark Spirits destabilizes the conventional notions of sexuality, feminity and power

Whose speech is the best?

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    © 2017 Monami


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