Shakespeare's largest female role might surprise you

by John Moore | Aug 21, 2015

Shakespeare's women


When you think of the most significant women in the Shakespeare canon, the mind naturally goes toward the evil machinations of Lady Macbeth or perhaps the snake-bitten diva Cleopatra. But the most formidable woman in the canon is one you might not suspect – and she’s coming soon to the Denver Center Theatre Company's Space Theatre.

The female character who speaks the most lines in any Shakespeare play is Rosalind, the spirited heroine of the romantic comedy As You Like It. According to ShakespearesWords.com, Rosalind comes in first with 685 lines. Ironically, she speaks many of those lines while playing a man – and Rosalind would have been played by a boy during Shakespeare’s time anyway.

Rosalind, As You Like It. That outcome may come as a surprise to some, but there is no doubting that Rosalind is one amazing role.

“She is the engine of the play, without a doubt,” said DCPA Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson. "I like her wit, her pluck and her sense of heart.”

Rosalind, who will be played in Denver by Carolyn Holding, is the beautiful daughter of the exiled Duke Senior and niece to his paranoid, usurping brother, Duke Frederick. When her father is banished from the kingdom, she takes matters into her own hands and takes herself to the Arden Forest. She figures out a way to manage things there while by dressing like a man.

“I find As You Like It particularly interesting right now because it has such a strong and complex central female character who is charming and smart,” Thompson said.

Despite her troubles, Rosalind is as romantic as the next girl, and by play’s end, she has arranged four marriages – including her own.

“So it's like she's the greatest wedding planner in Shakespeare," Thompson said.

Shakespeare wrote many seriously problematic female characters, especially from a modern perspective. If you look at the top 10 by line count, suggests As You Like It Assistant Director Geoffrey Kent, “It’s interesting how many of them are victims. Or at least die due to something caused by a male counterpart.”

But not Rosalind. Around the time of As You Like It, Shakespeare began introducing spirited, outspoken heroines with emotional and psychological depth - including Rosalind, Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing) and, much later, Imogen in Cymbeline.

When Thompson considers the greatest women in the canon – whether by line count or not - the one he thinks comes closest to Rosalind is a 14-year-old girl.

“Juliet, though a very different character type than Rosalind, is actually the strongest person in Romeo and Juliet," Thompson said. “She's the one who is proactive and goes to the Friar. Romeo is the one who falls down crying. Juliet figures out a way to get it done, and she's willing to go there, even though she may die.”

But Rosalind, he said, is really the only female Shakespeare character "who manages to direct everything down to that last scene.”

Here’s a look at Shakespeare’s largest female characters (by line count):
(With fun character descriptions from Shmoop.com)

1. Rosalind, As You Like It
Lines: 685
Shmoop.Com: Who is this "Rosalind" girl and what makes her so great? Well, she's the daughter of the banished Duke Senior and cousin/BFF to Celia. She's also the saucy, cross-dressing girlfriend of Orlando. In the play, Rosalind gets 86'ed from her uncle's court but, instead of boo-hooing about her lousy circumstances, she puts on a brave face and runs away to the Forest of Arden in search of freedom. Our girl is not only adventurous, but she's also gutsy.

2. Cleopatra, Antony and Cleopatra
Lines: 678
Shmoop.Com: Cleopatra is the Queen of Egypt, lover to Antony, and former lover of both Julius Caesar and Pompey the Elder — it's safe to say homegirl has a "type." She’s one of Shakespeare’s richest female characters (in terms of both wealth and character development), and can be used as a case study of both a woman in power and a woman in love.

3. Imogen, Cymbeline

Lines: 594
Shmoop.Com: This British princess is just about as perfect as they come: She's wise, beautiful, resourceful, and — most important — she's honest. She stands up for herself to her dad and notices the Queen is a "dissembling courtesy" (read: faker) right away. While she mourns the banishment of her husband and moans about having a "foolish suitor" (Cloten), she doesn't wallow in self-pity.

4. Portia, The Merchant of Venice
Lines: 574
Shmoop.Com: Portia is rich and hot, which makes her the most eligible bachelorette in Belmont. The heiress to her dead father's fortune, Portia's wealth makes her a meal ticket in the eyes of Bassanio, who sees Portia as the answer to all his financial woes — if he can marry her that is. As Bassanio points out, he's not the only guy who'd like to land the heiress. Gee, it sounds like Portia's got a perfect life, right? Not so fast. Not only is every potential suitor out to get his hands on Portia's wealth, but Portia doesn't even get to choose her husband.

5. Juliet, Romeo and Juliet
Lines: 542
Shmoop.Com: Poor Juliet. Not only does she end up dead, she doesn't get nearly the love that Romeo does. But we think she deserves a lot more credit. As the beautiful and only daughter of the Capulets, Juliet is slated to marry Verona's hottest non-Montague bachelor until she takes her fate into her own hands. This is a girl who knows what she wants, and gets it — even if it means death.

Previous NewsCenter coverage:
Casting announced for Theatre Company's fall shows
DCPA Theatre Company giddily going down rabbit hole in 2015-16



As You Like It
By William Shakespeare
Sept. 25-Nov. 1
DCPA Theatre Company
Space Theatre

303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

carolyn holdingCast list:
Stanley Ray Baron (Page)
J. Paul Boehmer (Duke Frederick/Duke Senior)
Jason Bowen (Oliver)
Maren Bush (Celia)
Adrian Egolf (Audrey)
Ben W. Heil (Page)
Carolyn Holding (Rosalind, pictured)
Drew Horwitz (William)
Maurice Jones (Orlando)
Geoffrey Kent (Sir Oliver Martext)
Emily Kron (Phebe)
Nick LaMedica (Silvius)
Lars Lundberg (Page)
Eddie Martinez (Corin)
M. Scott McLean (Amiens)
Daniel Pearce (Jacques)
Philip Pleasants (Adam)
William Oliver Watkins (Charles/Jaques de Boys)
Matt Zambrano (Touchstone)

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John Moore
John Moore
Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has recently taken a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

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