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Top Five: Shakespearean Women of Mythological Proportions

Megan Branch, Intern

One of the best things about Shakespeare’s plays is the variety of roles he wrote for women, although many of those roles were initially played by men. A lovelorn teenage girl, a bumbling nurse (or several), mothers, queens, girls dressing like boys to save the day and the double weddings at the end of it all—an actress would be proud to play any one of these, not to mention Ophelia. Many of Shakespeare’s female characters have names that come from mythological women whose lives are so dramatic that they might seem a little–Shakespearean. In this list, compiled by using The Oxford Companion to World Mythology by David Leeming, we’ll show you the myths behind some famous (and lesser-known) female names from Shakespeare.  Be sure to check out Leeming’s book which has literally thousands of articles on heroes, villains, mythologists, and mythological approaches as well as dozens of cultural categories from Ainu to Welsh.

1. Hero, Much Ado About Nothing

Before she was tragically left at the altar by Claudio, the Hero of Greco-Roman myth was experiencing a different sort of tragedy. As a priestess of Aphrodite, Hero lived in a tower at Sestus. Hero “kept a light in the tower blazing so that her lover”, a young man named Leander, could find his way to swim to her. One night, the light was extinguished by a storm and Leander drowned because he couldn’t find his way. After finding his body on the shore, Hero killed herself.

2. Lavinia, Titus Andronicus

The mythological Lavinia had life quite a bit easier than the daughter of Titus in Titus Andronicus. Lavinia was the daughter of Latinus, the king of Laurentium, and he offered her to Aeneas as a wife although she was already engaged. Aeneas and Lavinia’s fiancé, Tumus, fought a war over this arrangement. Aeneas won the war, married Lavinia, and named the town of Lavinium after her.

3. Hermione, The Winter’s Tale

Hermione, long before she was the suffering statue-wife of Leontes, and even longer before she was one of Harry Potter’s best friends, was the daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Troy. Although she had been promised to Orestes, Hermione married the son of Achilles, Neoptolemus. Orestes took care of that by killing Neoptolemus and then marrying Hermione.

4. Diana, All’s Well That Ends Well

Diana “was night to Jupiter’s day,” but she was diminished in importance by the Romans, who considered her a huntress.

5. Helena, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and All’s Well That Ends Well

Helen of Troy had just as much difficulty with love as either of Shakespeare’s Helenas, if not more. The child of Zeus (in the form of a swan) and Leda, Helen was “raised in the court of Leda’s husband…and was renowned for her extraordinary beauty.” While her husband Menelaus was away in Crete, Helen was seduced by the Trojan prince, Paris, and fled with him to Troy. Upon Paris’s refusal to return Helen back to Menelaus, in Athens, the Trojan War began.

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