This hugely influential book by Anna Brownell Jameson (1794–1860) presents a Victorian woman’s view of Shakespeare’s heroines as models of womanliness. It was first printed in 1832 with the title Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical and Historical, and repeatedly reprinted as Shakespeare’s Heroines in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Read a full online version of an 1843 edition here.

Robert Anning Bell’s illustrations

A number of editions were beautifully illustrated, like this one of 1901. It has ‘many decorative designs’ by Robert Anning Bell (1863–1933), a key figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement. Bell’s striking red and black drawings of pensive, beautiful women are typical of the Art Nouveau style emerging at that time.

How are Shakespeare’s women presented?

In some ways the text seems radical, using Shakespeare’s heroines as an inspiration for women to take on more prominent roles in Victorian society. At the same time, it offers some grating views of what is typically ‘feminine’. Jameson argues, on the opening page, that ‘the intellect of woman … is inferior in power, and different in kind’ to that of men (p. 1).

Shakespeare’s heroines are split into four categories:

  • Characters of Intellect – including Portia, Isabella and Beatrice

    In the section headed ‘Portia’, Jameson says that only Shakespeare succeeds in portraying women of ‘mental superiority’, without hiding their ‘feminine attributes’ (p. 2): ‘the wit which is lavished on each is profound, or pointed, or sparkling, or playful – but always feminine; like spirits distilled from flowers’, both ‘sweet’ and ‘powerful’ (p. 3)

  • Characters of Passion and Imagination – including Juliet, Ophelia and Miranda
  • Characters of the Affections – including Desdemona and Cordelia
  • Historical Characters – including Lady Macbeth