How does Shakespeare present his female characters in his tragedies (Macbeth) and comedies (Much Ado About Nothing)?

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Noelle Matteson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Shakespeare presents his female characters in a variety of ways in both tragedies and comedies. It is easier to specifically compare Macbeth to Much Ado About Nothing than to make generalizations.

Macbeth has few female characters and is one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays. Lady Macbeth is one of his most famous women. Some admire her for her strength and pragmatism, while many paint her as a wicked, Eve-like character who brings about Macbeth’s downfall. She calls on evil spirits to fill her “from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty!” Though she initially holds the power in her marriage, she eventually goes insane and dies. Other female characters include the androgynous witches who also lure Macbeth towards evil and Lady Macduff, Macduff’s ill-fated wife. These feminine characters are complex but powerless, unless they turn to the forces of darkness.

Much Ado, on the other hand, features a number of strong women. Beatrice is an incredibly outspoken, witty, and independent young woman who refuses to marry. Against her will, she falls in love with the irascible Benedick. Her cousin Hero is much milder and more obedient, but even she participates in tricking Beatrice into loving Benedick, as does the minor female character Ursula. Margaret is another playful, strong-minded individual, a flirtatious woman whose secret liaison leads to a series of deceptions and misunderstandings. After being wrongfully shamed at her wedding, Hero narrowly averts becoming a tragic heroine. This being a comedy, the situation is eventually sorted out.

As you can see, the female characters in Much Ado About Nothing, apart from Hero, have agency and a much better time than the women in Macbeth, unless you include the gleefully evil witches as women.