Why did Ruskin say about Shakespeare that Shakespeare has only heroines no heroes?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Shakespeare provided Ruskin with extensive literary evidence that great men were never as admirable as great women, enabling him to use Shakespeare’s authority, together with Dante’s, to celebrate female virtue over male. This acknowledgement of the impaired virtues of Shakespeare’s heroes, which went aslant the dominant tradition of Shakespeare scholarship Ruskin inherited, was partly shaped by Ruskin’s thoughts on the failures of modern manhood,..." Pascale Aebischer (Darwin College, Cambridge).

Ruskin's argument that Shakespeare has no heroes, only heroines is founded in the definition of hero as applied to the male leads in Shakespeare's play, he excepts the biographical character of Henry V, and on the roles of the heroines. The most thorough definition given in relation to this discussion of Ruskin's assessment is cited by A.L.B. in the Tuftonian, Volume 22, which is said to have been taken from the Standard Dictionary: "A man of distinguished valor, intrepidity, or enterprise in danger; a prominent or central personage in any remarkable action or event; one who exhibits extraordinary firmness, fortitude, and intellectual greatness in any course of action." As Ruskin applies the total concept of hero, as illustrated by this definition, to each of Shakespeare's hero's, Ruskin finds that each one falls short of fulfilling this concept. When examining the heroines, it becomes clear they they are the characters imbued with heroic qualities and who fulfill the heroic tasks and roles.

For example, consider Orland (As You like it) and Othello (Othello) along with Hero (Much Ado About Nothing) and Rosalind (As You Like It). Though each male character is replete with masculine heroic qualities, each fails dramatically to carry their qualities through to a successful completion in resolving the issues of the play. Orlando is first duped, then helped and saved by Rosalind. Othello is manipulated and as changeable as the wind in his ideas and affections, while Hero has constancy of character, idea, belief and behavior and is the one who heroically reveals all the truths and brings the resolution of the play its heroic end. Shakespeare even went so far as to name her Hero, perhaps so that his point may not be lost in subtlty. Shakespeare and his contemporary Edmund Spenser were both singing the praises of Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare seems to have been in earnest in applying the lessons taught to the world by Queen Elizabeth about women to womankind in general, although he justly gave a fair picture of the good and less than good in both sexes as is witnessed by Phoebe (As You Like It) in Arden Forest.

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