Happier without men? Shakespeare and Cervantes’ heroines, religious life, married life, and country life

The Winter's Tale
Connan Morrissey (Hermione) and Laura C. Harris (Perdita) embrace at the end of The Winter’s Tale, directed by Blake Robison, Folger Theatre, 2009. Carol Pratt.

Shakespeare’s heroines often end up with husbands who don’t seem good enough for them, while Cervantes might instead suggest it would be better to leave excellent women single—whether in the convent or outside the bounds of society. Does one option seem more satisfying, or are both hard to swallow?

Cervantes specified that he should be buried with the order of nuns who helped free him from his captivity in Algiers. Indeed, last year Cervantes’ remains were located under the convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid.

Cervantes’ respect for these nuns colors stories in which it seems that a young woman may find cloistered life preferable to married life.

In Los Trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda (The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda), and La española inglesa (The Spanish Englishwoman), the eponymous heroines plan to take vows and join a convent, but their respective fiancés steps in to reassert their betrothal. At the threshold of the convent, the Spanish Englishwoman rejoices to learn that her fiancé has been found alive. In contrast, it comes as a blow to Sigismunda when she must give up her desire to become a nun.

Sigismunda does not voice her consent to marry Persiles at the end of the novel. The narrator is quick—maybe too quick—to assure us that the royal couple goes on to have a comfortable married life full of many children.

Sigismunda’s reluctance to forgo nunhood for marriage resembles Isabella’s situation at the end of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

Measure for Measure
Isabella. Measure for Measure. The graphic gallery of Shakespeare’s heroines. 1896. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Isabella remains silent after the Duke proposes marriage. It seems unlikely that she will be able to take vows as a nun or return to the convent from which she was summoned to save her brother. Having wished to preserve her chastity as a bride of Christ, she is left to marry the man who deceived her and posed as her confessor.

The convent also offers dishonored women shelter from society. In Cervantes’ novellas El celoso extremeño (The jealous man from Extremadura) and El curioso impertinente (The curious impertinent), the widows Camila and Leonora take religious vows, but only after their infidelity has hastened their husbands’ deaths.

It is ironic that the virtuous virgins Sigismunda and Isabella are kept from answering their calling to religious life, while Camila and Leonora become nuns with an air of regret. Yet in each case, the women’s entry to or exclusion from the convent points to a problem in marriage.

The Winter's Tale
The Winter’s Tale. Balliol Salmon. Charcoal drawing, 1906. Folger Shakespeare Library.

In The Winter’s Tale, a complete breakdown in marriage, family, and government drive the queen to absent herself from society completely. In Act 3, Hermione appears to die after her husband levies the false charges against her and thereby causes their young son to die of grief. Leontes has also ordered their newborn daughter’s death by exposure.

At the end of Act 5, Hermione, embodied as a statue, comes back to life when her long-lost daughter returns. Hermione tells Perdita: “I, / Knowing by Paulina that the oracle / Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved / Myself to see the issue.” The play hints that Hermione has spent the intervening sixteen years in a “removed house,” visited by Paulina “twice or thrice” daily. There is a sense that, were Perdita not found, Hermione would never have returned to her marriage.

However, Cervantes does set forth one exemplary woman who unapologetically strives to live free as she “was born free.” Marcela from Don Quijote, Part 1, roams the countryside as a shepherdess. She rejects control by the church (as represented by her uncle and guardian, who is a priest) and resists the pressure to marry the countless suitors who seek out her beauty and wealth. One suitor dies of a broken heart after she rejects him.

A commanding orator, Marcela explains that she takes no responsibility for Grisóstomo’s death and wishes to preserve her liberty. Though she asserts her desire for solitude, many men will continue to pursue her, including don Quijote. Still, she refuses to modify her chosen lifestyle to alleviate men’s suffering or feed their “selfish pleasure.”