Throughout history, plays have been written mostly by and about men. Even so, there are hundreds -- possibly thousands -- of plays focusing on female characters. Many of them are award winning, were made into films and are coveted by today's best actresses. They also may be broken down into broad categories regarding the basic type of women they portray.
Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" is a classic example of a play featuring a strong woman. Cleopatra is many things, including powerful and determined. A more modern example is Robert Harling's 1987 "Steel Magnolias," in which a millionairess, a beautician and an average mother learn they can be tough as steel. Another famous example is Eliza from George Bernard Shaw's 1912 "Pygmalion." She's a strong-willed woman who diligently works her way up the social ladder and woos the man who thought he ruled over her.
Tennessee Williams' 1944 "The Glass Menagerie" is an excellent example of a play featuring fragile women. In it, Amanda embraces fantasy in place of harsh reality while her daughter, Laura, develops illness and isolation because she's not strong enough to face the world. Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" features Blanche DuBois, who drinks too much and throws herself in the arms of too many men to avoid reality. A less obvious example is the three sisters in Beth Henley's 1981 "Crimes of the Heart." Here, the women feel alone and insecure, the youngest among them slipping into a fantasy world in order to hang onto a wisp of sanity.
Perhaps the most famous play about a devious woman is Shakespeare's "Macbeth," in which Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband into committing murder. Arthur Miller's 1953 play, "The Crucible," features many women who deviously accuse others of witchcraft -- a sure way to ostracize or kill people they don't like. In "Great Expectations," made into a play in 1939, Miss Havisham manipulates virtually everyone and focuses on training young Estella to be just as devious as she is.
George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan" is an excellent example of a virtuous woman in a famous play. The main character is Joan of Ark, who's laser-focused on doing what God commands. In the play "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," Francie is innocent and virtuous, thriving in a less-than-ideal environment. A less obvious virtuous woman is Vinnie Day, the mother in "Life With Father," which became a stage play in 1939. Vinnie holds the family together and guides her husband toward good.
- Open Source Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra
- The Project Gutenberg: Pygmalion
- Penguin: Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire
- Dramatists Play Service: Steel Magnolias
- Shakespeare Online: Macbeth
- TeacherVision: The Crucible
- Project Gutenberg: Great Expectations
- Project Gutenberg Australia: Saint Joan
- IPGGutenbergUKLtd/iStock/Getty Images