Skip to main content
Shakespeare & Beyond

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.