Photo Credit: illustration of William Shakespeare reciting a play to his family. His wife, Anne Hathaway, is sitting in the chair on the right; his son Hamnet (who died when he was 11) is behind him on the left; his two daughters Susanna and Judith (Hamnet’s twin sister) are on the right and left of him. 1890, engraving, unknown German engraver: Paul Barlow/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 70)
“Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare.” (Woolf, Ch. 3, location 573)
Both fantasy and imagination are necessary in fiction but I think they are necessary in real life too. Once in a while, it’s fun to imagine what might have been if something in the past existed as it might have today. As a feminist who is well aware of the oppression of women in the past, I love to imagine what a woman writer might have been like in the past.
Virginia Woolf does this in her book, A Room of One’s Own. In Chapter 3, Woolf’s narrator browses bookshelves for information on the Elizabethan woman and comes up with several history books written by men where “nothing detailed, nothing perfectly true and substantial about her” (Woolf, Ch. 3, location 549) exists. Woolf is appalled by the absence of women in these books, musing, “[s]he never writes her own life and scarcely keeps a diary; there are only a handful of her letters in existence. She left no plays or poems by which we can judge her” (Ch. 3, location 555). Woolf remembers an “old gentleman who… was a bishop… who declared that it was impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare” (Ch. 3, location 567-573). Given the absence of women’s voices and lives in the history books, Woolf admits:
“I could not help thinking, as I looked at the works of Shakespeare on the shelf, that the bishop was right at least in this; it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare.” (Ch. 3, location 573; emphasis added)
So Woolf, living in a more enlightened time (her book was published in 1929), takes poetic license and invents a sister for Shakespeare whom she calls Judith and maps out what Judith’s life would have been like as an Elizabethan woman. And it isn’t a pretty one.
She describes Shakespeare’s background, including an education (since his mother was of the aristocracy), traveling to London to seek his fortune and finding fame in the theater, first as an actor and then as a playwright. She imagines Judith’s childhood, however, quite differently:
“[Shakespeare’s] extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers.” (Woolf, Ch. 3, location 585)
In Woolf’s mind, Shakespeare’s sister would have been as talented and ambitious as her brother but because she was a woman, would have been discouraged from pursuing her talent and ambition.
But Woolf doesn’t give up on Judith yet. She goes on to imagine Judith’s parents, keeping with the conventions of the Elizabethan period, would have arranged for her to marry a neighboring boy while still in her teens but unlike the Elizabethan girls who most likely were resigned to their fate, Judith violently protested and was beaten as a result. However, not to be undone, “[s]he had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s, for the tune of words [and like] him, she had a taste for the theatre” (Woolf, Ch. 3, location 591). So in a rather melodramatic gesture, Woolf imagines Judith sneaking out of her parents’ house one night with a modest bundle of clothes and running off to London, following the footsteps of her brother.
But unlike Shakespeare, the theater does not embrace Judith. In fact, in Woolf’s narrative, “[Judith] stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face. The manager—a fat, looselipped man—guffawed” (Ch. 3, location 591). Left without a cent to her name and unable to go back home lest she be forced to marry, she wanders the streets of London until
“[a]t last Nick Greene the actor-manager took pity on her; she found herself with child by that gentleman and so—who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?—killed herself one winter’s night…” (Woolf, Ch. 3, location 598)
Woolf’s narrative might be a melodramatic one but it is not completely unrealistic, since chastity was the highest price put on women in the Elizabethan period and if a woman lost it for whatever reason, she was as good as dead.
A few months ago, I decided to revisit some of Shakespeare’s plays. The ebook I bought had a brief biography of the man and as I read it, I was surprised to find out Shakespeare had two daughters, Susanna and Judith, both of whom followed fairly conventional Elizabethan lives. But the imagination is about playing the game of what ifs so, like Woolf, I couldn’t help but pose the question, “what if Shakespeare had had a third daughter, Grace, who had shared his passion for writing?” My answer to the question is the following narrative:
Grace, Shakespeare’s youngest daughter and her father’s favorite, displayed her literary genius at an early age. Her mother Anne, practical in the way women had to be in the Elizabethan era, wanted Grace to marry in her teens like her older sisters but her father wouldn’t hear of it. He encouraged her genius and took the time to educate her so she could write her poems and plays.
When Grace wrote a play for the Globe to which her father had connections. The play was called Comeuppance and was about a rogue’s wife who gathers together his discarded lovers and they plot to give him his comeuppance.
The play was a success and cemented Grace’s reputation in the theater. She wrote more comedies where women always triumphed. Her plays were attended by many women for the first time in Elizabethan history.
Not that Grace wasn’t offered marriage from several men, some of them in high society, as she was a beautiful woman like her mother. But she always rejected them. This caused her mother to severe connections with her, accusing her of being selfish. But Grace knew what she had to do and what was right for her.
If Woolf’s version of Shakespeare’s sister is a little too melodramatic, my version might be a little too idealistic. But sometimes it’s necessary to reimagine the lives of oppressed groups, like women, from the past to change the narrative of the past.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Feedbooks: Garches, France. (original publication date: 1929). Kindle digital file.