“It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare.” These are Virginia Woolf’s words from a series of lectures she delivered at Cambridge University in October, 1928. They were published In 1929 as A Room of One’s Own.
In later decades, “Shakespeare’s Sister” found a life of its own as an excerpted essay* in various anthologies. My own discovery of Woolf’s work was over three decades ago, and I am grateful for her transcendent sentences.
Woolf creates her imaginary Judith Shakespeare within William Shakespeare’s generally accepted circumstances. As is often true, similar circumstances are no guarantee of similar outcomes even when one’s mother is an heiress, as was true for William and the imaginary Judith.
The grammar-schooled William “was, it was well known, a wild boy who poached rabbits, perhaps shot a deer, and had, rather sooner than he should have done, to marry a woman in the neighborhood, who bore him a child rather quicker than was right. That escapade sent him to seek his fortune in London. He had, it seemed, a taste for the theatre” (p. 8).
While William’s stage career began by “holding horses at the stage door,” it wasn’t long before William was center stage, “living at the hub of the universe.” He even managed to meet the queen.
Judith, equally curious and imaginative but not schooled—no Horace or Virgil for her—did learn to read and even found a book or two, perhaps even one of William’s, until she was found out by her parents.
“They would have spoken sharply but kindly, for they were substantial people who knew the conditions of life for a woman and loved their daughter… [They] told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers” (p. 8).
Yet, Judith went on reading and started scribbling a line or two as she was near a marriageable age, seventeen. Upon discovering that she was betrothed to a “wool-stapler’s son, [she] cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father,” which did not produce the desired results in Elizabethan England any more than it does in the 21st century.
Father Shakespeare then offered Judith “a chain of beads or a fine petticoat…there were tears in his eyes. How could she disobey him? How could she break his heart?
“The force of [Judith’s] own gift alone drove her to it. [She] let herself down by a rope one summer’s night and took the road to London…she had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s…she had a taste for the theatre” but she was sent away from the stage door (p. 8).
Actually, Judith was laughed away by the stage manager who told her “no woman…could possibly be an actress. He hinted—you can imagine what. She could get no training in her craft. Could she even seek her dinner in a tavern or roam the streets at midnight?
“[Judith’s] genius was for fiction and [she] lusted to feed abundantly upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways…for she was very young, oddly like Shakespeare the poet in her face” (p. 9).
Judith was turned away, time and again, until an “actor-manager” took pity on her and her dreams of theatre. Soon, Judith was with child and without marriage.
Sadly, Judith killed herself “one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross-roads…that, more or less is how the story would run…if a woman in Shakespeare’s day had had Shakespeare’s genius” Woolf conjectured, almost a century ago (p. 9).
In 2012, we are still asking: “…who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body.”
*All excerpts from “Shakespeare’s Sister,” by Virginia Woolf are from Eight Modern Essayists, 5th edition, St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
ROW80 Wednesday Word Marking:
My word total for January is 8250 with my goal of writing at least 250 words per day; in February, I began writing in 30-minute stretches to focus my writing and the word total for the month is 9814; in March, my current word total is 3838. My total Round of Words so far is 21,902, which is a raw total, meaning a lot of free writing/brainstorming yet meeting my goal of writing consistently. I generate an additional 1200 to 2000 words per week as blogs, fiction, and nonfiction.
Bob Mayer’s Idea and Conflict Workshop is life-changing, and I mean that sincerely. I can honestly say I have not been this excited about writing in years. There is true joy in my work.