Shakespeare’s Sister Still

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“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).

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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).

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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.

16 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Sister Still

  1. It’s nice to meet you, Karen, and I loved this post. Virginia Woolf and I have quite a history together. Thank you for reminding me so meaningfully about the need to continue to make the effort to manifest that “heat and violence of the poet’s heart” which struggles to survive in this woman’s body and life.

    Thank you for following my blog. I look forward to reading more of your work and chatting now and again.


    1. So nice to meet you, Angela. Immediately, the writing in your blog pulled me in as well as the writers you favor. That kind of blog is far too rare, it seems. “Shakespeare’s Sister” is a lifelong favorite of mine, obviously but to be blunt, I’d hoped the reminder would not be as necessary as it is. That said, it is one of the most succinct arguments for women ever.

      Look forward to our chats, from time to time.




  2. As always I love reading what you write. This was truly a history lesson for me. You make the learning of history so much more enjoyable then the Nuns at St. Anthony’s School. Keep up the great work. You’re growing more everyday, and through your growth also so many of us who read your blog also grow.


    1. Hey, Dona!

      It’s a history women must always remember, no better time than the present. I, too, have nuns in my past, remarkable women.

      Always great to see you here, my friend.



  3. I loved this post. Virgina Woolf has always been one of my favorite authors, although I haven’t read any of her works in many years.
    I am so glad you are excited to write again and getting so much down. I am in an editing frenzy, so not writing much stuff from scratch except my blog, however, I just may have to take a break and play a little.


    1. Hi, Ann!

      Bob Mayer’s workshop is specific and incredibly helpful. Clearly, I recommend it highly. It’s not so much a quantity of writing as it is focusing on the conflict that lies within that kernel idea. In so many ways it seems a new novel, and it is, but its purpose is clear. Think that’s what makes me so excited.

      Didn’t see your new blog post; I’ll check. Thanks for stopping by, Ann.



  4. Once again, Karen, I am brought into a magical sense of “good things in strange, sometimes frightening and sad world” by reading your blog. To speak of loss and tragedy with warmth and reassurance takes a rare talent, and a rare insight. You have both. It makes me eager to see this story that you have been working on for Bob Mayer’s workshop. The joy it’s bringing to you… that’s contagious.

    Thank you.


  5. Thank you for this post. It put me in mind of the many pleasant hours with Jeanne defining the woman’s sentence and (at least for me) lying prostrate before VW.


    1. Yes, Richard, both you and Jeanne were with me as I wrote this post but then, both of you often are as are your words. Always, I remember, Richard, with great love and appreciation for all you and Jeanne gave me, which was nothing less than the world. I have not wanted since.

      My love always,


  6. I love this… I will be sharing this post for my Herstory Month. It is Beautifully tragic. I dare say that I would have been in much trouble in times past; I get in enough trouble in this century with my tongue having a mind of it’s own. I can’t imagine if I had been born 100, 200 years ago. I just don’t know what I would have done. Of course some of us believe that we were alive during those times in past lives. It has taken me a whole lifetime to get up the courage to live as I please, who knows what I was like in another life.

    I so enjoy reading your posts!



    1. Hey, Morgan!

      As today is Einstein’s birthday, I almost added a footnote about “spooky action at a distance” (my metaphor for Oneness) encompassing the idea of no time or that we are–always–but Woolf’s words seemed too important today. I’m with you on lives. Being is not easy, as you say, but it is the best of us, of that I am convinced. The older I get, the more I appreciate Virginia Woolf for Virginia Woolf; always, “Shakespeare’s Sister” is my bellwether.

      So glad you enjoy the posts; thanks for stopping by.

      Peace to you, my friend,


  7. That’s wonderful that the workshop is going so well for you, Karen! I hope the words keep flowing and you have a great rest of the week.

    BTW, a character in one of my stories is an artist by the name of Judith Hamnet. 🙂


    1. Hi, Ruth!

      Bob’s workshop helps writers clarify their kernel idea as well as understand their novel’s conflict. For me, it has meant a completely different perspective on my novel, and I was close to dumping the entire novel. Now, I’m back to its core. Truly, I am excited. Thanks for your encouragement, Ruth.

      Let me know the name of Judith Hamnet’s story; I’d like to read it.



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