Shakespeare’s Sister is an extract taken from “A Room of One’s Own.” In “Shakespeare’s Sister”, Virginia Woolf explores the plight of women in society in England during the 15th and 16th centuries. Through a subtle analysis, Woolf raises certain concerns regarding discrimination against women in a male dominated society, such as denial of education to the girl-child, violence against women, the need for freedom of expression in women, and the right to human dignity and equality.
The extract begins with the writer’s disappointment on not being able to find concrete reasons for the poor plight of women. Instead of being flooded by a variety of views that do not help her arrive at a conclusion, she decides to narrow down the inquiry. Woolf seeks answers to her questions from the historian, who is known to record facts. She endeavors to find out from the historian the conditions under which women Lived, turning her attention to women who lived in England during the time of Queen Elizabeth, 1.
The writer is puzzled by the observation that there were no known women writers in an era in which so many men wrote songs, sonnets and other works of literature. Using the analogy of a spider’s web, Virginia Woolf points to the close association between fiction and life. Even when the link between the two is not very obvious, it still exists, she maintains.
The writer turns to Professor Trevelyan’s History of England, a well known book of history. In her quest for the position of women in society, she was appalled to read in this book that “wife-beating was a recognized right of man, and was practiced without shame by high as well as low.” As we know, the concept of feminism supports women’s rights on the grounds of equality of the sexes. So Virginia Woolf is shocked to know about the real plight of women from Professor Trevelyan’s historical records. Disturbing facts about the status of women came to light as the writer continued reading Trevelyan’s book: such as, girls who refused to marry a person of her parents’ choice were locked up and beaten. In the fifteenth century, marriage was not a matter of personal feelings, but of family interests. Thus, the interests of the women concerned were primarily ignored. The position of women did not change much even two centuries later, according to this history book. Even in the seventeenth century, women of the upper and the middle class rarely chose their own husbands. Both in terms of law and social customs, the husband was the “lord and master,” and the wives had a subservient position. However, women in literature (such as Shakespeare’s female characters) and biographical accounts (such as the seventeenth century memoirs of Verneys) have strong personalities and distinct characters. Virginia Woolf agrees with this observation of Professor Trevelyan, and then adds that women had displayed strength of character in the works of poets from the beginning of time. She cites many characters as examples, such as, Antigone (of Sophocles’ drama), Clytemnestra (of Aeschylus’ play), Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Rosalind and Desdemona of Shakespeare’s plays, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina among several other examples. All these women characters have dynamic personalities. Thus, women in fiction or in works of literature are endowed with strong personalities. But, in reality, the rights of women were trampled upon and they were “locked up, beaten and flung about the room”, as Professor Trevelyan points out.
Thus, an odd picture of woman comes to light. In terms of imagination or creative literature, women receive high importance. But in practical terms or in terms of real society, women are down trodden and of no significance. In poetry, the woman is a predominant and inspiring figure; in the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction she has great significance; her speeches in literature reflect great thoughts. But, on the other side of the coin, in reality a woman became a slave of any man her parents chose for her, in real life a woman could hardly read or spell, she was virtually illiterate and was regarded as a property of her husband, always subject to his will.
A strange picture like that of an odd monster of a woman would come to the fore, if one were to read the historian’s view of women first and that of the poets’ afterwards. The writer regrets the scarcity of detailed facts about women in recorded works. There are no detailed substantial facts about women. There is hardly any mention of her in history. This fact points to her insignificant stature in society.
In an attempt to find women’s role or significance in history, the writer turns our attention to Professor Trevelyan’s concept of history. To this historian, history incorporated many things such as, methods of agriculture, the Crusades (that is medieval military expeditions made by Europeans to recover Holy Land,) the University, the House of Commons (a part of the parliament in England) etc. However, Apart from mentioning a few ladies of great stature such as Queen Elizabeth, there is no mention of women. Not a single middle class woman could have been perceived to have participated in historical events or in great movements, which comprise history. Even the famous seventeenth century English diarist John Aubrey does not mention her. The writer is shocked at the complete lack of records about women. Lack of availability of information and reading material regarding the female sex is a clear pointer to the gender bias. Not only do historians and diarists fail to write about women, even women themselves have added to their obliteration by not writing about their own lives or maintaining their own diaries. Virginia Woolf points out the great necessity for a mass of information about women, and wonders why some brilliant scholar does not supply it. The feminist writer feels that history could be re-written by including information about women, or, at least a supplement could be added to history books about women. Looking at the book shelves, she finds it shockingly regrettable that there is no information about women before the eighteenth century. The writer had begun her exploration with the question of discrepancy between men and women, which is manifested by the utter lack of women’s writings in a prolific age of literature like the Elizabethan age. But she failed to find a satisfactory answer to such basic issues, such as, education and literacy of women, and how they occupy themselves in their daily lives. Apparently, they had no money of their own, and were married of at a very young age without their consent being taken into account. All the probing of the writer about the condition of women are indicative of her concern for the basic rights of women. The writer is reminded of an old deceased bishop whose opinion about women was so low that he asserted that it was impossible for any woman to have the genius of Shakespeare whether in the past, present or future. Such an attitude points to the suppression of women to the extent that her identity, genius, intellect is completely denied by men.
Through an imaginative reconstruction, Woolf wonders what would have happened to a talented woman if she were born in the age of Shakespeare. Since facts about women were difficult to obtain, the writer reflects upon what would have happened if Shakespeare had a highly gifted sister. Woolf names the hypothetical sister as Judith. Shakespeare, being a man had the privileges of education and entertainment. He went to seek his fortune in London. He worked in the theatre, became successful as an actor, and lived in the center of activity in the famous city of London. In the meantime, his highly talented sister, one may suppose, stayed at home. Judith was as imaginative and adventurous as her famous brother, but being a girl, she was discriminated against and not educated. So, unlike Shakespeare she did not have the privilege of studying grammar and logic or studying Latin. Being a gifted person, she was interested in reading books, and used to sometimes pick up her brother’s book perhaps. When her parents came to know of this, they told her to take care of “womanly” things such as cooking and stitching. Being talented, she probably wrote something, but knowing the strict restrictions imposed on women, probably hid her writings or set them on fire. As was the custom of her times, she was engaged to be married at a very young age. When she refused to get married, she was badly beaten by her father. Then her father stopped using such corporal punishment, and tried to emotionally coerce her. Driven by such external pressures, Judith ran away from home to London. She had good music sense as well as a taste for the theatre like her famous brother. When she expressed her desire to act, men laughed at her, because she lived in an age whereby a woman’s individual talents were greatly suppressed, and she was expected to be confined to the four walls of her home. Her literary genius did not wish to be rebuffed by such ante-feminist attitudes in a male dominated society. An actor-manager named Nick Greene became friendly with her’; and she found herself pregnant. A woman of genius in Shakespeare’s time was prone to exploitation by men. Judith was ultimately led to commit suicide, as she was a woman of talent, out of synchronization with the times she lived in.
Woolf’s imaginative reconstruction of Judith’s tale highlights the plight of a woman of genius born in Shakespeare’s age. Social and cultural exigencies made it impossible for talented women to have existed and expressed themselves in Shakespeare’s times. Yet, the writer continues to think that genius must have existed among women as well as amongst the working class, even though it could not come to light. The writer cites Emily Bronte (a nineteenth century woman novelist) and Robert Burns (a working-class Scottish poet) as examples of genius. Woolf feels that when a person reads about a witch, or of a woman possessed by devils, or about an outstanding man who had a mother — these may be taken as indicators of the existence of a lost woman novelist or a suppressed female poet whose talents did not find any limelight.
Reflecting upon the story of Shakespeare’s sister, as the writer had made it up, Woolf reinforces the point that any woman who had extra-ordinary talent in the sixteenth century, would have either gone crazy, or committed suicide, or lived in isolation outside the village. Isolated because of her genius, she would have regarded as a half-witch, half wizard, and people would have either feared her or made fun of her. Even nineteenth century women writers had to adopt male pseudonyms, such as Curer Bell, George Eliot and George Sand. Adopting the name of a man and assuming anonymity by women were customs greatly encouraged by men. As Pericles, the Athenian statesman and orator of fifth century BC had said, publicity in women was a hateful quality. Thus, we see from Virginia Woolf’s exposition, how women were suppressed, their rights and fundamental identity denied.
In the concluding section of the essay, Woolf says that Judith, the talented poet who could not express herself in writing and was buried in the crossroads, still lives on. With deep empathy for women whose rights are denied, the writer says that Shakespeare’s sister lives on in women of today, and in women who efface themselves to nurture their families. The opportunity to empower such women is soon coming within our reach. The writer believes that in times to come, if women are given space and freedom, and have the courage to express their opinions in writing, if they view life objectively, if women are able to look beyond Milton’s perspective (that Eve was morally and intellectually lesser than Adam), then the opportunity will come when Shakespeare’s sister (or women of talent) will have a tangible identity of their own. If we create a conducive environment, Judith can come in our midst and freely express herself.
Lack of women writers in a particular age and lack of historical records regarding women are silent indicators of the suppression of the voice of women in society. In her subtle exploration of the status of women in society, Virginia Woolf exposes appalling facts about the condition of women during earlier centuries in England. Gender bias was strong in Elizabethan England: men and women were not treated as equals. We are shocked to know that “wife beating was a recognized right of man”. Also, girls were denied education in England upto the eighteenth century.
Women in real society were completely different from the inspiring female characters that we see in great works of literature. In reality, according to social dictates, women were subservient to men. The complete lack of information about women before the eighteenth century in England, shows the extent of discrimination against women on the basis of gender and their low position in society.
By means of imaginative reconstruction, Virginia Woolf explores what would have happened to a talented woman if she had been born in Shakespeare’s times. Through this method, the writer raises fundamental issues concerning gender bias such as denial of education to the girl-child, denial of expression of the self and ones talents, and denial of choice in personal matters. Suppression of identity of women in the patriarchal society of sixteenth and seventeenth century England was so severe that any woman of exceptional genius of those times would have been led to commit suicide, become crazy, or live in utter isolation—Woolf concludes.
In the concluding section of the essay, Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister Judith emerges as a symbolic figure of a woman of genius, seeking to come to life in a conducive atmosphere for appropriate self-expression. The writer calls for a change of attitudes in society, whereby one can find parity between men and women, whereby women find space, courage and liberty to express themselves.