‘What would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say.’
All quotes from Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
In the third chapter of Virginia Woolf’s feminist essay, A Room of One’s Own, we are introduced to the fictional character, Judith Shakespeare. Woolf uses the fictional sister of William Shakespeare to compare the lives and opportunities of men and women in Shakespeare’s England in the 1500s. Judith is of equal genius to William but whereas he can thrive, she cannot.
William probably attended a grammar school to learn Latin and to study the Roman poets, Ovid, Virgil and Horace. He followed his dream and turned up at a theatre and worked his way into acting. He met new people, made contacts and wrote and wrote and wrote. Judith stayed at home.
Judith would never have gone to school. She would have been trapped at home, expected to do the chores and would have been reprimanded if found reading when she should have been domestically employed within the confines of the house. She would have been expected to marry a man of her father’s choice and remain forever in her husband’s servitude. She would also have been laughed at and ridiculed if she had wanted to follow her dream. So many doors would have been closed to her.
Virginia questions why there are so few women writers of this time in the canon. She says that
‘Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman’.
We already know that writers like Charlotte Bronte and Mary Ann Evans had to use male pseudonyms in order to be able to write; we know that women like Jane Austen were so discouraged from writing that they had to hide their work from prying eyes. Such was the obstacles faced by women writers. What hope was there when opinion was that,
‘the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man’.
It’s a wonder we haven’t crashed the internet with all the articles about patriarchy and feminism but we know that Virginia was a keen advocate of feminism and paved the way for equality with her famous comment that,
‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’.