In Virginia Woolf’s “Shakespeare’s Sister,” she tells a story about how women were treated and the opportunities they didn’t have as an intelligent writer, as compared to those of the men during the Elizabethan era (Shakespeare’s era). She wonders why there were no women writers during this time. All authors were men and their portrayals of women were usually as a person importance. While in reality they were the complete opposite.
Lacking historical evidence, she makes up Judith, an imaginary twin sister of Shakespeare, who is just as talented as her famous brother, but because she is a woman does not have the same opportunities to learn and write as he did. She questions what kind of life would this imaginary sister have lived compared to her brother. Woolf was amazed at how women were treated. Women had a difficult time pursuing their creative talents; they were expected to tend to the household’s chores and children, nothing else. They historically had few legal rights, and could be treated as property by fathers and husbands.
Not only were women rarely allowed to pursue careers or any type of creative endeavor, as Woolf points out, they weren’t thought to be gifted enough or bright enough to do so. Even the women viewed themselves as being inferior to men when it came to their intellectual and creative pursuits. She believes a person’s state of mind must be clear of all negative things in order for it to be creative. If a woman did write, she’d be a nervous wreck and her writing wouldn’t be as good because it would be written with anger and bitterness. Woolf talks about the portrayals of women written throughout history.
“If woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance…heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme (pg. 694). ” When, in fact, this was not true. Women of this time couldn’t read, were snubbed, slapped, beaten and considered property of their husbands. They didn’t have the same rights as a man and were not encouraged to be an artist. Woolf brings up the fact that although they are in poetry from cover to cover, they’re all but absent from history.
The only thing that can be found is a few statements about the legal rights of women (which there weren’t many), and the imaginative portrayals that men write about them. Any works that had the possibility of being written by a woman was most likely signed, “Anonymous” or signed with the name of a man. Women were not concerned with being famous like men were, it wasn’t that important to have their name written on their works. What was important was just the simple fact of having the chance to have had anything they written published at all.
The playing field was completely unequal for men and women. Woolf wrote, “Any woman born with a great gift would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at (pg. 698). ” She said this because a girl during this time could not live a free life, she was not allowed to walk the streets alone, nor could she work at or attend any plays unescorted. In fact, all women parts in a play were portrayed by men. If she tried, she would have been hindered and disliked by other people.
This would cause her to become stressed and bitter making her writing twisted with emotions. “A woman that was born with a gift of poetry was an unhappy woman, a woman at strife against herself (pg. 699). ” The conditions of a woman’s life were detrimental to her ability to write, not only physically, but psychologically. Woolf shows this by providing facts about Judith’s conflicting values and desires she would have been dealing with during her time. In order for the brain to be creative, it needs to be set free from all things that are hostile.
People, by nature, are vulnerable to discouragement and are affected by the opinion of others. The mind of an artist, she says, “must be incandescent…There must be no obstacle in it, no foreign matter unconsumed (pg. 703). ” Shakespeare used writing as an art, not as a way of self expression. This is what made Shakespeare’s writings so great, “he didn’t try to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, or to make the world a witness of some hardship or grievance (pg. 704). ” Therefore his poetry flowed from him free and unimpeded.
Woolf takes us back in time with her creation of Judith Shakespeare. She is able to show us with facts that it was impossible for women to write during this time because of how they were treated and looked upon. They were unequal to men, in fact, they were below them. She illustrates that there was no way that women could have competed with men in literary achievements. Woolf questioned why women did not write during the Elizabethan era and was able to show the relationship between women and literature without her personal opinion.
She did this by having an objective view on the treatment of women and how a woman would have been susceptible to internalizing the belief that they were not capable of being able to write the same kind of plays that Shakespeare did. The obstacles, the distractions and the discouragements women had to deal with shows why the bookshelves are empty of works written by them. Her creation of Judith, the imaginary twin sister was proof of this. Although, she shared the same talent as her brother, her life had a different end because she was a woman.