Judith Shakespeare

This past weekend I saw A Room of One’s Own, put on by the Bloomsbury Collective at Toronto’s historic Campbell House. Part play, part lecture, part historical reenactment, this marvelous production brought back to life the talk that Virginia Woolf gave on “Women and Fiction” to Girton Women’s College, Cambridge in 1928.

I first read A Room of One’s Own for my grade 12 English class, and it remains one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Woolf’s observations are illuminating and devastating, her prose style is both sly and forthright, and her scope is immense. Instead of offering her reader/listener a rundown of Women Writers through the Ages then calling it a day, she examines the topic of “Women and Fiction” from every possible angle.

But what, you may ask, does this have to do with Shakespeare? Woolf is a great admirer of Shakespeare’s genius: “If ever a mind was incandescent, unimpeded,” she writes, “it was Shakespeare’s mind.” Unimpeded is the key word here. Woolf argues that Shakespeare’s talent could not have come to light if Shakespeare had been poor, or a labourer, or a woman.

To illustrate her point, Woolf invents the character of Judith Shakespeare, a sister of the bard who had all his talent for inventing, but none of his opportunities. She maps out a bleak, but entirely believable, life story for this tortured artist in search of a creative outlet.

Woolf is forced to agree, at least in part, with the inflammatory comment from an unnamed historian that “it was impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare.” Nowadays we might dismiss such a statement as the regrettable product of its pre-feminist era, but this kind of thinking pervades the literary world even today. Just look at these choice words from V.S. Naipaul in an address to the Royal Geographical Society in 2011, or David Gilmour’s remarks to a Hazlitt interviewer only a few months ago.*

Living up to Shakespeare’s legacy is a tall order for any writer, male or female, but it’s an interesting topic to ponder. Who are the female Shakespeares of our time, and what are they writing? Is it the short story champion Alice Munro? Film director Kathryn Bigelow? Actor and screenwriter Emma Thompson? Novelist Toni Morrison? Playwright Caryl Churchill? All of the above? Or perhaps we’re still waiting for the woman who embodies the spirit of Judith Shakespeare.

*For an excellent response to Gilmour’s dismissal of female authors and Chinese authors, check out http://chinesevirginiawoolf.tumblr.com

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