Virginia Woolfe grew up facing many prejudices against educated women. As a result of her desire to be well educated, she took personal offense at the tradition of putting down women educated beyond the social norms and eventually wrote a book dedicated to the subject of historical sexism. Among the many essays within is found one entitled, “If Shakespeare Had Had a Sister.” The essay explores whether it would have been possible for a woman living during the time of Shakespeare, and possessing his talent, to excel in his same career. The answer, she frankly supplies, is: no, Shakespeare’s sister or any other woman, would not have been able to rise to his status and maintain her sanity in the face of the rejection, denial and disapproval that would result from the attempt.
It was a good idea for Woolfe to use such descriptive language in this essay despite the fact that it was probably mostly an attempt to prove her mastery of language to the rotten prejudiced men of her time. The information that Woolfe had to shed light on would just as well have been conveyed with a simple sentence as part of a larger essay. Instead, Woolfe decorated her thesis with descriptive language and a story that better represented her point and also attracted attention to what might have otherwise been a bland factual statement in that bigger essay.
Woolfe brings up some good points as support for her essay. She discusses the everyday life of a woman so far as she has been able to piece it together from the few reports she has been able to recover of that time; complaining that there is not nearly enough information on the period only supports her claims. Comparing that research to the life of a woman in Shakespeare’s plays, it is easy to see that Shakespeare exaggerated just a little about the importance, intelligence and treatment of women. She observes that “Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant,” (Woolfe 216.4).
The use of examples is a tool Woolfe uses well to demonstrate her points and exhibit her knowledge of classical texts and critical writing skills. Generally Woolfe prefers to reference those classics like Poe and of course Shakespeare, but her primary source for this essay is Professor Trevelyan’s History of England. Her description of “Mrs. Martin” is her most expressive comparison besides the Shakespeare’s sister portion of the essay. The “Mrs. Martin” description defines the woman that we imagine from the combination of reading historian’s accounts followed by those of the poets’. She describes this woman as “an odd monster…a worm winged like an eagle; the spirit of life and beauty in a kitchen chopping up suet,” (Woolfe 216.5). It is a nice picture but, like the mythical wyvern she describes, it is completely unrealistic.
Throughout the essay Woolfe emits the image of a frustrated woman, pacing before a massive wall of books, or perhaps glancing occasionally at it from her writing desk “at the blank spaces on the shelves…the shelf where there are no plays by women,” (Woolfe 219-221). These images provide a personal connection between Woolfe and her Elizabethan sisters who faced more opposition than she in a writing career. This feeling of connection may be effective enough to make a reader feel obliged to finish reading her essay out of respect and curiosity. It is also a humbling image because we feel a sense of frustration along with Woolfe that there are not more sources about female activities, or even examples of what a woman’s work might have looked like had she been allowed some creative freedom.
Woolfe’s opinion is that “chastity has so wrapped itself around with nerves and instinct that to cut it free and bring it to the light of day demands courage of the rarest,” She continues to describe precisely the character a woman with such courage would have, “[it would have meant] a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her. Had she survived, whatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagination,” (Woolfe 219.9). She really enforces that this is an expert evaluation by using Professor Travelyan’s book and others’ opinions, like the anonymous bishop, as evidence or at least clarity. She evaluates all corners of the woman’s life, (education, parenting, travelling etc.) to conclude that “it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare,” (Woolfe 217.7). Her use of descriptive language just makes her beliefs seem more factual; and really that is what Woolfe relies on more than anything. Utilizing her talent with words to the full potential, Woolfe manages to expand on an important message in an interesting and engaging way.
Woolfe, Virginia. “If Shakespeare Had Had a Sister.” The Rinehart Reader. Ed. Jean Wyrick, and Beverly J. Slaughter. Boston: Earl McPeek, 1999. Pp 178-224. Print.