Imagining the stifled life of Judith Shakespeare

Editor’s Note: Author Alexandra Didato is a student in the fall 2010 Women’s Studies Program Special Topics course, That Chick is Crazy: Women and Madness, at The University of Akron.

After reading Virginia Woolf’s “Thinking About Shakespeare’s Sister,” I couldn’t help but agree with her interpretation of what Shakespeare’s sister’s life would have been like.

Virginia Woolf

In her essay, Woolf argued that if Shakespeare had grown up with a sister who was equally as intelligent, her full intellectual potential would have never been reached. This would have resulted because of the  fact that during the 16th century, women were not given the same opportunities as men. Women were to be seen but not heard.

If Shakespeare’s sister, whom Woolf named Judith, had ever been caught reading a book, her parents would have told her to set it down and help prepare meals, sew clothing, or spend her time some other trivial household chore. Also, she probably would not have been able to nurture her intelligence because she would not have been sent to school.

Instead, she would have stayed at home helping take care of her family and performing household chores or simple tasks. Before she would even be given the chance to make something of herself or her life, she would be married off to a man she either barely knew or had never met. She would hardly be out of her teens and already expected to bear a child and start a family of her own.

Was this the life she wanted? Not likely.

Did society or her family care? Probably not.

Women during the Renaissance had expectations, expectations that if left unfulfilled resulted in their either appearing ludicrous, mad, or highly improper. Judith would have been stuck in a society where her creativity and intellect would have been stunted rather than able to flourish and blossom into something incredible. Any hope or desire to make something of her life by becoming a writer would have quickly been shot down.

If she were to try and go against the system created by the time period, she could have been beaten, she would have brought shame upon her family, and/or her behavior would have been frowned upon by society.

After long periods of having her creativity suppressed, who’s to say Judith wouldn’t have gone mad? To hold all of her passions and intellectual gifts inside without any outlet to express them would surely bring her great stress. She would have felt as trapped as a zoo animal locked inside a cage; no matter how hard her creativity tried to get out and be expressed, it could never escape the contours of her mind.

I’m sure that if I were to have grown up during the 16th century I would have had low self-esteem; I would have felt like nothing more than a mere housewife with no other role in life than to bear children and raise a family. Also, it’s hard for me to imagine how anyone could develop a sense of self-esteem if their thoughts, ideas, and dreams are either never heard by others or silenced.

I can only imagine what the real story of Judith Shakespeare would have been if she had truly existed. What I do know, is not only would her creativity have been suppressed, but this suppression would have inevitably led to some level of inner turmoil inside of Judith that would make her wonder if her high level of intellect as a woman in the 16th century truly mattered. Would this inner turmoil have led to some form of madness?

Like Virginia Woolf, we can only come up with our own theories on how Judith would have handled the restrictions on her intellect during the 16th century.

Does gender affect our writing?

writing-2Virginia Woolf told us that women must have a room of their own and an income in order to write fiction. The latest discussion in the blogosphere about women and writing seems to prove her right.

On, Amy Benfer’s post, “Let’s Tweet a gender war,” discusses the difficulty women face in trying to write from home, where they can be easily distracted by everyday household duties.

Amy wrote her post at her kitchen table, surrounded by the detritus from a recent trip and a stack of review copies of current books. I write this from my sofa, where I listen for the clothes washer to stop so I can unload and reload.

Later today, I will head upstairs to my own “Room of One’s Own” to begin researching a writing project on Bloomsbury pacifists for Cecil Woolf Publishers.

But I am one of the lucky ones. I have a quiet space of my own in which to work. My husband is at work all day. And my children are grown and gone. So I can work without interruption during the summer months when I am not teaching — if I can ignore the lures of the sun overhead, my favorite thrift shop down the road, and interesting Internet posts like Amy’s.

Writer Susan Orlean gave voice to the dilemna women face — in brief — through Twitter. Read on, then post your thoughts about your own experiences as a woman — or man — writing. Just click on the comments link below.