Drawing on the histories of female writers and performers in England, Dr Emma Whipday of King's College London asks what might have become of Shakespeare if he had been a woman.
This year, we celebrate the four centuries since Shakespeare’s death, in which his works have been extensively performed, edited, adapted, and filmed. Translations and re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s plays are staged all over the world, and Shakespeare himself is celebrated as a cultural icon, the grammar-school boy and glove-maker’s son from a small Warwickshire town who became an actor, published playwright and poet, shareholder in a successful theatre company, and gentleman; and whose works live on today. But what if the story had been different? What if Shakespeare had been born a woman?
To our knowledge, there were no female professional playwrights in Shakespeare’s time. Just as no woman was permitted to tread the boards of the playhouse as an actor, so no woman ever wrote a play that was performed upon the public stage. There may have been female workers in the theatre, making props and costumes (and you can read more about this in Natasha Korda’s great book Labors Lost), but few other roles were open to women. So does this mean that, if Shakespeare had been born a woman, she would have remained in Stratford, her great plays unwritten, and all hopes of a writing career forgotten?
Not necessarily. Many women wrote plays in early modern England, but these plays never appeared at the Globe. In around 1555, Lady Jane Lumley, then in her late teens, wrote The Tragedie of Euripedes called Iphigeneia, translated out of Greake into Englisshe – the earliest English translation of Euripides’ play, and (as far as we know) the first play written by a woman in English. It was never published, but the manuscript of the play circulated among her friends, and it may have been performed in private (we know that the play works well in performance, as it was revived recently by the Rose Theatre Company).
As the earliest translator of Iphigenia at Aulis, before she even turned 20, Lumley is an astonishing example of an early modern female playwright. And she was not alone: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, wrote a translation of French playwright Robert Garnier’s Marc-Antoine, which she called Antonius, based on the final days of Mark Antony. This play did not only circulate among friends: it was also published, in 1592. Both of these women used the classical knowledge usually reserved for educated men to create new versions of old plays.
Sidney was also an important patron to male playwrights, and she commissioned The Tragedie of Cleopatra, a sequel to her Antonius, from the writer and tutor Samuel Daniel. Yasmin Arshad of University College London (UCL) recently discovered a portrait of what appears to be a Jacobean noblewoman in costume as Cleopatra, with lines from Daniel’s The Tragedie of Cleopatra displayed next to her. This may be a record of a country house performance, with Daniel’s former student Lady Anne Clifford in the title role (and you can read how I worked with Yasmin and Helen Hackett (UCL) to stage a Jacobean-style version of the play imagining Clifford's possible performance).
This portrait offers a tantalising glimpse of the possibility that women were performers, as well as writers, in early modern England – at least in the elite world of so-called ‘closet dramas’ and country house performances.
Translating wasn't the only form of playwriting available to women. In 1613, the first original play by a woman appeared in print – The Tragedy of Mariam, by Elizabeth Carey, Lady Falkland. Although based on the Biblical tale of Mariam, her husband Herod, and his sister Salome, the play is not a translation, but an entirely new play – a significant development in the history of women’s writing. Like Charlotte Brontë or George Eliot, Carey wasn't able to put her own name on the title page as the play’s author – instead, she simply signed with her initials, E. C. Recent stagings of Mariam suggest that, like the other plays by women from this period, Mariam is eminently performable; although we have no record of a performance in Carey’s lifetime, the play has had a thriving theatrical afterlife since the mid 1990s – most recently in a ‘pop-up’ production.
There is one thing that each of these female playwrights has in common, besides a taste for tragedy and a liking for classical and Biblical narratives: they were all noblewomen, by birth and by marriage. For each of these women, their title represents something far larger: money, land, and, perhaps most importantly, an education. These noblewomen could read Latin and Greek, and had practised some of the same translation exercises as those used by grammar school boys, the same exercises that may have given Shakespeare his first experiences of playwriting.
If Shakespeare had been born a landed noblewoman, with a father who believed in educating his daughters, she may not have written for the public stage, but perhaps she might have written and published classical tragedies – not unlike Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar – and even performed and acted in them, in private performances for family and friends.
This kind of education was not available to the daughter of a glove-maker in Stratford-upon-Avon. If Shakespeare had been born a woman, it is very unlikely she would have written classical or Biblical plays for publication, or even for private circulation. So, what other options were open to a woman who wanted to write and act in early modern England?
In 1614, a woman named Alice Mustian erected a stage – a plank of wood balanced on two barrels – in the yard behind her house and performed a one-woman show, with songs, based on the adulterous affair of one of her neighbours. She charged her audience an inventive entrance fee: small objects, such as pins and ‘points’ (which were used to tie items of clothing together). Mustian’s neighbours complained, and she ended up defending her actions in the church courts – which is how the record of her play and its performance survives today.
Sadly, the text of the play itself does not survive – indeed, it may not have been written down at all, as many women were illiterate in this period. But it does give us a fascinating example of an enterprising woman who not only wrote and performed a play in this period, but who also had an entrepreneurial spirit, constructing a makeshift stage and charging for admission. Traces of Mustian’s performance survive because her performance was libellous, a personal and public attack on the moral character of her neighbours – but there may have been many other plays and performances, in yards or in homes, by women in this period, of which no trace survives. We cannot find them, because the class and probable illiteracy of these women makes them invisible to us, but glimpses from the court records can serve to remind us that, far from the public stage, there is a long history of female playwriting and performance.
Indeed, one way that the voices of many non-aristocratic early modern women survive is through court cases: women who were tried for crimes like murder were often given the opportunity to make a scaffold speech – a speech to the watching crowd moments before their execution – and these speeches would be published and sold, cheaply, at booksellers, reported in news pamphlets, and even turned into popular ballads, to be sung in taverns and on the streets. Of course, the male jobbing writers and balladeers who transcribed these speeches may well have used artistic licence and made considerable changes, or even have rewritten them entirely. We cannot be certain that any of the words of these women survive today, but the chance to make a scaffold speech at an execution, which usually attracted large crowds, was a rare opportunity for a woman to speak in public, and to script her own performance. Notorious female murderers even appeared onstage (although played by male actors), in true crime dramas like Arden of Faversham (recently staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company) and A Warning for Fair Women – although the women themselves didn't survive to see it.
A more cheerful example is offered by Moll Cutpurse, a notorious London cross-dresser and thief, who was written about in pamphlets, and who appeared onstage in Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s play The Roaring Girl. Following the play’s success, the real Moll Cutpurse even appeared onstage herself, playing the lute – although the authorities soon found out and punished the theatre for it (you can hear more about Moll Cutpurse in Emma Smith’s podcast).
Women condemned for witchcraft also had a (brief) opportunity to script their own versions of their stories. Accounts of witchcraft trials frequently appeared in print, claiming to record the statements of the condemned women, and even occasionally onstage, as in the Jacobean play The Witch of Edmonton, based on the trial account of Elizabeth Sawyer (also recently staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company). But the women’s voices that survive in these circumstances do so at the expense of the women themselves – and survive in texts and plays written exclusively by men.
The women I have discussed are exceptional: their voices are heard because they are powerful, or because they are criminal. But what if Shakespeare had been born a woman who was neither of these things – born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, daughter to a glove-maker father, with the potential to become one of the greatest playwrights in the English language? Would she, like Alice Mustian, have staged one-woman shows in her yard, and have been taken to court for it?
In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf invites us to imagine the answer to this very question:
'Let me imagine, since the facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say.'
Woolf’s answer is bleak: she suggests that ‘it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare’. Woolf’s version of ‘Judith Shakespeare’ runs away to London, aged 16, to write plays, but the men of the theatre laugh in her face. She has an affair with actor-manager Nick Greene, becomes pregnant by him, and kills herself.
I would like to suggest another answer to this question. In my recently published play Shakespeare’s Sister, I imagine a very different fate for Judith Shakespeare.
I agree with Woolf that it would have been impossible for a woman to write the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare, because of the pressures that shaped her world: pressures of family, of economics, of politics, of society’s expectations. But that doesn't mean that a female Shakespeare wouldn't have written at all.
Perhaps, despite lacking a title or land, she would have learned enough Latin from her brother to write her own classical tragedy. Perhaps she would have been inspired by a Biblical tale. Perhaps she would have staged scandalous one-woman shows in her yard. And perhaps, as Shakespeare’s Sister imagines, she would have run away to London to join the players, fought to have her play performed on the public stage, and at last decided to stage it in secret, with a community of friends and collaborators.
Unlike Woolf’s story of Judith Shakespeare, my play does not show that a poet’s heart is incompatible with a woman’s body, and it does not suggest that for a woman, sex and death must go together. Drawing on the histories of female writers and performers, on Lumley and Sidney and Carey and Mustian and the women lost to history, I want to challenge the isolation of Woolf’s female Shakespeare. More than one woman may have wanted to make plays in Elizabethan England, and more than one man may have been willing to help her.
Dr Emma Whipday is a Teaching Fellow in Shakespeare and Early Modern English Literature at King's College London.
Find out about the British Council's Shakespeare Lives programme of events and activities celebrating Shakespeare’s work on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016.
You can also read this article in French.