In Shakespeare’s Day, it was impossible for a woman bubbling with creative genius to find support for or a venue for expressing herself. Women had no identity outside of being a servant, a caregiver to aging parents if she remained a spinster, or a wife. In many of Shakespeare’s plays, strong female characters speak with passion and courage. If he had a sister (we know so little about his family this isn’t known) with creative genius like his, she would have not been allowed enough schooling to write or read well. She would have faced poverty and real danger trying to live on her own in London. Even if she aspired to act on a stage, it was unheard of in his day. All actors were men.
If a woman dared decline the partner her parents chose for her, she would be beaten, for standing her ground was not allowed in affairs concerning her future. It was accepted a husband could beat his wife and treat her as he chose. Her protestations would have no audience, so she learned her lot, and kept silent in her misery.
In the early decades of the twentieth century Virginia Woolf wrote a dozen novels, published six volumes of letters, and was a prodigious essayist, biographer, and literary critic. E.M. Forester believed she was “the finest writer of her generation, pushing the light of the English language a little further against darkness.” In 1928 she delivered a series of lectures to the women’s colleges of Cambridge, including a searing fantasy about a female Shakespeare. She included this in her essay “A Room of her Own” where she used her wit, courage and pen to protest the overwhelming prejudice against women having any right to belong to themselves, much less express themselves in unconventional ways. Until recently, there are so few great women artists because of this prejudice and the male expectations of women. It was fine for women to be obedient wives, great cooks and seamstresses, work beside their menfolk in the fields, give birth to and raise ten children. It wasn’t acceptable to enter politics, the ministry, or aspire to be a great artist or composer.
In a recent performance in Ashland of this lecture about “A Room of her Own,” the actress invites the women in the audience to be the generations no longer shamed and silenced, as Shakespeare’s sister would have been, to become the poets, novelists, and playwrights we need to awaken our contemporaries to women’s artistic voices. Virginia was a remarkable woman who did assert her right to express herself. Like many great women writers, she suffered periodic times of mental illness (like Eleanor Roosevelt, too), and drowned herself in 1941.
We no longer live in Shakespeare’s time, but even today, without decent health, supportive friends, good education, a room of her own, and some degree of financial security, it isn’t common or easy for a woman to excel in the arts. It isn’t easy for men either in a culture that devalues the role of artists, offering little external support so they can concentrate on creative ideas beyond survival.
However, we have come a long way from the sixteenth century, and we do have more role models like Virginia Woolf, Hillary Clinton, Gwen Ifill, Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, Mary Oliver, and Meryl Streep. It is a time for our voices to be on stage, in music, in writings, and on airways to make a difference. The women of Shakespeare’s day were silenced and expected to be submissive. This is no longer acceptable; we are finding our unique voices!
Carol Browning 3/26/12