Shakespeare's Sister' by Virginia Woolf: Book Summary

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This person is a prominent, well-respected poet, writer (playwright), and actor. The use of language and words in their work is masterful and exudes brilliance. Their works are classics that are consistently studied, which also changed how elements of stories are developed and entwined together. Their name is Judith Shakespeare (sister of William Shakespeare). Regretfully, this individual only exists through the words and pages of the essay by Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own.” Woolf in the essay uses the imagined character, Judith, as a tool to explore the gender bias a woman faces during the Elizabethan era. She suggests the gender inequality that persists, hinders the scholarly and artistic expressions of women.

Woolf considers and acknowledges in her essay that, “women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time” (Woolf para. 3), including examples of prominent female characters such as Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, and others. At the same time, she points out they are only the work of fantasy. Daily life for women was contrary to fiction. Making use of work by British historian and academic, Professor Trevelyan, Woolf communicates to the readers a mindset where, “wife-beating, was a recognized right of man” (Woolf para. 3). She states that this is how society is. Woolf concludes, “It would have been extremely odd, even upon this showing, had one of them suddenly written the plays of Shakespeare” (Woolf para. 6). She alludes that it was not being inadequate that stopped women from creating those same writings, but that she would not be given the opportunity. Woolf starts wondering, what would happen if Shakespeare had a sister?

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Rather than gender that dictates what you could do, being a woman naturally made you inferior. Woolf disagrees with that notion and instead contends it by questioning it through her character, Judith Shakespeare. She blends non-fiction and fictional elements to juxtapose the life experienced by William and Judith. Woolf imagines the experiences of William Shakespeare and all the opportunities he is given. His pursuit of art in London, small jobs, and meeting people that allow him the opportunity to continue learning, nothing impedes him. In contrast, Woolf, when depicting the life of Judith is the opposite. Judith was met with opposition from her family. She tries to express her talents but would be told to stop and just do her woman duties, cooking and marrying. Born a woman, she was not being afforded the same privilege as her brother William. Her passions and aspirations were being disregarded. Her talent leads her to run from home, journeying to London, to a theatre where she is unheeded. Eventually, she relies on a man that takes pity on her, becomes pregnant, and commits suicide; drastically different from the affairs of William. Woolf communicates to the reader that male chauvinistic views allow a genius of William’s caliber to grow but smothers the budding brilliance of Judith for being female.

There is an absence of women in history books and Woolf tries to answer why. Using Professor Trevelyan’s words, she identifies that, “neither Shakespeare’s women nor those of authentic seventeenth-century memoirs, like the Verneys and the Hutchinsons, seem wanting in personality and character” (Woolf para. 3). Which Woolf agrees with, but when compared to reality, describes the accomplishments of women as trivial, “For one often catches a glimpse of them in the lives of the great, whisking away into the background, concealing,” (Woolf para. 6). It should be noted that Woolf never outright states what her argument is, but articulates it implicitly for the reader to identify. Woolf employs a style of writing called the stream of consciousness, as described by Emily Cersonsky, “characterized by the representation of characters’ inner thoughts, a focus on everyday activities, and the pervasive instability or unreliability of narration” (Cersonsky para.1). This allows Woolf to effectively articulate her thoughts and feelings to paper, a free-form of writing. Showing how she constructs her ideas, while also serving as a way for readers to follow the thought process in her argument. Her argument, that gender bias deterred women from the same opportunities as men are valid and still persists today. According to Erica Alini, a journalist for Global News, the job search giant, Glassdoor, conducted a study where they found, “a four percent pay differential between men and women even when factors like education, years on the job, occupation and professional title are taken into account” (Alini para. 3). While significant progress has been made in movements towards gender equality such as feminism and the Me Too movement, there still exists an underlying bias against women in the workforce. This inequality that Virginia Woolf writes about is still pertinent. She poses a question to the reader; how are women expected to thrive in artistic or scholarly studies and have their work recorded in history when they are disregarded so strongly? Woolf relays her answer to the reader, that it would be impossible given the circumstances.

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Shakespeare’s Sister’ by Virginia Woolf: Book Summary. (2023, April 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 16, 2024, from
“Shakespeare’s Sister’ by Virginia Woolf: Book Summary.” Edubirdie, 21 Apr. 2023,
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