“This is not a true story,” playwright Emma Whipday wrote in the program notes. “The Judith Shakespeare you’re about to see did not exist. Shakespeare did have a sister, called Joan; she married a hatter, and lived out her life in Stratford-upon-Avon. To our knowledge, she never wrote a play. Shakespeare’s Sister imagines what might have happened if she had.”
Last Friday night, Keith and I attended the performance of Shakespeare’s Sister at the Blackfriars Playhouse. I’d read the program notes and knew the show was not a work of creative nonfiction, researched-based with the author imagining what it was like to live during that time. I also knew it was not historical fiction like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the well-researched and creatively imagined stories of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, and Anne Boleyn.
Instead, Shakespeare’s Sister was similar to Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, presented on the Blackfriar’s stage last year. Bloody writer/director Alex Timbers made no pretense about his motives. As noted in a recent New Yorker article: “Timbers specializes in offbeat revisionist fantasies about historical figures.” Watching Timbers’ play, I learned a great deal about his politics but nothing about Andrew Jackson.
Fantasy. Fair enough.
Ms. Whipday is a research fellow at University College London. According to her online biography, she’s interested in “family, gender, and power on the early modern stage, and in early modern popular culture more broadly. Her current project explores the cultural importance of the brother-sister relationship, and how it intersects with issues of patriarchal power, female agency, domestic authority, and the place of the unmarried woman in early modern society…”
Except that the Judith Shakespeare was not William Shakespeare’s sister. She was his daughter. Judith Shakespeare was also a fictional invention of Virginia Woolf in her essay “A Room of One’s Own.” In Woolf’s plot, William’s twin sister Judith is denied an education though she is gifted. She writes in secret, runs away from a forced marriage, and joins a theater company, only to be rejected because of her gender. An affair with the theater-owner leads to her pregnancy and suicide.
Whipday’s Judith wants to be a playwright, rejects a marriage proposal from a seemingly good man who would help her financially desperate family, and runs off with an actor, a well-known rogue. In plague-ridden London, she discovers the rogue is engaged to the theater-owner’s daughter. Her play is rejected both because of her gender and its treasonous subject: the Old Testament story of Esther, the Jewish woman who replaces a standing queen.
Somehow, Judith convinces her rival in love and the women in the theater’s brothel to stage her unlicensed play. The stakes are high for this illegal activity, but Judith gives little thought to the danger to her or others. When a spy betrays them, punishment is swift and brutal. “Judith must choose between succumbing to social pressures, and following her dream, no matter what the cost,” Whipday concludes in the program notes.
In other words, Judith dismisses basic physical and safety needs in order to self-actualize—perhaps easy for a woman living with 21st century comforts but not a viable option for anyone living during Shakespeare’s time.
In his 2007 biography Shakespeare: The World as Stage, nonfiction writer Bill Bryson documents the ravages of the plague and other dreadful diseases, crop failures, and infant mortality rates in 16th century England. “In a sense, William Shakespeare’s greatest achievement in life wasn’t writing Hamlet or the sonnets but just surviving his first year,” Bryson wrote. (24) Even Queen Elizabeth contracted smallpox and almost died. And she was often the target for assassins.
This was an age of religious persecution due to the less-than-smooth transition from Catholicism to Protestantism. Life in England was heavily regulated, and though pictures are scarce, legal documents abound. Yet the vast majority of people were illiterate—an estimated 70 percent of men and 90 percent of women. (33)
Typical of the performances at Blackfrairs, fabulous acting pulled the audience into the story. But the play was not about an imagined Joan or Judith Shakespeare, William’s sister or daughter set in 16th and 17th century England. It was the playwright’s 21st century, first-world fantasy.