A Room of One's Own

by Virginia Woolf

Start Free Trial

How does the author’s discussion of Shakespeare’s sister in paragraph 6 contribute to the meaning of the text?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The essays in A Room of One's Own grew out of a request that Virginia Woolf received to lecture about "women and fiction." Throughout the book, she elaborates on different aspects of her interpretation of this topic, as she originally wondered if it meant the fiction that women have written or the fiction that has been written about them.

In chapter 3, Woolf turns to a specific period in English literary history, "the time of Elizabeth." She selected this period not only because William Shakespeare—widely considered England's greatest writer—lived and wrote then, but also because it was an era when so many talented writers were productive. Given that high quality and level of productivity, she finds it

a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature….

Focusing on this singular era allows her to contextualize the reasons that women have gained less renown and financial success than men. She accepts, but finds there is not as yet a satisfactory explanation for, a fact of modern life: "Women are poorer than men because—this or that…."

The question of relative poverty is essential to the topic of women and fiction, because the material and social conditions of production matter. This is the overall point of the book: women need private space and adequate income in order to write. To stress that these factors are also social conditions, which include nurturing, Woolf uses a simile: "Fiction is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground."

By outlining the life of a fictional sister to William Shakespeare, Woolf explicitly writes against the idea of innate genius. She stresses the gender differences of male and female children's upbringing as a crucial aspect of Elizabethan living conditions. Education and literacy are two important components. Equally important are personal safety and camaraderie, neither of which Judith would have found in London. Existing within a hostile environment would not merely discourage her from being productive but would propel her toward self-destruction.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The discussion of Shakespeare's sister is absolutely crucial to Woolf's general thesis in A Room of One's Own. Woolf wants to challenge traditional perceptions as to why there have been relatively few female artists of note by comparison with their male counterparts, and she uses this story to make her point.

In recounting the story of Shakespeare's fictitious sister Judith, she sets out, in great detail, the numerous obstacles that women have to surmount if they're to be taken seriously as artists. In the story, Judith is expected to obey her father and get married at the earliest opportunity. Once betrothed, she's then expected to submit to the will of her husband.

Yet even when she takes the radical step of leaving her husband to seek literary fame in London, Judith finds that the very idea of a female playwright isn't taken seriously. Discouraged at every turn and pregnant with an illegitimate child, she falls into despair and tragically commits suicide.

The message from the story is clear, and it is a prime illustration of Woolf's thesis. No matter how talented women are and no matter how much natural ability they may have for the arts, they remain at a distinct disadvantage due to the prejudices and preconceptions of society. Individual genius isn't enough for talented female artists to break through; there needs to be a wholesale change in society's attitudes toward women before they can receive the recognition they deserve.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Woolf invents a sister for Shakespeare to make a point about how women artists are often limited by society rather than by innate lack of talent, which is the central theme of the text. For years, it was believed that few great women artists existed because men were simply more brilliant or mentally superior to women. However, Woolf observes that sexist stereotypes against women make it hard for them to be taken seriously as artists in societies where they are expected only to live as homemakers and mothers—or worse, as sexual objects to be used and then disposed of by powerful men.

Judith Shakespeare becomes a symbol for thwarted greatness, abused by her father for not wanting to marry and impregnated by a theater manager who likely would have helped her had she been a talented man instead of a talented woman. Woolf argues that Shakespeare's works are great because he was given the educational and economic opportunities to develop his genius, while a woman in his shoes would never be given as much. In Woolf's view, women of great ability are not taken seriously and thus are forced to either abandon any artistic ambition or go mad from the alienation and ridicule of society in pursuing their dreams.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Woolf wrote A Room of One's Own to refute the idea still commonly held in the 1920s that women had not written as much great literature as men because women were innately mentally inferior. Woolf argues instead that it is social and economic opportunities, not genetic inferiority, that has held women back from becoming great writers.

She imagines, for example, that Shakespeare had a talented sister named Judith. Judith wants to go to London and write plays like her brother. But when she runs off to join the theater, she is not taken seriously and is seduced and impregnated by her manager Nick Greene. In other words, she is seen as a sex object by the man who could have helped her, not a gifted artist. While her brother is nurtured and encouraged as a writer, she is destroyed.

This imagined story helps illustrate the point that it was social stereotypes about women and lack of opportunity that held them back, not lack of ability. As Woolf writes of women in the sixteenth century (and no doubt herself, as she was a woman of genius who was denied opportunities her brothers had, feared ridicule, and suffered mental breakdowns):

any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team