A Room of One's Own

by Virginia Woolf

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According to Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own, why couldn't a woman have written Shakespeare's plays?

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Virginia Woolf convincingly demonstrates that it was impossible—not merely that it would have been impossible—for any woman to write plays like those that William Shakespeare wrote. As she insightfully but humorously presents the numerous obstacles that kept women from writing, Woolf encourages the reader to re-think not only the concept of “genius”—which is so often applied to Shakespeare—but also of the numerous different occupations that the young man had; these included actor and manager as well as writer.

Woolf elaborates the social circumstances in which even upper-class girls lived in sixteenth-century England. She explains that they were expected to stay at home and learn arts and skills appropriate to females and were discouraged from reading (except possibly the Bible) and writing. She points to the double standard that allowed William to marry and leave his wife and children in Stratford while he journeyed to London and became an actor. Although a woman was likely to marry and have children, she was expected to stay with them. Women were not actors; instead, men played the female parts, so theatrical troupes had no places available for women. Even if a young woman had left her hometown and gone to London expecting to find a theatrical career, there was no position waiting for her. As Woolf notes, the likely scenario was that such a woman would become a man’s lover or mistress and become pregnant. While her imaginary Judith Shakespeare takes her own life, there were many real women who continued to live in disgrace and poverty.

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In this section of her brilliant essay, Woolf shows why it would have been impossible for a woman to write Shakespeare's works by imagining that Shakespeare had a very talented sister called Judith. By creating this imaginary sister and comparing the kind of life and opportunities that both she and William would have had, Woolf presents a compelling case at how women were and are impoverished by society. Note some of her arguments:

But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother's perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers.

Although she would have "scribbled" occasionally, she had to hide her writings in case her parents burned them. Then she is forced or blackmailed emotionally into marrying someone who is not her intellectual equal. Even when she flees this situation to pursue her dream of acting, she is not given any opportunity to do so, and is seduced and, finding herself pregnant, kills herself and dies frustrated and unsatisfied. Throughout this section of the essay, the emphasis is on the lack of opportunities that women have compared to men in every sense of the word.

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How does Woolf argue against the assumption that "no woman can write the plays of Shakespeare" in A Room of One's Own?

In A Room of One's Own, Virgina Woolf agrees with a bishop who says that no woman could ever have written Shakespeare's plays but disagrees on the reason why. The bishop thinks no women could have written Shakespeare because they don't have the genius to do so. Woolf thinks no woman could have written Shakespeare because they would have been barred from doing so.

Though she says there is little known about women in Elizabethan times, she can imagine that their role was based entirely on being a housewife. Any achievements would be measured against the man that they married and the number of servants they had working for them. There was, as far as she knows, no women at that time writing poetry or plays.

To illustrate her point, she imagines that Shakespeare had a sister called Judith. Judith was every bit as gifted as her brother William, but while her brother was seeking his fame and fortune in the theaters of London, Judith was at home mending socks. She read her brother's books, but when she was caught she was told to stop wasting her time.

Eventually, after being forced into marriage, she escaped to London to find her own way as a writer and an actor. Everywhere she went she was laughed out of the door. There was no way in anyone's mind that a woman could ever be anything more than a housewife or servant. Unable to fulfill her desire to become a writer, she killed herself and was buried under Elephant and Castle:

That, more or less, is how the story would run, I think, if a woman in Shakespeare’s day had had Shakespeare’s genius.

It is, she continues, impossible to have a genius if you don't access to education:

For genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people. It was not born in England among the Saxons and the Britons. It is not born to-day among the working classes. How, then, could it have been born among women whose work began, according to Professor Trevelyan, almost before they were out of the nursery, who were forced to it by their parents and held to it by all the power of law and custom?

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