“We know what we are but know not what we may be.”
Ophelia says this in Act 4 Scene 5 of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which is arguably the most recognized Shakespeare play in all of literary history (with perhaps “Romeo and Juliet” for competition). She says this in the midst of her bout of madness, singing unsettling, made-up hymns and discomforting the Danish court with her disregard for gendered manners — i.e. she is being loud, messy, blunt, frightening. And yet, for all the gender politics we could read into this speech, Ophelia is and always has been man’s creation, and she, along with her sisters, made that man famous.
In her 1929 oral speech-turned-extended essay “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf asks us to consider the character of Judith Shakespeare, the Bard’s lesser-known but just as linguistically gifted sister. Unlike her brother’s mythologized origin story, that rags-to-riches narrative of the son of a glove-maker remaking the English language, Judith’s tale is neither heartwarming nor inspirational, but rather bleak, disturbing and all-too-common for a common woman.
Unlike her brother, who “got work in the theater, became a successful actor, and lived at the hub of the universe,” Judith was bound by the ropes of her gender; “She was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil.” Unlike her brother, her departure for the wider world was done in secret and in shame, her disobedience weighing down her skirts like a new petticoat. Unlike her brother, she existed in obscurity.
And yet, like her brother, Judith was “adventurous [and] imaginative [and] agog to see the world.” Like her brother, “She had the quickest fancy [and] a taste for the theater.” Like her brother, “her genius was for fiction and lusted to feed abundantly upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways.”
But instead Judith was “with child” by the actor-manager at the very same stage her brother had approached, raped by the very man with whom she had pled for entry into that far-off artistic realm, and so she decided she would rather die than be defined by men’s ministrations. Judith “killed herself one winter’s night” — no midsummer night dreams for Judith Shakespeare — “and lies buried at some crossroads where the omnibuses now stop.”
Woolf’s fictional Judith Shakespeare is a composite, of course; she is the Everywoman, the placeholder, the martyr onto whom we as women can collectively project our pain and express our anguish. Judith Shakespeare embodies the womanly problem of duty vs. desire, a dichotomy that, while it exists for men as well as women, comes with the consequences of death or social ostracization or anger-riddled loneliness.
Duty is externally motivated; desire is internally motivated. Duty is the actionable manifestation of the word should: Whom should Judith marry? What should she do to secure her family’s social standing? How should she manage the household? Duty, insofar as Woolf discusses it, is the imperative to do what is demanded of one, rather than what one wants, and Judith — brilliant, luminary Judith — suffers the ultimate punishment for her dereliction of duty. Judith Shakespeare neglected the duty that was foisted upon her in favor of her desire to pursue her passion; “duty,” then, for the woman is merely the reinforcement of the patriarchal status quo, the reflection of men’s greatness in the mirrors that are our bodies.
Woolf makes clear that, “It would have been impossible … for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare.” What other endings can be imagined for Judith’s cautionary tale? Rather realistically, I think, Woolf claims that, “Any woman born with a great gift in the 16th 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”; we are thus sliced from the great societal narrative, chucked into the trash as oddballs or blasphemers, left to our loneliness and our internal monologues should we refuse to bend to duty for duty’s sake.
In a later essay, entitled “Professions for Women,” Woolf describes the oppressive archetype of the Angel of the House, a kind of manifest spirit of female agreeableness, chastity, accommodation and purity, the idealized Victorian woman made literal. My vision of the Angel is a kind of perverted fairy figure, an elongated, emaciated skeleton of a woman with tattered wings and pitiless eyes, a creature intent on consuming the women she haunts. In order to exist as an independent entity, every woman — the Everywoman — must murder her personal Angel, must strangle the life from her with our own bare hands in order to come into our own, performing a battle of symbolic doubles the likes of which the Greeks would have wept at. The lesson of the Angel’s death — that hard-won wisdom — is that we do not exist as subordinates to others’ desires; there’s a difference between altruism and servitude, between kindness and confinement.
Thus are our two extremes: the witch or the angel, the hag or the housewife, the radical or the subordinate. In a 2018 piece for The Guardian titled “From Circe to Clinton: Why Powerful Women as Cast as Witches,” author Madeline Miller chronicles the use of “witch” as a tool of patriarchal repression, wryly noting, “The persecution of witches … had nothing to do with fighting evil or resisting the devil. It was simply entrenched social misogyny, the goal of which was to repress the intellect of women.” Men are “warlock, magus, sorcerer, wizard,” but women are Medea, Circe, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Anne Boleyn, Lady Macbeth, Lady Galadriel. Less literally, Woolf muses to herself, “When… one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs … then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet … some Emily Brontë who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to.”
Is the Witch the intermediary stage, the middle step from our status as subordinate daughters to self-righteous radicals, the rebellious teenager to the Angel’s soft, moldable infant, crawling upon the floor? Is Ophelia the transitional point on the spectrum, a waif turned madwoman? The Witch is a transformative archetype, after all, a woman who seizes power when she should — and there is that social imperative again, that should — not and, in doing so, causes the very bedrock of society, the solidity of the status quo, to quake. And yet there remains no male equivalent to that violent, disturbing sorceress, no unnatural, earth-shaking archetype for deviant men. At what point will we, as a gender, manage to transcend ourselves? Is our final form, then, a genderless hag who has shed femininity together? Do we want it to be?
We know, in short, what we are and what we have been, but not what we may yet be.
Supposedly, women as a whole are beyond the shackles of stereotypes of the Elizabethan and Victorian Ages in this year of our Lord 2019, and yet we are stuck with the uncomfortable truth that our experience is still marked by virtue of our sex; we, as women, are not the default. The woman, Woolf sighs, remains “at war with her lot,” even a full 120 years after “A Room of One’s Own” was published. Perhaps more so than a history or a revolution, the narrative of the feminist movement strikes me most as a coming-of-age story, the painstaking process of Woman coming into herself over time. We are allowed our hopelessness, our anger, our envy of men, our impatience and our imperfection, just as we are allowed our brilliance and our innovation and our persistence. We will get there, and we are lucky to have the women before us — named and unnamed, witches and housewives alike — who have allowed us to explore ourselves.
Judith Shakespeare is our Maiden, Betty Friedan our Mother, Ruth Bader Ginsburg our Crone. Human beings understand ourselves through stories, and these stories — those of Judith Shakespeare, of Ophelia, of Jane Austen, of Mary Shelley, of Sylvia Plath, of Simone de Beauvoir, of Virginia Woolf — are the basis on which we build our own identities. It is our duty to each other, as women, to revisit, rewrite and retell those stories; Judith Shakespeare, Woolf says, feelingly, at the end of “A Room of One’s Own,” “lives in you and me … [she] need[s] only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.” Be bright and bold enough that you, too, will turn into story, as mythologized as the one Shakespeare society does remember; for as Virginia Woolf says, “Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?”
Contact Claire Francis at claire97 ‘at’ stanford.edu.