From time to time I’ve stated my opposition to the idea that Shakespeare could have been a standin for a woman. In response to a request from a reader (Howard Schumann), I’ll go into a little more detail.
One can’t argue that “Shakespeare is such an obviously masculine voice,” because many women have written believably as men. The best evidence for this is Mary Shelley, who once beat two very masculine writers in a three-way contest to tell the best horror story––her husband Percy and their friend Lord Byron––when she created the still popular Dr. Frankenstein and his monster in 1816. So it’s not because a woman can’t write believably in a male voice or create believable male characters. They can, and do, every day.
Shakespeare has given us interesting women, but they are all seen from a male point of view. It’s a thoughtful view, but it is still an outsider’s view. Had Shakespeare been a female, she would have revealed more deeply the inner workings of a woman’s mind. Her women would have been as witty as her men, and been given as memorable speeches, One would think that in her 38 plays she would have featured at least one major female protagonist or told at least one woman’s story. Apart from giving them good lines, true of most of his characters, Shakespeare did none of these.
Good lines and understandable motivations are true of most of his leading female characters, but even plays that derive all or most of their thrust from a woman’s predicament, plays like As You Like It, Taming of the Shrew, All’s Well, or Measure for Measure, show little more than one side of their characters, however attractive (or repellent) that side. And some behave in most unnatural ways, like Lady Anne who allows herself to be won over by her husband’s murderer, Richard III, in a matter of minutes, or Kate, whose anti-feminist speech at the end of Shrew continues to make problems for modern directors. In contrast to the finely tuned portrait of Hamlet, a masterpiece of character development, Ophelia got short shrift from her creator. Possibly the result of several revisions, or even posthumous editing (though some tempting hints remain in her mad speech), Ophelia is an almost impossible role for the young, still inexperienced actress who’s required to give it a coherence that’s not in the text, something that would not be true had she been created by a woman who had teenage griefs of her own to draw on.
The question of story goes a little deeper. There have always been stories that speak most clearly to one or the other sex. We see this in fairy tales, Jack and the Beanstalk for boys, Cinderella for girls, and in folk tales like the Iron John stories for men, as noted by poet Robert Bly, and for women, stories like Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady or the Thousand and One Nights of Sheherazade. Had Shakespeare been a woman, one would think that at least one play would be told from a woman’s point of view as Chaucer did with his “Tale of the Wife of Bath” and Christopher Morley did with Kitty Foyle.
But although the Bard created a few strong, multi-dimensional female characters like Juliet, Kate, Rosalind, Beatrice and Cleopatra, all but Rosalind are paired with an even stronger male character, and like most female characters created by men, in terms of the story being told, most are largely adjuncts to their lovers’ stories. The exceptions, Rosalind, Imogen (from Cymbeline), Julia (from Two Gents), Helena (from All’s Well), and Viola (from Twelfth Night), are basically all variations of the same persona, and while it is how they deal with their predicament that drives the action in either the main or the subplot, they do most of it pretending to be men.
All of Shakespeare’s plays are in fact gender specific, the gender being that of a 16th-century male aristocrat. Ah, you say, although 16th-century London was a male-dominated society, since women can write like men, a talented woman could have faked a male voice. But Shakespeare’s first audience was the Elizabethan Court audience , which was dominated by women; the Queen of course, plus her corps of female attendants, set the tone for all the entertaining done at Court. In fact, most, perhaps all, of Shakespeare’s comedies were written originally for this audience, which helps to explain why so many of them have girls or women as important characters. The tragedies were written for the masculine West End audience known as “the gentlemen” of the Inns of Court.
Shakespeare’s male bias is quite evident in his two long narrative poems. Though both are focussed on a woman’s predicament, both are clearly written from a male viewpoint. Unless our female Shakespeare was a lesbian it’s hard to see a woman describing the goddess Venus in so enticing a state of sexual arousal. It’s also hard to see a female writer suggesting that, following her rape by Tarquin, Lucrece’s only decent option was suicide. Even today, when roughly one out of five, four, possibly even three women suffer rape at least once during their lives, if all since Shakespeare had taken the course suggested by his “graver” effort, the human race would have vanished long since.
The Jacobean playwrights
Ignoring the skewed dating of the plays preferred by academics and listening only to his voice, it’s clear that Shakespeare was an Elizabethan first, last, and always. Nor was the revising that he did for his Jacobean audiences after 1603 a great deal different in tone from the nature of his earlier work. By 1603, the (53-year-old) leopard did not, could not, change his spots. But, Shakespeare––and Ben Jonson––aside, the rest of the Jacobean stage was much different from what it had been in Elizabeth’s time, and interestingly one of the ways that it differed most obviously was in this very area, for a number of Jacobean plays look at life from a woman’s point of view.
The subject deserves the kind of detailed treatment that I can’t give at this point, not having given it sufficient study. Suffice it to say that the trend is most obvious in John Webster’s two masterpieces, The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1614), both so obviously written by a woman that when I first read them back in 2002 I was astonished that no one, so far as I could see, had ever noticed it before. Having been inundated with male literary notions of women for most of my life, the realization that this, whatever the name on the title page, was the work of another woman hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. That that woman had to be Mary Sidney became evident as soon as I began comparing the plots and characters of the two plays to incidents and situations in her own life.
The style of these plays, and other works attributed to Webster, are so idiosyncratically Mary Sidney’s that there’s simply no possibility that she could also have written Shakespeare. No one in his or her right mind could suggest that the same person wrote both canons. I do hear the Webster style in a play attributed to John Fletcher, The Woman’s Prize, one that, as George Swan shows, was written as a satire on Oxford. I also think it’s likely that Mary did some editing of Shakespeare’s plays before her sons got them published, but like most accomplished writers she would have been a sensitive editor and so refrained from tampering with what, by then, the rascally author being long departed, she must have realized were masterpieces of English literature.
Throughout 2003 I devoted all lectures and articles to showing why these works had to be, not only by a woman, but specifically by Mary. Coming to know her as I have, I feel certain that she would be furious to think that she was being “accused” of writing the works of Shakespeare, and not the ones she actually did write. Her credentials as a writer have probably been well-covered by those who promote her as a candidate for Shakespeare, but even with only the few things that she published under her own name to go by, it should be obvious that her very unique style is so unlike his that such an identification is, or should be, moot at the outset.
Where Shakespeare is copious in his poetry, she’s spare, reflecting the puritannical nature of her upbringing. In fact her verse can be so condensed that it’s hard to grasp her meaning. Shakespeare’s style in his plays is a magnficent blend of the styles admired by his tutor with, probably, street talk from his early years. Mary (Webster) on the other hand, speaks in a kind of London slang that must reflect the kind of talk she heard around her, both at Court and in the streets surrounding her London establishments, a style that had changed considerably, as styles tend to do, since Oxford began writing. It’s almost as though she purposely set out to write in as opposite a style to his as she could, a motivation that could have sprung from the long-standing literary antagonism between her brother and the Earl of Oxford.
Mary Sidney played a hugely important role in the creation and development of the Elizabethan/Jacobean Stage, one I’ll go into detail about in a separate essay, but it was not to write the plays of Shakespeare. Much like Francis Bacon, her friend and near contemporary (he was her elder by only nine months), she played a dangerous game, contributing for 30 years to the underground English Literary Renaissance, using her prestige to remain well under the radar of official repression. Her sons carried on the work she began in the 1590s, culminating in the publication of her own work as John Webster (possibly her coachmaker’s son) and of Oxford’s work under the name Shakespeare. The two families, though at odds under Elizabeth, came together in 1604 with the wedding of her son Philip Herbert, EArl of Montgomery, to Oxford’s daughter Susan Vere.
Mary was probably not the only woman writing plays during the Jacobean period. The Yorkshire Tragedy, c.1608, is in a woman’s voice, though not in Mary’s style. In 1611, Emilia Bassano Lanyer, the Dark Lady of Shake-speare’s Sonnets, published the first book length poem in English by a woman, its introduction giving her the added distinction of the first Englishwoman to publish a feminist tract. Elizabeth Carey, another member of the Court community, is known for the first play written by a woman (published under her own name) in 1613. In 1621, Mary’s niece, Mary Wroth, published the first English novel by a woman. These may be only the tip of the iceberg.
Much needs to be done to sort out who wrote what during this period (1612-1640) not only by women but by male courtiers as well. Protected by the theater-loving Queen Anne, the great patron of the period, Lady Lucy Bedford, and by Mary’s oldest son, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, after 1615 when he took over as Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, female courtiers had opportunities to write and publish that they did not have under Elizabeth nor would in later times, though almost always, of course, under a masculine name. Who were they? Hopefully time will tell.