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Why couldn’t Shakespeare be a Woman?

If you want to punch me in the face for suggesting this, it’s probably not a great sign…

Fenella Grace
Jan 25 · 3 min read
Insert image of Shakespeare here
Insert image of Shakespeare here
Standard Shakespeare image

This evening, while I was trying to decide whether to meet some friends or get an early night, I found myself reading an article written just over six months ago in The Atlantic. In it, Elizabeth Winkler discusses the possibility that William Shakespeare might have been a woman.

Shakespeare, according to all known documents, was a land owner, actor and money lender. He was a petty man who got into disputes and once had a restraining order brought against him. He left school at thirteen years old and allowed his two daughters to grow up functionally illiterate. All of that can be found on record (ok, maybe not the petty part). Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not elitist enough to say that the Bard of Avon couldn’t have written brilliant plays with rich female characters and exotic settings there is no record of him ever seeing. It’s just that it’s slightly odd.

In her article, Winkler suggests that Shakespeare was a nom de plume for a gentlewoman whose gender and position in society made it impossible for her to write freely. It’s not a bad theory, and both women suggested in the article would have the requisite education for an author who regularly references texts only written in French and Italian at the time. There is a compelling case for Emilia Bassano in particular; at the very least you could probably argue that she’s the mysterious dark woman featured in the sonnets.

Although Winkler explicitly presents the theory as a hypothetical, in the responses received it doesn’t make a difference. (See them here and here)

The replies she got read like a head pat from an older colleague who thinks it’s cute that you’re trying to pitch in, but ultimately that you’re useless and don’t know what you’re talking about. Despite repeating the refrain that the lack of surviving evidence of Shakespeare the writer doesn’t mean somebody else wrote the plays, at no point do these responses cover the actual point made in the article. Instead, Winkler is called a fantasist. Her credibility as a Shakespearean scholar is called into question. She is equated to the people who believe that Barak Obama is secretly Kenyan, and in one memorable section, Hitler is name-dropped.

They act as if the idea of women needing to use a nom de plume is absurd, namedropping female playwright Elizabeth Cary as proof. Except one female playwright is not a pattern. Elizabeth Cary seems to have been fortunate in having her family’s support, and she married Henry Cary who was less phased by his wife’s playwriting than he was by her late stage conversion to Catholicism. Interestingly Cary’s one-time lover was none other than Emilia Bassano. Turns out Elizabethan London was a small world.

In their responses, the authors not only miss the point of the article, but misrepresent the limitations placed on women at the time. In their arguments in defence of the glove maker’s son from Stratford, they insist that any alternate theory of authorship is dangerous fantasy. They then go out of their way to patronise and belittle the woman who dared bring up the possibility. William Shakespeare, who wrote such brilliant, well rounded characters, deserves better defenders than that.

Shakespeare might have been a glove-maker from Stratford. He may not have been. We really don’t have any evidence one way or another, because he was born almost five hundred years ago. That the suggestion that he might have been a she the whole time has had this sort of knee-jerk reaction says it all.

Fenella Grace

Written by

Short story writer, occasional tangent indulger and British immigrant living in France

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