(Washington, DC) Shakespeare’s heroine Rosalind criticizes the verses penned by her lover Orlando: “some of them had in them more feet than the verses would bear.” No doubt she would write better ones, but Shakespeare doesn’t give her a chance. Did he know any women writers? Had he read any women’s verses circulating in collections among his acquaintance? We may never know, but we do know that many women of the time, from aristocrats to courtesans, wrote on a range of topics from the spiritual to the sensual.
Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers , 1500-1700 showcases the emerging diversity of early women authors and suggests how this rich legacy has shaped subsequent writing and scholarship.
“For generations, the emphasis was on the canon of male writers’ works, which was of course established by men. Many works by early female authors have only been uncovered in the last 50 years by scholars interested in women’s writing. The first wave of feminist scholarship rooted in the archives to search for works by women writers. Now there is biographical and critical research on specific women writers and an ongoing attempt to include them in the canon,” says exhibition curator Georgianna Ziegler.
The exhibition title, Shakespeare’s Sisters, is inspired in part by an influential essay by Virginia Woolf. In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Woolf imagined a sister for Shakespeare called Judith, who wanted to be a playwright like her brother, but was unable to pursue a career as a professional writer because of her gender.
In the near century since A Room of One’s Own was published, scholarship has uncovered previously unknown works by women—female authors who were “Shakespeare’s sisters” in literary enterprise.
“Women writers Shakespeare might have known is one of those questions, like many questions, we wish we could ask Shakespeare if he were around,” says Ziegler. “There is some thinking that Shakespeare might have known The Tragedy of Mariam by Elizabeth Cary. It has an Othello-like plot, but it was not written to be performed on a stage, so it is hard to say whether he might have been familiar with it.”
Many works were not published during the authors’ lifetimes, or survive in only a few copies. To rediscover these works, researchers delved into libraries, archives, or other repositories and simply “dug around,” as Ziegler describes it.
Knowledge of these women and their works is now more readily available than ever before, and the exhibition showcases the works of over fifty women writers and literary patrons from England, France, and Italy.
Shakespeare’s Sisters features early printed and manuscript works by Shakespeare’s female contemporaries, as well as portraits and other artwork. The exhibition includes seventy-five items from the Folger collection, as well as materials from the Houghton Library at Harvard, the Beinecke Library at Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, the Library of Congress, and a private collection.
- First edition. An original printing of Virginia Woolf’s classic text, A Room of One’s Own, first published in 1929.
- Private musings. Lady Anne Clifford was a voracious reader and diarist. On display is her own annotated copy of John Selden’s 1631 Titles of Honor and a 1923 printed edition of her diary edited by her descendent, Vita Sackville-West.
- Mixed metaphors. Marguerite of Navarre, queen consort to the king of France, wrote on widely varying topics, from devout religious poetry to short stories on love and relationships. Her intense—and controversial—allegorical poem Miroir de l'âme pécheresse (Mirror of the Sinful Soul) as well as her story collection The Heptameron are both featured in the exhibition.
- Love poems. Italian courtesan Veronica Franco, whose life inspired the film Dangerous Beauty, earned acclaim for her passionate poetry.
- Royal religion. Queen Catharine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife, wrote several books, including Prayers Stirring the Mind.
- Women playwrights. Plays by Aphra Behn, Susanna Centlivre and others who were the first Englishwomen to follow Shakespeare in writing professionally for the theater.
Shakespeare’s Sisters brings the works of early women writers—often neglected, ignored, or overlooked for centuries—to a wider audience and showcases the rich literary legacy of Shakespeare’s female contemporaries. Through these rediscovered works, the voices of Renaissance women are heard by modern audiences.
About the Curator
Georgianna Ziegler is Louis B. Thalheimer Head of Reference. She has been interested in early modern women for many years, writing a Ph.D. thesis on Queen Guinevere in medieval romance, and designing Davidson College’s first course on women writers when she was a member of the English faculty. She has published on Elizabeth I, Elizabeth of Bohemia, Esther Inglis, and on female characters from Shakespeare, including Portia, Catharine of Aragon, and Lady Macbeth. At the Folger she has curated exhibitions on Shakespeare’s Unruly Women and Elizabeth I: Then and Now.