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The Folger Spotlight

Collection Connections: 'The Weird Sisters' by Eleanor Brown

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, speakers provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, we revisit the presentation by Elizabeth DeBold, a postgraduate researcher the University of Newcastle, about Folger collection items related to the novel The Weird Sisters. Discussion questions for the novel can be found here.

We would like to thank the Capitol Hill Community Foundation and the Junior League of Washington for their generous support of this program.

Eleanor Brown’s debut novel, The Weird Sisters (2011), follows the three Andreas sisters as they grow into adulthood. After childhoods spent immersed in Shakespeare (their professor father’s specialty), Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia Andreas have left the small college town in Ohio where they grew up and gone their separate ways. Rosalind, the dutiful and highly-organized eldest daughter, hasn’t moved very far: with her PhD in mathematics, she’s followed in her father’s footsteps, teaching at a nearby university. Bianca, the second daughter, has gone further–she’s moved to New York City, her dream town, where she’s immersed in fashion, pricey evenings out, and string after string of handsome young men. Cordelia, the baby of the family, simply drifts: a true wild child, she lives day to day on the road, following bands and whatever might occur to her next. 

All of this seems to come crashing down when the girls’ mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, but this is in reality just an excuse for the sisters to reconverge back home. Each flees the problems of their young adult lives, coming home to support their parents. But the troubles they attempt to leave behind aren’t so easily dismissed, and follow them home to roost. Told in a unique triple voice, The Weird Sisters explores what it means to be a member of a family, a sister, and a rising adult at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Witty, heartfelt, and sincere, the Andreas sisters come to the reader wrapped in the familiar language of some of Shakespeare’s most enduring and popular plays. With each named for a Shakespearean heroine, four of these plays cast especially long shadows over this novel set in middle America: As You Like It (Rosalind), The Taming of the Shrew (Bianca), King Lear (Cordelia), and of course, Macbeth. Here are a few collection items from the Folger’s vast riches that resonated with me after reading The Weird Sisters; some directly related to Shakespeare’s plays, and others from his world. 

Native American artist Fritz Scholder’s One of Three is a perfect place to start. This gorgeous monotype depicts “one of three” of the Weird Sisters from Macbeth. Clad in a horned helmet and thick cloak, thick tusks sprouting up from her lower jaw, the witch gazes back at us out of the corner of one eye from under a carpet of stars. Monotypes are magical prints by themselves: they are made from layering ink or paint on a printing surface (usually glass or acrylic), then removing the elements of negative space, and finally pressed onto a piece of paper. The resulting single print is unique: although other copies can be made, they’re not quite the same. Like siblings, they’re related, but different.

[Click to view One of Three on the Folger’s Digital image platform]

Next is a print from the seventeenth century; a map of man’s life. Many will be familiar with Master Jaques’s speech from As You Like It, detailing the “seven ages of man.” Seventeenth-century printmaker and seller John Garrett decided to show eleven ages of man; a figure for each decade of a person’s life. Intriguingly, he pairs each decade with an animal, which is supposed to evoke the nature of that decade: a young baby is “lamb-like innocent,” while the young ten-year-old “goat-like skips.” At forty, “lion-like courage will prevail,” but by eighty, perhaps we are more like a housecat, preferring to sit by the fire instead of going outdoors (certainly in the winter). Below these depictions sit the three fates, the basis for Shakespeare’s witches: Atropos, Lachesis, and Clotho, spinning, weaving, and cutting the threads of man’s life. This print, typical of early modern England, seeks to remind the viewer that life is short! 

John Garrett, circa 1673-1718. Folger Shakespeare Library: ART Box A265 no.1.

Just like today, with shows like HBO’s Succession which draws on King Lear, people in the past liked to write their own versions of popular stories. Shakespeare himself re-worked stories that he knew to create his famous plays. In the eighteenth century, there were several versions of King Lear, such as this edition, produced for children. The title page advertises it as “adorned with cuts,” or printed images made from metal plates incised or “cut” with the image, such as the one at the front. It shows Lear and his three daughters, Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia, standing around a map of his kingdom, which he means to divide among them.

Frontispiece from the History of King Lear. The History of King Lear…by William Shakespeare, 1794. Folger Shakespeare Library: PR3291 H64

There have been many talented people who portrayed Shakespeare’s characters on stage and screen. Here are three actresses from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in costume: Julia Marlowe dressed as Rosalind from As You Like It, Virginia Dreher as Bianca from Taming of the Shrew, and Ellen Terry as Cordelia from King Lear.

Julia Marlowe as Rosalind, unknown date, Folger Shakespeare Library: ART File M349.5 no.91 part 9 PHOTO (size M)
Virginia Dreher as Bianca, late 19th century, Folger Shakespeare Library: ART File D771 no.2 PHOTO (size XS
Ellen Terry as Cordelia. 1892. Folger Shakespeare Library: ART File T329 no.26 PHOTO (size XS).

One of the main threads of Brown’s novel concerns Bianca, who gets herself in a lot of trouble with her penchant for beautiful couture clothing. In the sixteenth century, an interest in fashion was often mocked by critics as “vanitas,” a sinful attachment to worldly appearance that exposed a moral failing. This engraving, made during the Wars of Religion by Dutch Protestants, was aimed at criticizing French Catholics for just this vice. Here we see two vain figures who are more concerned with their clothing and ornamentation than with what the authors of the print thought they should be concerned with; their mortal souls. The artist subtly includes two demons and a skull wearing a ruff, a popular fashion accessory at the time, to make sure the point gets across to viewers. 

Vanitas, circa 1570, Folger Shakespeare LIbrary: ART 269830 (size S)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bianca’s problems with high-end clothing result in a lot of debt. Debt was a major problem for many people in the early modern world. With crises such as the crash of the South Sea company in 1720 and speculation in luxury goods such as tulips, many people ended up in debtors’ prisons, from which they never emerged. But even without large scale financial crises, most people lived on credit, and struggled to find a way to pay back what they owed when their debtors came calling. This scrap of manuscript, written on 1 August 1685, was made by the playwright Aphra Behn. In it, she promises to pay back £6, worth around £1000 in today’s currency, to a moneylender named Zachary Baggs. She pledges the proceeds from her next play towards the payment of her debt.

Aphra Behn, manuscript promissory note, circa 1 August 1685. Folger Shakespeare Library: C.c.1 (4)

While middle sister Bianca struggles with debt, the youngest Andreas sister, Cordelia, becomes unexpectedly pregnant. In the early modern world, becoming pregnant out of wedlock was considered a terrible disaster: both morally, and because it was far from certain that the woman in question could obtain the financial and social support of the child’s father. This print, made in 1628, provides a stark warning about the dangers of extramarital affairs: it shows a woman who attempts to get a young man to take responsibility for his “bastard child,” but because he has been irresponsible and wasted away all his money on gaming, leisure, and drinking, he has no resources to provide.

[English customs. 12 engravings of English couples with verses]. 1628. Folger Shakespeare Library: STC 10408.6

People have always delighted in quoting Shakespeare, often out of context, as the Andreas sisters do. Shakespeare has become so well-known and widely read, whether due to legitimate popularity or through colonialist violence such as residential schools where he replaced indigenous knowledge sources, that scraps of his plays pop up in all sorts of places. These two objects show quotes recorded out of context, nearly five hundred years apart: an adapted quote from Pericles, Prince of Tyre on a blank endleaf of an unrelated play around 1599, and the beginning of Portia’s famous speech from Merchant of Venice on a calendar in 1928.

Leaf H2v, A pleasant comedy entituled: An humerous dayes myrth. 1599. Folger Shakespeare Library: STC 4987 copy 1
The Bible-Shakespeare calendar, 1916 / compiled by Edgar C. Abbott. Folger Shakespeare Library: Sh. Misc. 2102.

Because of Bianca Andreas’s love of fashion, I encourage you to explore these stunning costume designs from a 1948 Italian production of As You Like It, called Come vi Piace. The sets and costumes were designed by surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, and the production was directed by Luchino Visconti, with assistance from another famous Shakespearean director, Franco Zefferelli. Luchino’s vision was firmly anchored to an opulent, eighteenth-century fantasy world, which really comes through in Dalí’s incredibly lush and strange designs.

[Click here to view the costume designs on the Folger’s digital image platform]

Finally, we can’t talk about young women who love Shakespeare without referring you to an amazing manuscript notebook, kept by a teenager in communist Romania in the 1950s. Adriana Luisa Wasserman kept this notebook, dedicated to world literature, from 1951-1953. In it she recorded her synopses and analyses of a variety of literary works, including several Shakespeare plays, and included beautiful drawings alongside. I can well imagine the Andreas sisters keeping a similar notebook, sketching out the Forest of Arden, medieval Padua, or historic Britain as they sat outside their home on a sunny day in Ohio.

[Click here to view the manuscript on the Folger’s digital image platform]

Perhaps this is what makes Eleanor Brown’s writing so magnetic and relatable: so many of us grew up with Shakespeare as children, like the Andreas sisters and Adriana Wasserman, and his words continue to ripple out and echo back throughout our lives, no matter how old we get. 

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