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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Shakespeare and the Bloomsbury Group

with Marjorie Garber

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 221

We talk with Harvard Professor Marjorie Garber about how modernist writers of London’s Bloomsbury Group made Shakespeare their own. Garber’s most recent book—her twentieth—is Shakespeare in Bloomsbury. In it, she traces the influence of Shakespeare on the members of the Bloomsbury Group, that circle of early 20th-century intellectuals included novelists Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster, painter Vanessa Bell, director Dadie Rylands, critic and biographer Lytton Strachey, economist John Maynard Keynes, and others. She tells Barbara Bogaev about the threads of Shakespeare that run through Woolf’s novels, how Lytton Strachey changed our perspective on Shakespeare’s late plays, and what got her interested in the Bloomsbury Group in the first place.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Marjorie Garber is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English and Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University. Shakespeare in Bloomsbury is available from Yale University Press. Garber is the inaugural Scholar in Residence of Washington, DC’s Shakespeare Everywhere Festival, happening across the city this fall. Join Garber in-person for five free public lectures through November 16.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published October 24, 2023. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from The Sound Company in London and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

Previous: Patrick Stewart on a Life Shaped by Shakespeare



MICHAEL WITMORE: On today’s episode, how the modernist writers of London’s Bloomsbury Group made Shakespeare their own.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger Director.

Marjorie Garber is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English and Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University. Although she’s well known as a Renaissance scholar, Garber’s interests have varied widely—from sexuality studies and representations of gender to dogs and real estate.

Garber’s most recent book—her twentieth—is called Shakespeare in Bloomsbury. In it, she traces the influence of Shakespeare on the members of the Bloomsbury Group, that circle of early 20th-century intellectuals included novelists like Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster, critic and biographer Lytton Strachey, economist John Maynard Keynes, as well as other artists and critics. As Garber illustrates, the group shared an abiding fascination with Shakespeare.

In particular, Virginia Woolf considered Shakespeare a kind of rival and inspiration for her own literary output. Woolf threaded quotations and references to Shakespeare throughout novels such as Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. Garber’s insightful reading of Woolf’s diaries and essays reveal a writer deeply interested in the model Shakespeare set as a fellow artist and literary mind.

Woolf’s fellow Bloomsbury writers and artists were also deeply influenced by Shakespeare. So much so that Garber claims him as an “unacknowledged member” of the Bloomsbury Group.

Here’s Marjorie Garber, in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: You have a subheading to the introduction of your book. It’s a Virginia Woolf quote, “How Shakespeare Would Have Loved Us,” which is great. It sounds so much like Virginia Woolf, but it’s maybe not a foregone conclusion. Why might Shakespeare have loved the Bloomsbury Group?

MARJORIE GARBER: Well, she’s talking about a particular party that was happening at her sister Vanessa’s house next door. They acted parts, they drank, they sang songs, they told jokes. And I think that for Woolf, this festivity was a Shakespearean quality.

She often thought of Shakespeare when she was in social occasions or even walking by herself down the street. Shakespeare was very much on her mind as a companion and as—sometimes as a rival, but always as a kind of model, and someone whom she traveled with all the time.

BOGAEV: That really puts us there in the midst of them. And they really were kind of immersed in Shakespeare. Why did you initially want to explore that connection between Shakespeare and these writers? What were you hoping to uncover?

GARBER: Well, there are two stories that connect here. One is that I’ve always loved the Bloomsbury Group. I read The Waves as a teenager and adored it. They have always been writers that I have enjoyed and gone back to.

I normally have taught large Shakespeare courses at Harvard, but at one point I decided that I would also like to teach the Bloomsbury Group. And I put together a course and started talking to my students about it. And everything that I picked up to read also had bits of Shakespeare in it.

This was not a course, and never became a course on Shakespeare and the Bloomsbury Group. But I kept a little private file of allusions and references and jokes and so forth that they would have with each other and with themselves about Shakespeare.

I put this aside and I said to myself, “Some time I’m going to write about it.” And now I have.

BOGAEV: And good for us. You already knew then that these allusions and jokes and this kind of private language that they have. What surprised you, though, once you started digging deeper?

GARBER: What surprised me was how widespread it was. That it wasn’t— they’re all writers, even if it’s Keynes or if it’s Roger Fry or if it’s Leonard Woolf, who are economists, or editors, or art historians and art critics. They’re all writers and they’re interested in style.

But no matter what they’re writing about, Shakespeare comes in. And Shakespeare comes in in a very knowledgeable way, that is not showing off and is not pulling him in. He’s just on their mind. He offers language for how they think.

He is, for them, the pinnacle of a certain kind of intellectual achievement, and with the thinking and writing that all of these people do, no matter what their professions are, Shakespeare is very frequently in their minds.

BOGAEV: Yeah, it’s interesting how intimate the relationship is with Shakespeare, and, obviously, with all of them, as friends. They use Shakespeare quotes and allusions like a kind of slang. It’s as if he was their own resident playwright and their kind of ongoing education. Almost like he was one of their group.

GARBER: They thought of him as very much the sort of—to use Woolf’s own phrase, “The absent presence in their group,” that they communicated with him constantly and through him.

There’s a moment in a lecture that Woolf gave to some university women, young university women, that she then published in a little essay called “How Should One Read a Book?”

She says, “It’s as if Shakespeare is saying what we have just thought or are about to think, that Shakespeare seems to them to be imminent.” You’re quite right to use the word intimate. I think that’s the perfect word to describe how they felt with him or with his work.

They do use quotations from his work, allusions to his work, allusions to characters and moments, as ways of communicating with one another, as a kind of secret handshake sometimes. But sometimes just as the clearest way to express either an emotion or an idea.

BOGAEV: It’s fun to read about how they’d, you know, just pick up a Shakespeare play after dinner and finish it before bedtime. The way I’d binge Sopranos or something.

GARBER: [00:05:00] Yeah, I think so. Remember that this is a time—you know this perfectly well—way before television or radio or the gramophone. All of the Bloomsbury Group—who are in university, those who went to university in the first decade of the 20th century, and people like Woolf, who were educated at home and through her father’s library—their evening entertainment was often reading plays aloud or having plays read aloud to them, so that they grew up with Shakespeare as a pleasure.

Of course, it’s not a school subject. Shakespeare isn’t taught in universities ‘til after this. It’s a recreational passion for them. And it remains a recreational passion for their whole lives.

BOGAEV: You know, as I was reading your book, I was thinking about a show we did during COVID, the lockdown, about why and if and when people turn to Shakespeare, for instance, for comfort or solace.

Do you have a sense of that in, say, Virginia Woolf’s case? Did she read him more when she was depressed or in later years during the war? Or was Shakespeare a constant?

GARBER: He was a constant. She reads him with great exhilaration when she’s writing. She says, “When I’ve just finished writing, I pick up Shakespeare. When my mind is red and hot, I pick up Shakespeare and I read Shakespeare. And I am always amazed that his mind is working faster. I have to race to keep up with him.”

She reads Shakespeare when she’s exhilarated. She turns to Shakespeare when she’s feeling low. Certainly when, towards the end of her life, when it looked clear that there was going to be war, she and Leonard start talking about Shakespeare with one another and remembering the Fool in King Lear saying, “I’ll go to bed at noon”—And they’ve decided, “No, it’s not yet. So, we’ll read Shakespeare and we’ll keep on living.”

BOGAEV: You said she particularly read Shakespeare when she was writing, and she marvels, you write, at Shakespeare’s skill as a writer and a wordsmith and a word coiner. And she writes about the speed, particularly, of his poetry in his writing. How it so outpaces her own, and asks, ‘Why then should anyone else attempt to write?’”

Was he daunting to her, or a source of inspiration, or both? And what did she mean by speed, velocity?

GARBER: Well, this is in her diary. And she frequently communes with Shakespeare in her diary. And when she says, “Why should anyone then?”— that’s not despairing. That’s praise of him and that’s actually egging herself on. She likes to try to keep up with him in one way or another. She’s always finding his way ahead of her.

She finds that exhilarating rather than anything else. She will turn to Shakespeare in the evenings, in the mornings. It’s her favorite thing to do in the backyard; to sit under the apple tree in the country and read Shakespeare. People come and visit her and they chat about Shakespeare. It’s just embedded in her life.

BOGAEV: Okay, let’s talk about Virginia Woolf’s writing. Where do you most see Shakespeare’s influence? Obviously, it comes out in so many ways, and we’ll talk about them, but I’m thinking particularly of the rhythm of her prose. Especially considering she was pioneering this new form of inner dialogue, inner monologue. How was she looking back to Shakespeare while doing that?

GARBER: Well, not only she, but all her friends saw Shakespeare, as you said, as a wordsmith. As a coiner of words. As a figure who understood rhythm among of all things.

When she came to write The Waves, quite late in her career, in her thirties, she calls it a “play poem.” She wants to collapse, and she knows how to collapse, the distinction between poetry and prose.

One of the things that she—and again, Strachey and Dadie Rylands, who is a friend of theirs who directs plays—are interested in is Shakespeare’s prose and his marvelous management of prose in characters like Falstaff or Edmund or Hamlet.

She’s partly influenced by his prose, through her very earliest affection for Shakespeare, which develops in her very early relationship with her brother Thoby, is four lines from Cymbeline: “Hang there like fruit, my soul, till the tree die.” She writes to Thoby and she says, “I have found the most perfect lines in all of Shakespeare. Here they are.” And those words show up over and over again in her novels. Notably in Jacob’s Room, but elsewhere as well.

BOGAEV: Well, there were, of course, lots of threads and wisps of Shakespeare running throughout her works. Clarissa Dalloway remembers the dirge from Cymbeline, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, nor the furious winter’s rages.” It’s repeated several times in the book and creates this through line in the plot.

It’s as if Mrs. Dalloway is haunted by those lines, and also haunted by lines from Othello. “If it were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy.”

GARBER: Right.

BOGAEV: What layers of meaning is Woolf working with, quoting Shakespeare, in this way?

GARBER: Well, she has Clarissa look in Hatcher’s bookstore and see in the window a volume of Cymbeline, which is open to these lines. And this is how she sets up the echoing of this passage over and over again. I think it’s a favorite passage in the period. Used very often on tombstones and so on.

And you’re quite right that it’s a through line and that it does intersect with, “If it were out to die, ‘twere now to be most happy.” Which, of course, in Othello is a fateful line. He will never be happier than that moment. He’s welcoming Desdemona, who has come out to Cyprus to join him, and things go west from there.

But in Woolf’s use of this passage, she remembers how happy she was to see Sally Seaton as Sally Seaton met her in the garden early on. Then, Sally Seaton will return, you remember in the novel, as a much older woman. As a woman married to an industrialist. Some of the magic has rubbed off.

BOGAEV: Very disappointing, yeah, for Mrs. Dalloway.

GARBER: Right. I think for Woolf, this kind of refrain, this kind of leitmotif of a passage echoing again and again and having more ramifications each time. More applications each time in the mind of a character, is a way in which she inhabits the mind of her character and shares that mental space with the reader.

I think that she, as a technician, finds using Shakespeare in this way very, very beneficial. It seems to come naturally to her to think through Shakespeare, and so she has her characters do that as well.

BOGAEV: Yeah, it comes naturally to her to have these lines probably popping into her head throughout. Throughout, in a very normal way, not a pretentious way, I guess.

You know, when I first read Mrs. Dalloway, and the Shakespeare is popping up, I was thinking, “Oh, this is a way of quickly characterizing Clarissa as a woman of a very specific class and education. She’s well educated enough to appreciate Shakespeare and appreciate these few beautiful lines and kind of integrate them into her life as she glimpses in that bookshop window.” But it’s also very light. It’s a shallow way of being. I judged her as a young reader. But it’s also the way a composer uses a phrase in variation throughout an opera.

GARBER: That’s quite right. Woolf herself, of course, makes the intersection of Clarissa and Septimus, the man who will kill himself, a meeting of [Shakespeareans]. Because he too has studied Shakespeare. And these were the happiest moments in his much less privileged life. When he went to an evening class and heard Miss Pole in her green dress reading Shakespeare and talking about Shakespeare.

So, Woolf does not assign her Shakespeare to any particular class or to any particular character really. Rather, Shakespeare is that which brings them together in the mind of the reader, and in the mind of the author, and also, to a certain extent, in the mind of the characters.

BOGAEV: Right. It’s this common currency. In The Waves, it’s perfect because Shakespeare’s just central to friendship.

GARBER: Right. So, we have friendship among the Bloomsbury Group, friendship in Shakespeare’s plays. The Waves tropes a little bit off Sonnet 60, the line, “As the waves make to the pebbled shore.” That resonates throughout the various movements of The Waves. But they often like to talk about Shakespeare with one another.

Bernard and Neville in particular like to talk about Hamlet. It’s something that brings them together. Bernard likes the jingles in some of Shakespeare’s songs, and some of the lines of the Fool in King Lear. He will, in his older years, walk down the street tapping his cane to that kind of tune.

But there also is, of course, the tragic figure embedded in The Waves: the figure of Percival. The heroic figure who doesn’t speak, but about whom they think constantly. Percival dies young, just as Virginia Woolf’s brother, Thoby, dies young, and is a unifying factor for the Bloomsbury Group in the same way that Percival is a unifying factor for the people in The Waves.

It was Thoby who first inspired a love of Shakespeare in Virginia Woolf. He was her first instructor and her first tutor. She wrote to him and she said, “You’re so lucky to have all these friends that you can talk with about Shakespeare. I have only you. So I’m going to ask you some questions.”

And she, in her very, very late memoir, talks about how he seemed to have consumed Shakespeare whole without trying, and that she learned this love for Shakespeare in part through: a) her love for him and b) his love for Shakespeare.

She carries that on throughout her life. This shows up in very many of these muted moments in the novels. When she’s thinking about loss, she’s also thinking about Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: Well, in a very different context, in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf discusses women in Shakespeare’s time and how constrained their lives were. How unlikely, or just impossible, it would have been for a woman to write his plays. Then she has this thought experiment where she imagines a sister for William Shakespeare, Judith Shakespeare. Remind us of that.

GARBER: Well, it’s so interesting because Judith Shakespeare has seized the imagination of many critics in the 20th century and the 21st century. She doesn’t occupy a lot of space in A Room of One’s Own, but she occupies a lot of mental space. Woolf is trying to distinguish between the situation of a woman writer in Shakespeare’s time and a woman writer in her own time.

She remembers that a woman at that time trying to make her way in, so to speak, “a man’s world,” would have been under physical pressure of various kinds. Would have been perhaps beaten, perhaps—certainly ignored. Would not have had an easy way to realize her genius, to bring her genius into being. It’s a kind of a, as you say, thought experiment.

But then, Woolf will go on, later on in A Room of One’s Own, to talk about the “androgynous mind,” which is a phrase that she actually picks up from Coleridge—But to think about the androgynous mind of a Shakespeare.

Again, the play to which she returns, as so many of them return for this cause, is Antony and Cleopatra. Where the two characters begin to meld into one another to be taken for one another. She takes this as a kind of example of the function of the truly androgynous mind.

So, she’s thinking not only about the dire prospects that a Judith Shakespeare would have encountered in Shakespeare’s own time, but also about how the women writer in her time and in our time too, can realize herself and cannot be limited in any way by gender stereotypes, or by expectations, or by any limitations of education.

BOGAEV: That’s what she means by “androgynous mind?”

GARBER: What she means is a mind, yes, that can imagine in many directions. That is not limited by the mindset of what a woman ought to think, what a man ought to think.

Of course, this is something that she’s going to bring to fruition, or will have just brought to fruition, the previous year in the publication of Orlando. Orlando is 1928, and A Room of One’s Own is 1929. So, this is very much on Woolf’s mind at the time.

Orlando ends with a scene in which the two characters say, “Are you a woman? Are you a man?” to one another. And opens up that question, again, about whether there is essential maleness or essential femaleness, especially when it comes to the mind.

BOGAEV: It’s fun, in your book, when you remind us that someone referred to Orlando as the longest, best love letter in the English language.

GARBER: Yes, the person who does this, of course, is Vita [Sackville-West]’s son, Nigel Nicholson. And he’s very pleased with it.

And plainly, she—it is flirtatious. It is a very flirtatious book. It’s full—and a lot of the ways in which it uses references to Shakespeare or to various characters seeming to be identified as Shakespeare or to have Shakespeare’s name.

It’s playful. It’s a way of communicating, certainly with Vita Sackville-West. But, it obviously speaks to many other time periods as well. It’s been very compelling in our own.

BOGAEV: We should save some time to dig in more to Lytton Strachey. You mentioned him, we know who he is now, but he seems to have had a really modern read of Shakespeare—at least to me—of Shakespeare’s beliefs. That Shakespeare was a skeptic, a cynic, someone who didn’t believe in anything but entertained everything. He was a revisionist Shakespeare critic, but what was he revising?

GARBER: Well, he’s revising the previous generation. Remember, this is the man whose first great hit was Eminent Victorians. In his very early essay, “Shakespeare’s Final Period,” which is written in 1903 and published in 1904, what he’s sending up is the previous generation of Victorians, who have created a kind of mental biography of Shakespeare in which he was in the depths, and now, at the end of his career, he rises to in the heights. Strachey’s having none of this. He writes about the last plays, and he says, these are not real characters. Shakespeare has become enraptured with language, rather than with characters.

BOGAEV: Right. He hates this idea that Prospero is a portrait of the artist Shakespeare as an old man. He called Prospero a, “tiresome old don,” right?

GARBER: Exactly. Again, the previous generation, he’s thinking of tedious professors he will have had. It’s partly… I mean, it’s passionate the way everything in Strachey is passionate. His favorite emotion, his favorite word, really, is passion. But it’s also, in its own way, tongue-in-cheek and playful.

The key word in that essay, the thing that annoyed people so much and made his reputation out of this, is “bored.” That Shakespeare was bored: That he was bored with plots and he was bored with narratives and he wanted to do something else.

In fact, he will come back to this very same point of view much later on when he is writing the introduction to Dadie Rylands’s Words in Poetry, and talk about how the words had become characters for Shakespeare, and Shakespeare was fascinated by these little creatures and he could make them do anything. It was playing with words that mattered to him and not so much anymore playing with characters.

If I can go back yet once again to Woolf’s conversations with her brother Thoby so many years earlier, she writes the same thing to Thoby. And when I say so many years later, it’s the same time that Strachey is writing “Shakespeare’s Final Period,” 1904-ish, that she writes to Thoby and she says, “I love the language in Cymbeline, but what about the characters? They’re so like cutouts. They’re not like real people at all.” So she sees the same thing that Lytton sees in these later plays.

BOGAEV: We’ve mentioned Dadie Rylands, another Shakespearean in the group. And he wrote the Ages of Man anthology of Shakespeare in 1939. You mention in the book that it was packed in many soldiers’ knapsacks during World War II, which is such a vivid and moving image. But it’s not very known now. What is it like?

GARBER: Ages of Man is a kind of anthology of passages from the plays. If you didn’t have room in your knapsack for the complete plays, then you could take this with you and enjoy various passages. It became very popular. As you say, it’s a very moving image. Exactly.

Rylands talks a little bit about what’s lost in excerpting these passages: That you lose the plot, that sometimes you lose the characters. But you have the language, and the language is what carries you through.

BOGAEV: Yes, interesting in that context to read that they so much preferred reading Shakespeare to seeing the plays on stage. Is that more about just the style of acting at the time?

GARBER: It is a lot about the style of acting. It’s sometimes thought that they never went to the plays or that they were disdainful of watching. And that’s—the opposite is the case.

They loved to go to the theater. They just had very strong notions about what was good acting and what wasn’t. Again, the previous generation was a generation in which there was a great deal of posturing, a great deal of grandstanding.

They just wanted the language to come through. Lynton Strachey, as a young man, was the first drama reviewer for The Spectator magazine. It was owned by his uncle, St. Loe Strachey, and he reviewed plays, under the name Ignotus: “The Unknown.”

His brother James reviewed a couple of Shakespeare plays as well. In these reviews, they’re very critical of the posturing and the mannerisms of professional actors. They prefer, for this reason, undergraduate actors.

Rylands, when he comes to become a don at Cambridge, is teaching Peter Hall, Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Trevor Nunn, John Barton. All of them studied with Dadie Rylands and brought in a mid-20th-century notion of acting as plain speaking. Let the language speak.

There’s a—it’s a wonderful review that Lytton Strachey writes about an undergraduate production in which he says, “The king is speaking. Who has ever heard a king speak on the stage in a Shakespeare play? It’s always actors.” But in this case, the language comes through. And they, for this reason and part, are critical of productions that overcomplicate and that impose a vision upon the plays rather than letting the language speak for themselves—for itself.

BOGAEV: We’ve been talking so much about what Shakespeare meant to the Bloomsbury Group and their writing. But doing this research, what revelations about Shakespeare come out of the writings of the Group, for you? New insights into the plays?

GARBER: Every time I read any one of the plays, I learn something that I didn’t know before or see something that I haven’t seen or heard before. What partly interested me were the particular plays that they tended to choose, to prefer, to return to. For me it’s always been the language, so I found their way of approaching Shakespeare extremely congenial to my own way of teaching Shakespeare and writing about Shakespeare. Strachey, at one point, says, “The most important thing is to trust Shakespeare’s language.”

I feel that very profoundly. I felt very, very gratified to find that so frequently verbalized in what they had to say. I was encouraged to go back to some of the sonnets. Encouraged to go back to some of the songs. To try to follow the trail that they were blazing for me in their reading of Shakespeare.

Because every time you try to read through someone else’s eyes, you see something new. Just as in Woolf’s novels, when you’re looking through a character’s eyes, you see something new.

BOGAEV: Thank you so much for this. Thank you for the time and thanks for the book.

GARBER: Thank you for your questions. I really enjoyed talking with you.


WITMORE: That was Marjorie Garber, interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. Shakespeare in Bloomsbury is out now from Yale University Press. And if you’re in Washington, DC, you can catch Garber in person as part of the Shakespeare Everywhere Festival over the next few weeks. You can find more information at

This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from The Sound Company in London and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

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Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.