Skip to main content
Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Ramie Targoff on Shakespeare's Sisters

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 232

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf famously imagined what might have happened if Shakespeare had a sister who was as gifted a writer as he was. She invents “Judith” Shakespeare, and concludes that this female genius would have been doomed.

But that’s not the end of the story. If Woolf had read Mary Sidney, Aemelia Lanyer (nee Bassano), Anne Clifford, and Elizabeth Cary, she might have thought differently about the fate of her fictional Judith Shakespeare. Ramie Targoff’s new book, Shakespeare’s Sisters: How Women Wrote the Renaissance, explores the lives and works of those four women. Targoff tells us about them and reflects on why reading their work is so important.

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

Ramie Targoff teaches English and Italian literature at Brandeis University. She’s also a member of the Folger’s Board of Governors. Her book Shakespeare’s Sisters: How Women Wrote the Renaissance is available from Knopf.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published March 12, 2024. © 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 Digital Island Studios in New York and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

Previous: Green World: Michelle Ephraim on Discovering Shakespeare and Reevaluating The Merchant of Venice


Read their works

Read poems, plays, and more by these four writers across the internet.

Folger Finds

Take a closer look at Mary Sidney, Aemelia Lanyer, Anne Clifford, and Elizabeth Cary’s works in the Folger collection.


MICHAEL WITMORE: Shakespeare worked in an artistic community designed by and for men. But men weren’t the only ones writing in the early modern period.

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

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf famously imagined what might have happened if Shakespeare had a sister who was as gifted a writer as he was. She invents “Judith” Shakespeare, and concludes that this female genius would have been doomed. Quote, “any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at,” Woolf wrote.

But that’s not the end of the story. Ramie Targoff teaches English and Italian literature at Brandeis University. She’s also a member of the Folger’s Board of Governors. Targoff’s latest book is called Shakespeare’s Sisters: How Women Wrote the Renaissance, and it’s a group biography of four great women writers who were Shakespeare’s contemporaries—whose work Woolf likely never read.

If she had read Mary Sidney, Aemelia Lanyer, Anne Clifford, and Elizabeth Carey, Woolf might have thought differently about the fate of her fictional Judith Shakespeare.

Despite decades of scholarly effort excavating the work of these women writers, they’re still underrepresented on college reading lists. In her book, Targoff makes a forceful argument for their literary merit and the importance of reading these writers alongside their more familiar male contemporaries.

Here’s Ramie Targoff, in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: One sentence in your epilogue really jumped out at me. You write that you graduated with a B.A. in English from Yale in 1989, but you’d never read a word written by a woman before the 19th century. And you’d never imagined that there were things to be read. When did you realize this? And, I mean, when did you realize what you were missing?

RAMIE TARGOFF: Yes. The next sentence in the epilogue might have been that I then went on to get a Ph.D. in Renaissance English Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, and I still never read a word by a woman written in the Renaissance. My entire education from 1985 through 1996, studying English literature: no women writers of the Renaissance.

BOGAEV: Okay, so I’m getting a burning in my gut when you say that. Was it a slow burn for you or was this…?

TARGOFF: It was a slow burn. It didn’t cross my mind. The reason it didn’t cross my mind is because I had been told by a good authority, namely Virginia Woolf, that it was impossible for a woman to be a writer in the Renaissance, and that any woman who had tried to be a writer would have ended up deranged, tortured, treated like a witch, living alone in a lonely cottage. She might have taken her own life. No one would have talked to her and so on.

I’d read this very bleak and convincing account of why it was so absolutely impossible for a woman to write in the Renaissance. So, it didn’t strike me as unusual.

To answer the other part of the question, when I first came back to Yale in 1996 as an assistant professor in the same department where I’d gotten my B.A., a colleague of mine asked if I’d ever read anything by Aemilia Lanyer, one of the four women in my book. I’d never heard of Aemilia Lanyer. This was shocking to me.

I quickly read her extraordinary poem, Salve Deus, and I started teaching it my very first semester as a professor. That said, it was also the case that Virginia Woolf wasn’t by any means entirely wrong. It was incredibly hard.

BOGAEV: Well, that’s that. To give a context before we move on to these four extraordinary women writers of the Renaissance, why don’t you remind us just what it was like to be a girl in Shakespeare’s time?

TARGOFF: Yeah, I will. And here we’re talking about girls who were wealthy enough to have households that could have books in them, let’s put it that way. The women I’m writing about are either middle class—in the case of one of them—or from the bourgeoisie—in the case of another—or aristocrats.

BOGAEV: Yeah, we’re almost talking about the one percent here.

TARGOFF: We’re talking about the 0.5 percent, probably. Roughly the one percent. The important point to say is that girls had no access to education, period. So there were the equivalent of kindergartens, penny schools, for very small children that girls might attend.

There were almost no grammar schools—our equivalent of elementary schools. And if a girl did go to grammar school, she didn’t go past nine or ten. And really, very, very few grammar schools admitted girls. There were no secondary schools for girls, and girls could never go to university.

There was absolutely no provision for girls’ education. I think that’s the most important point to take in. Its magnitude. For a girl to be educated, it depended on her being born into a family that had the means and the desire for her to be taught. That eliminates an enormous swath of the population. I mean, that’s… we’re down to, now, very few people.

BOGAEV: In that sense, Virginia Woolf really did nail it in a way. The other question I want to ask you before we start talking about these specific women was, did Elizabeth’s long reign shape how early moderns thought of women and their capabilities and their intellectual abilities?

TARGOFF: Queen Elizabeth was a great scholar and she kept reading, writing, translating throughout her reign, really until the last few years. And that was known, widely known at court.

When she first came to the throne, in the late 1550s, there were some very skeptical voices about what a woman could possibly do in the role of England’s queen, and she went out of her way to show them that she was as formidable as any man.

That said, she was very disparaging about being a woman. She was not a feminist. She wasn’t looking out for other women, but she did set a very high bar. I think it made a big difference.

BOGAEV: Huh. Okay, well let’s get right to it then. Let’s start with Mary Sidney. Who was she? What was it about her family that helped her become extraordinary?

TARGOFF: Mary Sidney was born into a rather poor but aristocratic family, meaning they never had enough cash. At one point, her mother says she doesn’t have enough money to pay for wall hangings in her room at court. It was so cold, they would hang tapestries and things on the walls. She asks one of her servants if she could borrow, you know, 20 pounds or whatever it was to heat her room.

So, this was not a wealthy family, but they were incredibly well-connected. Mary’s father was the Lord Governor of Wales and the Marches. He became the Lord Governor of Ireland. He was a, we could say, sort of high-level civil servant in Elizabeth’s court, Sir Henry Sidney.

Elizabeth’s mother was one of Queen Elizabeth’s ladies of the Privy Chamber. So, these are the women who helped Elizabeth get dressed, put on her makeup, kept her company. Her inner, inner circle.

She was born into these working aristocratic parents is how I would put it, which is something we don’t think about that often. But for example, when Mary was one, her mother was called back from Wales, where they were living, to nurse Queen Elizabeth when Queen Elizabeth had smallpox. She had to leave her small children. She had a one-year-old daughter, Mary, and several other children. She had to rush to the queen’s side. There was no saying no to the queen.

Mary was raised in this unusual family in terms of both of her parents being quite occupied. There were lots of tutors around, lots of governesses. She had two brothers who were being actively well-educated. And she and her sister, they were also being tutored, but the materials they were teaching the girls was different from the boys. The girls were having French, and Italian, and dancing, and music. The boys were having philosophy, and history, and Latin, and so on. So, the more serious subjects, as it were. We have reason to believe that Mary was sneaking over to their brother’s side, you know, and learning things from them. In any case, she managed to have a very good education at home.

Her mother was very well-educated. Her grandmother was one of the principal ladies at the court of Henry VIII and was a very sort of famously learned Protestant, early Protestant. There was a history of female education in the family.

Wow. And her brother also was a writer, right? He wrote the Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia and also this first major sonnet series in English, Astrophil and Stella

TARGOFF: That’s right. So, Sir Philip Sidney—

BOGAEV: —and also the Defense of Poesy. You write that her brother really helped her conceive of a life of writing.

TARGOFF: By setting an example. So, in her case, she was very close to her brother. He was living at her house in Wiltshire, at Wilton House, when he wrote the Arcadia.

He wrote it, as he says, “For you, with you.” You know, this was as close to a collaborative, at least creative process, even though he was doing the writing. But he said that each page as he wrote it, he handed it over for her judgment. So, it’s dedicated to her: Her title was the Countess of Pembroke. And, I should quickly say that she was married off at age 15 to a very wealthy, very powerful man, Henry Herbert the Earl of Pembroke. He was 38, she was 15. He had been married twice before, and he married her really to have a male heir. He had no children. So, her principal priority at that moment was to produce children, specifically male children.

BOGAEV: Just, spoiler alert, there’ll be a number of stories like this in this podcast.

TARGOFF: Yes, that is absolutely right.

BOGAEV: This is one of the more depressing marital histories.

TARGOFF: But having said that, actually, real spoiler alert, this is the best of all the four women’s marriages basically.

BOGAEV: Yeah, I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse.

TARGOFF: I know. But he kind of left her alone once she’d had two sons, and she created something like a salon. Some people think it was a real salon with poets coming in all the time. I’ve done enough reading from people who have convinced me it was, it was less so. It was more, you know, occasional.

But she had a real literary life. When her brother died—he died in 1586, in his early 30s—He was fighting in a Protestant war. He left all of his amazing literary works unpublished.

So, her first foray into the world of English letters was actually as his editor. She published all of his works and then she started to do her own writing. It’s interesting to think about the fact that it took the death of her brother for her to kind of step into his literary role and inherit what he left behind.

BOGAEV: Right. She came in through a side door. This is another one of the themes, I think, of your book. Which is women’s work being published under different names or as proxy names.

For instance, Edmund Spenser wrote an elegy for Mary’s brother, Philip, who died. It’s called The Doleful Lady of Clarinda. It was published under Edmund Spenser’s name. But, no, it was actually written by Mary Sidney, right?

TARGOFF: We think so. That is still up a little bit for grabs, but I am convinced by the evidence that she wrote it. You know, there are male literary critics in the last hundred years who say things like, “You know, Edmund Spenser went out of his way to take on the voice of Mary Sidney to write in her voice.” As if—and you think, “Why not just allow that she wrote the poem?”


TARGOFF: You know, it takes so much more work to explain this crazy hypothesis.

BOGAEV: To disprove this.

TARGOFF: Her really greatest work was her translation of Hebrew psalms into English. All 150 psalms. That was a project that her brother began before his death. He had translated in draft the first 43. She then edited and polished off his 43 and went on to translate the remaining 107.

Yet, many manuscripts of these psalms were circulating during the period that bear only his name. There’s no mention of her. Some people acknowledged her work, but others didn’t.

I actually had an interesting conversation the other day when—I’ve just finished being on a book tour in the UK. A woman came up to me and said that she had written a thesis on Philip Sidney in the late ‘60s—She was an elderly woman—and she said she’d never encountered the name Mary Sidney in her entire studies, including the psalms. So, you know, that’s in the late ‘60s. This isn’t 200 years ago.

BOGAEV: Tell us what’s notable about her translations of the Book of Psalms. And we’re talking from Hebrew into English, right?

TARGOFF: We don’t know that she knew Hebrew. It would have been quite unusual for men or women. There are very few people, but certainly we have no evidence that she knew Hebrew. There are signs that she was using different Latin translations and different French translations. So, you know, it was indirect.

What’s extraordinary about her psalm translations is its poetic complexity and sophistication. She used 128 different metrical forms in her 107 original psalms. In other words, this collection of psalms is like a primer for the beauty and complexity of English verse form.

Sometimes, for example, she’ll write a sonnet, and sometimes she’ll write in terza rima, which is Dante’s form. Sometimes she’ll make up some new verse form that we are not, you know, familiar with. It’s very sophisticated. That’s the formal thing that’s really interesting about them.

But then, as we’ll see, as we talk about the other women, the sort of proto-feminist side is that she finds moments in the psalms that pass very quickly in the original text to bring out the depth of women’s experience.

BOGAEV: Yeah, the way you describe it in the book is she sees these stories that involve women from a woman’s point of view for the first time.

TARGOFF: Yes, exactly. What a shocking idea. But that’s what she does. And it’s very moving. And, just one final note on that. It’s also how we glimpse a little bit about her own story. What it felt like, for example, for her to have to leave her entire family as a young teenager and first go to London, and then be married off to this man decades older than she was, whom she had no connection to.

We don’t have any written trace of what that felt like for her. But we do have a psalm in which, you know, a princess is being married off to Solomon. And Mary adds these amazing lines about the poignancy and the heartbreak of being taken out of your home.

BOGAEV: What a man could never have imagined themselves into. What happened to the Book of Psalms?

TARGOFF: She prepared multiple manuscripts of her beautiful translation, one of which is now in the Bodleian Library. These are big, the size of Shakespeare’s Folio. The one that’s in the Bodleian Library—and it’s one of the treasures to see it. You need like, you know, people watching over you. You’re not allowed to bring a pencil even near it.

One of them at some point over the centuries—and it was really extraordinary, I was turning the pages and I thought, “Am I seeing things or is there a shadow coming from a vase of flowers somewhere?” I kept turning pages and then I realized that someone had used this masterpiece of a manuscript to press flowers, so there were these sort of sepia ghosts haunting it of peonies and roses just through the psalms. It’s incredibly beautiful.

BOGAEV: Wow. And that says just so much. Well, the next woman you take on is Aemilia Lanyer, who came from very different origins. Her father was Italian and a legal denizen of England, which you explain as something between an official subject of the crown and a foreigner. So, kind of a gray area. Also, maybe Jewish and a musician.

TARGOFF: So her father came from a family in Venice who has clear traces to a Jewish family, the Bassanos. We don’t know if this particular group of Bassanos was actively Jewish. Probably they were at some point.

Her father was converted to Christianity. His name was Baptista. So, like “baptism.” He and his brothers left Italy to come play the recorder for Henry VIII. They were what we call a recorder consort, like an ensemble of recorders.

Her mother, we know very little about. But, what we do know is she signed her will with an “X”, which indicates to us that she was either illiterate or at least maybe she could read, but she couldn’t write.

BOGAEV: Okay, and so [Lanyer] acquired an education. Then she went on to write, as you described, Hail, God, King of the Jews. And this is the 17th century, the first woman to publish a book of original poetry. Is that right?

TARGOFF: Yes, that’s right. Isabella Whitney did publish a very short collection of poems in the 16th century, but this is, you know, a little bit later, and it’s a much more substantial collection.

BOGAEV: And not only that, it’s a feminist work. It’s feminist poetry. In what way is it proto-feminist?

TARGOFF: In actually quite a number of ways. First of all, it is written to be read—she says in her letter to the reader—only by women. She prefers to have only women readers.

BOGAEV: Now that’s really revolutionary, isn’t it? I mean, that’s just like saying, “Okay, forget the majority of people who are literate and who can read at this time and buy books,” right? Her publisher must have had a cow.

TARGOFF: Exactly. Estimates for women’s literacy in the period were 10 percent for women in London and down to three percent for women outside of London. We’re not talking about a huge pool. She dedicated the book to nine different women.

She has individual dedications to nine women, including the Queen. And including Mary Sidney—whom we’ve already talked about—including Anne Clifford—whom we’re about to talk about—and Anne Clifford’s mother, Margaret Clifford. So, she amassed a very impressive group of women.

But the most extraordinary feminism in this book comes inside the poem. The central poem, which is, as you said, called, the Latin title is, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, “Hail, Christ, King of the Jews,” or, “Hail, God, King of the Jews.” It makes a very strong case for the sexes to be equal. It does so by taking this very minor character in the Bible—this is a woman who has one line in one of the four Gospels. She’s the wife of the governor Pontius Pilate, who sent Christ to his death. In Matthew, this woman says, basically, you know, “Do not kill that holy man. I’ve had a dream telling me that we should leave him alone.”

She’s ignored, of course. And, Aemilia Lanyer takes this woman who doesn’t even have a name in the gospel, and she makes her, her mouthpiece, her heroine, and gives her this long, extraordinary speech in which she says, “you know, Eve really didn’t do anything wrong. She was ignorant and innocent and made a mistake. But if you guys, you men, kill Christ, all bets are off. Whatever Eve did is so overwhelmed by the crime that you are committing that women and men need to be equal.” She says, “Then let us have our liberty again.” You know, it doesn’t get more proto-feminist than that.

BOGAEV: Okay, we have to leave some time for your final two. Anne Clifford: who was she and where was she from?

TARGOFF: Anne Clifford was born into one of the wealthiest families in the kingdom. Her father, George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland. He had 90,000 acres, roughly in the North of England. Many, many castles.

Her mother came from an almost equally distinguished family. Her father was the Earl of Bedford. We are talking about now, you know, the very, very top of the heap in Elizabethan England.

She was an only child. When her father died, she was 15 and she had just the most enormous disappointment that someone in her position could have, which was that he disinherited her from his fortune.

BOGAEV: Right. He disinherited her in order to maintain the family’s titles. It was important for their legacy, he thought. Really, her story is basically that she filed lawsuits for 40 years to try to get back what she felt she was owed when she was disinherited. What does this epic battle say about her writing? How did it figure into that?

TARGOFF: Each of the four women in my book works in a different genre. She is the least literary. She was a memoir writer, a diarist, and a family historian. The diary is her way of working through, or keeping track of what was happening to her as she tried to fight this lawsuit. A lawsuit that really meant fighting patriarchy because she was fighting for her right as a woman to inherit her father’s land.

BOGAEV: She even defied the king in her fight for her land and inheritance.

TARGOFF: She did. I mean, he put enormous pressure on her, and even brought her into his private chambers with the Archbishop of Canterbury, with teams of lawyers, with all these men, and tried to force her to sign an agreement. A cash buyout, we could say. She refused.

So, what we learn in her diaries, we hear about—like, how do I know that? Because she writes about it in her January, 1617, diary in detail. The diaries are our access to this enormous battle she was fighting against all the men in her life: the king, the archbishop, her husband, lots of relatives. I think of her diary as her sort of secret companion through the entire thing.

BOGAEV: So 38 years it took of her fighting and then she prevailed.

TARGOFF: She prevailed, really just because all the men died. You know, in other words, there was no male relative left, so they had to turn to her. This was her vocation. And she really enjoyed gaining those lands. She lived for another, almost 40 years after she got blessed. This woman had the great luck of living to 86.

BOGAEV: Yeah, and she wrote the great books and a memoir that has a great name, The Life of Me.

TARGOFF: Fabulous name. She wasn’t, a sort of, humble person.

BOGAEV: Hardly. Yeah, and you can understand why given this family. Although her books weren’t published. Her memoirs weren’t published during her lifetime.

TARGOFF: That’s right.

BOGAEV: I do wonder what you think about what might have changed for other women if her writing had been out there and they’d been able to read it?

TARGOFF: That’s one of the big questions in all these cases that… because even when they were published, as Aemilia Lanyer was and as the woman we’re about to talk about, Elizabeth Cary, and Mary Sidney also published things. They weren’t republished. These women were published during their lifetimes, but then the books disappeared for between 350 and 400 years.

So, you know, in terms of all of these potential women who could have been inspired by reading Mary Sidney, by reading Elizabeth Cary, by reading Aemilia Lanyer and so on, and Anne Clifford, you know. That opportunity was lost. It’s hard not to feel that we could have had a much more robust body of literature in the second half of the 17th century through the 18th century.

We do have extraordinarily impressive people, but each person was sort of doing it on her own.

BOGAEV: Yeah. So isolated.

And we should mention that Vita Sackville West was the one who brought them into print.

TARGOFF: Who brought the diaries into print in 1923. Vita really understood Anne Clifford and wrote a beautiful introduction, a beautiful essay about her spirit and her tenacity and so on. So, that’s a really interesting pairing.

BOGAEV: It’s doubly remarkable that all of these women dared to write or to even think they had a right to speak out. A right to write, and publish their works, given the emphasis on wifely obedience and dependence and silence in the Renaissance and within this Protestant culture. So just how strong was that message at the time?

TARGOFF: Yeah, and that’s a nice segue into the one woman we haven’t talked about yet, Elizabeth Cary. You know, her masterpiece was a play, the first original play ever written by a woman to be published in English. It’s called The Tragedy of Miriam.

In that play, the heroine defies all of the things you just mentioned: being silent, being obedient, you know. Talks back to her husband and refuses to sleep with him, refuses to give him what he wants, and stands by her own conscience above her responsibilities. That flies in the face of what young women were taught they should be as wives.

They went to church and they heard the homily on marriage where women were told to be three things: Chaste, meaning loyal to their husbands—not to be virgins, but to be chaste; to be obedient; and to be silent.

And the very first line of Elizabeth Cary’s play is Miriam saying, “How long have I with public voice gone on?” In other words, she’s making public her voice, and that’s a voice of opposition. You know, it’s remarkable to take the risk to say such things and to publish them. And, you know, these were some very brave women.

BOGAEV: Yeah. And remarkable given she really knew what it was to be silenced. I mean, she had gotten married off to a virtual stranger for financial and status reasons, like many of the women in this book.

It sounds like she had a really hard time of it when he went to war and he was held ransom by the Spanish for nine months. Her mother-in-law imprisoned her in her room and took away all her books.

TARGOFF: Yeah. It was really extreme. So, you know, why did she take away her books? For the same reason that her mother took away the candles that she was using to read at night. Because this young woman, she was just meant to be a scholar and to sit in her room. That’s what she wanted to do. And that’s what she eventually got to do later in her life.

She wasn’t meant to be at court, to be getting dressed up. Apparently, her servants used to chase her around the room with a hairbrush and jewelry, trying to get her to sit down while she was writing.

We have to think about—you know, I feel like if Virginia Woolf knew about her, she would have loved her. Because this woman had such an active intellectual life and was so much happier sitting alone in her study, reading and writing than doing anything else.

BOGAEV: Yeah. And, so against the odds. What was her language like? Her poetry. It’s… I mean, it sounds fiery.

TARGOFF: It’s quite fiery. What we have of hers that has survived—and there’s a lot probably that didn’t survive—We have this amazing play that she wrote in 1613, in which we have, you know, quite bracing, quite strong rhetorical speeches made by not just Miriam the heroine, but by the villain in the play, Salome, who’s the sister of Miriam’s horrible, tyrannical husband, Herod.

But Salome makes amazing speeches in the play, including one in which she argues for women’s right to get divorced, which was completely, you know, anathema. I think it’s not a coincidence that Elizabeth Cary puts that language into the voice of her villain so that, you know…

BOGAEV: Gives her some protection.

TARGOFF: Yeah, you know, “Of course I don’t agree with these things.” So that’s our play.

Then we also have a really amazing long history of King Edward II, who’s someone that Christopher Marlowe wrote an amazing play about. It’s a history, but you can feel the dramatist in it because there are a lot of really strong speeches as if it was being done on stage.

She has a special sensitivity to Edward’s very, very sad and ill-treated wife. Because Edward was homosexual and had a series of very long and passionate love affairs with men and didn’t care for his wife. So, it’s always shifting towards a woman’s account of the same story.

BOGAEV: Yes, and you have a great quote in the book about her imagining how Queen Isabella must have felt. That she, “Tasted with a bitter time of repentance what it was but to be quoted in the margin of such a story,” to be marginalized.

TARGOFF: Yes, I love that quote.

BOGAEV: That history that she wrote was mistakenly attributed to her husband. Was he even a writer? I mean, you can’t make this stuff up.

TARGOFF: Correct. He wasn’t a writer. He didn’t write anything. And when it was published. The letter from the publisher said—or editor—said, “What a fine example it was of manly writing.” You know, that only a sort of really strong man could have written such a thing.

BOGAEV: Of course. I’m thinking way back to the beginning of our conversation, which was how you got all the way through both your degrees in Renaissance literature without coming across women writers. Would that happen now?

TARGOFF: Unfortunately, it could happen. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote this book. Many, many English departments do not have someone teaching this material, even though, you know, there are plenty of English departments that do. But it’s not to be taken for granted.

You know, I think I mentioned this in the epilogue, but when I was doing a lot of the research for this book in the UK on sabbatical in 2021, I was really shocked to hear from the daughter of a friend of mine who was studying at Cambridge. That she was taking a course on Renaissance drama, and not only were they not reading The Tragedy of Miriam, but her professor had never heard of it. This is in 2021 at the University of Cambridge.

To this person’s credit—the professor’s credit—he let her write her essay about it, and I presume he therefore read it. But the fact that it wasn’t part of the curriculum, it should be shocking, but it’s actually not that uncommon. Lots of women I’ve met in their 20s and 30s—not my generation, but a generation after me—don’t know anything about at least two or three of these women.

BOGAEV: To put a finer point on it, just what would it have meant to you personally to have known and studied these women while you were coming up in the academy?

TARGOFF: You know, who knows? We can never guess. Maybe I would have written my dissertation, instead of writing about John Donne and George Herbert and Philip Sidney, maybe I would have written about Mary Sidney. And, you know, it might have changed the work that I’ve done. It certainly would have changed my perspective.

For example, I’ve been teaching Shakespeare’s plays. I love Shakespeare. I love John Donne. I love George. I love all of these poets. But I’ve been teaching Shakespeare since I was junior faculty at Yale in the late ‘90s. And, you know, all of these extraordinary heroines whom we meet in Shakespeare’s plays, whom I’ve always been so interested in… what would it have brought to my understanding of them if I’d been reading real women who were Shakespeare’s peers, and not just his fictional inventions? It’s hard to know, but it does feel like a loss.

BOGAEV: Is there any way to know what kind of exposure Shakespeare might have had to these women?

TARGOFF: Well, certainly he would have known of, if not known personally—and probably he knew personally, Mary Sidney, because her husband was one of the key patrons of the theater in the period. So, it’s very likely that they would have met.

We don’t know if Shakespeare knew Anne Clifford or Elizabeth Cary. I do think Elizabeth Cary knew Shakespeare, knew his work, because her daughters tell us in the memoir they wrote about her that she loved to go to the plays, and to mass, but she loved the theater. She was a playwright, and I do read The Tragedy of Miriam as in dialogue with and really kind of responding to Shakespeare’s Othello and rethinking Desdemona. So, you know, there are all of these ties, but there’s no physical trace.

That’s very common, as I said before. You know, we just don’t have the kind of information about these women in some cases that we’d hope to, and that’s because women’s lives didn’t count in the way that men’s did, so there aren’t nearly the same records.

BOGAEV: Well, can I ask you, is there a part two coming or what are you working on now?

TARGOFF: I don’t know if there’s a part two coming, but there may well be. There are many more women to think about, but I haven’t embarked on that yet.

BOGAEV: Well, you deserve a good long rest. Thank you so much for this part one.

TARGOFF: You’re welcome. Thank you for such an interesting conversation. I really enjoyed it.


WITMORE: That was Ramie Targoff, talking to Barbara Bogaev.

Shakespeare’s Sisters: How Women Wrote the Renaissance is out now from Knopf. If you’re interested in the writers discussed in this episode, you can find more about them on

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 Digital Island Studios in New York and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a review on your podcast platform of choice, to help others find the show.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. Our building in Washington, DC, has been under construction for the past four years. But we’re looking forward to fully reopening on June 21, 2024. You can find more about the Folger at our website,

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