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The narrator returns home disappointed at not having rounded
up some useful tidbit of truth from her researches at the British
Library. She turns at this point to history, which, she conjectures,
"records not opinions but facts." As her starting point, she chooses
to look into the lives of English women during the Elizabethan period—an era
of surpassing literary accomplishment, but only among men. It is
a virtue of Shakespeare's plays, she observes, that they seem, like enchanted
spider-webs, "to hang there complete by themselves." In reality,
however, even his works "are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal
creatures, but are the real work of suffering human beings, and
are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and
the houses we live in."
History turns up little except a few terse statements
about the legal rights of women in the early modern period (which
were virtually non-existent). This reticence on the topic of women,
and the fact of her utter powerlessness, strikes discordantly with
the prevalence in literature of complex and strong female characters
from ancient times to the present. "A very queer, composite being
thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she
is completely insignificant. ...Some of the most inspired words, some
of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in
real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property
of her husband." In light of this paradox, the solution to the problem
of trying to conceptualize the Elizabethan woman seems to be to
pool the resources of history and fiction.
"It would have been impossible," the narrator concludes
from this thought-experiment, "completely and entirely, for any
woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare." To
illustrate this conclusion, she conjures the imaginary character
of Judith Shakespeare. Judith is as gifted perhaps as her brother,
but receives no education except that which she can create for herself
in what free time she has. Although she is "the apple of her father's eye,"
her family expects her to conform to a social role that leaves no
room for the development of her talent. She writes some, in secret,
but hides or burns her work for fear of reprisal. She becomes engaged
at a young age. When she begs to be allowed not to marry, she is
chastised and beaten by her father. After this she runs away, driven
by "the force of her own gift alone." She wants to go into acting,
but meets with rejection and ridicule. She is finally taken up by a
theater-manager, becomes pregnant by him, and commits suicide.
This is how the life of a woman with Shakespeare's genius
might have looked at that time, the narrator argues. But she goes
on to assert that "it is unthinkable that any woman in Shakespeare's
day should have had Shakespeare's genius"- -or no more than the
first germ of genius, and certainly not the kind that would ever
have translated itself into brilliant writing. "For genius is not
born among labouring, uneducated, servile people," except with the
rarest exceptions—and even then, that social condition glares through as
a limitation of the art. In that age, genius engendered witches
and lunatics among women, and "Anonymous," she argues, was most likely
a woman as well.
Having explored the deep inner conflicts that a gifted
woman must have felt during the Renaissance, the narrator goes on
to ask, "What is the state of mind that is most propitious to the
act of creation?" She marvels at the "prodigious difficulty" of
producing a work of genius, and observes that circumstances generally
conspire against it. She cites as obstacles the indifference of
most of the world, the profusion of distractions, and the heaping
up of various forms of discouragement. This is true for all artists,
but how much more so for women! A woman would not even have a room
of her own, unless her parents were exceptionally wealthy, and in
her spending money and discretionary time she would be totally at
the mercy of others. Being regularly told of female ineptitude,
women would surely have internalized that belief; the absence of
any tradition of female intellectuals would have made such arguments
all the more viable. Though we like to think of genius as transcendent,
the narrator holds that the mind of the artist is actually particularly
susceptible to discouragement and vulnerable to the opinion of others. The
mind of the artist, she says, "must be incandescent. ...There must
be no obstacle in it, no foreign matter unconsumed."
In this chapter, the narrator turns to history to look
for "facts" about the relationship between women and literature.
Relevant facts, however, prove to be few and far between. Once again,
fiction is enlisted to help complete the history—and to expose,
along the way, the biases and omissions of canonical knowledge.
The absence of objective historical facts is a real obstacle for
the person attempting to reconstruct the experience of 16th
century women: "Here am I asking why women did not write poetry
in the Elizabethan age, and I am not sure how they were educated;
whether they were taught to write; whether they had sitting rooms
to themselves; how many women had children before they were twenty-one;
what, in short, they did from eight in the morning till eight at
night." In spite of this gap in the historical record, however,
the narrator provides an astute analysis of the conflicting values
and impulses to which such a woman would have been susceptible.
She points out that sexist assumptions would have been internalized,
showing how oppression of this kind comes from within as well as
from without. The touching portrait of Judith Shakespeare takes
us beyond mere facts, touching the tragedy and anguish that would
have been at the heart of an intelligent woman's experience at that
time. Even while bemoaning the missing history, the author is aware
that a purely objective view would not do justice to this subjective
experience in the way the portrait of Judith Shakespeare might hope
to. "Objectivity," in this instance, must take the form not of scientific
detachment, but rather of imaginative engagement.
The narrator elaborates more fully the point from the
first chapter that genius depends on certain conditions—and that
these conditions, at the most basic level, are material and social.
Because Shakespeare is so often sanctified as the pure genius who
transcends all conditions of circumstance and surroundings, his
era and his sister provide apt templates for Woolf's argument. There
are two important ideas in play here. The first is that all art,
even Shakespeare's, is in fact enabled by a historical,
social, and economic reality, whether or not that reality finds
articulation in the art itself. The different outcomes of William
and Judith Shakespeare serve to dramatize this point, and also to
account for the fact that women simply were not writing literature
at that time. The second point is an aesthetic one: that good art
in fact should not betray the personal circumstances
surrounding its production. In order to achieve "incandescence,"
the intensity of the art must burn away "all desire to protest,
to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the
world the witness of some hardship of grievance." It is in their
incandescence that Shakespeare's plays achieve their greatness.
But that characteristic is itself a luxury, and a product of social and
material privilege (in much the same way that the narrator's five hundred
pounds a year allows her to think about her controversial topic
with charity and equanimity). The very fact that we know so little
about Shakespeare as a person testifies to the greatness of his art.
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Room of One's Own!