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A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf

Chapter 3

Summary Chapter 3

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.