Academic journal article Style

Introduction: Shakespeare's Intentions

Academic journal article Style

Introduction: Shakespeare's Intentions

Article excerpt

Writing in 1928, in lectures that would eventually be published in the polemical volume A Room of One's Own (1929), Virginia Woolf offered her own view of Shakespeare's creative authorship: "For though we say that we know nothing about Shakespeare's state of mind," she wrote at the very midpoint of her essay, an essay that otherwise addresses the topic of women and fiction,

   even as we say that, we are saying something about Shakespeare's
   state of mind. The reason perhaps why we know so little of
   Shakespeare--compared with Donne or Ben Jonson or Milton--is that
   his grudges and spites and antipathies are hidden from us. We are
   not held up by some "revelation" which reminds us of the writer.
   All desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off
   a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or
   grievance was fired out of him and consumed. Therefore his poetry
   flows from him free and unimpeded. (66)

Though characteristically mellifluous, Woolf's writing in Room is marked by numerous contradictions, many of them deliberate, and not the least of which is her Shakespeare, held up as a model for women writers because he represents, in Coleridgean terms, an androgynous ideal. In a subsequent chapter, she explains that women writers "think back" through their mothers (88), the first of whom, by way of sequential metaphors revolving around such concepts as anonymity and androgyny, turns out to be Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was, for Woolf, "incandescent and undivided" (114), terms she used to describe that imaginative essence or core implied by the name "Shakespeare" which she understood to be the single, originating source for the poetry that bears his name, "poetry" here to mean, rather than a conventional genre of writing, the creative product of his imagination. "Incandescence" describes the process that sees Shakespeare's imagination--as Coleridge would have it, his "esemplastic power"--released "whole and entire" (Woolf 66) from his mind, unimpeded by any personal convictions or agendas, and therefore undivided. The relationship between Shakespeare's creative genius and the body of writing that has descended to us is therefore one of unproblematic metonymy in Woolf's writing.

Despite this romanticist investment in such concepts as genius and imagination, however, Shakespeare remains central to her material demands, explicit in the title of the volume, that women need a room of their own and five hundred pounds a year to write fiction. Thus, she writes:

   fiction is like a spider's web, attached ever so lightly perhaps,
   but still attached to life at all four comers. Often the attachment
   is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare's plays, for instance, seem to
   hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled
   askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers
   that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures,
   but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to
   grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we
   live in. (48-9)

Woolf invents the fictional Judith Shakespeare to imagine the life of a female writer born with Shakespeare's genius. Building upon the title of the essay, she develops the comparison through a series of spatial metaphors: while Shakespeare was sent to school, moved freely in the streets and through the neighborhoods of Warwickshire, moved to London, entered the theatre, lived at the hub of the universe, and even gained access to the palace of the queen, Judith's story is one of barred entry or surreptitious movement; not sent to school, confined to domestic duties, and hidden in the apple loft to do her writing, when Judith escapes to London, she is unable to enter a tavern or walk the streets by moonlight, and is finally denied entry at the door of her brother's theatre, driving her to suicide.

I've chosen to begin this discussion of Shakespeare and the perennial question of authorial intention by, rather than summarizing and positioning the arguments and counterarguments that follow in this special issue instead, putting forth for our consideration a concrete example, in this case, of a well-known writer speculating on the nature of Shakespeare's authorship. …

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