Virginia Woolf invents the character of Judith Shakespeare as a case study for the thesis she promotes in the essay’s first chapter, while proving fiction’s power over history. Woolf claims that no woman can produce art without a substantial income and the privacy necessary for creativity. In presenting Judith Shakespeare’s story, Woolf verifies that art is dependent on external circumstances, most of which are material or social, and in focusing on a singular character, she garners an emotional response from readers impossible of a history textbook.
Previous to telling Judith’s story, Woolf describes the frustration enveloping her fruitless search for historical information, “not opinions but facts,” on women of the Elizabethan era (41). The only information she does offer is negative, including wife-beating, which “was a recognized right of man,” creating a world of violence for readers, in which she will place her imaginary Judith Shakespeare (42). Whether readers realize it or not, Woolf has used history to introduce a concept that will later be illuminated by fiction (she describes Judith being beaten by her father). Here, Woolf might be making a claim about the believability of fiction – she has included something verifiable by historical fact in her creation -, or perhaps she is further advancing her idea, through a stylistic choice, that circumstance in reality dictates art. Just as Judith’s socioeconomic status and gender control her talents, the reality of woman beating in Elizabethan times (likely) influence the character Woolf creates. Perhaps art should reflect the reality of social norms at the time of its creation (and perhaps this is why Woolf asserts that Judith Shakespeare never could have had Shakespeare genius, as it is “unthinkable that any woman in [his] day should,” (48)), though one thing Woolf does not leave up to reader interpretation is that here, fiction is better than history. Woolf literally creates the fictitious character of Judith Shakespeare to express truths that history cannot, letting fiction speak for truth.
Through Judith, Woolf reinforces her previously-made assertions about the dependence of art on external factors, including gender, age, monetary wealth, professional aspiration, family, and overall, the societal expectations of the time. The author’s choice to use William Shakespeare as the male counterpart is important not only in his status as an extremely well-known writer, but also in that she makes known her own, personal love of his work. “Shakespeare’s plays,” she says, “….seem to hang there completely by themselves,” (she says in “Character in Fiction” that the best literature has everything existing in itself). While this might not be the most objective approach, readers have no doubt that Woolf would have praised any writing produced by Judith, had she ever been able to produce it. Woolf also leaves no doubt that Judith is her brother’s intellectual equal, “she was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was,” (47). Yet, the external factors structured by society and perpetuated by her family prevent her from rising to her brother’s acclaim.
Gender may be the most apparent difference between the two, and the trait that motivates the difference in societal expectations on Judith. She must hide her writing, and instead tend to stockings and dinner. Her gender is also what dooms her at the end of the story, her pregnancy, an experience reserved exclusively for women, is what drives her to commit suicide. It is also her womanhood which hinders her from her professional goal of being an actress, as a theatre manager remarks, “no woman…could possibly be an actress,” (47). Her age also works against her; she is still under the control of her parents, and being engaged at a very young age seems to limit any possible potential. Additionally, she does not have two things Woolf offers as essential for creativity: money and privacy. In her younger years, Judith lives in her parents’ household, with little to no privacy, where she must be secretive about her writing. It can be assumed that she has little money after running away from home, and still lacking the kind of privacy she needs. Not only is identity dictated by the external factors of material possession and societal expectation, but also the success of that identity.
– Chelsea Radigan