Women Dramatists of the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries
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In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf imagined how an ambitious sister of Shakespeare would have fared in Elizabethan England had she tried to copy her famous brother and write plays for the theatre herself. She would, in Virginia Woolf’s imagination, have been ridiculed, exploited and made pregnant, and would ultimately have committed suicide. Indeed, the public stage in Shakespeare’s time offered no place to a woman in any capacity whatever; it was to take another three-quarters of a century before actresses and professional women playwrights were to emerge. Yet there were women in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods who did write plays — but not for public performance. All the women playwrights of this period were of the aristocracy, from the small cultural elite favourably disposed towards female education, and they wrote closet dramas for the amusement of their family and friends, or to prove their erudition, but not to make a name for themselves in the theatre. This was not only a question of gender but also of class, since aristocrats were expected to be patrons of the arts rather than writers themselves. The gentleman playwright became a prominent figure only in the Restoration period, and the nobleman in 1600 would have considered it demeaning to write for the public stage. Marketing drama in the commercial theatre was regarded as undignified for a member of the upper class, although dramatic composition in itself was perfectly legitimate and respectable, albeit less popular than poetry among the cultured class. But aristocrats wrote both verse and drama for the edification of their social equals, and circulated their work among their friends, although it could be pirated, or might be printed once the writer had achieved a literary reputation. Yet it was only in the Restoration period that publication gained respectability, and well born poets published with full attribution, though persons of quality were published anonymously well after 1700.6
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