While reading Virginia Woolf’s story about Shakespeare’s fictional sister, Judith Shakespeare, I was reminded of another story I read about a Judith Shakespeare many years ago. The real life Judith is Shakespeare’s daughter, not his sister, and has been inspiration for several works of historical fiction. When I was in middle school, my grandmother sent me the novel My Father Had a Daughter: Judith Shakespeare’s Tale, by Grace Tiffany. The novel is a retelling of Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, replacing the character Viola with Judith.
In Woolf’s story, Judith has a talent for writing, but is not allowed proper instruction or even time to read on her own as she must attend to domestic duties. This is already a bit of an overestimation of a woman’s opportunities at that time as the real life Judith was illiterate and could not even sign her own name (unlike her husband). In Tiffany’s novel, Judith does not necessarily have a love for writing, but she does share Woolf’s Judith’s love for the theater and desire to act. Both characters run away from home to the theater as adolescents, but while Woolf’s Judith is turned away and mocked for wanting to act, Tiffany’s Judith mirrors Viola’s character and pretends to be a boy in order to get the work she wants. Yet, just as the Judith of Woolf’s story is thwarted by an actor’s desire for her body, the Judith of Tiffany’s story is forced to have sex with an actor after he discovers she is a woman and blackmails her. Tiffany’s Judith does not have quite as tragic an ending, however, as she does not become pregnant out of wedlock or commit suicide. Still, she cannot pass for a boy forever and is eventually forced to give up the theater and marry a man who will support her, leaving her in precisely the same predicament that Woolf’s character died rejecting.
According to Woolf, the only alternative option for a woman who could not accept a life without creative expression was death. In Tiffany’s story, Judith is faced with the same option: she continues to live, but only by ultimately accepting a life outside the theater, as a wife and mother. Tiffany’s story of a talented Judith Shakespeare matches Woolf’s in showing that it was impossible during the time of Shakespeare for a woman to have any success in or even express her creative talents due to her lack of opportunity, not her lack of natural ability.