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Was Shakespeare a Woman?

For hundreds of years, critics have been speculating that William Shakespeare did not write all those plays with his name on them. Even his contemporaries suggested he was credited for works that weren't his. But who could the writer have been? The founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Company, Tina Packer, openly wondered why Shakespeare was so far ahead of his contemporaries in his ability to see the world through a woman's eyes. Considering how Shakespeare gave his female characters emotions and ambitions that other (male) writers never approached, could it be possible that the hand that wrote those plays belonged to a woman?  

Long before Tina Packer marveled at the bard’s uncanny insight, others were no less awed by the empathy that pervades the work. “One would think that he had been Metamorphosed from a Man to a Woman,” wrote Margaret Cavendish, the 17th-century philosopher and playwright. The critic John Ruskin said, “Shakespeare has no heroes—he has only heroines.” A striking number of those heroines refuse to obey rules. At least 10 defy their fathers, bucking betrothals they don’t like to find their own paths to love. Eight disguise themselves as men, outwitting patriarchal controls—more gender-swapping than can be found in the work of any previous English playwright. Six lead armies.

The prevailing view, however, has been that no women in Renaissance England wrote for the theater, because that was against the rules.

In an era where 80% of all plays were written anonymously, it would have been a simple matter to feed scripts to an actor with connections, whether he took credit or not. The evidence is speculation, but Elizabeth Winkler at the Atlantic makes a case for an anonymous woman writer of Shakespeare plays, particularly Emilia Bassano. 

(Image credit: Stephen Doyle)


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