Skip to main content Skip to navigation

EN958 Shakespeare and His Sister


This module is an attempt to show what the other 50% of the English population were doing while the men were writing material for courses in Renaissance literature. Lots of people study women's writing, obviously. This module tries to put their work in the context of what the men were up to so that rather than seeing women's writing as a kind of ghetto, we get a rather broader picture of what literary culture in the early modern period was like.

And before we go any further, I do know that Shakespeare didn't have a sister who wrote, that we know of (perhaps that is the whole point). Apart from being an 80s rock band, the term 'Shakespeare's sister' is taken from Virginia Woolf's analysis in A Room of One's Own that if Shakespeare had had an equally gifted but female sibling she would not have been known about for cultural reasons. Woolf is very nearly right, but the Perdita Project, based at Warwick, has for the last ten years been finding out more about the female relatives, friends and lovers of famous men like Philip Sidney, John Donne and the Earl of Rochester. This course is sharing the results of this research--so we will read the writing of women alongside their more famous men. What will happen when we compare them? It is up to you to judge....


Elizabeth Clarke

 Set texts

It is worth buying these books, which are both in paperback.

eds Gillian Wright and Jill Seal Millman, Early Modern Women's Manuscript Poetry (Manchester University Press, 2005)

ed. Danielle Clarke, Isabella Whitney, Mary Sidney, Aemilia Lanyer; Renaissance Women Poets (Penguin, 2000)

 For the introductory session it would be good to read chapter 3 of Virginia Woolf's A Rom of One's Own.


Week 1: Introduction. The concept of Shakespeare and his Sister as Virginia Woolf envisaged it. Issues in comparing men and women writers. In what ways is writing gendered in the Renaissance? Is there a separate literary history for women?


Week 2: Isabella and Geffrey Whitney


'Isabella Whitney and the Female Legacy' by Wendy Wall, ELH 1991, 35-62

Wendy Wall

Page 38 of 35-62

Two amazing siblings who made money selling popular genres, for men and women. This session looks at the ‘Will and Testament’ of Isabella Whitney (in Danielle Clarke, ed., Renaissance Women Poets) and Geoffrey Whitney’s A Choice of Emblemes1586 (EEBO or LION which has no illustrations)
Week 3: Philip Sidney and his sister Mary This session looks at Mary Sidney’s commemoration of her brother’s works, and looks at their joint version of the Book of Psalms, which Mary finished after Philip died. We will hear from students on aspects of the literature and of the biography, and then focus on the Psalms to ask the million dollar question--is she a better poet than him and how might we judge? We shall focus on the Psalms of hers in Early Modern Women's Manuscript Poetry, and Three Renaissance Women Poets. More Psalms from both of them are in Literature Online--bring with you any that you like.

Week 4: William Shakespeare, and his Dark Lady?

Lady Mary Wroth has been suggested as the Dark Lady to whom Shakespeare wrote sonnets. She also wrote sonnets. This session compares the two. Look at the Mary Wroth selection in Early Modern Women's Manuscript Poetry and find the Dark Lady sonnets that Shakespeare wrote (127-152)

Week 5. The Black Dog and his tamer

Rachel Speght was so incensed at Joseph Swetnam’s 1615 attack on women that she answered him with her own pamphlet, A Mouzell for Melastomous. This session looks at both, and compares styles and arguments. Find the two pamphlets on EEBO. I will also give you an article by me, 'Anne Southwell, and the Pamphlet Debate: the politics of Gender. Class and Manuscript' in Debating Gender in Early Modern England' eds Malcolmson and Suzuki (Palgrave, 2002)

Week 6: John Donne and his friend Anne Southwell

In their youth, John Donne and Anne Southwell played rhetorical games together. This session looks at their respective efforts and judges the winner. There is a record of the News game played by all John Donne's friends in the 1615 edition of Thomas Overbury's The Wife. Om image 40 there is an entry by John Donne, ansered by AS (who ha been identified ss Anne Southwell) CAN you work out the rules of the game? Also intereting is the reat of the volume--the ideology of the poem The Wife, and of the jokey populist genre of Characters (the portraits of the women are particularloy intereating)Then we proceed to look at their adult poetry (whilst taking account of Anne Southwell’s views on the double standard for men and women writers). Look at John Donne's religious poetry--Anne Southwell's is in Early Modern Women's Manuscript Poetry.

Week 7: Fellow prophets Elinor Channel and Arise Evans.

Read A message from God, by a dumb woman to his Highness the Lord Protector. on EEBO.

What difference does gender make? Prophetesses such as Anna Trapnel were very influential in the mid-century.Elizabeth Poole was even consulted by the Army Council on whether to execute Charles 1. Why? You should be able to get Manfred Brod's article in Albion 1999: 'Politics and Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England; the case of Elizabeth Poole.'

Week 8: This session compares Katherine Philips, the first famous 'poetess', with her the poet she used and imitated, John Donne. Reading for thiis session includes the first part of chapter 4 of Elizabeth Scott-Baumann's Forms of Englagement (OUP 2013) Early Modern Women's Manuscript Poetry has Philip's work: find Donne's on LION.

Week 9: Lucy Hutchinson, reader of Milton and epic poet

Lucy Hutchinson read Paradise Lost and then wrote her own epic poem on Genesis, Order and Disorder, which she published anonymously (it was of course assumed to be her brother's--ricidulous as he was a royalist) in 1679. This session compares their treatment of Eve: Order and Disorder ed David Norbrook (Blackwell, 2001) Cantos 3-5; the account of the Creation and the Fall. Compare with Paradise Lost books 4 and 9. Robert Wilcher wrote an interesting article in the Sprng 2010 volume of 'English' which you should be able to get on the web:

Lucy Hutchinson and Genesis: Paraphrase, Epic, Romance


Week 10 Lovers, friends? The Earl of Rochester and Aphra Behn

Rumours abound about the relationship between these two outrageous literary figures: he seems to mention her in his poems, and she produces poetry which seems to mimick his. In fact her explicit poetry was often assumed to be his! Is this, finally, progress for women?