Shakespeare's Sister Takes a Bow at the Blackfriars

Mar 15, 2017

In this time of mounting hostility toward immigrants, economic uncertainty and massive women’s marches, a surprising new play premiered at the American Shakespeare Center’s theater in Staunton.

When 28-year-old playwright Emma Whipday was in college, she had an idea.

“I was studying for my final exams at Oxford University," she recalls. " I was reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which tells a story about what if Shakespeare had a sister who was as talented as he was,  and I thought that was a really exciting question.”

But she didn’t like how Virginia Woolf handled the story of Shakespeare’s ill-fated sibling.

“It has Judith becoming pregnant and committing suicide, because she thinks a poet’s heart is incompatible with a woman’s body," Whipday explains.

So she wrote something for the stage.

“The story is that Judith Shakespeare has written a play in secret, and when the players come to Stratford she decides to escape her hometown, where her father wants her to marry against her will, run away with the players to London and try and sell her play to the theaters.”

But when she gets to London,  Judith discovers it’s illegal to write a play like the one she has penned -- based on a Bible story, and women are not welcomed as playwrights or actors.  That's why she turns to the local madam and her girls, who are excited by the chance to perform in a secret play. 

Whipday wrote in modern day English, making it easy for an audience to follow the dialogue,  but she used certain words and sentence structures to evoke Shakespeare’s time.  To her surprise, the lines rolled easily off the tongues of an American cast in Virginia.

Ginna Hoben plays Judith Shakespeare, an aspiring female playwright, in the world premiere of Shakespeare's Sister.
Credit The American Shakespeare Center

“It made me think about how Shakespeare’s English is supposed to be closer to American English," she says.  "The language didn’t change in the same way that British English did.  Some scholars have argued that some of the vowel sounds and some of the speech patterns might be closer to how people actually spoke in early modern England.” 

Shakespeare’s Sister is – in some places – comedy and in others tragedy, but it’s always relevant, since it turns out Shakespeare’s time had much in common with our own.

“There was a lot of immigration.  There were a lot of anxieties about immigration,"  the playwright explains. "There was a lot of fear about Catholicism as a religion that people thought could undermine the state – could cause people to try to assassinate the queen.  I’m interested in the difficulties that not just women but also men have in the Elizabethan period in making a living in a kind of precarious career like the arts, and the difficulty that women writers still have, particularly in theater and film and the arts and female directors as well.  I mean things have improved so much over the last 20-30 years, but there’s still nothing near equality.”

Shakespeare’s Sister is on stage through April 7th.  Next up for Emma Whipday, an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, which will be on the bill at the Blackfriars Theater in Staunton next year.