In 1929, puzzling in her Room of One’s Own “why no woman [in Shakespeare’s England] wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet,” Virginia Woolf tried to conjure up the plight of Judith Shakespeare, the gifted, imaginary sister of the poet. Aware that Renaissance morés, based on century-old conceptions of woman’s nature and condition, constrained women to chastity, humility, obedience, and silence, Woolf concluded that “any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone craz’d, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at. . . . [W]hatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagination.”
Over the last twenty years, scholars have confirmed many of the details of the sometimes pitiable life circumstances of Shakespeare’s sisters — disabled under law, more limited in educational and economic options than men, exhorted to humility and submissiveness and to an acceptance of their lot by their spiritual leaders. Simultaneously and surprisingly, this confirmation has been accompanied by a recovery of close to 100 separately printed writings by Renaissance women, between 1500 and 1640, who, despite the constraints they struggled against, did leave sometimes spirited traces of themselves in print during the “golden age” of William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and John Milton. The poems by Englishwomen below appeared between 1546 and 1621.
The two major currents of intellectual change affecting women in Renaissance England were religious reform (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) and the recovery of ancient scholarship. Of the two, religious change affected most women far more directly than interest in classical civilization. Recognizing that education, of at least a rudimentary sort, could be a significant weapon in inculcating faith and in firming up the allegiance of the household, theorists in both religious camps developed interest in the allegiance of the women of their persuasions (not to speak of interest in saving their souls). As a result, many of the known writings by Renaissance women are religious in nature.
Some educational reformers, who tended in this period to be deeply religious themselves, also advocated the practical education of women for those life tasks they would be called on to perform. Since many Renaissance persons were taught to read, but not to write, literacy rates during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are hard to establish, though men seem to have been far more likely than women to be literate. Renaissance Englishwomen seem to have been schooled in greater numbers than in earlier periods; the higher they were on the social scale, the more esoteric their education was likely to have been, and in some instances we have evidences of women of immense erudition, the so-called Tudor prodigies who have left traces of their accomplishments. At the top of the educational and social pyramid in our sampling are the cousins Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart; trained to rule, highly educated, and schooled in courtly graces, both composed occasional poetry. Anne Askew, the Protestant martyr, has left us a powerful ballad, and elegant poems survive by prominent noblewomen like Mary Sidney Herbert, translator of the psalms, and her niece, Mary Sidney Wroth. Though the record is less full as we move down the social scale, poems are also extant by Isabella Whitney and Aemilia Lanyer, sprightly serving women of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.