The Hidden Women Writers of the Elizabethan Theater

In Shakespeare’s time, women were actively engaged in the theater business—and their roles may well have extended to writing plays.

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Editor’s Note: This article is one in a series of responses to Elizabeth Winkler’s article, “Was Shakespeare a Woman?,” in the June issue of the magazine.

I’m not convinced that Emilia Bassano or anyone else was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. But I’m absolutely certain that women had a hand in the writing of many plays performed in his theater. Recent scholarship has demonstrated that women were actively and visibly engaged in the business of the professional theater companies that burgeoned during the Elizabethan period. Aristocratic and royal women were among their patrons, and women lower on the social scale were involved in their day-to-day business. Women supplied costumes for theatrical productions, lent money to the players, and owned shares in the companies. They stood at the entrances of playhouses to collect admission fees. Women also constituted a sizable portion of the playgoers—perhaps more than half—and on a few occasions, they even appeared onstage. (There are contemporary references to French actresses and female Italian acrobats, and Mary Frith—a figure in the London underworld, also known as Moll Cutpurse—delivered a notorious performance at the Fortune Theatre in 1612.) The female audience came from all ranks of society, ranging from royalty to common criminals. Perhaps the greatest number came from London’s middling class.

We know the names of medieval and Renaissance Englishwomen who wrote a variety of plays, ranging from liturgical drama to aristocratic and royal entertainments. The absence of women from the list of known commercial playwrights in Shakespeare’s England does not mean that no Englishwomen had a hand in writing for the public stage—only that their names may be difficult or impossible to retrieve. That is in part because most of the plays we have from the first commercial theaters came down to us without the names of their authors. The assumption that every one of the unnamed authors was a man is simply that—an assumption.

Eighty percent of extant plays printed in the 1580s lacked authorial attribution, and although the percentage of named playwrights increased significantly in subsequent years, it didn’t rise above half until after the beginning of the 17th century. Shakespeare’s contemporaries didn’t share modern audiences’ interest in the identification of authors. The recorded evidence scholars look for concerning the authorship of these early commercial plays may very well not exist because no one bothered to keep such records. Play scripts were originally conceived not as literary works but as theatrical resources. They were purchased, owned, and modified by the acting companies that regarded the scripts as items in their stock-in-trade—the raw material that, along with costumes, cauldrons, gunpowder, and other goods, the players used to put on their shows. Even in the case of a playwright as successful as Shakespeare, his name was not valued enough as a selling point to appear on the title pages of his published plays until relatively late in his career; the first two editions of Romeo and Juliet were published with no author’s name listed. In such a market, the gender of the writer who composed a script could easily have remained as unknown and unrecorded as his—or her—name.

It’s also important to remember that the scripts were typically the result of collaboration rather than the product of individual writers working in isolation. This is a mode of writing in which women were likely to be involved. Sixteenth-century English households were not simply domiciles; they were also places of production in which every resident—husband, wife, hired men and women, and children—had a part. The household of a baker produced bread; the household of a glover produced gloves. The household of a playwright is likely to have been organized on similar principles. The wives and daughters of practicing male playwrights could have learned the tricks of the trade close-up. Plays, like other goods sold as the property of a householder, could have been the product of his wife’s or daughter’s work as well as—or instead of—his own. And women who were not members of a playwriting household might have learned how to write for the players simply by attending their performances. Some of the sophisticated London women in the audience might have developed from savvy consumers into equally savvy writers of play scripts—perhaps especially skillful at producing material that would appeal to other women.

Renaissance descriptions of authors as “fathers,” puns on pen and penis, and comparisons of pens to weapons all helped establish a gendered boundary between women and writing. However, this rhetoric and the assumptions it expressed were more likely to have militated against the acknowledgment of a woman’s authorship than to have prevented her from writing plays that could be presented anonymously or identified as the work of a male collaborator. Numerous reasons, ranging from social propriety to commercial marketability, existed for concealing the fact that a woman had a hand in writing a play. As the examples of the Brontë sisters and George Eliot remind us, women continued to publish their work under men’s names into the 19th century. And even if a woman didn’t decide to conceal her authorship, it may have been concealed by those who appropriated, transcribed, or printed her work. For instance, The History of the Life, Reign, and Death of Edward II, now generally attributed to Elizabeth Cary, was published in 1680 as the work of her husband—an attribution that was not challenged until 1935.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the likelihood that women wrote for the early modern English commercial stage is the fact that those plays were not, in the first instance, written for self-expression or personal recognition. They were written, performed, and printed for profit. With money to be made and a marketable skill, women had powerful incentives to write plays that were presented either without authorial attribution or as the work of a male collaborator.

This essay has been adapted from Phyllis Rackin’s article “Anonymous Was a Woman,” in Shakespeare Without Boundaries.