An extract from ‘Shakespeare in Bloomsbury’ by Marjorie Garber

2023 marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare’s first folio, without which many of his works would have been lost. This preservation was significant, particularly to those creatives who have become enmeshed with his legacy – notably, the Bloomsbury Group, whose members including Virginia Woolf frequently expressed how inseparable their art is from Shakespeare’s. Nestled in Bedford Square in the heart of Bloomsbury, Yale University Press is also celebrating. It’s our 50th year of publishing in London. So, there is no better time to explore the history of artistic lives woven into our U.K. home. Read on for an extract from Shakespeare in Bloomsbury, in which Marjorie Garber tells the untold story of Shakespeare’s profound influence on Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group.

“Bedford Square” by Russ LondonCC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

The “Shakespeare” of such vital importance to the members of the Bloomsbury Group was certainly not an edition, a text, or even a set of favourite passages. Nor was it a mode of exegesis or a school of interpretation—ways of thinking about literature that were far from their own experience and inimical to their instincts. Bloomsbury’s Shakespeare might rather be described, in terms more amenable to the people most closely involved, as an attitude, a reading practice, and a style both of writing and of thought. “It seems to me indisputable,” Virginia Woolf once observed, “that the conditions which make it possible for a Shakespeare to exist are that he shall have had predecessors in his art, shall make one of a group in which art is freely discussed and practised, and shall himself have the utmost of freedom of action and experience.”1 Her topic on that occasion was “the intellectual status of women,” and her mention of Shakespeare was designed to contrast his situation with that of the modern woman writer. But the “group in which art is freely discussed and practised” was also the world of Bloomsbury, where “the utmost of freedom of action and experience” was a strongly held belief, foundational to the writers’ creative and personal lives. For these brilliant friends—who both individually and collectively had such a formative effect upon literature, the arts, and culture—Shakespeare was in effect another, if less fully acknowledged, member of the Bloomsbury Group.

Virginia Woolf’s lifelong engagement with Shakespeare—his plays, his language, his characters, his persona—has been frequently noted.2 From the early reading notebooks and her conversations with her father, Leslie Stephen, and her adored brother Thoby to the very end of her life, she thought—and wrote—through and with him, sometimes taking comfort in a phrase or a word, sometimes galvanised by his brilliance or his example, sometimes comically despairing that she would never catch up to him no matter how hard she tried. He was also for her a confidant and a consoler. Above all for her he was a writer: at once a mentor, a rival (never to be outdone), and somehow also a peer. Thoby, two years her senior, was her first real Shakespeare interlocutor. After his tragic early death from typhoid at the age of twenty-six, he would always be associated in her mind with the playwright and the plays. In a paper she read to the Memoir Club in 1928, she recalled that when Thoby told her stories of his Cambridge friends she imagined them “as if they were characters in Shakespeare.” 3(Several of these “characters” were, of course, present in the room to hear Woolf’s droll and affectionate portraits of themselves.) The three key elements—Thoby, his friends, and Shakespeare—were, and continued to be, indissolubly bound in her thought. Throughout her life Thoby’s friends remained her friends, the foundation of the group that would become known as Bloomsbury. From Asheham in Sussex Woolf wrote to Saxon Sydney-Turner: “I’m thinking of reading Measure for Measure this afternoon, and I wish you could be here, and then we’d ramble on about all sorts of things. I daresay you share my feeling that Asheham is the best place in the world for reading Shakespeare.”4 Much later, after a long period during which she and Saxon had fallen out of touch, they resumed their relationship, effortlessly, through Shakespeare: “We take up a conversation broken these 10 years in our natural voices: What about Pericles? & so on.”5 For Virginia Woolf, talking about Shakespeare with friends and relatives was both a pleasure and a sign of intimacy. Such interchanges were an essential part of her Bloomsbury existence. 

Turning to Shakespeare could occasionally lead her to make negative self comparisons, even after her own writing had brought her fame and success. Here is an example, among dozens of similar observations in Woolf ’s private diaries: “I read Shakespeare directly I have finished writing, when my mind is agape & red & hot. Then it is astonishing. I never knew how amazing his stretch & speed & word coining power is, until I felt it utterly outpace & outrace my own, seeming to start equal & then I see him draw ahead & do things I could not in my wildest tumult & utmost press of mind imagine. . . . Indeed, I could say that Shre surpasses literature altogether, if I knew what I meant.”6

The passage is itself thrilling to read, and offers some insight into how Shakespeare served for her as a model as well as a (beloved) rival. And there is also this dramatic vignette, which begins with one of her favourite time markers, “the present moment”—a phrase that will appear in several of her novels. “The present moment. 7 o’clock on June 26th: L. printing; hot; thunderous. I after reading Henry 4 Pt one saying whats the use of writing.”7 But of course she kept writing—as well as reading and rereading. “Shall I read King Lear? Do I want such a strain on the emotions?” she asked herself rhetorically in her diary.8 The answer, needless to say, was yes. Long after she had become a famous author, when she was wrestling with a manuscript to “get the last pages right, if I can only dream myself back into them,” she decided “to read a little Shakespeare. Yes, one of the last plays; I think I will do that, so as to loosen my muscles.”9

At moments of joy the thought of Shakespeare often came spontaneously to her mind. “It was so lovely in the Waterloo Road,” she writes in her diary in 1923, “that it struck me that we were writing Shakespeare; by which I meant that when live people, seeming happy, produce an effect of beauty, & you dont have it offered as a work of art, but it seems a natural gift of theirs, then—what was I meaning?—somehow it affected me as I am affected by reading Shakespeare. No; its life; going on in these very beautiful surroundings.”10 In this case, and indeed consistently, Woolf equates “writing, “reading,” and “living,” connecting them all with Shakespeare.

Her life with Leonard was also a life with Shakespeare. Once, on “a pessimistic walk” in the countryside, they took note of their happiness together while Leonard “discoursed on the illusory nature of all pleasures & pains,” deciding that “mankind is a wretched tribe of animals, & even the works of Shakespeare no good save as his skill in doing excites one’s pleasure.”11 Their shared pleasure in this discussion of unpleasure is palpable in her account. A few years later, when they had just returned from abroad, she writes in her diary, “L. & I were too too happy, as they say; if it were now to die, &c. Nobody shall say of me that I have not known perfect happiness.”12 The quotation from Othello is also one that she cites in Mrs. Dalloway—published in the same year as the diary entry—at the moment when the young Clarissa anticipates her meeting with Sally Seton (“‘If it were now to die ’twere now to be most happy.’ That was her feeling—Othello’s feeling, and she felt it, she was convinced, as strongly as Shakespeare meant Othello to feel it”).13 Neither Virginia nor Clarissa mentions the dramatic irony of these lines in the context of the play, where they mark the apex of Othello’s happiness. But perhaps the conjunction of love and death, so powerful throughout Shakespeare, is also something Woolf shared with, or derived from, Shakespearean drama. In 1938, with war looming, Virginia and Leonard went to a performance of Twelfth Night (“disappointing”) and walked home talking about whether they feared death. They decided that they did not, so long as they could be together. (“So we dont think of death.”)14 Was Feste’s haunting song in the play, “Come Away Death,” a spur to their conversation, consciously or unconsciously? Certainly Shakespeare was one of their powerful bonds. Once, when Leonard told her that he was the only person who understood her, she replied, “You and Shakespeare.”15

  1. Virginia Woolf, “The Intellectual Status of Women,” in Diary, 2:339 (appendix 3).. ↩︎
  2. Many important and perceptive studies have traced Woolf ’s reading in and commentary
    on Shakespeare. Alice Fox places Woolf in the context of her fascination with the Elizabethan
    period and its literature (Fox, Virginia Woolf and the Literature of the English
    Renaissance [Oxford: Clarendon, 1990]). Theodore Leinwand compares Woolf ’s Shakespeare
    to that of poets from Coleridge and Keats to Allen Ginsberg and Ted Hughes
    (Leinwand, The Great William: Writers Reading Shakespeare [Chicago: University of
    Chicago Press, 2016]). Christina Froula, in a powerful essay and then in a capacious and
    equally resonant book, points to Woolf ’s early—and enduring—sense of herself as
    Shakespeare’s “true inheritor,” charting her sibling rivalry (first with her brother Thoby,
    then with “Judith” Shakespeare’s brother William) and the abiding presence of Shakespeare
    in her novels and diaries (Froula, “Virginia Woolf as Shakespeare’s Sister: Chapters
    in a Woman Writer’s Autobiography,” in Women’s Re-Visions of Shakespeare: On the
    Responses of Dickinson, Woolf, Rich, H.D., George Eliot, and Others, ed. Marianne Novy
    [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990]; Froula, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury
    Avant-Garde [New York: Columbia University Press, 2005]). Sandra Gilbert and Susan
    Gubar see her as central to the emergence of the woman writer in the twentieth century
    (Gilbert and Gubar, No Man’s Land, vol. 2: Sexchanges [New Haven: Yale University
    Press, 1989]). Cary DiPietro juxtaposes Woolf ’s interest in Shakespeare to that of figures
    like Wilde, Shaw, T. S. Eliot, and Edward Gordon Craig (DiPietro, Shakespeare and
    Modernism [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006]). Those critics who have
    suggested that Woolf “never published an essay about Shakespeare” (Carol Hanbury
    MacKay, “The Thackeray Connection: Virginia Woolf ’s Aunt Anny,” in Virginia Woolf
    and Bloomsbury, ed. Jane Marcus [London: Macmillan, 1987], 80) or that “she avoided
    discussing Shakespeare” and “his work remained a significant silence at the core of her
    literary canon” ( Julia Briggs, Virginia Woolf, An Inner Life [London: Harcourt, 2005],
    122) are looking for a specific work of literary criticism rather than considering the entirety
    of her writing life, from diaries and essays to fiction, in all of which she regularly
    addresses and engages with Shakespeare. ↩︎
  3. Virginia Woolf, “Old Bloomsbury,” in Woolf, Moments of Being: Autobiographical Writings,
    ed. Jeanne Schulkind (London: Pimlico, 2002), 48. The 1928 date is convincingly
    established by S. P. Rosenbaum, correcting an earlier estimation that Woolf read “Old
    Bloomsbury” to the Memoir Club “in about 1922.” S. P. Rosenbaum, The Bloomsbury
    Group Memoir Club, ed. James M. Haule (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 151 ↩︎
  4. Virginia Woolf to Saxon Sydney-Turner, February 25, 1918, in Woolf, The Flight of the
    Mind: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, vol. 1: 1888–1912, ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne
    Trautmann Banks (London: Hogarth, 1993), 220–21 (letter 910). ↩︎
  5. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4: 1931–1935, ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew Mc-
    Neillie (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1983), 235 (August 4, 1934). A week later, when
    Saxon came to stay, she still associated him with Shakespeare (“odd that I should think
    of ‘honey-sweet Queen’ in connection with him; it is what Pandarus calls Helen in Troilus
    and Cressida. But he has grown rather pink & chubby in face, & very mellow &
    in fact charming in mind”). Woolf, Diary, 4:236 (August 12, 1934). Troilus and Cressida
    3.1.136. Helen calls Pandarus “honey-sweet lord” at line 60. ↩︎
  6. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. 3, ed. Anne Olivier Bell (New York: Harcourt
    Brace, 1977), 300–301 (April 13, 1930).). ↩︎
  7. Ibid., 4:165 ( June 26, 1933). ↩︎
  8. Ibid., 2:143 (November 16, 1921). ↩︎
  9. Ibid., 4:332 ( July 16, 1935). ↩︎
  10. Ibid., 2:273 (November 3, 1923). ↩︎
  11. Ibid., 1:259 (March 22, 1919). ↩︎
  12. Ibid., 3:8–9 (April 8, 1925). ↩︎
  13. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925; London: Penguin, 1992), 37–38. She quotes Othello
    2.1.186–87. ↩︎
  14. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. 5: 1936–1941, ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew Mc-
    Neillie (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1985), 190 (December 11, 1938). ↩︎
  15. Virginia Woolf to Ethel Smyth, May 9, 1931, in Woolf, A Reflection of the Other Person:
    The Letters of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4: 1929–1931, ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann
    (London: Chatto & Windus, 1981), 327 (letter 2370). ↩︎

About the book

The untold story of Shakespeare’s profound influence on Virginia Woolf and the rest of the Bloomsbury Group.

For the men and women of the Bloomsbury Group, Shakespeare was a constant presence and a creative benchmark. Not only the works they intended for publication—the novels, biographies, economic and political writings, stage designs and reviews—but also their diaries and correspondence, their gossip and small talk turned regularly on Shakespeare. They read his plays for pleasure in the evenings, and on sunny summer afternoons in the country. They went to the theatre, discussed performances, and speculated about Shakespeare’s mind. As poet, as dramatist, as model and icon, as elusive “life,” Shakespeare haunted their imaginations and made his way, through phrase, allusion, and oblique reference, into their own lives and art. This is a book about Shakespeare in Bloomsbury—about the role Shakespeare played in the lives of a charismatic and influential cast, including Virginia and Leonard Woolf

About the author

Marjorie Garber is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Research Professor of English and Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University. She is the author several books on Shakespeare, as well as of books on cultural topics ranging from dogs and real estate to bisexuality and cross-dressing. Her most recent book is Character: The History of a Cultural Obsession. She lives in London, UK.

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