Shakespeare’s Spirited Sister

In low spirits Virginia Wolf is sitting on the steps of the library outside Trinity College, Oxford, some-when in the twenties, because she has just been shut out from this Mecca of English literature as a woman. In her essay entitled  A Room of one’s own -   her demand for the oppressed woman of her time to encourage her self-defined intellectual life –Virginia reports this occurrence and  quotes the misogynous statement of a bishopthat “ it is impossible for any woman past,  present or to come to have a genius like Shakespeare`s.” The feminist begs to differ, arguing that the only reason why there is no female Shakespeare is the lack of possibilities for a woman to develop her genius. Virginia invites her readers to have a look at the gravestones of the 16th century with the names of five and more deceased children and to cast a glance into the small dark rooms, where no woman could write poems or tragedies, in order to differentiate the reasons why in Shakespeare’s days no female genius could exist.

Perhaps, Virginia Woolf speculated, one could imagine an aristocrat, who made use of her relative freedom to publish something, self-assertively risking to be denounced as a monster.

It escaped Virginia Woolf’s attention that her imaginary aristocrat did exist: Vittoria Colonna, the child of good fortune, could develop her female genius in hopeful Italian Renaissance, even though to tragic ends, because she was eventually eradicated as a heretic from collective European consciousness by the Inquisition and a misogynous posterity did not weave any wreaths for her excellence with the consequence that her genius got lost.

Why is Vittoria Colonna Shakespeare‘s sister in spirit?

Both, she in Italy, he in England, documented a new awareness of man’s emotional life in their literary work. Internalization is what distinguishes Shakespeare from other dramatists, writes Harold Bloom. However, two decades earlier, self-assertive Vittoria Colonna, in a programmatic departure from the ancient tragedy of fate, proclaimed internalization as the novel intention of her poetry.  Like Shakespeare, she was concerned with the human psyche, however, in a feminine variety. Other than the dramatist she did not create figures. The lyricist mirrors her female soul, the virtual topic of her Rime Amorose as well as her Rime Spirituali. 

Amazing about both poets is their stupendous awareness of psychic phenomena, of desires and abysses of the human soul, but also of its subtle stirrings and of excruciating ambivalences. 

Like the creator of Hamlet and Macbeth, the lyricist escalates emotional states to the extreme. Lacking any trust in God the rebellious young widow gives unmitigated articulation to her emotional uproars, her blow-ups of temper, her desperation and her suicidal impulses.

Shakespeare, the unknown genius, Hamlet, his favourite figure, into whom the dramatist breathed his restless spirit, and Vittoria Colonna, the unappreciated poetess, share a stupendous human complexity. They resist profiling, because in their incessant individuation they do not shape out personalities. They change constantly. They do not identify with ideologies or roles. They break taboos and transcend their time-conditioned existence by upswings into timeless humanity thanks to which we experience them as our equals.     

Vittoria Colonna and Shakespeare‘s Isabella

The determined chastity of Vittoria Colonna as a young widow was a challenge for Paolo Giovio, sensing “female ambition” in her sexual refusal. He was right. As a chaste widow she eschewed the marital policies of her family. Above all, she maintained her independence from a domineering husband for the sake of undisturbed accomplishing her female personality, by which the Humanist Lady set greatest store. Neither the creation of her poetical work nor her exemplary constituting as a female subject would have been feasible for Vittoria as a married woman.

Isabella, Shakespeare’s protagonist in his comedy Measure for Measure seems to have been modelled after Vittoria Colonna by the dramatist. Like Marchesa, Isabella exercises a subversive form of power to gain authority over men. Isabella, too, insists on her chastity, not willing to give herself to the tyrant Angelo, not even on condition that she saved the life of her brother Claudio sentenced to death by the despot. Paradoxically or not, as a novice in a convent, Isabella embodies the type of a self-defining Renaissance lady, as if the solitude of her cell had been conducive to her awakening to spiritual and personal independence. Like Vittoria Colonna Isabella is craving for gender-crossing. “I would to Heaven, I had your potency. And you were Isabel,” she exclaims to the tyrant Angelo, convinced of her more mature understanding of power.

The two male intellectuals are captivated by self-assured Isabella, because, as Shakespeare demonstrates, superior female intellectuality combined with resolutely defended female chastity seems to have a certain sensual allure for men of a more intellectual cast of mind. Angelo, who calls Marianna, who loves him passionately, and Giulia impregnated by Claudio and bearing her shame patiently, “poor confused women,” falls in love with Isabella, head over heels. But the Duke himself has already reserved the novice for his future wife.

In the end, however, Shakespeare subjects brainy Isabella to the manipulative Duke. In spite of her intellectuality and her ready wit, chaste and self-assured Isabella remains Shakespeare’s creature and is turned by the dramatist into a sex-object for the tyrant Angelo and the Duke, her farouche refusal stimulating suppressed sexual lust in Angelo, while the Duke expects the innocent temptress, whose chastity he hopes to alter into passion, to heal him from his own sexual malaise.

A somewhat utopian question: Would Shakespeare have appreciated Vittoria’s getting ready to cross swords with him? Scarcely! But she would have presumed to do that. It is a breath-stopping gender-crossing she staged with the literary pundits Dante and Petrarch, claiming the male privilege of composing amorous poetry as a woman. Even worse, she substituted Dante’s immortal Innamoramento for her own: “The longing of the first glance will keep on until my last hour.”

Isabella, the creature of a man, albeit of the greatest male literary genius, does not dispose of the individuality of Vittoria Colonna. Female individuation depends on self-realization of a female genius. The complexity of such a singular woman was out of male reach even for Shakespeare. Vittoria did not only debate with the greatest literati, theologians and philosophers of her age. She also questioned their thought models from her female perspective and enriched their male creations. Shakespeare’s Isabella is hopelessly lagging behind. Shakespeare’s female figures cannot hide their male origin and their female reduction. It is for their being male projections that they could be represented on the Elizabethan stage by male actors as female parodies to amuse a mainly male public.

In her complexity, authenticity, individuality, and creativity Vittoria Colonna, the female genius of Italian Renaissance, a woman of unparalleled spiritual vivacity, unmasks Shakespeare’s women as puppets sprung from male imagination, male projection, and male erotic fantasies.