The best books of women playwrights in Shakespeare’s day

Why am I passionate about this?

Most people have not heard of a female playwright before Aphra Behn so I’ve been passionate about restoring the work of Shakespeare’s ‘sisters’, or female contemporaries, to the stage and to public awareness. Early play scripts by women are often dismissed as ‘closet drama’: unperformed, not written for performance, and unperformable. To challenge such assumptions, I staged productions of female-authored plays, most recently Wroth’s Love’s Victory. A good deal of writing about women’s drama now exists, including my book Playing Spaces. I have made this selection to encourage you to discover the plays for yourselves. I hope you enjoy reading, and perhaps watching or acting, them.


I wrote...

Love's Victory: By Lady Mary Wroth

By Alison Findlay (editor), Philip Sidney (editor), Michael G. Brennan (editor)

Book cover of Love's Victory: By Lady Mary Wroth

What is my book about?

Long before Aphra Behn started writing for the London stage, women were composing scripts for performance. Love’s Victory (c.1617-1619) by Lady Mary Wroth is the first romantic comedy written in English by a woman. This modernised spelling edition is the first to be published from the only complete manuscript of the play so that everyone can discover this hidden corner of theatre history and women’s writing from the age of Shakespeare. The play text has full explanatory notes at the bottom of each page. The introduction provides details about Wroth’s remarkable life and work as a pioneering author and as a member of the Sidney family of Penshurst Place in Kent and an account of the play in performance.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth

Alison Findlay Why did I love this book?

I was immediately excited to read this book, which is the best biographical study of Mary Wroth, author of the Love’s Victory.

It informed my work on editing the play by giving a meticulously-researched insight into Wroth’s life as an aristocratic woman: her struggles in love (with her first cousin William Herbert), and her determination to write. Importantly, it corrected earlier assumptions about Wroth’s relationship with her husband Robert Wroth.

It has been thought that she was satirizing him in the foolish character of Rustic in her play, but Hannay’s book taught me to identify him with the sympathetic character of the Forester.

It also clarified Wroth’s relationships with her family and the politics of the royal court in which they were involved.

By Margaret P. Hannay,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Despite her fascinating life and her importance as a writer, until now Lady Mary Wroth has never been the subject of a full-length biography. Margaret Hannay's reliance on primary sources results in some corrections, as well as additions, to our knowledge of Wroth's life, including Hannay's discovery of the career of her son William, the marriages of her daughter Katherine, her grandchildren, her last years, the date of her death, and the subsequent history of her manuscripts. This biography situates Lady Mary Wroth in her family and court context, emphasizing the growth of the writer's mind in the sections on…


Book cover of Renaissance Drama by Women: Texts and Documents

Alison Findlay Why did I love this book?

This book gives an excellent introduction to women’s involvement in theatre in the age of Shakespeare by making 6 of their texts easily available for the first time.

It publishes Queen Elizabeth I’s translation of a section by Seneca; The Tragedy of Antony (1595), a translation of a French play about Antony and Cleopatra by Mary Sidney Herbert, (aunt to Lady Mary Wroth).

It also publishes three original plays by women: Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam (1613), The Concealed Fancies (1645), by the sisters Elizabeth Brackley and Jane Cavendish, and a valuable edition of Love’s Victory (but in a short section on p. 122 misprints the order of pages in the manuscript).

Cupid’s Banishment (1619) by Robert White is an entertainment, written to be performed by schoolgirls

By S.P. Cerasano (editor), Marion Wynne-Davies (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Renaissance Drama by Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Renaissance Drama By Women is a unique volume of plays and documents. For the first time, it demonstrates the wide range of theatrical activity in which women were involved during the Renaissance period. It includes full-length plays, a translated fragment by Queen Elizabeth I, a masque, and a substantial number of historical documents. With full and up-to-date accompanying critical material, this collection of texts is an exciting and invaluable resource for use in both the classroom and research.
Special features introduced by the editors include:
* introductory material to each play
* modernized spellings
* extensive notes and annotations
*…


Book cover of Three Tragedies by Renaissance Women

Alison Findlay Why did I love this book?

This very handy anthology includes the only modern edition of The Tragedie of Iphigenia (1557-9), by Jane Lumley, the first person to translate Euripides into English and the first English woman to write a full-length play.

It is a surprisingly modern-sounding script, featuring a father sacrificing his daughter, not unlike Stannis Barathean in Game of Thrones, and I loved producing and taking part in a production in 2013-14. Also included are Antonius translated by Mary [Sidney Herbert], Countess of Pembroke, and Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam.

Unlike the anthology above, this edition publishes the plays in their original old spelling so you can get a feel of Renaissance English. Diane Purkiss offers a concise introduction and notes at the back of the book.

By Diane Purkiss (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Three Tragedies by Renaissance Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This volume contains unmodernized versions of plays by each of the three leading Renaissance women dramatists: Elizabeth Cary's "The Tragedie of Mariam" (1613), the story of the plight of a woman married against her will to an unbending tyrant; June Lumley's version of Euripides' "Iphigenia" (1550), the earliest surviving translation of a Greek tragedy; and Mary Sidney's "Antonie" (1590), a blank verse translation of a French Senecan play. Intended for private production, all three were able to address contentious political issues - the nature of the good ruler, resistance to unjust authority - which were seldom permitted on the public…


Book cover of Imperfect Alchemist

Alison Findlay Why did I love this book?

I found this historical novel about the life of Mary Sidney Hebert, the Countess of Pembroke really enjoyable because it offers me the fantasy of filling in the gaps in the historical record about one of the early women writers.

I find it impressive because it draws on years of research on Mary Sidney Herbert by the author who is a renowned literary critic. Miller tells Mary Sidney Herbert’s story ingeniously by paralleling it with the life of a fictional character, Rose, who serves as her waiting woman.

Although I know the historical facts, the twists and turns in the narrative successfully cast new light on how I read Mary Sidney Herbert’s poetry and her play Antonius, though, for me, the co-authorship that the novel imagines remains entirely fictional.

By Naomi Miller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Imperfect Alchemist as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A remarkable life lost to history is brought into sharp focus

England, 1575. Young Mary Sidney is bearing a devastating loss while her father plans her alliance to Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. But Mary is determined to make her mark on the world as a writer and scientist.

As Mary Sidney Herbert steps into her new life with the earl at his home, Wilton House, an unusual friendship is forged between her and servant Rose Commin, a country girl with a surprising artistic gift, that will change their lives for ever.

Defying the conventions of their time, mistress and…


Book cover of The Convent of Pleasure and Other Plays

Alison Findlay Why did I love this book?

This modern edition gives readers a sample plays by the remarkable Margaret Cavendish, who privately published 2 volumes of plays in 1662 and 1668 though many were probably written earlier.

I find her plays fascinating for the ways they deal explicitly with women’s experiences in love, in war and in marriage.

In this selection Love’s Adventures Parts I and II features a cross-dressing heroine in pursuit of her intended husband; Bell In Campo Parts I and II, dramatizes the experience of a superheroine leading an army, while The Bridals and The Convent of Pleasure satirize love and marriage.

I love The Convent of Pleasure’s depictions of same-sex retreat and desire. Cavendish’s witty prefaces on the difficulties of writing plays for a woman are included as appendices to Shaver’s edition.

By Margaret Cavendish, Anne Shaver (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Convent of Pleasure and Other Plays as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673), until recently remembered more as a flamboyant eccentric than as a serious writer, was in fact the most prolific, thought-provoking, and original woman writer of the Restoration. Cavendish is the author of many poems, short stories, biographies, memoirs, letters, philosophical and scientific works (including The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing World, the first work of science fiction by a woman), and nineteen plays. "The Convent of Pleasure" and Other Plays collects four of Cavendish's dramatic works that are among the most revealing of her attitudes toward marriage and her desire for…


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Book cover of Call Me Stan: A Tragedy in Three Millennia

K.R. Wilson Author Of Call Me Stan: A Tragedy in Three Millennia

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