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Shakespeare's Sisters

Hardcover / ISBN-13: 9781529404890

Price: £25

ON SALE: 12th March 2024

Genre: Humanities / History

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‘An outstanding revisionist portrait of an age’ Telegraph
Targoff tells their stories with vim and vigour’ i Paper
‘[A] fascinating excavation of four intellectual powerhouse women’ Tina Brown, New York Times

Discover the lives and work of four ambitious Renaissance women who, against all odds, made themselves heard-and read-in the time of Shakespeare

In an innovative and engaging narrative of everyday life in Shakespeare’s England, Ramie Targoff carries us from the sumptuous coronation of Queen Elizabeth in the mid-16th century into the private lives of four women writers working at a time when women were legally the property of men. Some readers may have heard of Mary Sidney, accomplished poet and sister of the famous Sir Philip Sidney, but few will have heard of Aemilia Lanyer, the first woman in the 17th century to publish a book of original poetry, which offered a feminist take on the crucifixion, or Elizabeth Cary, who published the first original play by a woman, about the plight of the Jewish princess Mariam. Then there was Anne Clifford, a lifelong diarist, who fought for decades against a patriarchy that tried to rob her of her land in one of England’s most infamous inheritance battles.

These women had husbands and children to care for and little support for their art, yet against all odds they defined themselves as writers, finding rooms of their own where doors had been shut for centuries.

Targoff flings them open to uncover the treasures left by these extraordinary women; in the process, she helps us see the Renaissance in a fresh light, creating a richer understanding of history and offering a much-needed female perspective on life in Shakespeare’s day.


Ramie Targoff has written a vivid, finely crafted portrait of four extraordinary Renaissance women whose writing, long buried in archives, defied all the rules. Mary Sidney's translations, Aemilia Lanyer's poems, Anne Clifford's diaries, and Elizabeth Cary's dramas contained radical messages of autonomy at a time when women had few legal rights and almost no access to education. Raised to keep quiet and obey their husbands, these writers kept diaries, created female heroines, and gave women starring roles on the stage and page. Targoff, an esteemed scholar of Renaissance literature, restores these women to the starring roles they deserve in this fresh, galavanting, and indispensable history of Renaissance England. Shakespeare's Sisters challenges and expands our historical memory in sweeping, cinematic prose. Scholarly storytelling at its finest.
Heather Clark, author of Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath
Over the past thirty years, scholars - mostly women - have recovered and celebrated the works of an array of long-forgotten female writers of the English Renaissance. Now Ramie Targoff has had the ingenious idea of telling the lives and exploring the works of some of them in an innovative group biography. She brings back to life and shares with a wider readership the literary talents of four women of varying backgrounds but equal fortitude.
Sir Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare scholar
A vibrant portrait . . .Targoff's narrative is full of vivid personalities and intriguing tales of court alliances and rivalries. It's an enlightening study of the era's literary scene and the women who persevered despite their exclusion from it.
Publishers Weekly
With fluid prose, Targoff braids these four biographies to give an outstanding revisionist portrait of an age. She catalogues the difficulties these women faced - from lack of education, to extreme poverty, to obstreperous husbands - but the overall picture is not one, like Woolf imagined, of depression and madness. Targoff's re-written Renaissance is one in which women's lives are not relegated; where their voices are heard on the page.
Targoff tells their stories with vim and vigour
i Paper
Targoff's style is lively and accessible; assuming a curious general reader, she offers a succinct overview of the complex political and religious backdrop to these women's lives.
Targoff, an American expert on Renaissance poetry and religion, shines an encouraging light on a quartet of talented female writers . . . Targoff's book appealingly shows how her writers' lives overlapped and is also strong on period detail
Mail on Sunday
Elegantly readable, immaculately researched.
The Spectator
Shakespeare's Sisters is elegantly written, witty, clear and accessible to non-specialists.