“Upstart! Shakespeare’s Rebel Daughter Judith”

Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose – Big Yin
12:10: 1 hour 20 minutes
To 27 August

18 August 2023
Maggie Rose in Edinburgh


In recent years, much attention has been paid to Shakespeare’s life story. The hugely popular BBC series, “Upstart Crow” (2016), written by Ben Elton, is an early example, and, likewise, Maggie O’Farrell’s bestselling novel and resulting play, “Hamnet” (2020), have met with astounding success.

“Upstart! Shakespeare’s Rebel Daughter Judith”, written by Mary Jane Schaefer and directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones, puts Shakespeare’s daughter Judith and fraternal twin to Hamnet centre onstage.

Judith as presented by Schaefer (she died at 77, outliving all her immediate family), begins her story for the benefit of the local vicar on a visit to find out more about her father’s life.

As Judith replies to the vicar’s questions, her body language and facial expressions splendidly communicate her frustration and rebelliousness which she must leave unexpressed. This ‘interview’, though, is soon curtailed and the play moves to present us with more key figures in Shakespeare’s family: his wife Anne Hathaway, elder daughter Susanna and her physician husband, John Hall, Thomas Quiney, Judith’s husband, and a young Judith, all of whom inhabit the tiny stage at the Gilded Balloon venue.

Scenes include the young Judith (disguised as a man) going to London to seek out her father. She finds him in a tryst with writer and court musician Emilia Bassano. (Schaefer imagines Emilia to have been the Dark Lady).

Another strong scene has Judith deciding to accept Quiney’s proposal against her parents’ wishes. It’s a powerful depiction of Shakespeare’s rebel daughter who adamantly refused to bend to the contemporary patriarchy.

However, in the latter part of the play, the focus shifts to a heated quarrel between Shakespeare’s wife and Emilia whom the author imagines to have turned up in Stratford-upon-Avon, uninvited, to attend Shakespeare’s funeral.

This authorial decision leaves the elderly and young elements of Judith largely side-lined so excluding the possibility of considering Judith’s plight further. Director Alexandra Spencer-Jones had the difficult task of blocking the scenes with multiple characters on what was a very small stage that gave little scope for physical movement on the part of a what was a generally fine cast. Special mention must go to the two actors, playing the young and old Judith. By considering Emilia, the play delves into another intriguing figure in Shakespeare’s inner circle.