Shakespeare’s Kid Sister

Acclaimed author and pre-feminist hero Virginia Woolf once wrote a fictional story about Judith Shakespeare, William’s kid sister. Although blessed with the same talents, imagination, and experiences as her brother, Judith had no opportunity to develop and express her gifts in a world where women simply weren’t afforded the space to do so.

Last Wednesday, nearly 100 years later, I had the opportunity to see a small part of Woolf’s dream come true at a staged reading of Lydia Kapp Gutilla’s Fortune’s King.

Fortune’s King tells the story of a talented, young woman named Fortuna who is unexpectedly thrust into power within a male-dominated kingdom. Fortuna is as surprised as everyone else when she is given the space to use her gifts and to lead as she sees fit. Princes, warriors, scholars, and commoners alike are suddenly forced to deal with their own prejudices and expectations as the fate of the kingdom rests in the hands of a woman. If the plot reminds you of your high school English class readings of Romeo and Juliet, you’re not far off.

The story is set in a fictional, medieval kingdom, with all the Shakespearean tropes you could shake a quill at. Fortune’s King is replete with power-hungry nobles, surly scholars, bawdy common-folk, over-heated young lovers, treacherous villains and mistaken identities. Most of all, the play is dripping with farce as characters hilariously misunderstand and respond to one another’s tangled motives and schemes.

However, as fun as the plot is and as meaningful the message, Kapp Gutilla’s play stands tallest in her ambition to stay true to the Bard’s form.

Fortune’s King is a five act play written in iambic pentameter. Yes, iambic pentameter – Shakespeare’s poetic rhythm that stumps today’s readers and actors everywhere.

One reviewer of Fortune’s King said that when he heard Kapp Gutilla had written the play in Shakespeare’s style he was, “about as excited as you would be for a trip to the DMV on your lunch break.” I have to admit I imagined a similar feeling. But the reviewer and I agree, we couldn’t have been more wrong.

Playwrite Lydia Kapp Gutilla celebrates the staged reading of her 5-act, iambic pentameter play, Fortune’s King.

Kapp Gutilla’s script is fast-paced and easy to follow. Her mastery of iambic pentameter is on point and fluid. Her characters are quickly developed and sympathetic, to the point that even those with whom you don’t agree, you sense where they’re coming from and believe with them in their cause. I’ll admit there were times when my modern mind had trouble keeping up with the Queen’s English, but the actors expertly translated into body language what I lacked in vocabulary.

Virginia Woolf dreamed of a day when a woman would be allowed the space to write and share her ideas.

During the intermission, I watched as Kapp Gutilla connected with family and friends in the audience. She’s a tall, gregarious woman with striking features and a strength that exudes confidence, ambition, and possibility. Unlike Judith Shakespeare, she has opportunity and access unheard of 100 years ago.

If Virginia Woolf had been watching this version of Shakespeare’s sister with me, I imagine she would see her as alien to her own time and place. And yet, I’m certain she would soon come to see in her someone very similar to herself.

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