Share this page

Past and present voices in lockdown

Featuring a brand new audio performance giving a voice to Susanna Hall, Shakespeare’s eldest daughter

Written by Dr Ailsa Grant Ferguson (University of Brighton) and actor Lucy Phelps 

When lockdown hit and Hall’s Croft closed its doors, the archives were locked up, theatres fell silent and university campuses became ghost towns, we were both stuck at home like so many others. One of us was working on a project to look for Susanna Hall, Shakespeare’s eldest daughter, in the archives and in the fictions in which she remained elusive. The other, an actor, could perform Susanna if only we could give her a voice.

Join us to share just a few moments of our imagined Susanna’s life in our monologue, Rational Creatures. Listen here or scroll down to read a transcript.

It is 1613. Evening. John is not at home. Susanna has a crisis balancing working on her beloved herbal remedies while trying to care for her young daughter, Elizabeth. 

The Story Behind Rational Creatures

Browsing the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s website, missing the beauty of the spaces, you will find Susanna Hall’s home, Hall’s Croft and a page on Susanna herself, a woman about whom we know too little, but find such tantalising glimpses in her fascinating epitaph describing her ‘wit’ and kindness. She dwells in the periphery of fictions, from the sulky teenage daughter of BBC’s comedy series Upstart Crow to the grieving older sister of Maggie O’Farrell’s recent hit novel, Hamnet. She peeks out from behind her parents in critical biographies and accounts of William Shakespeare’s life. She occasionally finds her story interpreted in fiction, such as by Peter Whelan in his 1996 play, The Herbal Bed. Yet, considering the extraordinary fame of her family name, her absence from cultural memory and the lack of research around her life and times, her significance as an individual in Stratford, the gateway she might provide to understanding what life might have been like for 17th century women, remains an unopened chest of treasures.

Between us we decided to imagine a Susanna : a woman whose domestic life clashed with her public one, whose motherhood and selfhood might sometimes collide and sometimes elide. That is how the recorded piece you find here, Rational Creatures was born.

This project, a precursor to Ailsa’s large-scale academic exploration of Susanna and her home, Hall’s Croft, grew from the perfect storm of the frustration of two women in lockdown unable to access their working spaces, colliding with ideas about a wider issue of the ‘lockdown’ of early modern women in their domestic spaces. We became fascinated by this parallel. How could we express it? How could we speak with Susanna?

Well, we had a conversation in a very modern way. We wrote each other emails as Susanna, creating the draft for the monologue here. We didn’t plan ahead – we finished each other’s thoughts and tried to find, in the space between us, a voice for her. It is not a real voice or a new find in the archive. 

We researched and included herbs and treatments drawn from the Herbals (manuals of plant treatments and lore) popular in Susanna’s own times – listen out for the plants she uses and why… We imagined a Susanna who was a great reader and knew of her female contemporaries’ works. Perhaps you might hear their ghosts too, here – poet Aemilia Lanyer, or courageous young pamphleteer Rachel Speght…

This is our Susanna: a woman with knowledge, skills and ideas…with restrictions, fears and worries…and with a mind that cannot be contained. We would like you to meet her.

Writing when the lockdown belt was unfastened a few notches, we hoped Lucy would be able to record our Susanna on-site, with the sounds, smells and sights of Hall’s Croft and its garden seeping into the recording. However, along came the second wave and it was not to be. Back in our lockdowns, far apart, we adapted. Lucy’s voice you hear now comes to you from her home. Next year, in the 70th anniversary of the opening of Hall’s Croft to the public, we hope we will once again be able to visit that beautiful place and record Susanna again, in her own home.

Rational Creatures is written by Ailsa Grant Ferguson and Lucy Phelps. Directed and performed by Lucy Phelps. Sound production by Luke MacGregor.

See us talking about how it has been to work together but miles apart, faces in screens on each other’s desks, in this short video of one of our conversations.

You can also follow Susanna Hall on Instagram @Susanna_Hall_1613

Dr Ailsa Grant Ferguson is a Principal Lecturer in Literature at the University of Brighton. She specialises in Shakespeare, cultural memory, commemoration and early modern women’s writing.

Lucy Phelps is an actor and a translator. She recently performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, the Barbican Theatre and on tour, playing Rosalind in As You Like It and Isabella in Measure for Measure

We would like to thank the University of Brighton and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for supporting this project.

Transcript: Rational Creatures

[Wind. A bell tolls 5pm. Sounds of wooden shutters banging]

The breeze is blowing hard. 
It’s a cold wind. 
The temperature has dropped. 
Coats are being donned and the air whispers 'Winter is on its way’. The wind blows louder. 

[Barely audible voices]

Pass by along the road. 
Hello? I’m here. 
Just behind the wall. 

[The voices cease]

And then...silence. 
And I wait 
To hear them again.

[The wind dies down but continues throughout, quietly]

My body is on this step... but my mind is... 
Dreaming of… gardens. [Hands rubbing soil. Birdsong.] Hands in the earth. Eden. 

[A young girl giggles.]

Suddenly she’s at my shoulder. 

[Giggling continues]

‘Sorry, my love. What do you need?’ 
Round blue eyes looking at me, expectant, 
Hands out, covered in…

[The giggling stops]

Dark purple stains on plump white palms.
Look back inside.
Mortar, abandoned on the bench; juice, smeared on the pestle. 
What was I doing - what interrupted me? 
My fingers circle round the tiny wrist and overlap across the blue vein :

[The girl giggles again]

Beautiful lady…. devil's berries.
“Did you eat some, my love?”
Hands dark - but lips clean
“No, mama.” 
“Put out your tongue”
“But I am not to Mama”
“Put out your tongue!”
Pink, little creature sneaks out. 
Clean. Sparse teeth glow ivory cream.

Sunlight strikes the bench - this does not belong here
Nightshade. Shadow. Murderers' berries.

“Go, the bucket, my love, 
scrub, scrub, scrub.”

I grab her hand.
Purple cupped in pink.
So small.  
Hurry. Run.

[The wind gets louder. Feet crunch across leaves]

Across the garden.
Our nightdresses billow in the wind.
Wild women.
She and I, we could take flight.
Soar high up and over the wall. 
Away from... this.  
Two birds carving their own dance in the sky. 

[The wind dies down, slightly]

But bare feet on cold stone.
Reminds me I’m still on the ground.
And she is... quivering.
Quivering or convulsing?

Plunge her into the iced water. 
Head to toe.
“Mamma no! I cold!” 
No cloth to dry her; remove my nightdress.
Wrapping her in my warmth. 
And rub, rub, rub.
“I’m sorry. Mamma needed to be sure it was all gone.”

A quiet retreat, back inside, to the fire. 

[Crackling fire]

We sit, she on me.Teeth chattering.
Enveloped in my arms.
I’m naked. Sweating. 

[*Knock knock knock*]

No one here is fit to open it.

[*Knock Knock*]

The fireglow is informing upon us 
Striping through gaps in shutters.

[The girl giggles]

A giggle rises from the bundle in my arms.
It shivers and settles again.
The fire is dying.

[*Knock knock knock*]

I rise and reach for my over dress
Harsh fabric, wet hem
But covered. secure.

[The wind picks up]

Little one, you must dress, now,
“Stay safe. Mummy will be back.”
She lets out a wail. Guttural, deep. 
It’s real. Not for show.  
So, together we flutter over kitchen stone 
Two drenched doves to the door.