Does the name Mary Sidney ring a bell? No, I thought not. According to Tudor Place, she was born into the aristocracy in 1561; was “carefully educated, acquiring a knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew;” became a member of Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Household in 1575; lost her mother, father and brother (Sir Philip Sidney) in 1586; founded a literary circle that included Edmund Spenser and Ben Jonson; and died in 1621. She was also “the first English woman to achieve a significant literary reputation.”
Speaking of significant literary reputations, does the name William Shakespeare ring a bell? It would be hard to find anyone in the English-speaking world who hasn’t heard of him. With all due respect to the hundreds of Shakespearean scholars, with their millions of words about Shakespeare as author, there is a tenable authorship question. As the Shakespearean Authorship Trust puts it, “For 400 years, doubts have been recorded about whether William Shakespeare actually wrote the works attributed to him.”
Did Shakespeare’s plays arrive from Olympus? In a New York Times article, Shakespeare biographer, Stephen Greenblatt, writes,
The work is so astonishing, so luminous, that it seems to have come from a god and not a mortal, let alone a mortal of provincial origins and modest education.
… it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare … it is unthinkable that any woman in Shakespeare’s day should have had Shakespeare’s genius. For genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people.
But, then again, Robin P. Williams, a scholar of The Authorship Question, writes, “there is no documented evidence that Shakespeare was a writer.” And in a recent New York Times interview, Joyce Carol Oates, responds to this question “If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?” with this answer,
We would probably all want to meet Shakespeare—or so we think. (We could ask the man if he’d really written all those plays, or if, somehow, he’d acquired them from—who?—Sir Philip Sidney’s sister, perhaps? Wonder what W.S. would say to that.)
A whirlwind of doubts, questions, theories, beliefs, and passions surrounds the Shakespearean authorship question. But unfortunately, evidence is scarce, and facts few. Personally, I am persuaded by Williams’ book, Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare?, that Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke, is the true Shakespeare. Part of my persuasion comes from reading Shakespeare from the fresh perspective of a woman as the writer. Consider these lines, for instance, from The Taming of the Shrew:
Why, sir, I trust I may have leave to speak;
And speak I will; I am no child, no babe:
Your betters have endured me say my mind,
And if you cannot, best you stop your ears.
My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart concealing it will break,
And rather than it shall, I will be free
Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.
In Shakespeare’s day, women had to be obedient, demure and, most of all, quiet. Yet Mary Sidney was “allowed” to translate and publish psalms and an original verse drama. And she was a wealthy, highly educated, energetic woman with a wide range of interests (which coincide in a fascinating way with Shakespeare’s work) in alchemy, hunting, hawking, travelling, medicine, magic, music, bowling, dancing, singing, needlework and, last but not least, acting and the theater, in which she was involved from a young age. Countless more fascinating coincidences between Mary Sidney’s life and the work of Shakespeare are painstakingly presented in Sweet Swan of Avon. One can only hope that concrete evidence about the authorship will emerge eventually.
In our day, women still have to fight to be published (see the 2012 Vida Count). But I find it extremely inspiring to think of a woman as the true author of Shakespeare, turning patriarchal literary history on its head and forever, completely and entirely, justifying the value of women writers.
Portrait of Mary Sidney Herbert by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1590, from Wikimedia Commons