Was Mary Sidney Really William Shakespeare?

600px-Mary_Sydney_HerbertDoes 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.

Didn’t Shakespeare have to be a man? In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf writes,

… 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.)

ShowCoverA 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


  1. cynthia rucryst says:

    Would love and have no doubt, perchance the evidence will’s out!! What a wonderful thump on the head of patriarchy that would be!! yeahhhh!!

  2. Great Article! I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for women (and men) today (of every creed, colour, and background) to connect with women’s literary history. This article is interesting, but I would love for Ms. to highlight real women authors. Mary Sidney herself would be a great start.

  3. All that the author succeeds in establishing is the POSSIBILITY that May Sydney could have been Shakespeare. But plausibility is NOT the same as actuality–that she is in fact Shakespear has not been demonstrated. It is also equally plausible that there have been serveral–not one–Shakespeares. However, all things considered, I still adhere to the official version–the author William Sharkespear is none other than the historical figure William Shakespear (unless someone definitively demonstrates otherwise–but so far, no one has succeeded in doing this).

    • Please read Robin Williams’ book for overwhelming circumstantial evidence.

    • Elizabeth West says:

      In response to Florio Quibuyen’s comment from April 25, 2013, I want to propose that the proof positive for William Shakespeare as author of the “Shakespearean” works has not ever been demonstrated with actual proof either — and considering WS as author is certainly not even very plausible. However, we may be certain of one thing about him: the myth surrounding him is a marvelously gigantic concoction, made up and repeated and believed out of convenience and perhaps also because it seems such a charming story — but all that does not make the story of Shakespeare as great author true, and it is not even legitimate scholarship.

  4. I have been on the trail of Mary Sidney for the last four years, and it is a fascinating path to say the least. Whereas many will not even take this evidence into consideration, the Williams book is beautifully written, very educational and just plain fun to read. Ms Williams has done her homework and presents what I believe is a convincing case for the involvement of Mary Sidney. This article scratches the surface of the thorough and compelling evidence that exists for Mary Sidney’s unquestionable influence on Shakespeare. I have done additional research to support this idea, which will manifest as fiction in the future. I recommend this book highly to all who are open minded and curious to explore the understanding that women have been marginalized and/or erased from history – yet can be found behind the curtains in the highest profile places once we are bold enough to pull those curtains back… As the great warrior queen Boudicca said, “The Truth Against the World!”

  5. Siham Karami says:

    This is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever read. On another level it solves the mystery of why Shakespeare’s identity has always been in doubt, a rather astonishing and problematic fact for a writer of such great significance, both in his time and thereafter. Of course his identity had to be covered up! And it also explains how his work could contain such revolutionary ideas and human-sympathetic points of view. Not that a man would be incapable, but that a woman would be so strikingly insightful regarding interpersonal relations, the subject of his work.

    • Robin Williams points out all the household imagery, and the lack of precise, specific imagery about warfare. Mary Sidney managed several households and had never been to war.

  6. Barbara Mor says:

    ‘In Shakespeare’s day, women had to be obedient, demure & quiet.’ Uhhh…in Shakespeare’s day Elizabeth I was
    on the imperially adventurous throne of England, Grace O’Malley was a successful Irish pirate who raided British ships including when pregnant, Ann Boleyn & others lost their heads in royal power games but were definitely not ”demure, obedient & quiet,’–& thousands of women were arrested, tortured & publically barbecued as Witches, i.e. they were stubbornly eccentric & willfully contrary to the Church to the point of risking death (& a
    little earlier in time, in France, Jeanne d’Arc was leading armies into victories all over the map of her land. And read even earlier Chaucer: The Wife of Bath & her many real life models were neither & never ‘quiet, obedient &
    demure’. Au contraire. The Puritan reaction that followed Elizabethan times created much more obedient women than what had come before, & it was this religious model of the ‘pious, obedient Female’ that they brought to America, unfortunately; however, the West was not settled by weak, timid women either. Our reality has never been as circumscribed as the ideal models/moralistic wetdreams portrayed in male literature. We all need to study women writers in history more intensively, & the place to start is Dale Spender’s Women of Ideas
    & What Men Have Done to Them. Dynamic & brilliant women thinkers, writers & poets have always existed, just because they don’t appear in male literature doesn’t mean they weren’t there. And just because ‘quiet, demure
    & obedient’ was a patriarchal wishdream often brutally enforced by Law, doesn’t mean actual women were
    so collusive in their own erasure as this essay suggests. ‘All women are born rebels,’ said Oscar Wilde. Rebels,
    women of verbal wit & power, witches et al can be punished & destroyed; this doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. It doesn’t mean they never talked back to their oppressive worlds. And some of their brilliant words are on record; we can assume that if ‘Shakespeare’ wasn’t a canny woman (& some think ‘he’ was in fact Edward DeVere, the closeted Earl of Oxford) he was certainly surrounded by them & definitely educated by their tongues.

    • All you say makes the theory more plausible – according to Robin Williams, Mary Sidney was indeed risking her life by writing and publishing work beyond the demure, obedient work that women were allowed to publish then.

      • Barry Hatfield says:

        Also, Barbara, just look at the strong and independent heroines who litter the plays, versus the foolish men. Meanwhile, their society was strongly patriarchal and misogynistic. Mmm…

  7. Anna Kamaralli says:

    Please believe I come to this conversation as a huge fan of Mary Sidney, and of reclaiming, circulating and respecting the written work of women from the early modern period. There is just no way that Mary Sidney wrote the works of William Shakespeare. Mary, I’m sorry, but you haven’t done your research properly, and it distresses me that you have put out there so many flat-out wrong statements that people will be taking at face value. No, there have not been doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship for 400 years; there have been doubts for roughly 150 years, that began when the aesthetic philosophies of the Romantic period required certain things about the nature of artistic genius that didn’t tally with Shakespeare’s life. The suggestion that “there is no documented evidence that Shakespeare was a writer” is, frankly, nonsense. Manuscripts circulating with his name on the cover, and references to his writing by many of his contemporaries are only the most obvious. If it was a conspiracy, most of London would have to have been in on it. “In Shakespeare’s day, women had to be obedient, demure and, most of all, quiet” is such a gross oversimplification as to suggest that you’ve read nothing of the fantastic, extensive research that has been published on the place of women in Elizabethan/Jacobean society.
    I recommend James Shapiro’s “Contested Will”, in which he discusses “Sweet Swan of Avon”, and many other claims. And I very much recommend that everybody read the play written by Mary Sidney’s niece, Mary Wroth, “Love’s Victory” to see what a talented women from this period could do with the form.

    • I’m not assuming a scholarly position; I’m reviewing a book. I hope you read the book.

      • Anna Kamaralli says:

        That’s disingenuous. You have a huge public platform here and you’re using it to repeat factual inaccuracies, to give a sense of plausibility to assertions that are entirely silly. Quoting the Shakespearean Authorship Trust on this topic is the exact equivalent of quoting the Kentucky Creation Museum and not quoting any evolutionary biologists.

        When you write of Sidney’s “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”, you just described every educated person of the period’s interests. That’s not evidence of anything, it’s completely standard. “Evidence is scarce, and facts few.” No, there are plenty of both. Go read Germaine Greer’s “Shakespeare’s Wife” for a model of what genuinely credible research looks like.

    • Actually, I disagree. In fact, there are some very odd things. For example, when shakespeare the actor died, london shrugged. This in contrast to the other famous writers of the time like Ben Jonson (eulogized and buried at Westminster Abbey) or Christopher Marlowe (also eulogized at his death). Yet nothing for purportedly the finest writer of the age. Doesn’t that seem odd? (to be clear – there are laudatory words for the AUTHOR – e.g. for the first folio years later, but not for the ACTOR at the time of his death).
      2. Shakespeare the playwright had access to very rare texts – texts that were held in private libraries of wealthy noble families. This is one reason that people think Shakespeare was a nobleman. How would Shakespeare the actor have gained access to these works?
      3. I have never heard data to support why Shakespeare the actor is the playwright besides the shared name. And in fact, the actor did not spell Shakespeare the way we spell the writer’s name, so although the names sound similar they were written differently. What evidence is there that the actor was the author?

      There are other oddities. Shakespeare the actor’s daughters grew up illiterate, and Shakespeare himself died without leaving ANY books or manuscripts – from someone who presumably loved words. We hear a lot about his will and we know quite a bit about the life of the actor and yet nothing to support his life as a writer. Isn’t that odd? the list of odditities goes on, and if you are curious, I suggest reading about the topic. I am also intrigued by Mary Sidney. It makes sense of the sonnets, which were always a problem. That is, was Shakespeare gay? It makes sense of the sonnet for Herbert to marry, and it makes sense of the first folio dedication. I would love to see more research on Mary Sidney.

    • Anna, well said: misleading circumstantial evidence and wishful thinking (not to mention not-a-little sexism) does not prove this theory. Thank you for being a voice of reason and scholarship!

      Susan, you repeat the same tired, already refuted points: London did not “shrug,” Shakespeare was well-respected but he was not worshiped (that didn’t happen for about 100 years after he died, and, in fact, several elegies for him circulated in manuscript shortly after his death); the texts you cite were available through the original stationers , and we have no idea what was owned (or loaned) by whom back then; there is NO proof Shakespeare’s daughters were illiterate (Susanna not recognizing her husband’s handwriting could have been blindness, senility, or misreported), the ACTOR was referred to on many legal papers with the full “Shakespeare” spelling (all we have from the man himself are six signatures, and I don’t know about you, but I leave several letters out of my signature, why couldn’t he?); there is a missing will between the obvious rough-draft we have preserved and the one that was probated in June, 1616, in the Prerogative Court of the Archbishop of Canterbury- that could easily have included the item list for his actual goods (not everything in his house is mentioned in the will, after all). Mary Herbert nee Sidney may have been cool, but she was NOT the author of Shakespeare’s works, and only willful ignoring of the ample facts can lead to any other conclusion. It offends me that we can’t judge this amazing woman on her OWN merit. Also, Ms. Williams’ book is filled with factual errors (first page, first paragraph starts it off) and quite a bit of special pleading (ala that awful “scholar,” Diana Price). As for “claimants,” there are 84 on the Wikipedia “Authorship Candidates” page. 84! All based off of intuition, social bigotry, and a thorough lack of scholarship.

  8. Barbara Mor says:

    Thank you, Anna Kamaralli Referencing the book she is reviewing (i.e. ‘according to Robin Williams, Mary SIdney was indeed risking her life….’) to confirm the premises of that same book, is just so LAME. In this sense: it disrespects the work of so many women who have spent their time & energies in serious research, precisely in our common effort to retrieve women’s minds & written thoughts from historic burial. Our culture now advantages quick trendy opinion over longterm deep study; it is precisely women’s actual history that seems to be suffering erasure again under this mediated addiction. Don’t hit the wall: hit the books!!!

    • Barry Hatfield says:

      It’s a very reactionary world. Having read the Sweet Swan book, I came to the conclusion that Mary Sidney’s son would have burnt every copy of the play, erasing all direct evidence and depriving us of a smoking gun. I do think that Robin Williams did some serious research, and more so since, during her later PhD. I wouldn’t call her thesis “trendy” when the vast majority of the world is still in love with the name William Shakespeare – brainwashed after a lifetime of it – and so zealous in their attacks on new suggestions.

  9. Kristin Bundesen says:

    I would like to thank Ms. Meriam for writing about the authorship question and Williams’ book proposing Mary Sidney as a candidate. Debate, enquiry and curiosity are great motivators. The more discussion there is regarding the authorship question, the better the resulting research will be. Ms. Williams’ book is indeed well researched and proposes Mary Sidney as a candidate – – but allows the reader to reach her or his own conclusion.

    I appreciate the tension between the accepted narrative and those that seek to challenge it. This is not limited to the authorship debate. I suspect, most readers of Ms. work with this tension in the family and the workplace on a daily basis.

    Dr. Barbara Harris relates a tale about the beginning of her research into women in the early Tudor period. Apparently she was told there was NO archival evidence for women, apart from queens. After going through the standard source material known as “Letters & Papers of Henry VIII”, she found over a 1,000 references to women. No one had ever looked in quite the same way she had. As an academic historian, my own research challenges the traditional narrative that elite women did not participate in 16th century Elizabethan politics. They did! By asking the questions and posing the hypotheses, it is possible a talented researcher will look for evidence not previously recognized which will shed further light on the authorship question.

    Ms. Greer’s excellent book, referenced above, also includes a fair amount of guesswork. Each time the words ‘surely’, ‘perhaps’, ‘it is likely’, ‘doubtless, ‘almost certainly’ or any of a dozen such similar phrases appears in an historical biography or work of literary analysis our critical antenna should start buzzing, alerting us that the following information is not proven fact. Bill Bryson in his “Shakespeare: the World as Stage” includes an excellent discussion of how little archival evidence there is for the man William Shakespeare and specifically highlights one relevant reference not found until 1983 in the National Archives at Kew Gardens, UK. Clearly there is still work to be done.

    Readers of Ms. are people who accept that challenging the traditional narrative can lead to a better world including addressing gender imbalance. Debates such as this one, sparked by Ms. Williams’ book and Ms. Meriam’s review of it, are part of that process. Looking back to challenge the narrative can be useful in changing how we think about ourselves – a revolutionary thought made manifest by this magazine. Thank you!

    Kristin Bundesen, PhD
    The Mary Sidney Society
    Member, Board of Directors

  10. Mary Sidney, whether or not she was William Shakespeare, was really cool. I kind of wish she was so she could get more recognition; she deserves it.

  11. Mitchell Geller says:

    I went online and bought “Sweet Swan Of Avon” the very day Mary Meriam recommended it last Spring.
    Already familiar with Mary Sidney, I was glad to learn more about her, and in fact the book is as carefully researched, gracefully written and informative as Stephen Greenblatt’s “Will Of The World” of a decade ago, and Bill Bryson’s slight but enjoyable Shakespeare: The World As Stage” from 2007. If Robin Williams increases Mary Sidney’s readership we owe her a debt of gratitude for that alone. And she certainly makes a stronger case for Mary Sidney being the Bard than did John Hudson a few years ago with his theory that Shakespeare was in fact a Jewish woman from Italy, Amelia Bassano Lanier..
    However, I remain unconvinced, and likely always will, that anyone but Shakespeare was Shakespeare. My Shakespeare-obsessed father was fond of Noël Coward’s quatrain:

    A Question Of Values

    Christopher Marlowe or Francis Bacon,
    The author of “Lear remains unshaken.”
    Willie Hughes or Mary Fitton —
    What does it matter ? The sonnets were written.

  12. Thank you, Ms. Kamaralli, for injecting some reality into this absurd discussion. The notion that Mary Sidney, or anyone else, wrote Shakespeare is completely and utterly ridiculous. You can attempt to brush away the “accepted view” (a.k.a. the historical record) if you wish, but don’t you dare demand to be taken seriously afterwards. Robin Williams is not a scholar, and this book belongs in the same category as the “National Treasure” movies with Nicolas Cage – audience-pleasing nonsense.

    As already mentioned, you trivialize the work of scholars and also the real life of Mary Sidney by engaging in this foolishness.

    By the way, Bill Bryson’s book about Shakespeare is indeed worth reading. In the last chapter, he scathingly attacks all anti-Stratfordians as charlatans. I guess we should assume that he’s part of the “Shakespeare Establishment” too, right?

  13. I have read Ms William’s gook and commend you on the freedom to address this question which Emerson considered “the first of all literary questions”. That it has been censored and barred from respectful discussion is an indication of orthodoxy’s iron hand more than its rectitude in scholarship.

    I completely agree that Mary Sidney had an important influence on the Shakespeare author. She also made an enormous impact as the author under a pseudonym, John Webster, of The White Devil and The Duchess of Malta, the only two Elizabeth-Jacobean plays from the point of view of a woman. She supported Edward de Vere when he did not have even a residence in which to carry on his work. They were friends, literary associates, and political allies. Her son Philip married his daughter Susan. Another son of hers almost married another daughter of his, Bridget. That son became Lord Chamberlain in charge of play publication and both brothers were dedicatees of the First Folio. Just before that event, Othello was published under the aegis of the Earl of Derby, also married to a Vere daughter, Elizabeth. So it becomes clear that the first Folio was a family affair, the Vere-Herbert family of which Mary Sidney Herbert was the matriarch. Although I hold that there are too many thousands of circumstantial bits of evidence that de Vere wrote the Shakespeare canon, I credit Mary Sidney as the primary force behind his serious works in the area of Head and Heart, Mind and Desire, Man and Woman, works we continue to prize. If not for the Herberts, elder and younger, the Shakespeare canon would have been suppressed and forgotten.
    William Ray
    Shakespeare Papers

  14. Peter Rolfe says:

    Why do the pro-Stratfordians become so enraged that anyone should question the identity of William Shakespeare? “Me thinks the lady doth protest too much”

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