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  • Kristin Bundesen, PhD

Mary Sidney, Alias Shakespeare?

If a woman wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare, would we view them differently? This is the question posed in a story in yesterday's New York Times by Laura Capelle reviewing a stage production of Dr. Robin William's book Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare? (2006).

By Nicholas Hilliard
Mary Sidney, by Nicholas Hilliard

I was first introduced to the 'Authorship Question' by Dr. Williams several years ago. I find the evidence that there should be a question about authorship compelling. Evidence for Mary Sidney's candidacy as the author is also compelling. Cappelle in her review of the staging of Dr, William's book in a theatre in the suburbs of Paris agrees. The staging of the book appears to be minimalist in that there are two lecterns and some projections.. The director, Aurore Evain, is also a theatre historian, Like the NYTimes critic, I find the circumstantial evidence to add up to substantial evidence that Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke was at least an author of the works of Shakespeare.

As a child, Mary Sidney was invited to Queen Elizabeth's court as a maid of the court. She was highly educated as was the fashion for elite Elizabethan ladies, and spoke several languages. Mary was wed to Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, when she was 15 and he was 39. A lot of recent scholarship has focussed on the sources used to create the works of Shakespeare. Mary had one of the most extensive private libraries in the kingdom including most of the identified sources. She was an expert in medicine, hawking, hunting, music, archery, domestic arts and legal functions. She sponsored the acting company Pembroke's Men.

"She was born 3 years before Shakespeare and died 5 years after." As an aristocratic, former lady-in-waiting, managing several large estates, she was in a position to offer patronage and support to artists, musicians, and writers. The circle of writers congregating at her Wilton estate was so famous it was referred to as The Wilton Circle. And, the First Folio is dedicated to her two sons, the incomparable brethren William and Philip Herbert.

Consider; the Shakespearean canon is more popular today than it was 400 years ago. The themes are universal. The characters are three dimensional with complex internal lives. Questions of authority, identity, family, the nature of love, revenge, violence, power, fate, nature versus nurture, freedom, possession, and the purpose of life are all part of the canon. The works have been translated into over 100 languages including Klingon. IMDB, the Internet Movie Data Base, lists 1,095 projects that credit Shakespeare as a source. Wikipedia and the Guinness Book of World Records lists 410 movies that are adaptations of Shakespeare's work.

Would you feel differently knowing that the author that has inspired so much creativity and universal acclaim was a woman? Would the value, nay reverence, that we give Shakespeare be as great if the author was recognized as a woman?

When I first discussed the idea of a female author as Shakespeare with my daughter, she stated simply, "That would change everything".


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