Sweet Swan of Avon : Did a Woman Write Shakespeare? [A Book Review]

In general, I have no opinion on the authorship question. I’m familiar with the players in the game – Bacon, Marlowe, Oxford, and so on – it’s just that I’m more interested in what was written than in who wrote it. So when I was asked to write a review of Robin P. Williams’ book, “Sweet Swan of Avon : Did a Woman Write Shakespeare?” I said sure, why not. I figure I can be as unbiased as the next guy. If I’m going to read one of the authorship books cover to cover, this sounds like a good one.

Williams supports the argument that Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, wrote Shakespeare’s works (both the plays and the sonnets). The most educated woman of the day (rivalling Queen Elizabeth herself), Sidney was a recognized force in the literary movement of the day. Honestly I can’t sit here and do justice to all the points of Sidney’s life and how they map to the Shakespeare canon, so I’m not going to try. She was intimately connected to the right people, had the writing ability to hold her own among the best of them, and the events of her life (romantic and tragic alike) sit closely on the timeline to when the plays and sonnets were written. If this subject is your thing, there’ll be plenty here for you to dig through. With 40 pages of appendices and another 12 of endnotes, there’s plenty of cross reference material to keep you busy fact checking the authors argument.

Luckily the book comes at the question in a fun, almost lighthearted way. It is certainly not the stodgy tome of archival detective work it might have been, were it written fifty years ago. Instead, the author comes right out and admits that she’s not trying to prove anything, but merely to demonstrate how strong a case can be made. How her theory “answers more questions than it creates”. I could just imagine the author interrupting a cocktail party argument between an Oxfordian and a Baconian, waiting for her moment to drop in, “Why couldn’t the author have been a woman?” and waiting for the sputtered, indignant cries of “Nonsense!” to begin.

As a matter of fact the book does feel like it’s organized as a quick reference cheat sheet for winning exactly such an argument. Take chapter 5, “Introduction to the Sonnets”, which addresses the whole “Then surely Shakespeare was gay, right?” question by offering up the 4 most common arguments (i.e. “Everybody talked like that back then!”) and providing quotable material to shoot down each of those arguments. Chapter 9 lists every literary work known to be a source for the plays, how it connects back to the Mary Sidney, and how in most cases there is no way to associate Shakespeare with the work. And so on. Why did Shakespeare write such strong female characters and write, in general, such awful men (murderous, insanely jealous husbands, overbearing fathers…)? Chapter 12 has some thoughts on the subject.

Every chapter starts with a summary of documented evidence, and a timeline (there is even a giant pullout timeline at the end of the book). Many of the chapters are giant tables listing multiple pieces of evidence (or lack thereof) and comparing Sidney versus Shakespeare. Chapter 9 in particular, documenting the sources of the plays, is one big 15page table. I’m a bit disappointed that she barely attempts to map the plays to Sidney’s life (having done such a thorough job with the sonnets), using the “Anyone can make a case for any author” argument. She then goes on to make the case for Titus Andronicus, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Love’s Labour’s Lost. But the great tragedies Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and Lear are left with the summary that “This was indeed a difficult and disappointing time in Mary’s life.” I would have liked her to choose something a little deeper for her demonstration, if it’s truly that easy to make the case for any author.

For good or for bad, much of the book is dedicated to “Shakespeare can’t have written this” or “There’s no evidence that Shakespeare wrote that”, rather than in support of Mary Sidney. Imagine an authorship argument like a political campaign commercial. You don’t win any points by saying “Yeah, the other side had a good point there.” You spend part of your time supporting your own case, and part of your time (often, the larger part) bashing the other guy’s position. So naturally the book is so lopsided that unless you’re personally invested in the case for Shakespeare you can’t help but come away thinking that it’s so obvious that Sidney wrote the works that why didn’t somebody think of this sooner? Personally I noticed several questionable spots, like the implication that most of the books in support of Shakespearean biography play fast and loose with the facts (including a swipe at Greenblatt’s Will in the World, a recent, popular addition to that category), while we’re expected to believe that books such as this one are always letter perfect, never exaggerate their case and can back up all of their statements with objective evidence.

On the other hand, Williams mentions the case of Mary’s son William and the recent (1935) discovery that he had two illegitimate children, almost 300 years after the fact. Gary Wroth, in “The Sidney Family Romance”, calls it a “total cover-up by the Sidneys”. Whose to say that one of these years we won’t find those crucial bits of evidence that reveal the answer to the big question once and for all? There’s a world of difference between “There’s no evidence” and “It didn’t happen”, and the Sidney example demonstrates that.

When I told people I was reviewing this book, and its premise, one of them said, “Oh, so, fiction?” I explained the authorship question, and how, really, other than the fact that Shakespeare’s name is on the plays, there’s really not much other evidence that the man wrote them. It dawned on me after doing that a few times that I really believe it. I don’t explain it to people with an eye roll and liberal insertion of the word “crackpot”, but rather as a valid question in the world of Shakespeare. It is indeed quite possible that somebody other than the man William Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him, as far as the evidence shows. Was it Mary Sidney? The Earl of Oxford? Christopher Marlowe? I don’t think we’ll ever really know, at least not until some decisive evidence shows up. What would be fun, I think, is to watch some people from the different camps go at it. As I mentioned, the “Shakespeare versus ______” argument is too one sided to be much fun, since the folks defending Shakespeare don’t often feel obliged to do a point by point analysis like his detractors do.

I do definitely recommend the book. I realize that this review has focused primarily on the book itself and not the content within, but like I said at the beginning, I’m not much of a scholar on the salient points of the argument. That’s why I like the book, really. I keep picking it up, opening it at random, and learning something new. Whether or not every assertion is true, I don’t really know. But it’s going to make for a fun debate in a few weeks when Shakespeare in the Park comes back to town and I get to talk about my favorite subject some more. 🙂

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