Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare

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It is long overdue that someone took a closer look at the brilliant Mary Sidney. I have a suspicion that Mary Sidney’s life, and especially her dedication to the English language after her brother’s death, may throw important light on the mysterious authorship of the Shakespeare plays and poems.
—Mark Rylance
Actor; Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 1996–2006; Chairman of the Shakespearean ...

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Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare?

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It is long overdue that someone took a closer look at the brilliant Mary Sidney. I have a suspicion that Mary Sidney’s life, and especially her dedication to the English language after her brother’s death, may throw important light on the mysterious authorship of the Shakespeare plays and poems.
—Mark Rylance
Actor; Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 1996–2006; Chairman of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust

For more than two hundred years, a growing number of researchers have questioned whether the man named William Shakespeare actually wrote the works attributed to him. There is no paper trail for William Shakespeare—no record that he was ever paid for writing, nothing in his handwriting but a few signatures on legal documents, no evidence of his presence in the royal court except as an actor in his later years, no confirmation of his involvement in the literary circles of the time. With so little information about this man—and even less evidence connecting him to the plays and sonnets—what can and what can’t we assume about the author of the greatest works of the English language?

For the first time, Robin P. Williams presents an in-depth inquiry into the possibility that Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, wrote the works attributed to the man named William Shakespeare. As well educated as Queen Elizabeth I, this woman was at the forefront of the literary movement in England, yet not allowed to write for the public stage. But that’s just the beginning . . .

The first question I am asked by curious freshmen in my Shakespeare course is always, “Who wrote these plays anyway?” Now, because of Robin Williams’ rigorous scholarship and artful sleuthing, Mary Sidney Herbert will forever have to be mentioned as a possible author of the Shakespeare canon. Sweet Swan of Avon doesn’t pretend to put the matter to rest, but simply shows how completely reasonable the authorship controversy is, and how the idea of a female playwright surprisingly answers more Shakespearean conundrums than it creates...
—Cynthia Lee Katona
Professor of Shakespeare and Women’s Studies, Ohlone College; Author of Book Savvy

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780321426406
  • Publisher: Peachpit Press
  • Publication date: 3/10/2006
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 7.37 (w) x 9.44 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

Robin Williams is the successful author of dozens of titles and has books in twenty-three languages. In this book, she has turned her attention to a topic she has been researching for seven years. An Independent Scholar, Robin has studied Shakespeare at St. John's College in Santa Fe and Oxford University in England. She teaches Shakespeare for adults at the local college, and guides two play readings a month. She runs ten-week guided discussions of selected plays for advanced readers, called The Understanders. For three years she has been a featured speaker at the Authorship Conference at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London, and will be consulting on the upcoming authorship exhibit at the Globe. Robin is an Associate Member, by invitation of Mark Rylance, of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust in London, founded in 1922.

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Table of Contents

Who Wrote Shakespeare? xii
The Impact of Shakespeare xiii
What Did the Playwright Value? xvii
What Did the Playwright Favor? xix
What Did the Playwright Read? xxii
"Not of an age, but for all time" xxvii
So Who Was This Person? xxviii
Part 1 The Question
1 The Man Named William Shakespeare 3
What We Don't Know 4
Who Met William Shakespeare? 5
If He Were a Rich Man 5
Literary References to Shakespeare 7
Missing: William Shakespeare 8
Proof by Patron 11
Traditions vs. Truth 12
The Shakespeare Biography Industry 14
Oops-He Died 16
The Sum of the Whole is Greater than the Parts 17
But Wait 20
Part 2 The Woman
2 Mary Sidney as a Young Woman 23
"One daughter of very good hope" 25
Mary and Philip Sidney 27
A Life of Literary Pursuits 29
The Wilton Circle 30
Give Sorrow Words 32
Forward-in All Directions 33
3 Mary Sidney's Life of Literature 35
Examples of Her Work 38
Other Written Work 50
Newly Discovered 51
Conventional Yet Covert 54
And Where Was William Shakespeare? 57
4 Mary Sidney as an Older Woman 59
A Change for the Worse 59
Still Within the Margins 64
Part 3 The Sonnets
5 Introduction to the Sonnets 67
Was Shakespeare Gay? 72
Babies and Lovers 72
6 The Love Sonnets 75
"The course of true love" 78
7 The Procreation Sonnets 83
"Death shall not brag" 86
Philip's Influence 87
8 Sonnet Miscellany 89
The Publication Issues 91
A Puzzling Epigram 93
A Sonnet Collection? 94
Part 4 The Sources
9 The Sources of the Plays 97
Just the Beginning 114
10 The Sources and How They Were Changed 115
A Pattern? 122
11 The Plays and Mary's Life 123
Titus Andronicus 124
All's Well That Ends Well 127
Love's Labor's Lost 130
The Tragic Plays 132
The English History Plays 133
Part 5 The Women
12 Do You Not Know I Am a Woman? 141
Froward Females 142
Female Relationships 149
Questionable Men 150
Male Relationships 152
13 The Imagery in the Plays 153
Part 6 The Antagonist
14 The Incomparable Brethren at Court 163
Getting Ahead at Court 163
Don't Get on the Wrong Side 164
William Herbert's Troubles 167
William's Struggle for Rewards 168
Maintaining the Reputation 170
Lord Chamberlain Above All 173
Philip Herbert at Court 173
Philip's Reward 175
A Bawd, a Whore, and a Matron 176
On to the Plays 180
Part 7 The Publication
15 The Publication of the Plays 183
The Anonymous Author 184
Pirates Ahead 186
And Who Wrote These? 187
"Never blotted out a line" 188
Documented Data 189
16 The Publication of the First Folio 191
The Missing Manuscripts 192
Publishing Literary Works 194
Printing the First Folio 196
Ben Jonson's Poem to "the AUTHOR" 198
The Possibility 200
17 The Sweet Swan of Avon 201
Part 8 The Possibility
18 Mary Sidney, alias Shakespeare 207
Consider the Question 213
Part 9 The Appendices
A Old School 216
B The Other Candidates 219
C Jonson's Eulogy 224
D The Narrative Poems 234
E Literary Allusions 242
F The History Plays 249
G English Peerage 255
H Real Money 256
Endnotes 258
Index 271
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Customer Reviews

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( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 21, 2011

    The Best Book I've Yet Read on this Subject.

    I became interested in the Shakespeare Authorship question two or three years ago after reading John Michell's 'Who Wrote Shakespeare?' Since then I have read many books and articles on the subject. 'Sweet Swan of Avon' had been on my list for some time. After contacting all the British distributors I could find, without success, I at last obtained a copy from your excellent store. It cost me, but boy! was it worth it! At last someone has presented firm evidence of a woman's hand in the works of 'Shakespeare.' Robin William's writing is clear and concise, and her research is impeccable. In her extremely readable style she reviews Mary Sidney's life and work, giving many examples of why it is far more likely that she wrote 'Shakespeare' than the man from Stratford. This seems even more true of the Sonnets. Even if the male pronoun doesn't bother us I'm sure many of us have had that nagging feeling in the back of our minds 'Would one man really write like that to another man?' At last the 'elephant in the room' has been confronted. Surprise surprise! A woman could have written these beautiful poems! Robin Williams is to be congratulated on the depth of her knowledge, her painstaking research, and the intelligence of her brilliant writing. Read this book! If it doesn't convince you I'm sure, at least, it will make you think! Just one more thing; why is such an excellent book not more readily available outside the US?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2006

    Mary Take a Bow: Robin Williams Delivers Key Candidate

    I've never understood why, in the light of so much uncertainty, so many people steadfastly insist that the man William Shakespeare wrote the works currently attributed to him. It's almost like a religious cult in which those who question the leader are systematically cast aside. Ghostwriting by choice or by necessity is as thoroughly documented throughout the annals of literary history as is, oh, let's say men cheating on their wives (again, steadfastly denied, but altogether factual). So it is with open arms¿and open mind¿I welcome Robin P. Williams' Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare?, a unique and logical speculation that Mary Herbert Sydney, the Countess of Pembroke, is the true author behind this masterful literary cannon. To reject the theory simply because the proposed candidate is a woman is a disservice to the bountiful historical information this book reveals about the Elizabethan era and what it would take for a woman to write politically charged material for publication. If your mind is already closed to this possibility, keep your blinders on and stick to the status quo. However, if sound theorizing based on facts¿not speculation or illogical assumption making¿is more your cup of tea, you're in for a revelatory experience reading Williams' book. If nothing else, you will be exposed to not only what historians cannot know about the man William Shakespeare, but also the enormity of the inaccuracies that (historians, scholars, educators) have established, and continue to uphold as fact. The book's historical research is awe-inspiring, the juxtaposing of Sidney's and Shakespeare's lives nothing less than enlightening, and Williams' presentation is superbly approachable: entertaining, insightful, and remarkably thorough. No sooner can the reader come up with a question than Williams provides a fact-based answer¿not her assumption or her willynilly speculation¿ but rather a purposeful response that is derived from many years of nose-to-the-grindstone research. In short, it's a history book you take to bed with you because it's exciting, romantic, believable, and knowledgeable... not unlike the plays and sonnets themselves. Bravo!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2006

    Completely rocked my world!

    Even if you think the suggestion that a woman wrote Shakespeare is complete feminist crap, you have to read this book. Robin P. Williams outlines in detail what we know about the author of the Shakespeare canon from reading the works and then outlines what we know of the man William Shakespeare. The two don't match by a long shot, which is why for over 200 years scholars have debated the 'Authorship Question.' Williams starts by looking at what personalities could have created these works and comes up with Mary Herbert Sidney, one of the most educated women of her day with a self-imposed mission to create english literature that would rival the French and Italians. Add some excellent contextual analysis of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets and a healthy dose of Elizabethan history, morals and manners and you have a gripping tale. If you are not convinced of her premise after the first chapter, you are in complete denial. A great read for anyone who likes historical who-dunnits and a must read for any lovers of Shakespeare. I for one will never think of the Bard the same way again.

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