Book Review: Sweet Swan of Avon
Did a Woman Write Shakespeare?
In Sweet Swan of Avon, accomplished author Robin P. Williams offers the world a book that brings the Shakespearean authorship question to life in a way that absolutely anyone can read, enjoy and understand. In fact, if you have no idea what the authorship question is about, this book will educate you thoroughly and easily, as is Williams' forte. Robin (who is a woman, and not related to comedian Robin Williams) has previously written more than 40 "how-to"computer books, including best-selling titles such as "The Mac is Not a Typewriter" and "The Non-Designer's Design Book". Having developed a knack for explaining the complexities of computer software in layperson's term's, she handles the authorship question with equal skill and shows her ability to explain extremely complex concepts in an incredibly accessible way. Though this book couldn't be further from a computer manual, with those same gifts she takes us through the historical authorship conversation (in GREAT detail) and offers us a new possibility of who the true author of the Shakespearean works may be: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke.
This book surprised me in many ways, not the least of which was my inability to put it down! I found myself staying up half the night to read it (this never happens to me with non-fiction). Having finished the book, I am also totally incredulous that no one before Robin Williams has put this amazing story together. For 300 years scholars have been trying to figure out who wrote the works of Shakespeare (even if it was Shakespeare himself, the history of the works is so riddled with mystery that it begs to be proved!) and it just amazes me that in that whole period of time no one has ever before tried to prove that Mary Sidney could have been the author.
And that's exactly what this book is about: the details of the mystery of the authorship question and the myriad of reasons why Mary Sidney is the most likely candidate for authorship. Because Williams so clearly wanted this book to be enjoyed by anyone, not just Shakespearean scholars, she takes the time to lay out the mystery. And though I was familiar with the authorship question before reading the book, I was still glued to the pages, savoring the bread crumb hints sprinkled throughout, leading us to the Mary Sidney assertion.
Williams, who is clearly somewhat of a renaissance women herself, has been researching the topic of who actually wrote Shakespeare for the past seven years and is no dilettante on the subject. An Independent Scholar, she has studied Shakespeare extensively at St. John's College in Santa Fe and Oxford University in England. For three years she has been a featured speaker at the Authorship Conference at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London and is the founder of The Mary Sidney Society. The amount of investigation and factual detail packed into this book is beyond impressive. Williams has thoroughly and exhaustively researched Mary Sidney and the authorship question, pulling in every possible printed reference to the topic. Yet she also openly encourages others to continue her research, never once giving the impression that she has completed the job. Once Williams brings in Mary Sidney's story, the real magic begins. Whether or not Mary Sidney is ever recognized as the author of the works attributed to Shakespeare, this woman deserves to be honored. I cannot believe that I had never heard of Mary Sidney before now. Her life and her writing (the writing that it was safe, at the time, to claim as her own) shaped the English Renaissance, influenced scores of major writers and political figures, and set the stage for theater as we know it today. Yes, that's what we KNOW she did, regardless of the question of the Shakespearean works (As aristocracy, she never would have taken credit for writing a play- it would have lost her and her family favor at court, tantamount to exile in poverty. These are my words, not Robin's- but she explains all of this in detail in the book).
By the end of this book I am convinced. It's just a no-brainer that Mary Sidney wrote the plays. It's so obvious. In fact, I'm worried that people will go into straight-on denial about it ("Not possible, the world is flat!"). But I have great hope. I have hope that Mary Sidney's descendants will discover more proof of her authorship in previously hidden family papers and books. I have hope that Williams has opened the door for hundreds of scholars to follow in her path, furthering the research on Mary Sidney. And because this book is so much fun to read, I have hope that people outside the regular authorship question crowd (lay people like you and me who love the plays and sonnets) will get loud and have an opinion! You don't need a degree to study this question or to have an opinion about who you think wrote Shakespeare. I, for one, have an opinion, and I'm ready to shout it from the rooftops: Mary Sidney Wrote Shakespeare! Read the book and see if you agree.