By Underwood, Anne
Byline: Anne Underwood
For more than 150 years, literary sleuths have questioned whether William Shakespeare--a man with a grammar-school education, at best--could possibly have penned some of the greatest works in the English language. "You can be born with intelligence, but you can't be born with book learning," says Mark Rylance, Shakespearean actor and artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London. But if Shakespeare didn't write the plays, who did? Dozens of candidates have been proposed, most of them men. But at a conference of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust in London next week, American writer Robin Williams will argue that the true bard was a woman--Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke.
Sidney (as her biographers call her) is a logical suspect. Sister of the Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney, she was a poet herself and one of the best-educated woman in England, along with Elizabeth I. Perhaps not surprisingly, her name has surfaced before as a possible collaborator on Shakespeare's plays, although never until now as a candidate in her own right. Scholars are unlikely to be persuaded. "The very fact that there are so many candidates is almost a proof that none of them is the author," says Stanley Wells, chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon. But that doesn't deter Williams. "One homicide detective told me, 'You're using the same reasoning we use to track down murderers'," she says.
In short, Mary Sidney had the motive, means and opportunity to write the plays. At her home in Wiltshire, she fostered a literary circle whose mission was to elevate English literature--a strong motive. Gary Waller, a Sidney scholar at Purchase College in New York, has called her salon "a seedbed of literary revolution" and Sidney herself "the first major female literary figure in England." With her vast library, education and command of foreign languages, Sidney also had the means to create the works. And with her extensive connections in the literary world, she had opportunity to smuggle the plays to theater companies. Perhaps it's just coincidence, but the first eight Shakespeare plays were published anonymously--"and three of them," says Williams, "provocatively note on the title page that they were produced by Pembroke's Men, the acting company that Mary Sidney and her husband sponsored. …