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Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare? Hardcover – 15 Mar 2006


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Peachpit Press; 1 edition (15 Mar 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0321426401
  • ISBN-13: 978-0321426406
  • Product Dimensions: 18.7 x 2.6 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,886,017 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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From the Back Cover

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

About 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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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Being Jeanne on 18 April 2006
Format: Hardcover
This is a wonderful read! Robin Williams takes us on a centuries old thrill ride, connecting the long-faded dots and allowing us to experinece the physical, cultural and emotional landscape that surrounded the author of the works attributed to William Shakespeare. It doesn't matter one bit whether or not you like Shakespeare, are interested in Elizabethan literature, or have ever heard of Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. By the end of the book you'll be convinced you've just be let in on a monumental secret, locked away for hundreds of years.

Robin reveals the truth slowly, without lecturing or forcing the reader to accept her personal opinions. She does it with well documented facts, given to you in a long conversation that leaves you feeling immersed in the life of the most fascinating woman of her times, Mary Sidney. You'll be amazed!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Michael on 20 Jun 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is an important work, a great read, and a vital contribution to the ongoing "Authorship" debate. Meticulously and deeply researched, it deals with facts - which is so refreshing among the plethora of theories and arguments in this area that rely on "probablilities" and "liklihoods" - and presents an overwhelming case in favour of this remarkable woman. Personally, I am now convinced that Mary Sidney was the true author of the sonnets - and if that is the case, it's a short step to her also being being the author of the plays. Please buy this book, read it, and encourage your friends and colleagues to do the same. This is an important piece of work that has opened the door on what I believe will soon be a flood of revelaton.
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By L. Power TOP 500 REVIEWER on 23 May 2013
Format: Paperback
I am very interested in the subject of Shakespearean authorship, and have read many books on the topic.

Why should you be sceptical of Shakespeare as an author?

If you are like me you may assume that the person who wrote Shakespeare was University educated. Yet there is no evidence even that he attended grammar school. If he had attended University either Oxford or Cambridge would have claimed him. Yet the plays express scholarly values and some even feature scholars as main characters.

What of connection with patrons?

Other than the first two poems Venus and Adonis and Rape of Lucrece both dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, there is no documented record of any correspondence between Shakespeare and Southampton.

What about his will?

His will does not mention a single poem or piece of literature, and assumming the writer of the plays had books yet William Shakspeare does not bequeath any literature in his will.

What about about evidence of writing?

Not a single handwriting example exists that can be said to be Shakspeare. Only six signature said to be his exist, and even these are inconsistent and experts cannot agree that all are his. The method of making out the signature compared to well known writers of the era is considered by some not to be that of a writer.

What about references from other poets?

Considering the supposed fame of Shakespeare there is only one reference to Shakespeare by other poets following his death in 1616 and the publication of the First Folio in 1623.
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Format: Paperback
I loved this book. It is so fascinating to think a woman might have written the Shakespeare canon. And Mary Sidney does have a lot of the right credentials. I think her brother might have actually written the works, Philip Sidney. Anyone who has read the Arcadia that she published would have to wonder about this too. it's just that he died tragically on campaign in the Netherlands in 1586. Did he fake his death, like some think happened to Christopher Marlowe. If Marlowe, why not Sidney. Well, Philip Sidney had a massive public funeral and there was a massive outpouring of public grief. Marlowe's death was less heralded and was very quick, dirty and private.

Still, I digress. This book is wonderfully inventive at exposing the circumstantial links between Mary Sidney and the plays and poems. Sadly, invention is not enough. We still need hard contemporary personal evidence, and there is none for anyone, as Diana Price in Shakespeare: The Unorthodox Biography has shown. However, I still hope and believe something will turn up, and expect it to somehow show Mary Sidney's involvement if not actual authorship.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 36 reviews
23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
A name by any other name is... the WRONG name! 27 Dec 2006
By J. R. Norrena - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
While I neither profess to be a scholar on the subject of the Shakespeare authorship question, nor am I particularly well versed on the goings-on of the Elizabethan era, I have been fascinated for decades with the ongoing debate of who wrote Shakespeare.

When I earned my degree in English literature, university professors young and old tenaciously voiced their opinions concerning the credibility someone other than the man William Shakespeare actually wrote the plays and sonnets that we so carelessly attribute to WS today. (I say carelessly because of the widespread disagreement that exists regarding his life and what we've been taught). In short, it was a fascinating classroom debate. Students and instructors alike would argue for and against the possibility that WS was anything more than what we can prove today: an actor and litigious property owner with illiterate daughters who divorced his wife and left her his second-best bed in his will.

Robin P. Williams avoids pontificating that William Shakespeare is not the author of the works (despite the fact that no one can prove WS had a higher education, including an ability to read or write in French, Latin, and Italian--quite necessary because all but three plays are based on original literary works written in these three languages; nor does the name William Shakespeare appear in any of the extensive royal court registries, including the omission of even a single piece of handwritten manuscript!). On the contrary, in Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare?, Williams provides one of the most exciting and socially volatile books ever on this subject by NOT debunking William Shakespeare, per se, but rather by EDUCATING readers about a woman who I suspect most have never heard of before, and who deserves recognition of her spectacular literary accomplishments.

It is the unfolding of such historical information Williams provides regarding Mary Herbert Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke, that one must recognize that for all the missing pieces of information, including the outrageously generous speculation that WS somehow learned his wealth of knowledge embedded in the works by "meeting people who shared their stories" (which of course cannot be proven), isn't it worth merely ASKING the question: Couldn't someone else have written these works?

Of course someone else could have written the works. Anyone documented in history as having spent a single day among the aristocracy... or who spoke more than one language... or who had an education that extended beyond public grade school is, in fact, more capable of having contributed the greatest works in the English language than our beloved William Shakespeare. The point is that once we examine the life of Mary Herbert Sidney, not only is her well-documented life vastly more in tune to the subject matter of the plays and sonnets than is William Shakespeare's, but also hers is a life that once copious significant facts are unveiled, one discovers enough historical overlap between Mary and William that behooves a closer investigation.

Sweet Swan of Avon is this investigation; it is not a trial, nor is it meant to be. For all the hundreds of years we've been told stories about the man William Shakespeare--from downright lies to conjecture to poorly stated facts--there is a woman named Mary Sidney who has been grossly overlooked by historians as a profound contributor to the literary annals, and now thanks to Robin P. Williams, her story is finally being told. Whether Mary's story is the story behind the Shakespearean cannon remains to be seen, but her story inarguably deserves to be told and celebrated because of her undeniable accomplishments--known, unknown, and just unfolding.
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Totally convinced by the 3rd Page 5 Oct 2006
By Cheaplazymom - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I heard Robin P. Williams discuss her book on a radio show and was very intrigued. I read it and was completely convinced before the end of the first chapter. What nailed it for me? William Shakespeare's mother, father, wife and 2 of his 3 children were illiterate. There is no way that the author of Shakespeare would allow his children to sign their name with an X. The other thing that sold me was the simple fact that writers write best about what they know. The plays and sonnets are basically the life and times of Mary Herbert Sidney-- she's related to 2/3 of the characters in the history plays. But that is only the beginning. If nothing else, this book introduces you to an amazing figure in English history and literature. To think that the greatest writer of the English language is (or could be) a woman-- a mother, a sister, a daughter, a wife-- just blows me away. And as a woman reading the sonnets, for the first time they made complete sense. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
A brilliant and serious study 7 April 2010
By Gary J. Gaertner - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It has probably been thirty years since Atlantic magazine published a lengthy and fascinating study of the Authorship Question. Since that time, I have casually followed the arguments. The NYT had a nice debate going for a while at a book opinion page. The unabridged audio versions of Greenblatt's and Bryson's books were interesting but not convincing, and the Oxfordian arguments did not quite fit. By the same token, the Stratfordian accusations of elitism have become a tiresome mask for the obvious shortcomings in Shakespeare's education, training and behavior. The James book on Henry Neville was interesting but similarly thin on useful facts and connections. Parenthetically, looking back at the book on Henry Neville, one can find Mary Sidney appearing in his extended family tree, and perhaps the authors of the Neville theorem were on the right track, anyway. Back in the 1970s, Jacob Bronofski hosted a BBC series and wrote a companion volume entitled "Connections", in which he argued if I recall correctly that each advance in knowledge was not the result of a great flash of revelation, but rather was the next step forward by a new thinker working with the existing knowledge base. It is hard to see how Shakespeare the man could have written the plays unless he knew the wealth and mass of literature on which so many of the plays are based. This book about Mary Sidney is a remarkable marshaling of the facts, connections and evidence upon which each reader can reach a conclusion. The book to my mind solves the authorship question. It is well written and constructed, concise and readable. The substance of the book makes the conclusion obvious. I have made a superficial look for other books which might respond and contradict the authorship of Mary Sidney. I have not found one. To the prior reviewer who mentions unidentified contradictions, please tell us what they are. If this book is not being seriously studied by full time Shakespeare scholars, then academia should be explaining why. I very rarely take the time to review books, and the fact that I have done so in this instance is one indication of my high regard for the book. It is simply brilliant, and I highly recommend this book to every serious and casual student of the "Shakespeare" canon.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Very Compelling Argument! 17 Dec 2011
By Willie Nelson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The question of Authorship has been around for so long and yet Ms.Robin Williams goes to great lengths using documented data for her argument and yet leaves the final judgement to the reader. This is the only researcher that does not force her opinion but instead has the confidence to know the data speaks for itself.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Interesting and well researched 17 Dec 2006
By Canary - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Robin Williams (the writer, not the movie star) does a fine job of showing why it is very possible that Mary Sydney actually authored many of the best Shakespearean works. I was a skeptic, but the more I read, the more I began to think it quite feasible. We probably will never really know who wrote which works, but this book is very thought-provoking and interesting. Also, it is beautifully constructed, as befits a book on such a beloved topic.
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