- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Is it possible that one of the most famous writers of all time was a woman? In “Sweet Swan of Avon,” independent scholar Robin P. Williams argues that the works of William Shakespeare were actually written by a woman named Mary Sidney.

Sidney could provide answers to questions with which Shakespearean historians have wrestled for centuries, Ms. Williams said.

“My point in writing the book was not to somehow convince people that I am right. Rather, my hope is that people will see that there is enough evidence for us to at least be open to the idea that Shakespeare was a woman,” Ms. Williams said.

Questioning the authorship of Shakespeare is nothing new. For the past 300 years, historians have put forth theories that throw doubt on the belief that Shakespeare is responsible for all of his works. Many scholars think Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the true author. Some maintain that it was Francis Bacon, while others credit the works to the combined effort of a team of writers.

“Williams is a brave woman. I fear she will be attacked by higher academia for her theory, but I think she has raised many interesting questions. If Sidney wasn’t directly involved with writing Shakespeare, I am convinced now that she was at least closely connected,” said Mark Rylance, chairman of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust.

Ms. Williams said her theory is unique because it offers a new paradigm to the debate. In the past, several historians have assumed that Shakespeare was a man, forcing many to adopt interesting conclusions. For instance, several of Shakespeare’s love sonnets were written to a man, prompting some historians to suggest that Shakespeare was homosexual.

“I don’t have any strong views on the subject because it is possible Shakespeare wrote the sonnets as literary works. If he did write them specifically for someone, however, I think it is probable that he had a crush on some young male,” said David Kathman, editor of a Web site, www.shakespeareauthorship.com.

Ms. Williams said historical records don’t support the idea that Shakespeare was homosexual. By replacing the male assumption with a female author, she said, many historical questions have better answers.

“Nothing in Shakespeare’s life seems to indicate that he was a homosexual. There is some material within the plays that might lead people to that conclusion, but there is no documented evidence that he was in fact gay,” Ms. Williams said. “That is a theory that rests not on historical evidence but on the assumption that the sonnets were written by a man.”

One of the major reasons some historians have questioned Shakespeare as the true author is the lack of historical evidence surrounding his education. Scholars say the author of Shakespeare’s works was highly educated in the classics, language and rhetoric.

Historical research shows that Sidney was widely known and respected as an educated woman, but Ms. Williams said that history offers no conclusion as to whether Shakespeare was or not.

“There is no historical evidence that Shakespeare received an education. He might have gone to a local grammar school, but nothing more,” Ms. Williams said. “On the other hand, it is documented that Mary Sidney was one of the most highly educated people in England, next to Queen Elizabeth.”

Although it may seem odd that Sidney would write under the name of William Shakespeare, the reasons are understood only in light of English culture during the time of Shakespeare. It was considered inappropriate for a woman to write productions containing some of the content found in Shakespeare. If a woman with the reputation of Sidney was discovered to be the author of the works, it could have ruined her life.

Critics of theories that question Shakespeare as the true author say they are based on faulty historical methodology.

“The people who make the claim that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare cheapen history by attacking the historical methods that literary historians use to examine history. They use different standards by which they judge the evidence,” Mr. Kathman said. “If the same standard was used against others, almost any playwright of that era could be brought into question.”

Ms. Williams said those outside the debates over the authorship of Shakespeare’s works often ask: Why does it matter who wrote Shakespeare? Isn’t it the works that count, not the author? She once asked the same questions, Ms. Williams said, but now she is convinced that implications of this study are important.

“Many scholars believe that the works of Shakespeare are some of the most influential works in history. If, in fact, it was a woman who is responsible for that kind of influence, she deserves to be acknowledged,” Ms. Williams said.


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