|Lady Mary Sidney Herbert|
The release of the film Anonymous has revived the enduring question of who really authored Shakespeare’s plays. Was it Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Rutland, the Earl of Southampton, the Earl of Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh, Francis Bacon -- or as the movie would have it, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (a theory most reviewers call Blackadderly).
Personally, in spite of the arguments to the contrary, I’d like to believe that the Bard of Avon was responsible for his own plays. (Well, okay, maybe not Titus Andronicus.) But if there is a serious contender for secret authorship, my money would be on Lady Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. The sister of Sir Philip Sidney, and one of the most gifted and prolific women writers of the Renaissance, she was the first woman to publish a play in English, and was generally acknowledged as the second most intelligent woman in England. (First place of course went to Lady Mary’s friend Elizabeth I ) At her family estate, Wilton House, near Glastonbury, Lady Mary hosted a famous literary salon, “The Wilton Circle”, attended by most of the well known writers and musicians of the age. Among her guests were Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, Sir John Davies, and a promising young poet, Will Shakespeare of Warwickshire.
Apart from her accomplishments as writer, editor and translator, Lady Mary had a keen interest in medicine and alchemy (she had her own alchemical laboratory at Wilton House) and she pursued such esoteric interests as secret musical codes, spiritual magic and invisible ink.
Recognizing a promising young talent, she may well have served as Shakespeare’s mentor. But did she have a hand in writing Will’s plays? Her background and education, her many fields of expertise and her writing talent all lend credibility; but until we discover some Shakespeare-attributed work in Lady Mary’s handwriting, the jury will have to remain out.
Lady Mary and her Wilton House colleagues make an appearance in my 2004 historical fantasy, The Alchemist’s Daughter. (The book is currently sold out at the publishers, but you can find it in better online used bookstores)