Mary Sidney (1561–1621)

Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, was known to be a hot-tempered redhead, brilliant, multi-talented, strong, dynamic, passionate, generous, and a bit arrogant. She was born three years before Shakespeare and died five years after.

For two decades, she developed and led the most important literary circle in England’s history, Wilton Circle, taking the mantle from her mentor, her brother Sir Philip Sidney, who died in the Queen’s Protestant war. Her work, the work of her brother, and the work of many of the writers in her circle were used as sources for the Shakespearean plays.

She was devoted to literature and to creating great works in the English language. This was a brave mission since English was not considered a significant language at the time; there were great works in Italian, French, Latin, and Greek, but few in English. Nor was English spoken anywhere else in the world—rarely even in Scotland, Wales, or Ireland.

Mary Sidney Herbert, miniature portrait by Nicholas Hilliard, ca 1590, in the National Portrait Gallery, London

Mary Sidney Herbert, miniature portrait by Nicholas Hilliard, ca 1590, in the National Portrait Gallery, London

Mary Sidney exhibited a lifelong passion and commitment to her literary goals. In her versification of 127 psalms, she used 126 different verse forms. Pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable for women, she was the first woman to publish a play in English (a formal closet drama meant to be read aloud in an aristocratic home), and the first woman to publish original dramatic verse (which was allowed because it was for Queen Elizabeth). She was also the first woman who did not apologize for publishing her work.

She was trained in medicine and had her own alchemy laboratory where Adrian Gilbert (Sir Walter Raleigh’s half brother) was her assistant. Recipes she developed are still extant, including a recipe for disappearing ink. Mary had an active interest in spiritual magic and was close with the “magician” John Dee and visionary Giordano Bruno (Bruno dedicated his two most important works to her brother). Adrian Gilbert designed her garden at Wilton House in a “heavily geometric and symbolic nature” in which it was possible to read “both divine and moral remembrances,” a “personal iconographic program based on symbolic geometry.”

She was fluent in Latin, French, and Italian, and is believed to have also known Welsh, Spanish, and possibly Greek. She was one of the most educated women in England, comparable only to Queen Elizabeth. She was politically involved and outspoken, although she disliked the fawning and superficiality of the royal court.

Mary was an energetic woman: She held large parties. She sponsored an acting troupe. She traveled, rode horses, hunted, hawked. She bowled (lawn bowling), danced, sang, was famous for her needlework. Mary participated in theatrical productions at the royal court and developed Ludlow Castle into a cultural center that included just about every known theatrical troupe in the country. She played the lute and the virginals, and—if we can believe a German report—the violin. This German report also describes a musical code she invented with which she would send letters to friends in the form of musical compositions, each measure representing a letter of the alphabet.

The Sonnets

Scholars believe the Shakespearean sonnets tell the story of the poet’s passionate affair with a younger man, who then had an affair with a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman close to the poet’s heart; this dark-haired woman was newly married, perhaps to a man named Will. No one has ever been able to positively identify the younger man or the dark-haired woman in relation to William Shakespeare (nor any of the other candidates).

But Mary’s documented love life has a striking resemblance to these sonnets. After her husband died, Mary (43 years old) conducted an affair with a younger man, Dr. Matthew Lister (33 years old), whom she could not marry because of their differences in social status, although they were together for the rest of her life. There was strife in the relationship, however, when she thought her younger lover was having an affair with her dark-haired, dark-eyed niece, Mary Wroth (19 years old and newly married), whom Mary Sidney had helped raise. In reality, Mary Wroth was not having an affair with Dr. Lister, but with Will Herbert (also newly married), Mary Sidney’s oldest son.

The Incomparable Brethren

This same son, William Herbert, acted as bawd for the King, effectively changing the power structure at court by providing King James with a new lover, George Villiers, and thus procuring for himself the office of Lord Chamberlain. Mary’s younger son, Philip Herbert, acted as a whore to the King in exchange for an earldom, a rare honor for a second son.

This is particularly intriguing because in the First Folio (the printed collection of the works of “Shakespeare” printed seven years after his death), Ben Jonson writes a eulogy, “To the Memory of my Beloved, the AUTHOR,” in which he complains how certain people might pretend to praise someone while really trying to destroy that person. “These are, as some infamous Bawd, or Whore Should praise a Matron. What could hurt her more?” There has never been an explanation for why Ben Jonson (considered to have been a protégé of Mary Sidney’s and well-documented as a close friend of William Herbert’s) mentions a bawd (pimp), a whore, and a mature gentlewoman/matron in the eulogy’s introduction.

This First Folio is dedicated to Mary Sidney’s two sons, the “incomparable brethren,” neither of whom has otherwise been connected to the man named William Shakespeare.

Just the Beginning

These few documented facts are some of only part of Mary’s story. Unlike every other proposed authorship candidate, Mary Sidney has no anomaly (such as being dead) that needs an elaborate explanation to justify. Everything about her fits neatly and remarkably into the authorship of the Shakespearean plays and sonnets—she is the most articulate, literate, educated, and motivated writer of the times with hundreds of connections to the source materials of the plays, and her love life matches the sonnet story. Because she was a woman, however, she was not allowed to write plays for the public theater.

There is no reason to believe her authorship was a conspiracy that needed to be hidden by many people; it is possible that a very few loyal friends, or only her oldest son knew. This same son covered up his two illegitimate children with his first cousin, Mary Wroth, a fact that wasn’t discovered until 1932.  In any case, since there is doubt about who the author or authors of the “Shakespearean” canon may have been, it is important as well as enlightening to include Mary Sidney as possible author.


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A concise, traditional biography of Mary Sidney by her primary biographer, Margaret Hannay:

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A site with some of Mary Sidney’s works, plus links to essays about her:

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Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare? by Robin P. Williams.