The Countess of Pembroke
Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, had a mission in life acknowledged by her biographers: her mission was to create great works in the English language. She developed the most important literary coterie in England’s history, Wilton Circle, taking the mantle from her brother Philip, who died in the Queen’s Protestant war. Mary wrote and published works that were “appropriate” for women at the time, yet still pushing the edges of propriety.
Mary Sidney was born three years before Shakespeare and died five years after. Her written work, the work of her older brother (Sir Philip Sidney), and the work of many of the writers in her circle were used as sources for the Shakespearean plays.
Mary Sidney was a musician; she was also trained in medicine, hawking, hunting, languages, geography, needlework, alchemy, history, and more. She was politically involved and out-spoken, although she disliked the fawning and superficiality of the royal court. References to all these proclivities have surfaced in the plays and 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. The dark-haired woman was newly married, perhaps to a man named Will. No one has ever been able to identify the younger man or the dark-haired woman in relation to William Shakespeare.
But Mary had a romance with a striking resemblance to these sonnets. After her husband died, Mary (43 years old) had an affair with a younger man, Dr. Matthew Lister (33 years old), whom she could not marry because of the difference in social status, but she was with him 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. It turns out Mary Wroth was not having an affair with Dr. Lister, but with Will Herbert (also newly married), Mary Sidney’s oldest son.
This same son acted as bawd for the King, effectively changing the power structure at court by providing King James with a new lover, George Villiers (who eventually became the Duke of Buckingham), and thus procuring for himself the office of Lord Chamberlain. Mary’s younger son, Philip Herbert, acted as whore to the King in exchange for an earldom, a rare honor for a second son.
Interestingly, in the First Folio (the collection of the works of “Shakespeare” printed seven years after his death), Ben Jonson wrote a eulogy, “To the Memory of my Beloved, the AUTHOR,” in which he complains how certain people might pretend to praise a person like the author 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 definitely a close friend of William Herbert’s) mentions a bawd and a whore and a mature gentlewoman in the eulogy’s introduction.
This First Folio is dedicated to Mary Sidney’s two sons, neither of whom has ever been connected to the man named William Shakespeare. William Herbert, her own son, seems to have been Mary’s greatest antagonist. It’s very likely he would have been the only person who knew of her work, perhaps confiding in Ben Jonson during the production of the First Folio.
Mary Sidney was the most educated, literate, articulate, and motivated writer of the time. Because she was a female, however, she was not allowed to publish plays for the public theatre. Would that have stopped an indomitable woman?
Please check the MarySidney.com site for more details of Mary Sidney and the remarkable documentation of her connections to the plays.Top of page.
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