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July 13, 2006

Sweet Swan of Avon

SweetSwan_cover_small.jpg

Make the doors upon a woman’s wit,
and it will out at the casement;
shut that, and ’twill out at the key-hold;
stop that, ’twill fly with the smoke
out the chimney.
—As You Like It

To tell you the truth, I never cared whether William Shakespeare wrote the literature that is attributed to him. My interests changed, however, when Robin Williams (not the comedian) wrote a book called Sweet Swan of Avon—Did a Woman Write Shakespeare? Robin’s book explores the possibility that a woman named Mary Sidney Herbert, the countess of Pembroke, wrote the plays and sonnets attributed to William Shakespeare.

My first two thoughts after reading Robin’s book were:

  1. “It’s too bad that Mary Sidney wasn’t a blogger because we wouldn’t be having this argument now.”

  2. Isn’t Ben Jonson the Canadian sprinter who lost his Olympic medal because of steroids?

In subsequent, more cerebral days, I realized that Robin’s book is an important work of literature for two reasons. First, if you’re interested in literature, the authorship of Shakespeare’s works is fascinating question. Robin provides an intriguing possibility, and anything that furthers the pursuit of knowledge is a good thing.

Second, even if you’re not interested literature, this book is a superlative example of the craft of writing. It should occupy a space on the pedestal of books that authors—including wanna-be’s— should aspire to write. Here’s why.

  1. Robin did a humongous amount of research. Essentially, Robin looks at the evidence suggesting the possibility that Mary Sidney—not Shakespeare—may have written the poems and sonnets and that Mary Sidney might have. For example, Shakespeare’s lack of key attributes: education, training in the past times of the day, fluency in multiple languages, acquaintances with the literati, ownership of books, support by patrons, documentation that he was paid as a writer, and proof that he wrote anything other than “his” published works.

    By contrast, Mary Sidney was one of the most educated people in England; she owned an extensive library; “she hunted, hawked, bowled, sang, played musical instruments, composed music, stitched needlework, and studied medicine,” she was fluent in several languages, and she ran one of the most important literary circles in English history.

    Proof enough? Probably not, but intriguing nonetheless. Maybe Oliver Stone will pick up where Robin left off.



  2. The design of the book is so elegant that as a fellow author, I want to cry in envy...“Why can’t my books look like this?” Font selection, section headings, chapter headings, and epigrams as well as complex objects like timelines, charts, tables, and illustrations show how the sum of great parts is an even greater whole. Even if you aren’t interested in Shakespeare, this book is so cool looking that you’ll want to read it. We who are about to cry, salute you, Robin.

  3. The breadth of tools that Robin used to achieve this design result is eye-opening. You can learn about them in the colophon at the end of the book. If you’re accustomed to reading books set in fourteen point Times with Helvetica heads, her colophon will make your head explode. I just use Word, and I thought I was pretty cool.

  4. According to The Chicago Manual of Style:

    Invariably, the best scholarly indexes are made by authors who have the ability to be objective about their work, who understand what a good index is, and who have mastered the mechanics of the indexing craft.

    Robin indexed Swan herself. Very, very few authors do this because it’s (a) tedious, (b) time-consuming, and (c) considered a “clerical” task. (Hell, very few authors actually write their book too!) In truth, indexing is an art. Only an author who is an artist and perfectionist would do such a thing. (It’s also a great way to find typos.) The process of indexing your own book is like running your hand over a piece of woodwork that you’ve created with your own hands.

  5. Four agents turned her down because she wasn’t “qualified.” Two small publishers turned her down too. Sounds a lot like venture capitalists and A-list bloggers if you ask me. Robin had just about decided to self-publish the book when PeachPit Press, the publisher of her computer books agreed to take up the project.

  6. Robin includes one the most impressive pull-out exhibits I’ve ever seen. It’s on page 245. This is a timeline that compares the documented life of Mary Sidney and William Shakespeare to the plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare. This pullout is Tufte-esque in impact. Most publishers would never include a pullout like this because of expense; most authors would never even attempt to convince their publishers to include one.

  7. There are only two blurbs, praise God. Most authors think that the more blurbs, the better. Their line of thinking goes like this: “If I get more blurbs, more people will think my book is legitimate. If more people think my book is legitimate, then more people will think I’m legitimate. If more people think I’m legitimate, then I’ll get more consulting and speaking gigs. If I get more consulting and speaking gigs, I’ll get rich.” As a rule of thumb, the more blurbs that you see on a book, the lower the quality of the book.

    I’ll quote one of the two blurbs to show you how less is more.

    The first question I am asked by curious freshman 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. The real beauty of Sweet Swan of Avon is not, however, primarily academic; this book reminds us of a day when scholarship was fun, and important and original books were written for curious readers everywhere.

    Cynthia Lee Katona, professor of Shakespeare and Women’s Studies, Ohlone College; author of Book Savvy.

  8. Robin knows what to borrow and what to do with it after you borrow it. Go to the matrix on page 10. It’s called “The Literary Paper Trail.” Here Robin has reprinted the paper trail of the Shakespeare’s contemporaries that was done by Diana Price. It’s true that Robin didn’t compile this herself, but she was good enough to find it, redesign it, and use it. Knowing what to borrow and what to do with it once you get it is an art in itself.

    Entrepreneurs take note: this is how to do a competitive analysis. First, the parameters along the horizontal axis are highly relevant. When most entrepreneurs do a competitive matrix, they pick dumb-shiitake parameters like “built with Visual BASIC” to enable them to check a box that the competition can’t. Second, it’s a very complete competitive analysis—most entrepreneurs include only the companies they have heard of and can out checkbox.

  9. Robin singlehandedly raised three children. She was dirt poor. She lived in a house so small that she could only work at night in her bed by putting a board on her lap while her daughter slept in the same bed. You know how I feel about (blogging) moms, so I’m sure as hell going to support a single mom who raised three kids if for no other reason than to provide a heroine for all the other artist/writer moms out there.

To my amazement, Swan is languishing at about #200,000 on Amazon. This is a crime—like letting a man take all the credit for what a woman has done. And don’t believe all that long-tail stuff you’re reading about. It’s fine and dandy if you’re Amazon and exploiting the long tail. It’s not so good if you are just a speck in the long tail.

Swan is well-written, well-researched, beautifully designed, properly blurbed, and indexed by the author. If you’re interested in literature, buy it. If you’re interested in book writing, researching, illustrating, and designing, buy it. If you want to impress anyone with a cerebral summer reading book, buy it. If you’d like to stir up some controversy, buy it. You don’t need to know a thing about Shakespeare, Mary Sidney, or writing to enjoy this book.

All truths are easy to understand
once they are discovered—
the trick is to discover them.
—Galileo


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Comments

I just came across your blog as a result of browsing around for information about Mary Sidney and, after reading some of the responses to your comments about "The Sweet Swan of Anon: did a woman write Shakespeare?" by Robin P. Williams, I found myself wanting to re-read this terrific book -- I am amazed by the resistance to consideration of this topic!
I like to suggest reading Mark Twain's "Is Shakespeare Dead?" for good company. And if he were alive I would wish to sit next to him at dinner and speak with him about the Countess of Pembroke.
Where did I read, by the way, that the main character's little list of qualities mentioned by Ophelia in "Hamlet" was inspired by Sir Philip Sidney? Shakespeare may have met Sidney, Oxford might not have wanted to play tennis with Sidney, and Mary was his adored and sensible sister. A connection to pique our interest: this is one, one of many.

Cheers.

I know Robin Williams and she's a wonderful author, mother and renaissance woman herself who spent many years researching this book. Her well documented theory definitely needs more attention from the press so spread the word, it's an important message that needs to get out there! You can also read another review of this book here:

http://www.noendpress.com/adarrah/sweet_swan_avon.php

I do love a good mystery! Yet for all the hoopla about Robin Williams' Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare? bringing to light a new conspiracy theory upholding Mary Sidney Herbert to be the author of the Shakespearean works, I disagree that any so-called conspiracy exists in this fascinating research.

According to Williams' research, The Countess of Pembroke didn't gain a stitch in concealing her endeavors (intentionally or otherwise); no choice existed in the matter. Mary Sidney was not permitted to write in such a manner—to do so would contradict the Queen's order, thus defying God's will.

Should William, Mary Sidney's oldest son and Lord Chamberlain, have endeavored to conceal his mother's work (to protect not only she but also himself), it would most logically have been done to protect the family's noble standing—not to gain additional riches or prestige.

Conspiracy? Hardly. To study Mary Sidney's life is to further understand just how extraordinary this woman was from a literary, intellectual, and historical perspective. She could do almost anything she wanted, and she did, but her one true desire—to write the greatest works in the English language—was thwarted by the established reigning proprities of the era.

What Williams uncovers about Mary Sidney is far better described as an unmasking of social oppression. Rather than approach this subject matter with the idea that somehow Mary plotted and schemed to conceal her authorship of the plays and sonnets, I suggest reading Sweet Swan of Avon as a history lesson about a time and place where women could not shine as bright as they were, but did so at their own expense, such as illustrated by Mary Sidney's anonymous (and credited) contributions to a society that was denied the chance to fully embrace her greatness.

Conspiracy? Try payback.

On your recommendation, I picked this up, and it is absolutely fascinating.

I am in awe of the elegant presentation of the research, and inspired by what Mary Sidney Herbert accomplished, with or without the works of Shakespeare to her credit.

This entry in your blog deserves accolades as an excellent persuasive essay. I, too, have little interest in who actually wrote the works attributed to Shakespear. However, after reading this article, I will buy the book from Amazon.com.

Whoever wrote the plays that taught the English-speaking peoples almost everything they know, they were in the first place written for the wisest woman in England, Elizabeth - who among other things translated philosophers and poets from the Greek and Latin into English, and was conversant in all the theological debates of her turbulant time. What an audience for a philosopher-poet who wrote about the most intimate problems of love and the grandest challenges of statecraft with equal insight!

I have to say that the overall "interestingness" of the blog is going down hill with these (non business/vc/tech/top10) posts. Some might find them interesting but the effect is that your brand is becoming diluted. As a result, your ranking is falling and people (me, for instance) are not stopping by as often. If this is what you are going for, good luck, but you might want to re-assess your brand strategy.

I've always found the constant need by some academics and writers to find arguments for why a glovemaker's son from Stratford couldn't have been a successful playwright to be class-based elitism of the highest degree.

But maybe that's just me.

I meant to post this sooner, but just found the link now. There is some similar/interesting debate going on about Albert Einstien:

http://www.pbs.org/opb/einsteinswife/milevastory/index.htm

To clarify a few points.

I have not read the book yet, but I have heard the author speak about it and am assuming that in such interviews she would have put forward her main arguments. On the basis of the words I've heard her speak, the argument runs that

It's surprising that in what is the largest paper trail for an author of the time there is no direct assertion of Shakespeare being a writer, thus we can doubt that he was indeed a writer - though she does suggest that he did write the narrative poems attributed to him. In contrast Mary Sidney Herbert, a highly educated and literate woman was a writer and thus, although there is no direct linkage to the plays and sonnets, she might have written them.

I'm sorry if people disagree, but I don't find that to be a persuasive argument in respect of a matter that (despite Tony Meurer's assertion) is not hugely questioned. The vast majority of scholars etc believe Shakespeare was Shakespeare - they may be wrong, but I don't believe Robin Williams comes close to showing that.

I called the thesis dubious but I did not however label it a wacky conspiracy theory - that related to the actual reason I posted which had little to do with Shakespeare.

I posted to playfully challenging Guy's assertion that a well crafted piece of writing and design should be considered an important piece of literature. These are laudable elements of a book in and of themselves but unless the thesis stands up, then I contend they count for nothing in the literature stakes. It's the style over substance argument. This is, after all, not a fictional work. Had the book been a biography of Mary Sidney Herbert or indeed of Marlowe or any other of the usual suspects, it could well be considered great literature but once you put up an explicit thesis in the title, then I would argue you are raising the stakes and have to prove it conclusively if it is to be labelled great.

As for the trivial matter of my own blog, I posted there a request for advice re purely technical (i.e software aspects) elements. I did not discuss design issues,nor did I invoke Occam's razer (I merely cited a quotation that did) so the only irony is that the term ironic was used incorrectly against me.

Very compelling assessment of a very compelling book, Guy!

I am not usually a reader of blogs--was sent the link to yours by a friend who knows I'm a big fan of this book. I note the comments made by readers below:

"the dubious argument that somehow Shakespeare wasn't 'qualified' to write his own plays and poems"

"dubious theory (that is used as a hook to sell the book)"

"well-written conspiracy theory book, however wacky"

"Anybody can debate about the merits of someone, especially when they're dead."

"Why, then, should we even consider that someone else might have written the plays?"

and wonder:

In their urgency to add to the conversation, are readers always so quick to demonstrate their ignorance by commenting "knowingly" on something they haven't even read?


"The recipe for perpetual ignorance is a very simple and effective one: be satisfied with your opinions and content with your knowledge."
--Elbert Hubbard, American editor, publisher and writer, 1856-1915


Will tune in again. Thanks, Guy!
Laura

Guy,

Thanks for pointing out the book. The reason, I guess, for John Dodd's sake, that there is so much interest in the authorship of "Shakespeare's work", is because the evidence we have regarding Will's life make it near impossible to accept that he was the author. For example, there is no known SIGNED manuscript. Only six examples of Will's signature exist, and none of them are on a literary work.

If there is further interest in the topic, "The Truth Will Out", recently published by Brenda James and Prof William Rubenstein in the UK provides a high degree of evidence that William was not the author, and suggests another candidate. Their contention is that the author of the works was Sir Henry Neville. As a skilled author, diplomat, man of letters and fluent in the languages of the countries in which the works are set, he had the attributes to write such works, and the motivation to remain detached from their ownership [political].

Worth reading.

As many commented before, you are quite skilled in selling -books!
Good job.
Being European I was quite intrigued of course about this one: "The design of the book is so elegant that as a fellow author, I want to cry in envy..."
Now if the content is not as good then at least I can have it framed and look at it every day.

Best,

Ralf

I'm a fan of Robin's design books and this is undoubtedly a labor of love. I appreciate a beautifully crafted volume and I'll probably buy it just for that reason. However, I do find it ironic that Shakespeare's authorship is called into question because he was "unqualified," while Robin's work itself was refused by four literary agents because they considered her "unqualified."

When I read the description of Mary Sidney Herbert: "she hunted, hawked, bowled, sang, played musical instruments, composed music, stitched needlework, and studied medicine, she was fluent in several languages, and she ran one of the most important literary circles in English history" the first thought that occurred to me was "How did she find the time to write?" Shakespeare may have done none of those things and had none of those advantages, but he may nevertheless have been blessed with the desire and determination and talent to write and to create. I would think that given Robin's own experience, she would have been the last person to underestimate what a person can accomplish given the right combination of desire, determination, and talent.

I haven't read Robin's book and I'm sure she presents other evidence of support. I just wish all future authors of books on "who wrote Shakespeare's works" would stop using the dubious argument that somehow Shakespeare wasn't "qualified" to write his own plays and poems. It would be better to let what evidence there is to stand or fall on its own merits.

I just finished "Will in the World...How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare." Frankly I was very disappointed, but it did make an excellent sleep aid every evening.

I didn't think I'd be interested in reading about Shakespeare again for a very long time, but this post has intrigued me enough I may give it a go.

In a stunning discovery, it was reported today that Mary Sidney ALSO writes Guy Kawasaki's blog! That's right, this miracle woman has lived over 5000 years and also designed the pyramids, penned "the Republic" by Plato, and wrote at least 2 of the New Testament books (plus one more which told the "real truth" but was destroyed). The Shakespeare stuff was actually castoffs that were picked up from the trash by her chambermaid and sold on eBay.

I know this is all true because I read a book about it AND it was on Wikipedia.

as one who has attempted to maintain a decent library, I have an appreciation for your admiration and review of what you may consider a well crafted and handsome book. I believe John Dodds missed your point entirely. I went and read his entire blog, the substance of which I found little save more borrowed content and the irony is, he writes recently of the design and functional characteristics of his blog. Hmm. Occams razor is for getting to the point. It serves you not if you've missed it.

In the past I bought, read and continue to reference Robin's design books. They are excellent for a design novice like myself.

I enjoy your blog. I followed your link to Amazon and look forward to reading this book.

Thanks for the post.

She's up to Amazon sales rank #164,471 as of today (07/14/2006)!

I think he spells his name: Ben Johnson.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Johnson_%28athlete%29

As an aspiring author, I will go to the bookstore and check this book out... but I just don't understand the fascination with William Shakespeare – Britney Spears doesn't write her own songs, why should I care if Shakespeare writes his own books ;-)

I think his work (no matter the author(s)) is bigger then he will ever be anyhow, the fact that his name is even mentioned in modern times is quite a triumph but that being said, his writing is an acquired taste that I have yet to find appetizing.

Jon Cantin
Founder of myfoodcount.com
Free & Anonymous Health Monitoring
life: jon.legendarylife.com

P.S. I don't mean to suggest that a study of Mary Herbert's life isn't worthwhile. It is, as Mark Rylance, attests. But to hang it around a dubious theory (that is used as a hook to sell the book) is I think far more problematic.

You make a passionate argument as always Guy, but surely you're effectively arguing that any well-written conspiracy theory book, however wacky, should be regarded as great literature and I'm afraid I can't buy that.

By pure coincidence the British papers today feature another theory as to the identitiy of Jack the Ripper (who cares?) and the sale of a first folio of Shakespeare's works. Conspiracy theories are ten a penny, but first folios go for £2.8 million. I think that speaks volumes.

I'm personally indifferent as to to the authorship of Shakespeare's work but I have to side with the argument I found at http://www.britishtheatreguide.info/articles/270604.htm where it says


There's an old scientific principle, stretching right back to mediaeval philosopher William of Occam (or Ockham) and hence calld Occam's Razor. The principle states that one should not make more assumptions than the minimum needed. In other words, the simplest explanation which meets the facts is usually the right one.

So we have plays said to be written by William Shakespeare, both by tradition and by contemporary witnesses. We have an actual historical figure - William Shakespeare - known as both actor and playwright. We have the first published edition of his work (1623), with dedications and firm attribution to him. Why, then, should we even consider that someone else might have written the plays?

Let us apply Occam's Razor and shave away all explanations but the most simple, and what are we left with? That William Shakespeare wrote the plays of Wlliam Shakespeare."

Guy,
I am now curious to read this book and see if it really has what you say it does. Let me see if I can find it in stores nearby(I live in India)
Rudolf,
Let us list out popular personalitles with names beginning with 'William' and then we will definitely make out why Guy says what he says.
1. William Shakespeare
2. William J Blythe(More popular the ex-president of the united states)
3. William(His Highness) Gates
OMG I guess we have struck on GOLD....
Guy correct me if I am wrong...

I too read your blog, and infact check for updates almost twice a day. I admire your thoughts and I have watched your 'Art of the Start' video atleast 20 times and absorbed every word. However, I am also an admirer of No 3...(Gates that is). I believe he really has 'changed the world' in many ways today. I would agree, the standards set by Apple are definitely better. We see some sub-standard development from MS at times. But the man is amazing. If you have any questions ask Warren Buffet. He will tell you why.

Natti

Anybody can debate about the merits of someone, especially when they're dead.

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