The Future of History

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Shakespeare's Dark Lady

Thomas Nashe was an undersized playwright and satirist.  Born in November 1567, he was three-and-a-half years younger than William Shakespeare.  One of his main claims to fame is that he collaborated in 1597 with one Benjamin Jonson on a play entitled, The Isle of Dogs.  This satirical play was considered so "seditious" that it led to an order from the Privy Council, insisting that all of London's playhouses should be shut down.  And knocked down.

Some three years earlier, he dedicated his rather strange novel, The Unfortunate Traveller, to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (pictured).

That was in 1594.  Somebody else was dedicating literary works to Southampton at that same time: William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare had dedicated his two long narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece to Southampton in 1593 and 1594, respectively.  There are good grounds for thinking that a number of Shakespeare's Sonnets were written to and/or for the attractive and wealthy young earl, possibly as early as 1592.

Thomas Nashe made an intriguing remark in his written (and published) dedication to Shakespeare's patron:

"A dear lover and cherisher you are, as well of the lovers of poets themselves."

What?  Thomas Nashe was saying - out loud, and in public - that the Earl of Southampton (who turned 21 in October 1594) was a lover and cherisher, not just of poets, but of their lovers too.

Also in 1594, a rather scurrilous poem was published which detailed a somewhat seedy three-way relationship or love-triangle.  A young man, identified in the poem as "Henrico Willebego" or "H.W." falls in love with a "modest maid" who just happens to be married.  H.W.'s "familiar frend" is an "old player", identified simply as "W.S."  This "old player" has just recovered from his own infatuation with the maid, and he eggs his "frend Harry" on, promising the youth that "in tyme she may be wonne".

The poem was Willobie his Avisa.  The poet wilfully admitted that he had given his heroine, the "chaste and constant wife" the "feigned name" of Avisa.  In other words, the author of the poem was having some fun with the story of the alleged seduction by "H.W." of an (unidentified) married woman, encouraged by his familiar friend, the old player "W.S.", who was also in love with the maid.

This at the same time as Thomas Nashe was remarking that Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton and patron to the player William Shakespeare, was a "dear lover and cherisher" of poets and their lovers.

One thing that is made clear in Willobie his Avisa is that the "modest maid" was based at - lived and probably worked in - an inn known as the George.  Internal evidence in the poem led me to determine (after extensive research) that the inn was the George Inn at the village of Banwell in Somerset.  The attempted seduction of the maid by "H.W." took place in or around the month of April in the year 1593.

Will Shakespeare was just about to publish Venus and Adonis, the first of the long poems he dedicated to "H.W.", the Earl of Southampton.

There was another woman who worked in an inn or tavern and who was romantically linked with Shakespeare.  She was Jane Davenant, mistess of The Taverne in Oxford.  Jane and her husband - John, whom she had married in about 1593 - left London and moved to Oxford to take up the lease on the Taverne in about 1600.  Thereafter, Shakespeare is reputed to have visited the Taverne whenever he passed through Oxford on his journeys beween Stratford and London.

Before her marriage, she was known as Jane Sheppard.  When I searched the Banwell area to find if there were any Sheppards there in Shakespeare's day, I discovered that the Sheppards had been a prominent family in Banwell and the surrounding villages.  Like Will Shakespeare, though, they had been drawn towards London.  Jane was actually baptised at St Margaret's, Westminster, on 1 November 1568.  Three of her brothers worked for the royal household, two of them as glovers and perfumiers.

The plague was rampant in London between 1592 and 1594, and it would only have been prudent for Jane Sheppard (who became Jane Davenant in about 1593) to leave London for the healthier climes of the countryside, and the famously beneficent "Christall well" which gave Banwell its name.

Of course, it is quite possible that Will Shakespeare might have enjoyed a fling with Jane Sheppard before she left London, so that when he and his patron visited Banwell (Sir Walter Raleigh had his eye on a property there) Will possibly still had feelings for the vivacious young woman but was willing to encourage his attractive young patron because that is what one did!  And there can be no doubt about it - Shakespeare, in his Sonnets, gave plenty of hints that his "Fair Youth" had betrayed him with his own lover:

"No more be griev'd at that which thou hast done,
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud ..."

The name Wriothesley seems to have been pronounced "Roseley".  "Roseleys" had their thorns, and "silver fountains" had their mud.  Jane Sheppard was living beside Banwell's "Christall well" at the time.

I believe that Will Shakespeare had an affair with Jane Sheppard in 1592.  He met up with her again in Banwell, this time with his youthful patron, Henry Wriothesley, the following April.  Jane was possibly now married to John Davenant, vinter of London, and so Shakespeare refused to touch her.  But that didn't stop the beautiful 3rd Earl of Southampton from having a go.

There were few secrets in those days.  By the following year, the love-triangle had become common knowledge, not least of all because Willobie his Avisa was published, dropping the heaviest of hints about it and managing to enjoy the scandal hugely whilst assuming a prurient attitude towards it all.

Shakespeare's love for Jane Davenant was later rekindled, probably in 1604, when Jane and John Davenant were settled in Oxford.  In the summer of 1605, Jane Davenant fell pregnant.  She was delivered, in late February 1606, of a boy named William.  He was, by all accounts, Will Shakespeare's godson ... but there were rumours, which William - later, Sir William - Davenant did much to encourage and nothing to deny, that he was Shakespeare's natural son.

In Who Killed William Shakespeare? I give fuller accounts of Will's on-off relationship with Jane Davenant (nee Sheppard).  To me, their tortured love is one of history and literature's great untold stories.  I believe she fascinated him.  She was witty, captivating, and dangerous as only a woman can be.  Certainly, she must have been pretty impressive to have been beloved (twice?) of William Shakespeare and wooed by a wealthy and attractive young aristocrat.

It must have been a painful love.  When both parties were married (to rather boorish spouses) and when every poet-satirist in the land seems to have spread their secrets abroad like a tabloid journalist.

I confess, I have a fondness for Jane Davenant.  Her son, Sir William, is a largely-forgotten hero, a truly remarkable man.  But then, his mother was really quite something.  She was William Shakespeare's "Dark Lady", his Cleopatra.  And she drove him up the wall.

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