Daily Archives: December 8, 2014

Shakespeare’s Grand Tour (part 12)

12 – Pelagie & Barbary



We have now firmly placed Shakespeare among the world of buccaneering corsairs that constituted the Elizabethan navy, where men like Drake, Hawkins & Raleigh were the x-factor style idols of the day. We have settled him amidst the ships of the Levant Company, one of which, the Toby, arrived in the Ottoman capital of Constantinople with a bang, as recorded by Lorenzo Bernardo, the Venetian ambassador to Constantinople.

March 17th 1586 – Some days ago an English ship entered this port. She has a little cloth & tin. She made a great noise with her guns. In a few days she sold off her cargo & sailed away in ballast

16th century Alexandria
16th century Alexandria


A few weeks later, at Alexandria, Egypt’s ancient & bustling port, The Toby would have joined with the Susan & Bonaventure, upon which, I believe, were Shakespeare, Stanley (& perhaps Donne). In June 1586, these three ships combined with the remaining two Company ships at the Greek island of Zante. These were the flagship, the Merchant Royal under ‘acting Admiral’ Edward Wilkinson, & also the William and John, both of which vessels had been dealing in Tripoli. They had combined again for security reasons – the journey through the Straits of Gibralta past  a hostile Spain would have been too treacherous for one or two vessels traveling on their own.




Setting off the following month,  they safely bypassed Malta before being intercepted by a squadron of eleven Spanish and Maltese galleys under Don Pedro de Leyva. The engagement took place off the island of Pantelleria on the 13th July, a five-hour running battle which saw, like some prophetic glimmer of the forthcoming Armada, the devastation of the Spanish ships, with only two sailors dying on the English side. Of the battle, the Venetian ambassador to Rome, Giovanni Gritti, wrote;

Between Sicily & the island of Pantalara the galleys of Naples & of Sicily fell in with nine English galleys returning form Constantinople, full of merchandise, & although they attacked the English ships they failed to take them. The galleys have returned to Naples for reinforcement & will sail again to search for the English. They have sent news of these English to Genoa, so that they may  be on the look out for them in the waters of Corsica & Sardinia


The English had simply outmanouvered &, more importantly, outgunned the Spanish. That Shakespeare could have witnessed such a battle is remembered throughout this plays. AF Falconer writes, ‘Shakespeare distinguishes between various types of ordnance & gun, understands how they work & are managed, & is familiar with gunnery terms & words of command.’  Other examples include;

The nimble gunner / With linstock now the devilish cannon touches (Henry V)
Like an overcharged gun, recoil / And turn the force of them upon thyself. (2 Henry VI)

Thy wit, that ornament to shape and love, misshapen in the conduct of them both, like powder in a skilless soldier’s flask, is set afire by thine own ignorance, and thou dismemb’red with thine own defense. (Romeo & Juliet)
What’s this? a sleeve? ’tis like a demi-cannon: What, up and down, carved like an apple-tart? (Taming of the Shrew)

Fear we broadsides / No let the fiend give fire (2 Henry VI)




That Shakespeare was with them, & that he had seen Pantelleria, seems to have inspired the location of his last play, The Tempest. We are told how, Alonso, King of Naples, washes up on a mysterious island on the way to the King of Tunis. Also on the island is the witch Sycorax, banished there from Algiers.  In her 1880 article, Another Island, Another Story: A Source for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Theodor Elze makes quite a case for Pantelleria, but my instinct says it could be an island of the Pelagie archipelago – Jospeh Hunter suggested Lampedusa, while I’m more inclined to believe it is the sister island, Linosa. Either way,  with the Pelagie Isles perched half-way between Tunisia & Sicily, the Tempest island must be one of them. Indeed, if we examine five lines of the Garland, being…


Within the Court of Barbary, 
 When two full years Sir William had been, 
 Into Russia he needs must go, 
 To visit the Emperor and his Queen,

One Doctor Dee he met with there


…we gain both the setting  (Barbary is North Africa which incorporated Tunis) & the subject of the Tempest, whose Prospero character is widely believed to have been based on the English alchemist & academic, John Dee. The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last known play, & one can imagine him looking back on this time of high peril & adventure, when searching for a suitable theme & setting.


After the battle of Pantelleria, the Levant Company fleet headed for the safety of Algeria, to stock up on supplies & make any repairs. This movement neatly fits into the itinerary of William Stanley, who after Egypt visited, ‘the King of Morocco and his nobles all / Then went to the King of Barbary.’  In the previous year, the ‘Barbary Company’ had been established by Queen Elizabeth in order to lessen the responsibilities of the Levant Company. Chief investors were the Earls of Leicester & Warwick ‘& forty others’ among whom may have been the Earl of Derby. With such a pantheon of noble investors, including the queen, the presence of William Stanley in the exact ports these new merchant companies had settled, really does suggest that the young nobleman was conducting a ‘tour of interests’ on behalf of his father & his friends. Perhaps the details on contracts needed to be fine-tuned, or accounts checked for discrepancies, it seems that Stanley may have been some kind of ‘area manager’ for the Mediterranean.

 Despite suffering hardly any losses or damage, the battle would still have shredded the nerves, & I believe it is at this point in time that Stanley would have ordered his young charge, John Donne, to make his way home via the safety of the armed merchantmen. With the help of a thick sea-mist, this fleet fleet avoided the Spanish at Gibraltar, & were soon unloading their wares at the London docks. If Donne went with them, this allows him enough time to return to England & appear once more in the Earl of Derby’s service on the 13th May 1587, where the Derby Household Books include a ‘Mr Jhon Downes’ alongside six waiters who also appeared on the 1585 retinue list, with a certain ‘Mr John Donnes.’ 

As for Shakespeare & Stanley, it was time to meet John Dee… 






Shakespeare’s Grand Tour (part 11)

11 – Egypt




From Ragusa, the Stanley party would have sailed to Egypt, in either the Susan or the Edward Bonaventure, the two armed merchant ships the Company had sent to Venice. they would have eventually arrived at Cairo, the Levant Company’s headquarters, from which sweaty flesh-pot city emanated the Company’s tendrils to the ports & court of the eastern Mediterranean, & deep into the Near East. Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Jerusalem, Damascus & Aleppo were all secure stopping stations for the Levant company, as was Constantinople, where company man William Harborne had become de facto English ambassador to the Ottoman empire. By 1599, the East Indies Company would be formed, the majority of his nucleus members were Levant Company men, & one could say that British India has its true roots in the English mercantile expeditions to the Near East.



 Shakespeare’sown time in Egypt is alluded to in two unusual eye-witness accounts, both of which seem a remembrance of being in Egypt, rather than drawing upon book-lore; 
Thou art more puzzled than the Egyptians in their fogTwelfth Night
 An Egyptian that had nine hours lien dead who was by good appliance recovered - Pericles

Stanley’s own journey to Egypt is given more detail by Thomas Aspen who writes, ‘afterwards he proceeded to Egypt, and with the assistance of a native guide, went to reconnoitre the River Nile. Whilst on their journey, a large male tiger suddenly appeared from behind a thicket, and with a hideous howl came rushing towards them. Sir William had two pistols, and discharged one as the tiger was making a spring at them. Unfortunately he missed his aim, and it was only by dexterously stepping aside that he eluded the grasp of the ferocious brute. Before the animal had time to take another spring, Sir William drew a second pistol, discharged the contents into the tiger’s breast, and as it reeled drew his sword and killed it.’

 Stanley’s visit to the River Nile, & the fact that he was traveling with Donne, allows us to look at one of Donne’s sonnets with a different eye. His opening lines really do invoke a sense of witnessing the Nile at first hand.

 See, sir, how, as the sun’s hot masculine flame 
 Begets strange creatures on Nile’s dirty slime, 
 In me your fatherly yet lusty rhyme 
 For these songs are their fruits—have wrought the same. 
 But though th’ engend’ring force from which they came 
 Be strong enough, and Nature doth admit 
 Seven to be born at once ; I send as yet 
 But six ; they say the seventh hath still some maim. 
 I choose your judgment, which the same degree 
 Doth with her sister, your invention, hold, 
 As fire these drossy rhymes to purify,
 Or as elixir, to change them to gold. 
 You are that alchemist, which always had 
 Wit, whose one spark could make good things of bad.
 This poem was dedicated by Donne to a certain ‘E of D,’ which really does imply that William Stanley, who became the Earl of Derby in 1594, was the dedicatee. Another poet to write sonnets to/for Stanley was of course Shakespeare, whose ‘handsome youth’ is almost definitely Stanley himself. In the sonnets, Shakespeare first urges an anonymous aristocrat to marry, then falls in love with the fellow as well.  Since entering the public arena in 1609, Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets have both beautified the English language, & also given birth to millions of speculative words as to the identities of the ‘handsome youth,’ the ‘Dark Lady’ & the ‘Rival Poet’ contained in the sonnets.


Gay men in Egypt- it actually illegal in the country these days
Gay men in Egypt- it actually illegal in the country these days



Rather than a single, linear piece, the Sonnets seem to be a collection of several sequences, creative pulses experienced by Shakespeare that were crystalized in the most gorgeous iambic pentameter. The exact sequence in which they were written is beyond the remit of this book, but I shall here concentrate on the growth of Shakespeare’s homosexual love for his traveling companion, Stanley. Im also quite convinced that the homoerotic nature of Venus & Adonis is based upon Shakespeare’s earliest sexual encounters with Stanley. We must remember, that on his return to England, Shakespeare had no more children & bequeathed his wife his ‘second best bed’ on his death.

Im not sure exactly when the two Willys got it on, but it would have been in a romantic setting such as Egypt when love would have truly blossomed between them. Shakespeare was a long way from home, where his twins were just sucklings & his wife perhaps losing her lustre. Here he was in Egypt, the land of pyramids & the tragedy of Cleopatra, traveling with a member of the royal family – the Stanley’s would inherit the throne if anything happened to the Stuart line up in Scotland  – who actually fancied him. Sleeping your way to the top has always been away to get ahead in showbusiness, & in this case probably give a bit of head as well.



Leo Daugherty in his brilliant book, ‘William Shakespeare, Richard Barnfield & the Sixth Earl of Derby’ declares, ‘maybe the thing to say at the end is that we hardly have reason to be very surprised if, after all, Shakespeare’s beloved & revered male addressee might turn out to be William Stanley.‘ He bases his reasoning on a ‘sonneteering conversation’ played out between Shakespeare & a younger poet, Richard Barnfield, who also dedicated a series of sonnets to Stanley. There are many comparisons between the the two sets of sonnets, from conceits to phraseology, with Daugherty stating, ‘Shakespeare’s beauty/virtue/worth allusions in Shake-speares sonnets…are to the Affectionate Shepheard & Cynthia & thus – as I have argued – to Earl William Stanley,’ & gives the following example;

Come thou hither, my friend so pretty, all riding on a hobby horse; Either make thyself more witty or again renew thy force (Barnfield)

Sweet love, renew thy force; be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite (Shakespeare)

Dicky Barnfield
Dicky Barnfield

Barnfield published his sonnets in 1593, dedicating them to Stanley in the most florid style; ‘To the Right Honorable, and most noble-minded Lorde, William Stanley, Earle of Darby, &c. Right Honorable, the dutiful affection I beare to your manie vertues, is cause, that to manifest my loue to your Lordship, I am constrained to shew my simplenes to the world. Many are they that admire your worth, of the which number, I (though the meanest in abilitie, yet with the formost in affection) am one that most desire to serue, and onely to serue your Honour. Small is the gift, but great is my good- will ; the which, by how much the lesse I am able to expresse it, by so much the more it is infinite.’ It goes on for a bit on the same vein, but this really feels like its the inspiration for Shakespeare’s moaning about ‘rival poets’ in his sonnets, as in;

O! how I faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,

And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tied speaking of your fame.

One of Shakespeare’s sonnets in particular (135)seems to be written by one Will for another, with Daugherty stating, ‘virtually all editors & other scholars believe to constitute wordplay referring not only to Shakespeare’s own given name but also probably to his addresses as well.

Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,
And Will to boot, and Will in overplus; 
More than enough am I that vex thee still, 
To thy sweet will making addition thus. 
Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine? 
Shall will in others seem right gracious, 
And in my will no fair acceptance shine? 
The sea all water, yet receives rain still 
And in abundance addeth to his store; 
So thou, being rich in Will, add to thy Will
One will of mine, to make thy large Will more. 
Let no unkind no fair beseechers kill; 
Think all but one, and me in that one Will.

So there we have it – the identity of the ‘Handsome Youth’ & the ‘Rival poet’ solved at a stroke. Piece-by-piece, the Stanley angle is proving vital in the assembly of the Shakesperean jigsaw, & trust me, there’s a lot more stuff to come…