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…

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