Shakespeare’s Grand Tour (part 15)


After so many centuries and after so many people have searched the records for her identity, to those seekers she has remained until now the mysterious woman of darkness

Aubrey Burl


This blogpost is probably the most satisfying of the whole tour. Thus far, I have shown how the voyage undertaken by William Stanley in his ‘Garland’ corresponds exactly to virtually all the foreign-based plays written by Shakespeare – only the Elsinore of Hamlet is missing. To this we have added the excellent work by Leo Daugherty which shows how the ‘handsome youth’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets is in fact our hero, William Stanley. On combining these two strands of scholarship, we are neatly presented, almost packaged in a box with a ribbon, with the hitherto unknown & highly mysterious Dark Lady of the Sonnets. The clues are found in the Garland, in which the lady who helped William Stanley to freedom is said to have fallen in love with him;

Sir William was taken prisoner,
And for his religion condemn’d to die.

Before I’ll forsake my living Lord,
My blessed Saviour and sweet Lamb ;
Sweet Jesus Christ that died for me,
I’ll die the worst Death that e’er did man.

Farewel Father, and farewel Mother,
And farewel all Friends at Latham-Hall,
Little do they know I am a Prisoner,
Or how I’m subject unto thrall.

A Lady walking under the prison wall,
Hearing Sir William so sore lament,
Unto the Great Turk she did go,
To beg his life was her intent

A Boon, a Boon, thou Emperor,
For thou’rt a Lord of great command ;
Grant me the life of an Englishman,
Therefore against me do not stand,

For I will make him a husband of mine,
Whereby Mahomet he may adore ;
He’ll carry me into his own country,
And safely thither conduct me o’er.

Take thou thy Boon, thou gay Lady,
For thou art one of a tender heart ;
But let him yield to marry thee,
Or let him be hang’d e’er he depart.

The Lady’s to the Prison gone,
Where that Sir William he did lie ;
Be of good chear, thou Englishman,
I think this day I’ve set thee free ;

If thou wilt yield to marry me,
And take me for to be thy bride ;
To take me into thy own country,
And safely thither to be my Guide.

I cannot marry, Sir William said,
To ne’er a Lady in this country ;
For if ever on English ground I tread,
I have a wife, and children three.

This Excuse serv’d Sir William well,
So the Lady was sorry for what he did say,
And gave him five hundred pounds in gold,
To carry him into his own country ;

But one half year Sir William would stay,
After from prison he was set free ;


The story given by the Garland contains elements of a story told in the sonnets, being the ménage a trois between Shakespeare, a young nobleman & a ‘Dark Lady,’ who should now be the noble Turkish woman who helped Stanley escape his prison. She is an excellent candidate for the Dark Lady, & one with an actual back-story which fits the known facts, such as Shakespeare marveling at her non-Aryan beauty;



In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
   Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
   That every tongue says beauty should look so.



My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires,  black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks; 
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
 And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
 As any she belied with false compare.


The line, ‘If hairs be wires,  black wires grow on her head,’ in the second of these sonnets shows how the Dark Lady is more likely to have Afro-Turkish roots rather than Latino. Her relationship with Shakespeare was probably consummated while Stanley was incarcerated,  & it was after his release that Stanley would too enjoy a brief liaison with her;


That thou hast her it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I loved her dearly;
That she hath thee is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.
Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her because thou knowst I love her;
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me,
Suff’ring my friend for my sake to approve her.
If I lose thee, my loss is my love’s gain,
And losing her, my friend hath found that loss;
Both find each other, and I lose both twain,
And both for my sake lay on me this cross.
But here’s the joy; my friend and I are one;
Sweet flatt’ry! Then she loves but me alone.



Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still;
The better angel is a man right fair, 
The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill. 
To win me soon to hell, my female evil 
Tempteth my better angel from my side, 
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil, 
Wooing his purity with her foul pride. 
And whether that my angel be turn’d fiend 
Suspect I may, but not directly tell; 
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell: 
Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.


The latter poem contains some excellent Christian allegories, with Stanley being the angel, & his tempter an infidel ‘devil’ wanting to ‘corrupt’ the ‘purity’ of Stanley’s sainthood. The sonnet also contains a possible clue as to just how Stanley escaped, for when Shakespeare tells us, ‘whether that my angel be turn’d fiend / Suspect I may, but not directly tell,’ we can identify a correlation to the forced conversions of Christians in the eastern Mediterranean. One imagines the Dark Lady pleading with Stanley that only by relenting from his staunch Christian stance & embracing Allah, would his life be saved – a setting described by Thomas Aspen’s, ‘He was arrested for “blasphemy against the religion of Mahommed,” and after being kept a long time in a filthy and dismal prison, a date was fixed for his execution, but a lady interceded on his behalf, and three days before the appointed time he was liberated.’




Her actual name is again beyond the remit of my investigation – I guess I’ll leave that one for the Turks – however, to help them along the way, Dr Aubrey Burl describes her as being  “married, musical, had children, was faithless, enjoyed sex and was egotistically self-centred“. That Shakespeare was writing at least one strata of his sonnets in 1587 is  significantly supported through sonnet 107, which can be dated  to September of that year, through the mention of a lunar eclipse;

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time,
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes:
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.

On the 16th September, 1587, the Moon was strikingly shadowed in a deep partial eclipse which lasted 3 hours and 7 minutes – about 76% of the Moon was in darkness at its maximum height. Thus, after ‘the mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,’ & Shakespeare’s love, which was ‘forfeit to a confined doom,’ suddenly ‘incertainties now crown themselves assured.’ We can now safely assume that Stanley was freed after the 16th September.




At some point in this period, Stanley would have sailed to Constantinople, completing his tour of the Levant Company ports – perhaps in late September after his release. En route we can imagine Shakespeare sat in a boat anchored in the harbour of Mitylene, for in Pericles we read the following stage directions;

 On board pericles’ ship, off Mytilene. A pavilion on deck, with a curtain beofe it; PERICLES within, reclining on a couch, unkepty clad in sackcloth. A barge lies beside the Trian vessel

The Pericles play also includes many other places from the region, including Antioch & of course Tyre, while the Trojan plain of NW Turkey also turns up in his Trollius & Cressida.




They eventually reached a Constantinople that was probably the greatest city ion the world at that time;  only a decade or two before, the Ottoman Empire had reached its high water mark, the defeats at Malta & Lepanto ensuring the Turks could never dominate the world. Instead, they would have to trade with the world, & in the wake of the Italian financial crash of the 1570s, Venetian vessels had stopped sailing to England. It would have to be the English who dealt directly with the Grand Turke. This is the furthest east Stanley would have travelld’, & should have marveled at the city’s status as the mistress of the world, both European & Asian, into whose streets poured all races & creeds. The Constantinople which Shakespeare arrived in was captured by the Flemish writer, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522-1592), who served in the city as an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire on behalf of the Austrians in the early 1580s.


I had an opportunity of seeing Constantinople at my leisure. My chief wish was to visit the Church of St. Sophia ; to which, however, I only obtained admission as a special favour, as the Turks think that their temples are profaned by the entrance of a Christian. It is a grand and massive building, well worth visiting. There is a huge central cupola, or dome, lighted only from a circular opening at the top. Almost all the Turkish mosques are built after the pattern of St. Sophia. Some say it was formerly much bigger, and that there were several buildings in connection with it, covering a great extent of ground, which were pulled down many years ago, the shrine in the middle of the church alone being left standing;


The sea is perfectly crowded with shoals of fish making their way, after the manner of their kind, from the Sea of Azoff and the Black Sea through the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmora into the Agean and Mediterranean, or again returning to the Black Sea. The shoals are so big, and so closely packed, that sometimes fish can be caught with the hand. Mackerel, tunnies, bigheads,  bream, and sword-fish are to be had in abundance. The fishermen are, for the most part, Greeks, as they take to this occupation more readily than the Turks, although the latter do not despise fish when brought to table, provided they are of the kinds which they consider clean ; as for the rest, they would as lief take a dose of poison as touch them. 


Below the palace, on lower ground near the shore, lie the Sultan’s gardens fringing the sea. This is the quarter where people think that old Byzantium stood. You must not expect here to have the story of why in former days the people of Chalcedon were called blind, who lived opposite Byzantium — the very ruins of Chalcedon have now well nigh disappeared ; neither must you expect to hear of the peculiar nature of the sea, in that it flows downwards with a current that never stops nor changes ; nor about the pickled condiments which are brought to Constantinople from the Sea of Azoff, which the Italians call moronellas, botargas, and caviare.


I now return to Constantinople. Nothing could exceed the beauty or the commercial advantages of its situation. In Turkish cities it is, as I told you before, useless to expect handsome buildings or fine streets ; the extreme narrowness of the latter renders a good  effect impossible. In many places are to be found interesting remains of ancient works of art, and yet, as regards number, the only marvel is that more are not in existence, when we remember how many Constantine brought from Rome. I do not intend to describe each of them separately, but I will touch on a few. On the site of the ancient hippodrome are a pair of bronze serpents, which people go to see, and also a remarkable obelisk. There are besides two famous pillars at Constantinople, which are considered among the sights. One of them is opposite the caravanserai where we were entertained, and the other is in the
market-place which the Turks call ‘ Avret Bazaar,’ i.e. the female slave market.



If I had not visited the Black Sea, when I had an opportunity of sailing thither, I should have deserved to be blamed for my laziness, since the ancients held it to be quite as great an exploit to have visited the Black Sea, as to have sailed to Corinth. Well, we had a delightful voyage, and I was allowed to enter some of the royal kiosks. On the folding doors of one of these palaces I saw a picture of the famous battle between Selim and Ismael, King of the Persians, executed in masterly style, in tesselated work. I saw also a great many pleasure-grounds belonging to the Sultan, situated in the most charming valleys. Their loveliness was almost entirely the work of nature ; to art they owed little or nothing. What a fairyland ! What a landscape for waking a poet


It is tempting to see Shakespeare visiting the same pleasure-grounds that  ‘landscape for waking a poet’ so praised by de Busbecq. That he was still writing his sonnets underneath sultry Turkish suns & star-studded Oriental nights is indicated by the following sonnet.

Sweet love, renew thy force; be it not said 
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite, 
Which but to-day by feeding is allay’d, 
To-morrow sharpen’d in his former might: 
So, love, be thou; although to-day thou fill 
Thy hungry eyes even till they wink with fullness,
To-morrow see again, and do not kill 
The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness.
Let this sad interim like the ocean be 
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that, when they see 
Return of love, more blest may be the view; 
Else call it winter, which being full of care 
Makes summer’s welcome thrice more wish’d, more rare.  

The key allusion is that to the Greek myth of Hero & Leander, in which the two lovers were separated by the Hellespont, today’s Dardandanelles, beside which Constantinople lies. Each night Leander would swim across the waters to be with his beloved Hero, which finds a place in the lines, ‘where two contracted new / Come daily to the banks, that, when they see / Return of love, more blest may be the view.’ We gain more support for Shakespeare’s visit to the region in Othello, who compares his personal relentless nature to the strong one-way current at the Hellespont, as in;

Like to the Pontick Sea,
 Whose icy current and compulsive course
 Ne’er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
 To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
 Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
 Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love,
 Till that a capable and wide revenge
 Swallow them up…… 3-3


Joseph Mallord William Turner 'The Parting of Hero and Leander', exhibited 1837
Joseph Mallord William Turner ‘The Parting of Hero and Leander’, exhibited 1837

Back in Constantinople he would have been entertained by William Harborne, who had been playing an important role for England as its first Ambassador to the Porte. Completely courageous & annoyingly tenacious, he help’d to keep the whole enterprise, & one could say without his efforts, England may never have established the firm foundations in the East which would grow into the British Empire. In 1587, we also see him scuppering the Spanish attempts to forge friendly relations with the Grande Turke. In contemporary letters to Venice, Lorenzo Bernardo writes;


April 1st 1587 – The question of a truce with Spain is completely suspended at present; the method of dealing with it has been changed.. .the english ambassador, being afraid that the secretary might be perusaded by the arguments of the agents of Spain, presented a further memorial to his majesty; in this memorial the Ambassador made a violent attack on Beneviste, a Jew, who is in the pay of Spain, & receives numerous gifts form that quarter, & insunuated that the grand vizier acts & advises under the influence of Beneviste. He spoke violently against the Spanish as a shifty, haughty, & deceitful race, which his majesty should not trust… The English ambassador… has spread a report that eight English galleons are on their way here with an ambassador on board… his object is to gain time by inducing the Turks to defer the conclusion of the business until the new Ambassador has arrived


Constantinople was the further east our party would go, & after almost three years on the road, it was time to go home. Shakespeare may have only seen his twins at their birth, & would have achinig to hold them in his arms. Stanley would have also been longing to get back to England, to see his father the Earl, & both would have been eager to get going on their theatrical careers after planting so many dramaturgical seeds in the bedsoil of their travels.  We have a probable terminus a quo for the departure, for in a despatch from Lorenzo Bernardo, we hear of a Catholic English gentleman acting quite suspicious about Constantinople;


November 11th – An English gentleman arrived her on board the ships ‘Salvagna.’ He says he is a Catholic, that he left England at the end of May with the intention of going to Jerusalem, but on his arrival here he changed his mind, & after staying a few days he left for Patras, there to embark on board an English ship for England. This roused great suspicions, & I succeeded in keeping him under observation
Reading between the lines, we see a Catholic gentleman arrive in Constantinople, perhaps with a message for William Stanley, but discovering that Stanley had already left, returns home to England. With him was the young Shakespeare, his mind brimming with the florid-sounding & exotic words of several foreign languages,  many of which would morph themselves in sound & meaning as he waltzed through his writing career.

As for us, the Grand Tour is not yet over, for it is time to see what happened to those first dramatic creations of Shakespeare’s burgeoning brain, inspired fully by the Stanleyan Grand Tour


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