William Stanley as Poet and Playwright

William Stanley's Environment
A Brief "Life of William Stanley"
The Report of a Secret Agent
Shakspur and William Stanley
John Donne and William Stanley

Image of Will Derby

If William Stanley was Shake-speare, why did he not acknowledge it?

It may have been because he felt it would not be appropriate for him to author plays for public performance. It may have been that he felt the message would be more effective if it was seen as coming from a commoner or, at least, someone else. It may have been something else entirely. In any case, whoever wrote them did not publicly claim them.

To be clear—this includes Shakspur. There is no contemporary record of Shakspur claiming to be the author of the works, in any recorded letter, conversation, or even in any third-person report. Unlike other contemporary playwrights, despite the fact all other playwrights are much less investigated.

The Stratfordian will say "But of course they are claimed by Shakspur. He signed them!" Or, "He often put his name to, or initials to, his plays. And others referred to them as such."

And inevitably, with each recurrence of the authorship controversy in the news, the quoted Stratfordian will say, oh so cleverly, "Well call me a simple man, but I think Shakespeare wrote the plays of Shakespeare."

It should be obvious, but it obviously bears repeating: We all agree that the works are by Shake-speare. What we do not agree on is who Shake-speare was. If Shakspur was a front-man (and the anti-Stratfordians make a strong case that this is so) how can we determine if he was in fact just a front-man, or if he did in fact write the plays?

To uncover evidence regarding an aristocrat in 17th century England engaged in writing plays is uncommonly difficult, not only because of the elapsed time since then, but because of the subject matter of the plays as well as the aristocratic attitude toward such a behavior.

Regarding the subject matter, the plays of Shake-speare served as effective propaganda for the powers that were. Such propaganda would naturally be more effective if the audience thought it had been written by "one of them", rather than by someone with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Stanley was not only of Lancastrian background (to which the plays are sympathetic), but a possible future king of England. I should add that William Stanley's family figures frequently and ultimately crucially in the history plays and, most noticeably, as deeply involved in the establishment of the Tudor (Elizabeth's) line. (See The History Plays.)

Regarding a noble playwright, any written works would necessarily be private affairs, not intended for, and even prohibited from, public display, at least in their author's name. The prohibition was from the aristocracy itself, which could not tolerate such a "common" labor from one of its own. So any such writings were considered "trifles", to entertain one's friends who were, of course, other members of the nobility. The aristocracy determined what it would itself allow, and it also determined to an astonishing degree what could be said or even privately written about it throughout the land.

But there were a certain few that even the powerful aristocracy could not control, try as it might, and these were the agents of foreign intelligence services. Spies.

But first, some background on William and the house of Stanley.

William Stanley's Environment

Image of Stanley
family crest

Crest of the House of Stanley

(The illustration, admittedly not very clear, is of an eagle carrying an infant.)

William Stanley grew up in an environment saturated with the life of the theater as it pertained to the nobility. The household of Henry Stanley, the fourth Earl of Derby (William's father), was "a Court second in size and splendor only to the Queen's."[1] image of Henry Stanley It supported the theatrical arts in many ways, and such luminaries as Thomas Lodge and John Donne were at various times members of the household, and so, William Stanley's intimates. Henry Stanley, like his father before him, supported a company of actors or "players". This support of a company by a noble was chiefly the way a company was able to form and prosper—in addition to performing for their patron, in this case Henry Stanley, the company could tour publicly, and visit the estates of other members of the nobility at their invitation and as a courtesy of their patron. In fact, without a noble patron they were, by law, considered vagabonds. (Shakspur almost certainly became an actor under the patronage of Henry's son [William's brother] Ferdinando.)

Henry Stanley's eldest son, Ferdinando, also known as Lord Strange and who was to become the fifth Earl of Derby, formed his own group of players known as Lord Strange's Men. (The actors were always men, and so the parts of women were played by men dressed and acting as women, a practice that presented an obvious target for comedy such as is found in the plays themselves.)

Lord Strange's Men was one of the leading companies of the time, employing the great Edward Alleyn and, by 1592, probably including a little-known actor named William Shakspur from Stratford-on-Avon. Eventually, Lord Strange's Men became The Chamberlain's Men and finally The King's Men. These are the acting companies (really the same company evolving over time) most associated with the works of Shake-speare today.

Regarding Ferdinando, the fifth Earl of Derby and the older brother of William Stanley, we read [2]:

Ferdinando was "of an exalted genius as well as birth," and during the absence of his father on State business, discharged the duties, of the Lieutenancies of Lancashire and Cheshire with great credit and ability. When Lord Strange, he married (1579) Alice, the youngest daughter of Sir John Spencer, of Althorpe. He was himself a poet and author, and enjoyed the society of the eminent men of letters who have made the reign of Elizabeth famous. Spencer, the poet, personified Ferdindando as "Amyntas," and his Countess as "Amaryllis." [About this poem of Spenser's, I will have more to say in the section Edmund Spenser.] In 1610, a collection of English poems, entitled "Belvedere; or the Garden of the Muses" was published, and Ferdinando's were included in that work, but none of the poems bear the signature of the noble lord, and the identity is to a great extent a matter of conjecture. The death of this earl was a most mysterious one. A number of rebels, who had fled to foreign countries, sent over a man named Richard Hackett to urge Earl Ferdinando to set up a claim to the crown of England by right of his descent from Mary, the second daughter of Henry VII, and younger Sister to Henry VIII., at that time Queen Dowager of France, threatening that unless he undertook the project, and conceal the messengers and instigators of it, he should shortly die in a most wretched manner; but if he complied, he might be assured of powerful assistance. Ferdinando rejected the proposition with scorn and indignation but four months afterwards he was seized with a fearful illness and died in great agony. There was no doubt he had been poisoned and his gentleman of horse was greatly suspected of administering it, for on the same day that the earl was attacked, he fled on one of the best horses, and was never heard of again. Ferdinando left three daughters, but no sons, and the earldom naturally devolved upon his brother William.
image of Henry Stanley

It is important to note that Ferdinando was considered by some to be a legitimate heir to the throne. The complexities of that legitimacy are way too involved to go into here, but it is sufficient to realize that at Ferdinando's death, such legitimacy transferred to William.

An aside.
One of the most peculiar things about the idea that Shakspur was Shake-speare is the fact that there was no reason for Shakspur to write Shake-speare. It is proposed, for example, that he got his ideas from books, from talking to people at pubs, and so on, and then wrote these powerful plays second-hand, so to speak, perhaps fawning to his patrons. The fact that the history plays are propaganda is well-known and widely accepted. I believe there is a much greater integrity to the argument advanced here that such propaganda directly served not only the house of Tudor, but the house of Stanley as well.

We see that both William Stanley's father and brother were involved in drama and poetry, but it is interesting to look at an even larger picture, that is, the involvement of their more-or-less feudal domain in drama. As mentioned in the quote from Seacombe above, the Stanleys held the "Lieutenancies of Lancashire and Cheshire". The language of these areas, bordering on Wales as they do, has much to do with the language of Shake-speare [2b], but here I want to concentrate on the dramatic arts in Cheshire and in particular Chester, a town in Cheshire much beloved by William Stanley. It is to the town of Chester that William Stanley will eventually retire.

"Now of the Playes of Chester called the Whitsun Playes"
Chester Cycle manuscripts (Huntington, Harley, and others)

We know that the Stanleys attended Chester plays from at least the time of William's grandfather (who also sponsored a "Derby's Men"). These were religious plays, also called Mystery Plays, performed in the cycle of the religious year. So in addition to the Stanley family history of involvement in theater, we find their home ground rooted in theatrical tradition. A current online publication of the Chester City Council tells us:

"The Chester Cycle of Mystery Plays is the most famous of the public festivities which brightened the lives of citizens in the Middle Ages." [3]

This cycle of plays at Chester varied over the years as the emphasis moved from a Catholic to a more Protestant orientation. We find a tradition of Midsummer and Christmas plays, and a plethora of different companies and groups performing. Much of the record is lost, of course, and it would be interesting to get more information. For example, we find "this year the sunday next after midsomer there was a triumph deuysed by william Crofton gentleman & mr mane master of the art of the history of Aeneas & dido of carthage which was plyed". [4] No details of the play are known to exist, but it is at least possible that it was the very play Aeneas' tale to Dido, a fragment of which appears in Hamlet.

A recent book [5] pursues the idea that The Tempest was closely based on Christian mystery plays of the time and includes an interesting comment from the author in light of our discussion (the author is Stratfordian):

The last performances of the Mystery Plays took place during Shakespeare's lifetime; therefore it is possible that he saw one or more performances. It is also possible that he had access to one or more of the extant manuscripts of the four cycles: York, Chester (Whitsun), Wakefield (Towneley), and Ludus Coventriae (N-Town). There are five manuscripts of the Chester cycle that are of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. That Shakespeare had the Mystery Plays in mind at the time he was writing is confirmed by Perdita's observation in The Winter's Tale, "Methinks I play as I have seen them do / In Whitsun pastorals" (4.3.133-134). The question is, who was thinking of the Whitsun pastorals? Was it Perdita, Shakespeare, or his audience? At a performance of the play, it would be all three."

The Whitsun pastorals were of Chester.

The Stanley stronghold was Lathom House with its central Eagle tower (named for the family crest). Lathom House, and any records it may have contained, was destroyed after opposing and succumbing to the forces of Cromwell within a year or two of William's death.

I have merely meant to "set the stage" with the discussion of the person and place of William Stanley. I think the enormous accomplishment of Shake-speare is best understood as a very supportive environment, coupled with genius. The previous discussion was meant to hint at that environment, and the following sections begin to hint at the genius.

A Brief "Life of William Stanley"

William Stanley was born in 1560 or 1561 in either London or in Lathom House, Lancashire [6]. His parents were Henry, Lord Strange, and Margaret Clifford, great granddaughter of Henry VII. (It is this heritage that made him a possibility for the throne and any dangers associated with that inheritance.) At the age of eleven, he went to St. John's College, Oxford (known for its drama [7]). He would later study at the London Law schools—first Gray's Inn and then Lincoln's Inn. Image of a younger William Stanley map of Tudor England

In 1582, at the age of 21, he began his travels abroad accompanied by his tutor Richard Lloyd (almost certainly the character "Holofernes" in Love's Labour's Lost—see my comments on Richard Lloyd in the discussion of Love's Labour's Lost). He travelled to France and from there to Spain (probably through the Court of Navarre, the scene of Love's Labour's Lost at the time of Stanley's travels). Additional countries visited include an extended stay in Italy and then his journies pass into the legendary, so it is hard to know exactly where he went (e.g., Egypt, Palestine, Turkey). Nonetheless, while away, he may also have visited Russia (at the time John Dee was there).

There is a record that in January, 1586, "Mr. Stanleyes Boyes" played at court. This may well be William Stanley's first recorded connection with drama, presumably a children's acting troupe, but the evidence is ambiguous. As a second son, hence not expected to be heir to the title of Earl, his youth was much less documented than that of his older brother. In any case, by 1587, he was back home in Lancashire. (Sometimes hard to keep up with developments—I now find that in 1585 he was traveling with John Donne in France). In 1594, while studying law at Lincoln's Inn, his brother Ferdinando, the fifth Earl of Derby, died, and William became the sixth Earl of Derby. Late in 1594 we first hear of a new "Derby's Men", an acting company William was to sponsor for more than four decades. In 1595, he married Elizabeth de Vere, daughter of Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford (this is the Oxford that some consider a candidate for the authorship). The marriage took place in the palace and presence of Queen Elizabeth (and A Midsummer Night's Dream was probably written for it, as I discuss in A Midsummer Night's Dream).

A continuing difficulty for William Stanley starting in late 1594 was a lawsuit brought by Alice, Ferdinando's widow, on behalf of her three daughters, for much of the Stanley family estates. This lawsuit was not largely resolved until 1607, with the final "detail", the Isle of Man, not resolved until 1612 (in all, generally favorably for William). This seems to have crippled him financially as long as it lasted and no doubt could have been expedited by Queen Elizabeth but never was, for reasons that are not known. But keeping weak an otherwise powerful northern Earl probably did not trouble her overmuch. Nonetheless, in the last years of her life, Elizabeth did make William a Knight of the Garter, the highest honor she could bestow.

We know that around the turn of the century William was actively involved in drama, and not only because of the letters of 1599 in which he is described as penning comedies for the common players. In 1599 he is also reported [8] as financing one of London's two children's drama companies, the Paul's Boys, and for roughly the period 1599-1601, his playing company, Derby's Men, was active, and very successfully so, at the Boar's Head, just outside London. In addition the company played multiple times at court in 1600 and 1601. I should note that William seems to be more than just a distant patron of his company, for it is believed to be at about this time that an undated letter from William's wife to Robert Cecil was written:

Good uncle, being importuned by my Lord to entreat your favor that his man Browne with his company may not be barred their accustomed playing in maintainance whereof they have consumed the better part of their substance, if so vain a matter shall not seem troublesome to you, I could desire that your furtherance might be a means to uphold them for that my Lord taking delight in them it will keep him from more prodigal courses and make your credit prevail with him in a greater matter for my good. So commending my best love to you I take my leave

Your most loving niece
E. Derby

The "Browne" she refers to was one Robert Browne, the leader of Derby's Men during this time at the Boar's Head, and who died in 1603. [9] (As for the "prodigal courses", I have no idea but would love to know!) Given the court appearances, his patronage of Paul's Boys, and the success of Derby's Men at the Boar's Head, it would seem that William Stanley was having a very profound but, until historically recently, largely unnoticed effect on the world of the London theater during these crucial Shakespearean years.

While William had some initial marriage difficulties, including a jealous rage that threatened to tear his house apart (with the servants favoring his wife), they were reconciled and apparently lived harmoniously although not always together. After Queen Elizabeth died, Stanley finally prevailed in the lawsuit, and also acquired various titles relating to Lancashire, Cheshire, Chester, and the Isle of Man. As he acquired things, he promptly relinquished them to his wife and, as he came of age, to his eldest son, James. [10]

In 1617 the Earl was visited by King James at Lathom house. In 1627 his wife died and William had retired on an income of 1000 pounds a year from the estates which he had passed to his son James. [11] (The properties were yielding 6000 pounds a year at his death.)

The Earl purchased a convenient house on the side of the River Dee, near Chester, whither we are told he retired and passed the evening of his life in quiet, peace, and pleasing enjoyment of ease, rest, and freedom of body as well as mind. He died on the 29th September, 1642[12].
In September 1642, the theaters were closed by the Puritans, a closure that would last for 18 years.

A summary table:

1560/61 Born London or Lathom House.
1572-1576? St. John's College, Oxford.
1576-1582 Gray's Inn.
1582 Begins travels abroad.
1585 Returns to England, then back to France with ambassador father to confer Knight of Garter on Henry III.
1585-1588 With Donne in France, then further travels on continent.
1586 "Mr. Stanleyes Boyes" play at court.
1587 Back home in Lancashire.
1592-1594 Captain of Isle of Man.
1593 Appointed Governor of Isle of Man. Father dies, brother becomes fifth earl.
1594 At Lincoln's Inn. Ferdinando dies. William becomes Earl of Derby. New "Derby's Men" begins.
1595 Marries Elizabeth de Vere. Approximate starting date of the playhouse at Prescot, about four miles from Derby's Knowsley estate.
1599 Financing children's company Paul's Boys.
1599-1601 Derby's Men active at Boar's Head and court.
1601 Elected Knight of the Garter.
1603 Member of the Privy Council.
1607 Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire and Cheshire, son James born.
1610 Legal difficulties of last 15 years end, government of Man transferred to wife.
1612 Kinsgship of the Isle of Man restored by James I to Derby.
1627 Elizabeth, Countess of Derby dies; James Stanley King of Man.
1637 Currently the latest known date of performances by Derby's Men.
1642 Death of Will Derby.

It is time now to consider the reasons that this generally forgotten man may have been Shake-speare.

The Report of a Secret Agent

At least in modern times, William Stanley was completely unsuspected as a possible author of Shake-speare or author of anything. In 1891, an expert in heraldry, James Greenstreet, published [13] some extracts from letters he had come across in his research that were written by a Jesuit spy in England in June of 1599, in which the spy refers to William Stanley in two different letters as follows:

Our Earle of Darby is busye in penning commodyes for the common players.
Therle of Darby is busyed only in penning comedies for the commoun players.

It was this that led Greenstreet to proclaim discovery of "A hitherto unknown noble writer of Elizabethan comedies". Greenstreet's further researches led him to believe that the Earl of Derby was Shake-speare, and he is thus the first modern researcher to support the case for William Stanley. But Greenstreet died in the year following his publication of the above information, and the Derbyite case was little known. Later, and apparently independently, a professor of Renaissance literature in France, Abel Lefranc, came to the conclusion Derby was Shake-speare, and his books established a much larger following in France.

Shakspur and William Stanley

If the anti-Stratfordian position is true, the businessman Shakspur must have been "in cahoots" with the use of his name. The fact that a member of the acting company involved in the plays had a very similar name to that used for the playwright can hardly be accidental. What then was the association of Shakspur with Shake-speare? We can see a plausible scenario with Derby, because it is almost certain the two met.

It is not known when Shakspur of Stratford-on-Avon joined the company of players to which he belonged. It is known that when he was twenty-three years old, the company, Strange's Men (William's brother's Ferdinando's company), performed in Stratford-on-Avon, and he may have joined at that time. On this particular tour, the next stop after Stratford-on-Avon was Knowsley, a Derby estate in Lancashire. It is at least possible, if not likely, that William Stanley and Shakspur would have met, especially as William Stanley was known for spending time with the players. It is generally agreed that Lord Strange, William's brother, was the player Shakspur's "patron", the noble that enabled Shakspur and many others to act in public performance in the first place.

A recent biography of Shake-speare, Shakespeare: The Evidence, by Ian Wilson, makes much of the Shakspur-Stanley connection, going so far as to suggest that Shakspur's access to libraries and the aristocratic environment was a result of his temporary connection with Lord Strange, Ferdinando Stanley. More likely is William Stanley's better, more intimate, and continuing access to the same.

There are many examples I could give of the apparent connection of Shake-speare with the Stanley family. The bulk of the enormous effort today being made to identify Shakspur with a man named Shakeshafte in Lancashire is because many Stratfordians recognize that there is a strong connection between Shake-speare and William Stanley's home territory [14]. Here I will note a single comment from a recent book: Region, religion and patronage: Lancastrian Shakespeare from Manchester University Press, 2003. In the introduction, Allison Findlay and Richard Sutton say:

According to a [Stanley] family tradition, William Farrington (1537-1609), the Steward of the Derby household, was the inspiration for Shake-speare's Malvolio.
Farrington, incidentally, was employed by both the fourth and fifth earl, and was "let go" as soon as William Stanley attained the earldom. In passing I will add an additional Stanley family tradition. I've corresponded with two current Stanley family members and one received the tradition that William Stanley had something to do with Shake-speare, the other that William Stanley was Shake-speare.

But is there even any evidence that William Stanley was a poet?

John Donne and William Stanley

Image of John Donne John Donne dedicated a group of six poems to "E of D". The dedication refers to "your fatherly yet lusty Rhyme" and clearly praises the dedicatee as a poet. Obviously, "Derbyites" believe Donne was dedicating the sonnets to the Earl of Derby as E of D. If so, a great poet was praising the poetry of the Earl of Derby. The early Derbyites found this significant, as did I. It seemed a strong indication, if it referred to William Stanley, that he was a significant, even very powerful, poet. It had nothing to do with the typical "puff piece" dedication, as this was private, and not intended to seek patronage.

Since then, more information has come to light. But first, here is the dedication:


by John Donne

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.

A Donne biographer, Dennis Flynn, has published an article [15] that addresses the issue of just who is the "E. of D." in this dedication. He begins by evaluating the view that the dedication precedes a group of poems ("Holy Sonnets") of about 1609 and is dedicated to the Earl of Dorset. To summarize briefly a detailed and (to me) convincing argument, he proposes the poems were an earlier work, contained in the "Westmoreland Manuscript" written in the 1590s, and not dedicated to the Earl of Dorset. He notes that the tone is of a younger Donne who "adopts the pose of poetic neophyte in a way quite foreign to his persona in poems written around 1609", and he adds "The opening lines of the poem submit his work for approval as to a master", and that "Donne's own reputation as a master was already long established in 1609". There is much more to the argument, but to continue to the specifics that identify Stanley...

After making the case for a date earlier than 1600 for the dedication, Flynn has to look for another "E. of D." since the third Earl of Dorset:

"had been born only in 1589. But [no one] so far concerned with this matter has been aware of certain biographical information recently come to light. For several years after 1585 Donne served as a waiting gentleman in the household of Henry Stanley, fourth Earl of Derby. A number of facts suggest that "E. of D." may have been one of Derby's sons."

After a paragraph discussing the possibility it may have been William Stanley's brother Ferdinando, he goes on to say:

"More and better evidence suggests that "E. of D." was Ferdinando's brother, William Stanley, who succeeded as sixth Earl of Derby after Ferdinando died (16 April 1594). Donne and William Stanley had known each other at least since January 1585, when they travelled together in the ambassadorial retinue of Stanley's father, sent to Paris to award the Order of the Garter to King Henri III. However, the strongest evidence that William Stanley was "E. of D." is that he was admitted to Lincoln's Inn when Donne and Rowland Woodward were students there. When Woodward copied the verse letter into the Westmoreland manuscript, he copied the heading simply as "To L. of D.". Ferdinando Stanley, from at least 1572 to his accession as fifth Earl of Derby, had been styled "Lord Strange", and thus would not normally have been called or thought of as "my Lord of Derby." But, unlike Ferdinando, William before his accession to the Earldom had been called "my lord of Derby" and thus could more naturally have been referred to at some point as "L. of D." by a fellow Lincoln's Inn student such as Donne or Woodward."

Flynn has neatly explained the curious combination of first "L. of D." and later "E. of D." references in the history of this John Donne dedication, that can hardly be explained otherwise than by a "typo". But I refer you to the article for this and also some interesting comments on Derby as "alchemist".

The author then moves on to supporting the idea that Derby was a poet, taking up precisely the argument advanced in the next section on Spenser (and Flynn duly credits the Derbyite Lefranc for his source).

While I've introduced Donne's dedication to support the idea that William Stanley was a poet of high level, the dedication also seems to allude to Shake-speare, supporting the theory that William Stanley and Shake-speare were the same person. The opening lines evoke Shake-speare's Antony and Cleopatra (II, 7) [and is not the opening "SEE sir" "Caesar"?], and "lusty rhyme" may refer to Venus and Adonis. The concluding lines also evoke Shake-speare, whose plays often display a transformation of his source material.

The following page, Allusions, discusses several contemporary references that are widely believed to refer to Shake-speare, by Stratfordians and non-Stratfordians alike. These are all the references which indicate the person of the author, distilled from the many contemporaneous references to his work.

Which candidate fits these references best?


Map of Tudor England adapted from maps at this bookmarkable site: The Elizabethan World. [Not working at last check - JR]