William Shakespeare, Richard Barnfield, and the Sixth Earl of Derby

by Leo Daugherty


The book Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609) contains a famous major section which editors and other scholars long ago dubbed the Rival Poet sequence. In these poems, Shakespeare speaks anxiously of another pastoral sonneteer who is competing with him for the love of his male addressee. Some authorities have held the view that Shakespeare is not the “autobiographical I” of his sonnets, and therefore that this rival poet and the male beloved of both were not real people either. Other authorities have argued that these three may have been real, but that it does not matter to us now as readers as the question is of little or no critical importance. However, most authorities over the years have believed that they were indeed real people in the real world and that it is important who they were simply because one of them was Shakespeare. The trend in recent scholarly work has been toward establishing a reliable historical grounding for all works of art––including poems––in cases where such a ground has not been adequately established. Shakespeare’s Sonnets is such a case and is perhaps the most famous one in Western culture. This book provides the best evidence yet brought forward for that grounding.

Many other books and articles have taken the position that real historical persons are represented in Shakespeare’s Sonnets and have attempted to identify them. But no previous study has considered the large amount of new evidence presented here (some of it historical and some of it textual), and none has made a logical case as powerful and persuasive regarding these identifications as the one constructed here.

This book is the first to argue that the Rival Poet of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is the well-known young Elizabethan writer Richard Barnfield (1574–1620), long suspected to have been one of Shakespeare’s “private friends” (as they were termed by Francis Meres in 1598), with whom (as Meres also tells us) Shakespeare shared some of his sonnets. This is also the first book to argue that William Stanley (1561–1642), sixth earl of Derby, is the young man to whom they addressed their respective sonnets and other love poems in the period c. 1592–1595.

In making these identifications, this is the first book to examine in detail the dialogue between Shakespeare’s Sonnets and three of Barnfield’s books of poetry (all published within a little more than one year)––a dialogue only known to be discussed in a conference paper and one other book.

William Shakespeare, Richard Barnfield, and the Sixth Earl of Derby will likely appeal to all readers interested in Shakespeare’s life and love poetry, both specialist scholars and non-specialist enthusiasts alike.


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