Home / Features / SHAKESPEARE’S LOVERS: The Dark Lady


A Midsummer Night's Dream 1935
A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1935

Last month, I suggested that William Shakespeare had two major love affairs in his life.  The first was with his ‘White’ lady, who helped to inspire his ‘fair’ female characters, such as Bianca (The Taming of the Shrew) and Helena (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).  The model for these saintly ‘White’ ladies was almost certainly ‘Annam Whateley de Temple Grafton’, as she was identified on the first of two marriage licences granted to ‘Willelmum Shaxpere’ by the Bishop of Worcester in 1582.

Anne (or Agnes) Whateley’s brothers stayed true to their Catholic faith in the face of persecution.  The same could be said of Anne.  She appears to have functioned as a ‘sacred nun’ based at the Catholic safe house of Hillborough Manor, near Stratford.  Will Shakespeare’s ancestor, ‘Domina Jane’ Shakespeare, had served as the sub-prioress of the Benedictine priory at Wroxall, a little to the north of Stratford, until the priory was dissolved in 1536; ‘Domina Jane’ was still alive when Will was a child, and it may be that she inspired in him a fascination with saintly women.  Anne Whateley’s status as a ‘White Lady’ – the form said to be taken by her ghost – might suggest that she was an ‘underground’ nun of the Augustinian Order.

The contrast between Will’s ‘White’ lady and the ‘Dark Lady’ of his Sonnets could scarcely be much greater.  If his first love was a sacred ‘sister sanctified of holiest note’, his ‘Dark Lady’ was described as ‘no nun’.  And if Anne Whateley was the inspiration for his tall, fair, saintly female figures, the ‘Dark Lady’ lurks behind such dangerous characters as Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth.

There was, however, one point of contact between his two great loves.  Anne Whateley might have awoken fond memories of his devout aunt, ‘Domina Jane’.

The name of Will’s ‘Dark Lady’ was also Jane.

Just as there are hints that Shakespeare had an illegitimate child with his ‘sacred nun’, Anne Whateley (one of his last plays was reputedly ‘given … as a present of value, to a natural daughter of his, for whose sake he wrote it, in the time of his retirement from the stage’ – see Double Falsehood, The Arden Shakespeare, 2010), so there are heavy hints that Shakespeare had an illegitimate son.

Sir William Davenant was baptised in Oxford on 3 March 1606.  His parents, John and Jane Davenant, ran The Taverne on Cornmarket.  According to a longstanding Oxford tradition, Will Shakespeare was Sir William Davenant’s godfather.  The rumours, however, suggested an even closer relationship.  An old joke recalls that a gentleman asked the young Davenant where he was going in such a hurry; Davenant replied that he was going to meet his godfather, whereupon the gentleman cautioned him not to ‘take God’s name in vain’.

The rumours that Shakespeare was, in fact, Davenant’s father were fuelled by John Aubrey (1626-97), a collector of biographical tittle-tattle who knew the Davenant family.  Aubrey wrote of Sir William’s elder brother, ‘I have heard parson Robert say that Mr. W. Shakespeare haz given him a hundred kisses’.  Of Sir William himself, Aubrey reported:

Now Sir William would sometimes, when he was pleasant over a glasse of wine with his most intimate friends … say, that it seemed to him that he writt with the very spirit that Shakespeare, and seemd contented enough to be thought his son.

At a time when most poets preferred to be thought of as ‘Sons of Ben [Jonson]’, Davenant’s eagerness to present himself as a son of Shakespeare was unusual – unique, in fact (and, as Aubrey observed, it did not reflect very well on Davenant’s mother, Jane).  But the rumours persisted, even featuring in Sir Walter Scott’s Woodstock, or The Cavalier (1826):

“Why we are said to have one of his [Shakespeare’s] descendants among us – Sir William D’Avenant … It seems that his mother was a good-looking, laughing, buxom mistress of an inn between Stratford and London, at which Will Shakespeare often quartered as he went down to his native town; and that out of friendship and gossipred, as we say in Scotland, Will Shakespeare became godfather to Will D’Avenant; and not contended with this spiritual affinity, the younger Will is for establishing some claim to a natural one, alleging that his mother was a great admirer of wit, and there were no bounds to her complaisance for men of genius.”

William Davenant
William Davenant

The only occurrence of the word ‘godson’ in Shakespeare’s works appears in King Lear.  First performed in 1606, Lear was written around the time of Sir William Davenant’s christening at St Martin’s Church, Carfax.  The churchwarden’s accounts for St Martin’s include a list of parishioners who lent money to the church in 1614-15; next to the name of Davenant’s father, somebody later scribbled ‘Jno. Davenant Shakespears Uncle’.  The slang term ‘uncle’ strongly suggests that John Davenant was a cuckold.

That Sir William Davenant was Shakespeare’s godson seems probable; that he was Shakespeare’s natural son is certainly feasible.  Either way, Jane Davenant – who was described by John Aubrey as ‘a very beautifull woman, and of a very good witt, and of conversation extremely agreeable’ – is the only woman, apart from the two Annes, Whateley and Hathaway, to have been romantically linked with Shakespeare ever since the early 17th century.

She was born Jane Sheppard and baptised at St Margaret’s, Westminster, on 1 November 1568.  Her uncle’s will discloses that she was known familiarly as ‘Jennet’.  At least two of her brothers worked for the royal household; one of them, like Shakespeare’s father, was a maker of fine gloves.

The roots of Jane’s family can be traced back to the West Country (a later genealogy named her father as ‘Shepherd de Durham’, but I suspect that this refers to Dyrham, near Bristol, which was also spelled ‘Durham’).  There was a concentration of people named Sheppard around Banwell in Somerset.  The same area was alluded to in a scurrilous poem, first published in 1594, which recounted various attempts to seduce a ‘chaste and constant wife’.  The young woman in question was based at a country inn named after England’s patron saint, beside the ‘Christall well’ which gave Banwell its name, and where Banwell’s oldest inn, The George, then stood.

Willobie his Avisa was reissued repeatedly – and on one occasion suppressed – between 1594 and 1609.  Central to the poem are two characters: the well-heeled Henrico Willebego (‘H.W.’) and his ‘familiar frend’, the ‘old player’, ‘W.S.’, who has just recovered from an infatuation with the ‘modest maid’ when his ‘frend Harry’ falls for her charms.  The ‘old player’ advises the ‘new actor’ to make a play for the maid: ‘She is no Saynt, She is no Nonne, / I thinke in tyme she may be wonne.’

This section of Willobie his Avisa refers to events which took place in the spring of 1593 – in April, to be precise – when Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis was going to press, with its dedication to Will’s teenage patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton.  It was also at about this time that Jane Sheppard married John Davenant, a wine-merchant based in London.  But with the plague rife in the capital, Jane had probably been sent away to stay with relatives in Banwell.  Willobie his Avisa makes it plain that attempts to seduce the ‘modest maid’ were made both before and after her marriage.

Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis featured his youthful patron as Adonis; at one point, the handsome lord loses his ‘strong-necked steed’ to a ‘breeding jennet, lusty, young and proud’ (Jane, we remember, was also known as Jennet).  Shakespeare’s Sonnets, meanwhile, tell of a bittersweet love triangle:

                        That thou hast her it is not all my grief,

                        And yet it may be said I loved her dearly …

In Sonnet 35, the poet went so far as to identify the ‘Fair Youth’ and the object of their mutual desire:

                        No more be grieved at that which thou hast done

                        Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud …

Southampton’s surname was pronounced ‘Rose-ly’.  As Henry Wriothesley, he was both the ‘H.W.’ who lusted after the woman loved by the ‘old player’, ‘W.S.’, and the ‘Rose’ that had ‘thorns’.  Jane was living at the time beside the curative spring or ‘Christall well’ of Banwell, alluded to by Shakespeare as the ‘silver fountain’ with its ‘mud’.

Jane’s marriage probably put a stop to Will’s love affair with his ‘breeding jennet’, but the repeated publication of Willobie his Avisa, as well as unsubtle hints dropped by Ben Jonson, most notably in Every Man Out of his Humour (1599), suggest that the liaison was still the source of malicious gossip.

John Davenant was described by Aubrey as ‘a very grave and discreet Citizen’, while Anthony Wood – also of Oxford – added that Jane’s husband was ‘yet an admirer and lover of plays and play-makers, especially Shakespeare’, although he was ‘seldom or never seen to laugh’.  By 1600, John Davenant had made up his mind to leave London, possibly because the gossip surrounding his vivacious wife, the ‘old player’ – ‘W.S.’ – and the fastidious ‘H.W.’ simply would not go away.  The Davenants took on the lease of The Taverne in Oxford and began to raise a family.

In March 1604, Will Shakespeare paraded in the same triumphal procession, celebrating the accession of King James to the throne, as Jane’s brother, Thomas Sheppard.  Whether it was this, or Will’s visits to The Taverne whenever he stopped over at the Crosse Inn next door, something rekindled the old affair.  By the late summer of 1605, Jane was pregnant with Will’s ‘godson’.

As with Shakespeare’s first love – his ‘sacred nun’, Anne Whateley – the course of his on-off affair with Jane Davenant is described in A Lover’s Complaint.  The poem, part of which was published with the Sonnets in 1609, is set beside the River Thames in Oxford, where the Thames is known as the Isis.  A ‘fickle maid full proud’ who, though no longer young, is still beautiful, sits weeping on the riverbank, throwing letters and love tokens into the river.  She is invited to make her confession to a ‘reverend man’, whom she addresses as ‘Father’.

The tale she tells concerns an eloquent womaniser who, in his youth, conquered many a female (including a ‘sacred nun’), before turning his ‘craft of will’ upon the ‘fickle maid’ herself.  Young and foolish, she had fallen for his honey tongue.  But the affair had been revived again, more recently, creating the suspicion that the ‘reconcilèd maid’ was now pregnant with her lover’s child.

In his Sonnets, Shakespeare couldn’t help punning on the name of his ‘lovely Boy’:

                        If thy soul check thee that I come so near,

                        Swear to thy blind soul that I was thy Will …

                                    Make but my name thy love, and love that still,

                                    And then thou lov’st me for my name is Will.

But the affair was troubled; Will considered Jane both ‘fair’ and ‘foul’.  He would write, not only of a ‘godson’, but also of bastards and adultery in King Lear.  That same year saw ‘pity, like a naked new-born babe, / Striding the blast’ in Macbeth, quickly followed by the majestic tragedy of adulterous obsession, Antony and Cleopatra.  Shakespeare knew from his reading of Plutarch that the ‘tawny’ Cleopatra was 38 when she died.  Jane Davenant was 38 when Will’s Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra was first performed.  At the start of the play, Mark Antony is 42 – as was Will Shakespeare in 1606.

The affair cannot have lasted much longer.  John Davenant soon realised that his second son – William – was not like his other children.  The poet Thomas Carew would later refer to himself and Sir William Davenant as ‘we of the adulterate mixture’ (‘So, oft the bastard nobler fortune meets, / Than the dull Issue of the lawfull sheets’), and throughout his life Davenant was dogged by reminders of his questionable paternity; ‘D’Avenant from Avon comes’ wrote one wit in 1655, suggesting that Sir William was not so much a child of the Isis as the offspring of a poet from Stratford-upon-Avon.

His mother was undoubtedly seen as quite a catch.  Jane Davenant died in early April 1622, her husband surviving her by little more than two weeks.  A poet of the time suggested that John Davenant could not bear to live without his wife:

                        No, no, he loved her better, and would not

                        So easely lose what hee so hardly gott.

It can’t have been easy for the ‘very grave and discreet Citizen’ having to compete with the brilliant Will Shakespeare for his wife’s affections.

© The History Vault

About Simon Stirling

Simon Andrew Stirling is an author and historian whose latest book, “Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, the Motive, the Means”, was published by the History Press in August 2013. His previous book, “The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero”, was also published by the History Press in 2012. Simon’s blog, in which he reveals ongoing research and comments on his adventures in publishing, can be found here: www.artandwill.blogspot.co.uk . He is an accomplished speaker and is available to give talks on any subject related to his work on Shakespeare.

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