Author's Postscript

It is unusual to present a new literary theory in a novel, complete with textual and biographical evidence. It is however the best way to reach the widest possible audience. The Quarto of Shakespeare's Sonnets--all 154 of them--was peddled illicitly to London public in 1609. Today it's simply the most famous collection of poems in the English language. Who were these poems to and about? Shakespeare peppered many of his works, not just his Sonnets, with clues to his Dark Lady's name. In the groves of academe a whole industry revolves around discovering her identity.

Every chapter in this novel begins with an epigraph from a play or poem--most from the Sonnets--containing a clue to the identity of the Dark Lady, Penelope Rich, for that is who I now believe she was.

The first seventeen sonnets were not written, I believe, to the third Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley. Though some of the first 126 are inspired by the Dark Lady, most find their muse through a man legions of Bardophiles have dubbed the Friend and the Fair Youth. He's young, he's beautiful, with the complexion of a maiden: the sort of man a girl looks twice at, and a few men too. That leaves twenty-six sonnets in another group, not counting the pastoral pair at the end. No surgeon ever dissected a cadaver the way the exegecists have carved up these twenty-six: the so-called Dark Lady sonnets.

Are the Sonnets Shakespeare's autobiography, one in which the names of the cast are kept under wraps? Just who were these characters: Mr. W.H., the Friend, the Dark Lady? Was Shakespeare's Rival Poet Gervase Markham, as I believe? Were the dedication's "Mr. W.H." and the Fair Youth one and the same?

The clue to the puzzle, I argue, lies buried in a lengthy poem that was licensed in September 1594. It carried the title: Willobie his Avisa and the subtitle The True Picture of a Modest Maid and of a Chaste and Constant Wife. The poet lampoons an innkeeper's wife called Avisa who is likened to a phoenix, a popular Elizabethan symbol of chastity.

Avisa is wooed unsuccessfully by six lecherous swains:

a Nobleman

a Caveleiro who is a military officer

a Frenchman whose protestations of lust are signed D.B. (Dudum Beatus--happy until now)

Dydimus Harco, Anglo-Germanus


Henrico-Willobego, Italo-Hispalensis

A narrative passage in Willoughby's Avisa tells of Henrico-Willobego's "familiar friend 'W.S.,' who not long before had tried the courtesy of the like passion, and was newly recovered of the like infection." The author asks, referring to Henrico-Willobego's wooing of Avisa, "whether it would sort to a happier end for this new actor than it did for the old player."

No wonder that for over a hundred years scholars have argued excitedly that "W.S." is William Shakespeare; that behind the mask of the virtuous Avisa is the face of the far from virtuous Dark Lady who welcomed the Bard between the sheets before seducing the Fair Youth.

As if that isn't enough for Shakespeare aficionados to jump up and down over, events in the Avisa seem to parody Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece, which was licensed four months earlier. A prefatory poem in the Avisa mentions Lucrece and gives the world its first printed reference to Shakespeare by his correct name:

Yet Tarquin plucked his glistering grape
And Shakespeare paints poor Lucrece' rape.

Lucrece is a tale of married virtue. The Avisa is a spoof on the same subject. The story of Avisa the taverner's constant spouse could have been another run-of-the-mill diversion for Elizabethan readers, quickly forgotten. But it wasn't. In my view the Avisa sent up the adultery of one of the most prominent women in the English aristocracy.

About Willoughby we know a little. Probably he was not the real poetaster who wrote the Avisa. He was only, as Henrico-Willobego, a participant in the Avisa story. The true author's name remains a mystery to this day. But there was a real-life Henry Willoughby. He was an Oxford undergraduate in the 1590s. Today his name would be just a literary footnote were it not for that enigmatic "Mr. W.H." in Thorpe's cryptic dedication to the Sonnets, where perhaps his initials have been reversed--a not uncommon practice--to obscure his identity.

If Henry Willoughby was the Fair Youth, the object of Shakespeare's lyrical devotion, what do we know about him?

Though they were a minor branch of the great Willoughby family (motto: Vérité sans Peur), the Willoughbys of Knoyll Odyern Manor in Wiltshire were well connected. Henry Willoughby's third cousin was Sir Charles Blount or Blunt, who was a close associate of Sir Philip Sidney and the Earls of Essex and Southampton. In 1593 Blunt inherited Brook House, fourteen miles from Knoyll Odyern. By this time he was Penelope Rich's lover.

Eight miles from Willoughby's home stood Wardour Castle, the seat of the Arundels, his kinsmen via the Willoughby family of Wollaton in Nottinghamshire. Mary Wriothesley, who married Thomas Arundel, was the sister of Shakespeare's brief patron the third Earl of Southampton to whom Lucrece was dedicated.

Eighteen miles from Knoyll Odyern lay the stately house of Wilton, the old house that was all but burnt to the ground in the seventeenth century. Wilton was and still is the home of one of the most prominent of Wiltshire's county families. Many of the leading talents of the Elizabethan age came to visit or live there for a time as the guests of Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, Sir Philip Sidney's sister. Henry Willoughby's family tenanted Herbert land at South Burcombe.

In many ways Henry Willoughby was a fitting object for Shakespeare's quill: youthful (born 1575), armigerous, and educated. For the socially ambitious Bard who may have overnighted in Oxford between London and Stratford he was eminently well connected.

The story line of the Sonnets and the Avisa agree in the most crucial respect. If Avisa's suitor "W.S." is William Shakespeare, then the Bard and Willoughby aspired to the same mistress one after the other. Every reader of the Sonnets is familiar with the lines in which Shakespeare chides his Friend for stealing his mistress.

The scurrilous Avisa was republished in 1596 and 1599 and was quickly banned on both occasions. No copies of these editions survive. If we're to believe the 1596 date given in later editions, a poem appeared in the missing 1596 edition entitled: "The Victory of English chastity under the Feigned Name of Avisa". This poem which carries the vital clue to the identity of the real Avisa was ostensibly penned by Henry Willoughby's younger brother Thomas.

Further editions of the Avisa appeared in 1605, 1609 and 1635. Its success suggests contemporary readers "in the know" would have been in little doubt which Elizabethan glitterati are intended by the innkeeper's wife and her would-be lovers, not to mention the innkeeper himself, the target of the cuckold's horns that decorate the title page.

The Avisa's author must have considered Henry Willoughby minor enough to be mentionable by name, and Shakespeare could be hinted at with impunity as "the old player" with the initials "W.S." Avisa's four remaining suitors and Avisa herself are identified less easily today, but I cannot believe readers in genteel Elizabethan and early Jacobean society would have had this problem. Their silence on the matter, at least in writing, only serves to underline how powerful the real-life Avisa must have been.

When I discovered who my supposed Dark Lady alias Avisa really was I understood why the cast of characters in the Avisa needed so much camouflage. While Robert Devereux was still the queen's favorite, his sister, Penelope Rich, must have had immense influence.

A child was allegedly stillborn to Lady Penelope Rich at Leighs Priory in Essex in the early part of May 1594, the same month in which Lucrece was licensed. Was this infant's father neither Lord Rich nor Lord Mountjoy?

We have no way of knowing, but from this event, linked to the explanation of the Avisa which I have suggested, comes the idea behind this novel.

Pursuing this idea further let's rearrange the word order of the Sonnets' Dedication into something more logical than the published word order:

TO. MR. W.H.








"Begetter" clearly refers to the poet as the Sonnets' author. But the poet was Shakespeare and he may have fathered Penelope Rich's child, supposedly still born in May 1594. Now we have another possible explanation for the fall from favor that Shakespeare alludes to in the Sonnets, an event that put an abrupt halt to his courtly ambitions.

There can be little doubt that something happened to Shakespeare in 1594 that robbed him of the patronage of Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton. Wriothesley was a close friend of Penelope Rich and her brother the Earl of Essex. Southampton received the dedication of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis in 1593 and his Rape of Lucrece in 1594. The latter dedication hinted at a third narrative poem which never appeared. In September 1594 the Avisa was published, a vague parody of Lucrece. Did Shakespeare's sudden climb up the social ladder end in scandal because an affair between the poet and Penelope Rich became known? Or because it was believed that he, or Willoughby, might be the father of Penelope's latest bastard child? However outlandish at first glance, the hypothesis is tantalizing.

There is another possible explanation for the vulgar scandal. Perhaps the face behind Avisa's mask was also the face of the role model for Lucrece: Penelope Rich. In publishing Lucrece and daring to dedicate it to Southampton Shakespeare overstepped the mark. It may be possible to see Lucrece's rape by Tarquin as loosely based on Penelope's affair with Charles Blunt, who became eighth Lord Mountjoy in 1594. In which case Lucrece's husband Collatine becomes the cuckolded Lord Robert Rich. Shakespeare clearly sympathized with Tarquin, the not unlikeable seducer, as perhaps he did with Blunt since they were both in the same position vis--vis Penelope (though Blunt had all the social advantages Shakespeare lacked). A case of the lowborn Shakespeare pot calling the aristocratic Mountjoy kettle black . . . or simply gray?

On the other hand the Avisa may have wrecked Shakespeare's social prospects simply by publicizing his affair, and Willoughby's, with Penelope. So long as such affairs were kept private no one worried too much, but the Avisa gave rise to scandal by holding Penelope Rich up to ridicule and making public her sexual peccadilloes, which would otherwise have gone unnoticed outside her circle, one to which Shakespeare had been briefly admitted.

The publisher Thomas Thorpe registered Shakespeare's Sonnets on May 20, 1609. At that date the seven ships and two pinnaces known as the Third Supply of the Virginia Company were already five days out of London, heading for Plymouth. The second charter of the Virginia Company was promulgated on May 23, 1609, three days later. On June 2, 1609 the nine vessels set forth from Plymouth, bound for Virginia.

Let's speculate that Henry Willoughby was on board one of the two pinnaces. On the death of Henry's father on December 6, 1608 the Willoughby estate had passed to the senior son, Henry's elder brother William, as was customary. Without an inheritance Henry and his younger brother Thomas would have had to make their own way in the world. Let's speculate that Henry Willoughby, the "adventurer . . . setting forth" in the Sonnets dedication, decided to emigrate with the new fleet bound for Virginia and become an "adventurer of person?" To become an "adventurer of purse," an investor in the company, would have cost a minimum of twelve pounds and ten shillings. Not that our putative adventurer would have been completely impecunious. For one thing he had probably just sold a complete set of Shakespeare's Sonnets to Thomas Thorpe.

The fleet destined to relaunch England's faltering New World colony ran into bad weather on July 23, 1609. Sailing conditions deteriorated and the pinnace with its crew and passengers was lost from view by the command vessel Seaventure, never to be seen again. Seaventure itself ran aground off Bermuda on the barrier reef. No one on board Seaventure was lost at sea.

The remaining vessels of the Third Supply reached Virginia safely. This was the so-called Starving Time when four out of five of those who made it to the new colony died of hunger or were killed by native Americans within the first twelve months.

On May 23, 1610 the Patience reached the Virginia shore captained by Sir George Somers, commander of the vessels of the Third Supply. The Patience was one of the two pinnaces built in Bermuda by the castaways of Seaventure. As all Shakespeare enthusiasts are aware that adventure was memorialized in the Bard's most hermetic and final play: The Tempest

We can speculate that soon afterward, Henry Willoughby's younger brother Thomas arrived in Virginia on board the Prosperous. The facts are scant surrounding the Willoughbys who would now have found themselves in the New World. Thomas Willoughby may have died before 1625. A Thomas Willoughby who was possibly his son and appears to have had ties with the town of Barking in Essex went on to become the distinguished Virginia landowner Captain Thomas Willoughby, whose daughter Elizabeth eventually married into one of the Mayflower families, the Allertons.

I was more interested in what became of our hypothetical William Willoughby, who would have been sixteen by the time he reached Kecoughtan in Virginia. Did he die in 1622 in his twenty-eighth year? By the time he died did he have a son called Henry? If so, and if the child Henry did not die young, is there any theory which will explain why he should have disappeared from sight, except to suggest that he was illegitimate and carried his mother's family name, whatever that was? The stigma of illegitimacy might have driven mother and child away from Virginia, perhaps to the new settlement in Massachusetts.

Perhaps Amelia Hungerford is right, and the Willoughby--or Shakespeare--bloodline survives in New England today.