Shakespeare's Bastard: The Life of Sir William Davenant

Shakespeare's Bastard: The Life of Sir William Davenant

by Simon Andrew Stirling


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Sir William Davenant (1606-1668)—Poet Laureate and English Civil War hero—is one of the most influential and neglected figures in the history of British theater. He introduced "opera," actresses, scenes, and the proscenium arch to the English stage. Narrowly escaping execution for his Royalist activities during the English Civil War, he revived theatrical performances in London, right under Oliver Cromwell’s nose. Davenant was known to boast over a glass of wine that he wrote "with the very spirit" of Shakespeare and was happy to be thought of as Shakespeare’s son. By recounting the story of his eventful life backwards, through his many trials and triumphs, this biography culminates with a fresh examination of the issue of Davenant’s paternity. Was his mother the voluptuous and maddening "Dark Lady," and was he Shakespeare’s "lovely boy?"

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750961073
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 05/01/2016
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Simon Andrew Stirling is the author of The King Arthur Conspiracy and Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, the Motive, the Means.

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Shakespeare's Bastard

The Life of Sir William Davenant

By Simon Andrew Stirling

The History Press

Copyright © 2016 Simon Andrew Stirling
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-6856-0


O Rare Sir Will Davenant

Samuel Pepys spent the morning of Thursday, 9 April 1668 in his office on Seething Lane, just west of the Tower of London. He popped home for dinner at midday, and then it was back to the Navy Office to write some letters. He slipped away in the afternoon to visit his bookseller, John Martyn, at the sign of the bell in the churchyard of St Paul's Cathedral. From there, he made his way westwards to Lincoln's Inn Fields – or, as he put it, 'up and down to the Duke of York's playhouse, there to see, which I did, Sir W. Davenant's corpse carried out towards Westminster, there to be buried'.

The house in which Sir William Davenant had lodged was attached to the rear of the theatre and could be reached via an alleyway. Pepys watched the mourners clustering on the street as the coffin was brought out. 'Here were many coaches and six horses,' he observed. A private coach was an expensive way to travel, costing about 5s to hire for the day or (as Pepys himself was soon to discover) upwards of £50 to buy outright. There were also, he noted with distaste, 'many hacknies, that made it look, methought, like the buriall of a poor poet'.

The hackney coach was the ancestor of the London taxicab – still known as a 'hackney carriage' – and cost about 18d to hire for the first hour. Pepys clearly felt that the presence of so many hackneys lowered the tone.

The diarist had been at the king's playhouse, two nights before, when the news reached him of Davenant's sudden death. He took time out of his hectic schedule to see Sir William leave the Duke of York's playhouse for the last time. Pepys had not always been complimentary about Davenant's productions, but he admired the man. A portrait, painted by John Hayls two years before Davenant's death, shows the 33-year-old Pepys glancing – gelatinous eyes looking a bit strained – over his left shoulder, a handwritten sheet of music in his hand. The tune was his own, set to the words of a song by Sir William Davenant. The industrious Mr Pepys was proud of his composition.

The cortège finally departed from the theatre, heading towards the Strand. 'He seemed to have many children,' wrote Pepys in his diary, 'by five or six in the first mourning-coach, all boys.' Sir William in fact had eight surviving sons by his third wife, the eldest then being about twelve. The sight of so many healthy boys no doubt cut Pepys to the heart: he longed for a son, but he and his French wife were, and would remain, childless.

He did not follow the funeral procession but sought solace by walking down to the Strand where, amidst the bustle of the New Exchange, he met the attractive widow of a naval lieutenant. Pepys rode with Mrs Burroughs to Hyde Park, kissing her, but they 'did not go into any house'. Rather, as he 'set her down at White Hall' he presented her with a Valentine's gift 'for the last year before this, which I never did yet give her anything for'. His fumbling with Mrs Burroughs in the four-wheeled carrosse seems half-hearted, the belated gift of twelve silver half-crown coins 'wrapt in paper' lacking both romance and imagination.

Pepys returned to the office and kept himself busy, practising musical scales before supper, but his usual ebullience was lacking. The death of Sir William Davenant, the sight of those hackney coaches jostling outside the theatre, and all those young sons dressed in black, had left him morose and unsettled. Even petting a pretty widow in a carriage could rouse little more in him than a deflating sense of guilt.

John Aubrey knew Davenant's family in Oxford. 'I was at his funeral', wrote Aubrey twelve years after the event. 'He had a coffin of walnut tree. Sir John Denham said it was the finest coffin that ever he saw' – which might not have been the smooth compliment it appears to be. Aubrey was disappointed not to see a laurel wreath placed on the coffin.

'His body was carried in a hearse from the playhouse to Westminster Abbey, where at the great west door, he was received by the singing men and choristers, who sang the service of the church to his grave.'

We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away ...

The walnut coffin was carried the length of the nave to the south transept, where the grave was already prepared. It had previously housed the remains of Thomas May, Davenant's sometime rival for the post of poet laureate. May's outspoken support for Oliver Cromwell's dictatorship ensured that his bones were removed from the abbey when King Charles was restored to the throne.

I held my tongue, and spake nothing: I kept silence, yea, even from good words; but it was pain and grief to me.

My heart was hot within me, and while I was thus musing the fire kindled: and at the last I spake with my tongue ...

Deliver me from all mine offences: and make me not a rebuke unto the foolish.

The small gravestone of white marble was inscribed O RARE S. WILLIAM DAVENANT. John Aubrey recorded the inscription as 'O rare Sir Will. Davenant' and remarked that it was written 'in imitation of that on Ben Jonson'. Jonson had been buried, in an upright position, on the north side of the nave, under a lozenge-shaped slab which read O RARE BEN JOHNSON. The sentiment, in both instances, was Catholic.

Jonson's only true religion had been Ben Jonson. Davenant was a Catholic convert, although his faith was essentially pragmatic. John Aubrey claimed that Sir William privately believed religion would eventually settle into 'a kind of ingenious Quakerism', combining inspiration with social equality.

'Orare Sir Will. Davenant' – 'Pray for Sir William Davenant.'

It was a measure of the turbulence of recent times that a staunch Catholic like Richard Flecknoe had written in praise of Cromwell, the Puritan figurehead, in 1650 (The idea of His Highness Oliver ..., dedicated to Cromwell's son). Flecknoe redeemed himself, ten years later, by penning his Heroick Portraits of Charles II and other members of the Stuart dynasty. He also wrote plays and enjoyed putting together fantasy casts of actors, but he was deeply critical of the immorality of the stage.

'Sir William D'avenant being dead, not a Poet would afford him so much as an Elegie', proclaimed Flecknoe in a 'Poetical Fiction' entitled Sir William Davenant's Voyage to the other World: with his Adventures in the Poets' Elizium. Davenant had alienated his fellow poets, Flecknoe suggested, by seeking to 'make a Monopoly of the Art' and striving 'to become Rich'. According to Flecknoe, only one poet, 'more Humane than the rest, accompany'd him to his Grave with this Elogium':

Now Davenant's dead, the Stage will mourn,
And all to Barbarism turn:
Since He it was this later Age,
Who chiefly civiliz'd the Stage.

After five quatrains of routine praise, Richard Flecknoe followed Sir William on his posthumous progress.

Believing Davenant to be rich, Charon the ferryman demanded a handsome reward for piloting him across the Styx, only to discover that the poet laureate was so poor he couldn't afford the ordinary fare. The poets already inhabiting the Elysian Fields were surprised to see him, his death having received no publicity at all, and were unhappy to be joined by one who had disparaged such paragons as 'Homer, Virgil, Tasso, Spencer, and especially Ben. Johnson ... Nay, even Shakspear, whom he thought to have found his greatest Friend, was as much offended with him as any of the rest, for so spoiling and mangling of his Plays.' Jack Donne, the son of John Donne, was especially aggrieved to see Davenant and railed against him with such venom that Sir William grew exasperated. The two poets 'Fell together by the ears: when but imagine / What tearing Noses had been there / Had they but Noses for to tear'.

Famously, Davenant's nose had been ruined by syphilis.

The fight between Sir William and 'his old Antagonist Jack Donn' was broken up by the celestial police and Davenant was hauled before a tribunal. Momus, the savage critic, appeared for the prosecution.

Davenant told the heavenly judges that 'he was a Poet Laureate, who for Poetry in general has not his fellow alive, and had left none to equal him now he was dead'. In his 'Plays or Dramatick Poetry' he had plumbed the depths of tragedy and scaled the heights of tragicomedy:

And for his Wits, the Comick Fire
In none yet ever flam'd up higher:

But coming to his Siege of Rhodes,
It outwent all the rest by odds;

And somewhat in't that does out-do
Both th' Antients and the Moderns too.

Momus countered, arguing that Davenant's plays were 'never so good', but it was unbecoming of their author to commend them as he did – and besides, he had marred more plays than he had made; his 'Muse was none of the Nine, but only a Mongrel, or By-blow of Parnassus'; and 'finally, he so perplexed himself and [his] Readers with Parenthesis on Parenthesis, as, just as in a wilderness or Labyrinth, all sense was lost in them.'

And as for his Life and Manners, they would not examine those, since 'twas supposed they were Licentious enough: onely he wou'd say,

He was a good Companion for
The Rich, but ill one for the poor;
On whom he look'd so, you'd believe
He walk'd with a Face Negative:
Whilst he must be a Lord at least,
For whom he'd smile or break a jeast.

The judges took pity on Davenant. Since he had left the Muses for Pluto – betraying his poetic gifts for monetary gain – he was condemned to live in Pluto's Court, where he was appointed 'Superintendent of all their Sports and Recreations'. As he had flourished in this world, entertaining a profligate king and his dissolute courtiers, so he would in the next.

Such was the judgement of Richard Flecknoe. Sir William had overestimated his own talent and achievements: he was good, but not that good. He had pandered to the mighty and slighted better poets than himself, Ben Jonson in particular. Worse, perhaps, he had spoiled and mangled the plays of Shakespeare, whom he particularly admired. It all smacked of a talent ruthlessly exploited but ultimately wasted.

And there had been no mention of his death in the weekly gazettes. No 'Cryers of Verses and Pamphlets' had broadcast his obituary.

Davenant was succeeded as poet laureate by John Dryden – another Catholic convert – who had no time for Flecknoe's anti-theatrical posturing. Dryden had collaborated with Davenant on an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, which they subtitled The Enchanted Island. This was one of those plays which, in Flecknoe's view, Davenant had mangled and spoilt.

The Enchanted Island was first performed at Sir William Davenant's theatre precisely five months before he died. The script was published in 1670 with a preface by Dryden, dated 1 December 1669. Davenant 'was a man of quick and piercing imagination', wrote Dryden, who went on to praise Sir William in terms which would delight a modern-day producer: 'my writing received daily his amendments, and that is the reason why it is not so faulty, as the rest which I have done without the help or correction of so judicious a friend':

And as his fancy was quick, so likewise were the products of it remote and new. He borrowed not of any other; and his imaginations were such as could not easily enter into any other man. His corrections were sober and judicious: and he corrected his own writings much more severely than those of another man, bestowing twice the time and labour in polishing which he us'd in invention.

Davenant, then, was the consummate professional. Dryden refused to treat him with the same 'ingratitude' that others had shown to him: 'I am satisfi'd I could never have receiv'd so much honour in being thought the Author of any Poem how excellent soever, as I shall from the joining my imperfections with the merit and name of Shakespear and Sir William Davenant.'

When the critic and biographer Gerard Langbaine included a section on Davenant in his Account of the English Dramatick Poets (1691), Sir William's lasting reputation seemed assured. He was a 'Person sufficiently known to all Lovers of Poetry, and One whose Works will preserve his Memory to Posterity', having been 'Poet Laureate to Two Kings, whose Memory will always be Sacred to all good, loyal, and witty Men'. Most of his plays had 'appeared on the Stage with good applause, and been received with like success in Print', and then there were his poems, 'amongst which Gondibert an Epick Poem has made the greatest noise.'

Gondibert had been dedicated to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who not only accepted the dedication but replied with an 'extraordinary Compliment' to Davenant: 'The Virtues you distribute in your Poem, amongst so many Noble Persons, represent (in the Reading) the image but of One Man's Virtue to my fancy, which is your own.' The addition of commendations by 'two of our best Poets' – Edmund Waller and Abraham Cowley – should 'have proved a sufficient Defence and Protection against the snarling Criticks', thought Langbaine. But Davenant was never without his detractors. Four 'eminent Wits' (most notably, Sir John Denham, who commented on how fine Sir William's walnut coffin was, and Jack Donne, with whom Davenant brawled in Flecknoe's poetic Elysium) had published 'several Copies of Verses to Sir William's discredit' to be printed with the second edition of Gondibert in 1653.

Still, Davenant had risen above the many 'Railleries [that] were broached against him by his Enemies'. It was true that his coffin had 'wanted the Ornament of his Laureate's Crown':

But this omission is sufficiently recompenc'd by an Eternal Fame, which will always accompany his Memory; he having been the first Introducer of all that is splendid in our English Opera's, and 'tis by his means and industry, that our Stage at present rivals the Italian Theatre.

Regardless of his critics, Davenant had earned his rightful place in the Pantheon.

Samuel Carter Hall agreed. In the first volume of his Book of Gems: The Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1836) Hall observed that Davenant's 'poetical reputation' rested almost entirely on Gondibert, 'which he, unfortunately, left unfinished', and that 'critics have remarkably differed as to its merits.' Davenant had set out to 'produce an epic on a plan altogether original, "an endeavour to lead Truth through unfrequented and new ways, by representing Nature, though not in an affected, yet in a new dress".' However beautiful in parts, though, the poem as a whole had failed. 'A single error therefore, a false step at the outset, deprived Davenant of "what his large soul appears to have been full of, a true and permanent glory."'

Hall concluded: 'Davenant is now little read; his fame scarcely outlived his days. But posterity, in neglecting him, has not done justice; and it was a silly verdict that condemned him for having rehearsed "A theme ill-chosen in ill-chosen verse".'

The fault lay not with Davenant's talent, but with changing attitudes – as Robert Anderson put it in his Works of the British Poets (1795): 'The epic poem of Gondibert is unquestionably the noblest production of his genius; and would do honour to any writer of any age or country. The fate which it has experienced conveys reproach upon the inconstancy of national taste ...'

The national taste left Davenant behind. His entry in the 11th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume VII, published in 1910, described Gondibert as a 'cumbrous, dull production' whilst admitting that the epic 'is relieved with a multitude of fine and felicitous passages, and lends itself most happily to quotation'. This grudging concession was followed, however, by a damning verdict:

The personal character, adventures and fame of Davenant, and more especially his position as a leading reformer, or rather debaser, of the stage, have always given him a prominence in the history of literature which his writings hardly justify. His plays are utterly unreadable, and his poems are usually stilted and unnatural. With Cowley he marks the process of transition from the poetry of the imagination to the poetry of the intelligence; but he had far less genius than Cowley, and his influence on English drama must be condemned as wholly deplorable.

Alfred Harbage, in his 1935 biography Sir William Davenant: Poet Venturer, referred to his subject as 'one of the disreputables of literary history' and 'a quixote – courageous, loyal, sincere, rather naïve, but withal shrewd and resourceful.' Sir William was 'a poet in his heart. He brought to the shrine of the Muses a devotion of which the other Caroline writers were incapable. And this devotion was expressed in actual works, for Davenant possessed energy and initiative unparalleled in the enervated circle of which he formed a part.'


Excerpted from Shakespeare's Bastard by Simon Andrew Stirling. Copyright © 2016 Simon Andrew Stirling. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents


1 O Rare Sir Will Davenant,
2 His Sacred Majestie's Most Happy Return,
3 A Teeming Muse,
4 His Exit,
5 Davenant the Poet,
6 Davenet the Poet (Now Knighted),
7 Gondibert,
8 How Daphne Pays His Debts,
9 Ffor Avoyding of Inconvenience,
10 The Shade of Gentle Buckingham,
11 Servant to Her Majestie,
12 A Mighty Debt,
13 Shakespears Vncle,
14 W. H.,
15 Babes and Beggers,
16 1605: A Lover's Complaint,
Selected Bibliography,

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