Colorful (But Lesser Known) Contemporaries of William Shakespeare, Part I

There are a slew of contemporaries of Shakespeare of which many of you never encountered in your English classrooms, whether high school of university. These are some of the more colorful ones. 

bohem2.JPGBarnaby (Barnabe) Barnes was the third son of Dr Richard Barnes, bishop of Durham. He was baptized in York at St Michael le Belfry Church in March 1571 (although he was reportedly born in 1569). He entered Brasenose College, Oxford in 1586, but did not earn a degree for his father passed in 1587. Dr Barnes left a portion of his estate to each of his six children, and Barnes lived on the income of this bequest. 

In 1591, he traveled with the Earl of Essex to France. On his return he published Parthenophil and Parthenophe, Sonnettes, Madrigals, Elegies and Odes (ent. on Stationers’ Register 1593), dedicated to his “dearest friend,” the poet and nobleman William Percy, who contributed a sonnet to the eulogies prefixed to a later  work, Offices. Parthenophil was possibly printed for private circulation, and the copy in the Duke of Devonshire’s library is believed to be unique.”Parthenophil and Parthenophe” are the names given to the two protagonists in the sonnets, the first name meaning “virgin-lover” and the second “virgin.” Some experts believe the two represent Essex and Queen Elizabeth. At the end of the sonnet cycle,the lover Parthenophil dreams that he uses black magic to compel his unattainable mistress to appear to him naked, whereupon he rapes her. Barnes was known to write sonnets, madrigales, etc. 

Barnes became involved in the pamphlet feud between Gabriel Harvey and Thomas Nashe. Barnes took the part of Harvey, who wanted to impose the Latin rules of quantity on English verse: Barnes even experimented in classical metres himself. This partisanship is sufficient to account for the abuse of Nashe, who accused him, apparently on no proof at all, of stealing a nobleman’s chain at Windsor, and of other things. Prior to this literary assault Barnes had written a sonnet for Harvey’s anti-Nashe pamphlet Pierces Supererogation (1593), in which he labelled Nashe a confidence trickster, a liar, a viper, a laughing stock and mere “worthless matter” who should be flattered that Harvey even deigned to insult him. It is however on record that Barnes was prosecuted in Star Chamber (an English court of law which sat at the royal Palace of Westminster, from the late 15th C to the mid-17th C)  in 1598 for attempting to murder one John Browne, first by offering him a poisoned lemon and then by sweetening his wine with sugar laced with mercury sublimate. Browne fortunately survived the attack and Barnes fled prison before the case concluded. He was not pursued. It seems likely he attempted Browne’s assassination at the behest of Lord Eure, warden of the Middle March and of Berwick upon Tweed, and political string pulling protected him.

592-004-87908D56.jpgJohn Fletcher was a Jacobean playwright, who collaborated with Francis Beaumont and others during the the early 1600s. (baptized 20 December 1579, Rye, Sussex – died 29 August 1625, London, during the plague epidemic).  His father, Richard Fletcher, was minister of the parish in which John was born and became afterward queen’s chaplain, dean of Peterborough, and bishop successively of Bristol, Worcester, and London, gaining a measure of fame as an accuser in the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, and as the chaplain sternly officiating at her execution. When not quite 12, John was apparently admitted pensioner of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and two years later became a Bible clerk. From the time of his father’s death (1596) until 1607 nothing is known of him. The family was heavily in debt and Fletcher and his eight siblings suffered. His name is first linked with Beaumont’s in Ben Jonson’s Volpone (1607), to which both men contributed encomiums.

John Fletcher was known for his tragicomedies, and his plays were performed at royal court. Between 1615 and 1642, approximately 40 of the plays the Kings Company performed were attributed to John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont. Their collaborations include the plays Philaster (staged 1609), A King and No King (staged 1611), and The Scornful Lady (staged 1615). Fletcher also collaborated with Shakespeare on The Two Noble Kinsmen (staged around 1613) and Henry VIII (staged 1613). Fletcher’s own work includes The Faithful Shepherdess (staged 1608), which he identified as a “pastoral tragicomedy,” and The Wild Goose Chase (staged around 1612).

Authorship is difficult to identify in the collaborations; Fletcher also wrote plays with Philip Massinger. The two may have worked with two other authors to pen the tragedyThe Bloody Brother (produced around 1621), also referred to as Rollo Duke of Normandy, which includes the poem “Take o take those lips away,” a variation of a poem from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure; the poem may have been added to a late version of the play.

George_Gascoigne.pngNicholas Breton (born 1553?—died 1625?) was a prolific English writer of religious and pastoral poems, satires, dialogues, and essays. His father, William Breton, a London merchant who had made a considerable fortune, died in 1559, and the widow (née Elizabeth Bacon) married the poet George Gascoigne before her sons had attained their majority. Nicholas Breton was probably born at the “capitall mansion house” in Red Cross Street, in the parish of St Giles without Cripplegate, mentioned in his father’s will. 

There is no official record of his residence at the university, but the diary of the Rev. Richard Madox tells us that he was at Antwerp in 1583 and was “once of Oriel College.” He married Ann Sutton in 1593 and had a family. He is supposed to have died shortly after the publication of his last work, Fantastickes (1626).

Breton’s life was spent mainly in London. He dedicated his works to many patrons, including James I; his chief early patron was Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. In 1598 Breton was accounted one of the best lyrical poets, but he outlived his reputation. His satires are rather mild and general; more successful are the descriptions of simple country pleasures, whether in the pastoral poetry of  The Passionate Shepheard (1604) or in the prose descriptions of the months and the hours in his Fantasticks (1604?), which in some respects anticipates the fashion for character books. Modeled on the Characters of the Greek philosopher Theophrastus, which became available in Latin translation in 1592, these books contained brief sketches, describing a dominant virtue or vice in such characters as the thieving servant, the cringing courtier, the generous patron, or the pious fraud. Breton himself wrote two character books, The Good and the Badde (1616) and Characters Upon Essaies (1615), the latter containing essays as well.

Breton was a prolific author of considerable versatility and gift, popular with his contemporaries, and forgotten by the next generation. His work consists of religious and pastoral poems, satires, and a number of miscellaneous prose tracts. His religious poems are sometimes wearisome by their excess of fluency and sweetness, but they are evidently the expression of a devout and earnest mind. His lyrics are pure and fresh, and his romances, though full of conceits, are pleasant reading, remarkably free from grossness. His praise of the Virgin and his references to Mary Magdalene  have suggested that he was a Roman Catholic, but his prose writings abundantly prove that he was an ardent Anglican. 


“Barnabe Barnes,” Wikipedia

Cox, John D. “Barnes, Barnabe (bap. 1571, d. 1609),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

“Nicholas Breton,” Encyclopedia Britannica

“Nicholas Breton,” The Online Books Library

“Nicholas Breton,” Poet’s Corner

“John Fletcher,” Encyclopedia Britannica

“John Fletcher,” Luminarium.

“John Fletcher,” Poetry Foundation

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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