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Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare

On 16 April 1594 -- Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, 5th Earl of Derby died.

Derby’s death was sudden. He was only 35 years old.

Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, 5th Earl of Derby

It was suspected that he had been poisoned, perhaps by mushrooms.

What was even more suspicious is that he was the third in line to the English throne.

Based on King Henry VIII's last will and testament, Derby's mother Margaret was the presumptive heir to the throne should Queen Elizabeth die.

His mother had once been arrested for predicting when Elizabeth would die. It was a capital offence to predict the death of a monarch.

She never again recovered royal favor, and she died in 1596 -- two years after Derby died.

Had Derby lived, he would have been the heir to the throne.

I don’t think it is surprising that Elizabeth would want to marginalize and punish Margaret, her successor.

Could the death of Margaret’s son Derby have been another punishment by the Queen?

Even if his death/murder was sanctioned and directed by the Queen, it is what was suspected at the time, by those who were close to Margaret and her family.

William Shakespeare was close to Derby's family.

Henry Stanley, 4th Earl of Derby

Derby’s father Henry had kept players in his household for years. Derby had his own company of players, Lord Strange’s Men by the late 1580’s -- the same period of time that Shakespeare arrived in London.

By early 1592, it is believed that Shakespeare was part of Lord Strange’s Men, and some of his earliest plays were performed by this company.

We don’t know how close Shakespeare and Stanley were. 

I think they were very close, and the mysterious death of his patron changed who Shakespeare was and radically changed the direction of his life.

After Derby’s death, Shakespeare fell under the protection of the Earls of Southampton and Essex, who shared the same politics as Stanley.

Within a few years, Essex and Southampton were conspiring against the Queen, and led a failed rebellion in 1601.

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in response to the Essex Rebellion. His character of Hamlet was based primarily on men like Essex. 

However, the character of Hamlet was also written to remember men like Derby.

Derby was one of many young Englishmen whose lives were cut short by the awesome power of a Queen who would not marry, would not produce heirs, and would charge you with treason if you discussed the question of her succession.

But the story doesn't end there. 

There is a very interesting story about Derby’s daughter, Anne.

Based on Henry VIII’s will, Anne was the next in line to succeed Queen Elizabeth upon her death.

But she was passed over in order to give the crown to King James of Scotland, who had been excluded from succession based on Henry VIII’s will.

I find this very odd. I can’t help but think that Anne was passed over due to what happened to her father and her grandmother Margaret.

What is even more odd is that Anne married in 1607, to Grey Bridges, 5th Baron Chandos.

Grey Bridges, 5th Baron Chandos

His father, the 4th Earl Chandos, had been friends with Essex.

He had in fact visited Essex House (on the Strand) the morning of the Rebellion, but in the following government investigation into the Rebellion, he was cleared of any involvement.

But his son, Grey, actually took part in the Essex Rebellion, and was arrested. He was put in Fleet Prison, but released not long after.

I have a theory.

Shakespeare was close to Derby, and his family, including his daughter Anne.

Shakespeare became closer friends with Essex and Southampton.


Shakespeare would arguably have met and perhaps known both Grey Brydges and his father.

Grey Brydges took part in the Essex Rebellion.

After Elizabeth died, Anne was passed over and James became king. 

King James showed leniency towards those who had participated in the Essex Rebellion. For example, Southampton is released from the Tower, where he had been imprisoned since the Rebellion.

On 28 February 1607, Anne married Grey Brydges.

Shakespeare’s friend, fellow partner and player Richard Burbage (who was something of a painter of portraits, perhaps even his own) painted a portrait of Shakespeare.

The "Chandos" Portrait of Shakespeare

Shakespeare gave the painting to them as a wedding gift. 

This painting, now known as the Chandos Portrait, was painted between 1600 and 1610, so the timing fits.

I have no proof that such a thing happened. I cannot prove my theory.

But how else did the Chandos family get this portrait of Shakespeare?

The other theories don’t make much sense to me. 

The theory that William Davenant received it from Shakespeare doesn't make sense. Shakespeare is believed to have been Davenant's godfather. I don't think it would have been the kind of gift to give a godson, especially if this was the one and only time that Shakespeare is believed to have been painted during his lifetime.

I also don't believe the theory that Davenant was Shakespeare's illegitimate son, but that's another story.

I think it is very likely that Shakespeare would have this painting made as a significant and unique gift to a new bride and groom.

The groom was a man who had been very close with Shakespeare's friend and patron Essex.

The bride was the daughter of one of Shakespeare's closest friends, Derby -- arguably the man who gave Shakespeare his first break in theatre.

The bride was also a young woman who had every right to be queen -- she could have been queen, she should have been queen -- but she was denied it.

This version of events surrounding the origin of the Chandos Portrait makes much more sense to me.

What do you think?


David B. Schajer

P.S. I can't find any pictures of Anne. If you know of any, please let me know. I would be very grateful. Thank you!

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