The Players



My novel THE PLAYERS: the love story of Shakespeare’s sonnets

Let us imagine the book sellers’ stalls in St. Paul’s churchyard London, four hundred years ago, 1609. A middle-age, balding man is browsing through books, and notices one he had not seen before. It is an unauthorized collection of the very private, very sensual sonnets he wrote over fifteen years before. Many are to a dark-skinned lady he has long ceased to see. Others are to a beautiful young man, possibly the only man he ever loved. They were never meant to be published by anyone.

The writer, Will Shakespeare, is likely horrified. Someone quickly suppresses the publication, for only 13 copies remain in the world today. Thus begins the story of the most sensual and mysterious sonnet sequence in the English language.

There are no poems in the world I love so much; they are as real as if he wrote them yesterday. I loved them so much I wrote a novel about them.

Some people claim Shakespeare never wrote anything autobiographic but there is little as self-revealing in poetry. And certainly, among scholars who interpret the sonnets, much blood has been spilled. Two large questions loom: who was the young man and who was the lady? And was Shakespeare writing on commission or a from his own love?

After extensive study of the sonnets, I am certain of both answers.

The young woman was the somewhat promiscuous Emilia Bassano, a musician. And the young man was the gorgeous, rich, enviable 19-year-old Earl of Southampton, a patron of the struggling Shakespeare. For Shakespeare was a rising playwright then (in other words, he hardly made enough to keep body and soul together) and a poor actor. He was a country boy; he came from a relatively small town to try to make it in London in the disreputable profession of theater. He left a wife and children. He was in his late twenties. And likely he had never seen anything like Southampton in his life.

Earl of Southampton

He fell in love and if that did not confuse him enough, Emilia and the Earl began to be involved with each other.

“The master-mistress of my passion,” is what he calls the beautiful young man who thrusts him away and calls him back again. The sonnets reveal Shakespeare in pain and conflict. He feels unworthy; he claims his name will be soon forgotten but the world will never forget the young Earl. He was mistaken there; we know the Earl only because of the sonnets. And yet here and there Shakespeare writes hoping that his words will make his love immortal and that, centuries from now, “in black ink my love may still shine bright.”

Did Shakespeare ever fall in love with a man again? We don’t know. His plays are full of bawdy heterosexual humor. He was a private man. His marriage likely was not very good. On the other hand, he lived in a very cross-dressing theater world. The girls on the stage were all played by lovely young boys.

Yes, I fell in love with the sonnets as Shakespeare fell in love four centuries ago. I even went to Yale and spent a few hours studying one of the thirteen existing copies of that 1609 printing. Sparks from candles had burned a few tiny holes here and there. I knew I may have held the very same copy Shakespeare held four hundred years ago.

In Sonnet CX, the poet regrets his disreputable theatrical profession and his friendships with others ― rereading this sonnet, I wondered if those other friendships were strictly cerebral? In a sonnet, he writes to the young Earl that he is coming back to him and calling him “a god in love, to whom I am confin’d.”

Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
Even to thy pure and most, most loving breast.

Advent Calendar Giveaway!

Stephanie will be giving away one copy of her lovely novel “The Players” to a commenter on this post, so you’ve got to be in  it to win it! Winner to be announced on Christmas Day.

THE PLAYERS: A NOVEL OF THE YOUNG SHAKESPEARE was published in 1997 by W.W. Norton; a number of the sonnets are included in the historical notes, explaining how I drew my story from them. You can find out more about it from my web site. And if you visit my house, you will find my copy of the sonnets on my night table where they will stay forever.

Stephanie Cowell

Stephanie can be reached on

Stephanie Cowell is the author of several published novels and the recipient of an American Book Award; her next one is CLAUDE & CAMILLE: A NOVEL OF MONET (Crown, April 2010). Does it have any same-sex love in it? Well…read and see!

36 Responses

  1. Oh, thank you for the post, that was brilliant (I still struggle with mine). I’ll check out your other books!

  2. Sounds great – please may I add my name to the hat? :)) Axxx

  3. This sounds fascinating and just the sort of thing I love. Thanks for telling us about it!

  4. OOh, love the sound of this! Can’t wait to read more. Chris xxx

  5. This sounds wonderful. Thanks for the informative post and I would love to read this book!

  6. sounds fascinating! i would love to read it. Lisa

  7. Oh, that sounds intriguing! I’d love to read it! 🙂

  8. It’s great to have you here, Stephanie, thanks for this great post – I don’t want to enter the draw, obviously but I’m ordering your books and am looking forward to reading them.

  9. Very lovely posting.And I like the snow flakes falling on the post. Very clever!

  10. That was fascinating! Thank you! I wish I could visit those book sellers’ stalls of London, four hundred years ago. 🙂

    • Publishing was so fascinating in London four hundred years ago! Type was handset of course, and books were sold unbound; pages sewn together but if you wanted binding you went to a bookbinder and paid a modest or great amount. It was only about 100 years after printing came to London.

  11. Thanks so much, Erastes, for publishing my little blog entry. Naturally, I am not part of the contest! It is great to be part of this! Happy holidays to all.

  12. This story sounds intriguing, I love to read about Shakespeare ! Thanks for your advent give away contest.

  13. What a fabulous concept, I hope it does well.

  14. What fun! I wrote “Will’s Best Bed” in my collectrion of gay historical short stories (Here, And always Have Been) on the same subject…The Earl provides Master Shakepeare with that best bed.

    I’d love to read your more detailed version of the story.

    • So was the best bed the best one to WS because of the quality of the furniture or the quality of the giver? Food for thought!

      The plot of my book is explained a bit more on my website. I’d love to read your story.

  15. Lovely article. Two points:

    If people say Shakespeare never wrote biographically then, in the words of the great Lena Lamont, “They was dopes.” As You Like It features a character called Will who is clearly the Bard sending himself up.

    Shakespeare’s sexuality? Hm. The sonnets, As You Like It, Twelfth Night and Merchant of Venice all date from a similar time and there’s some very odd things going on within them all, not just with the ‘boys playing girls playing boys’ shennanigans. There are two male characters who profess their love for a younger man, both of whom we’d call gay today, I’m guessing – both are rejected in favour of women and both are called Antonio. Begs the question ‘why’? Is there some personal connection/connotation?


    • I think bisexual love, either platonic or otherwise, was quite free in Elizabeth England and Shakespeare was a very erotic man. I loved the movie of Merchant with the Jeremy Irons character and Joseph Fiennes as the younger man. They played it so beautifully…very haunting! I don’t remember that part of As you Like It which is odd because I thought I knew it well. I’ll read it again. Oh yes, of course…12th night. In the beautiful movie one can see how plainly Antonio is in love with Sebastian! thanks for pointing this out!

  16. An interesting topic, one I admit to knowing nothing about before reading this. So I definitely would like to be included in the drawing for the book!

  17. Love the snowflakes!

    Shame on me — well, in some people’s eyes — but I do prefer Andew Marvell to Shakespeare.

  18. Oh, that was fascinating! I did not realize that the sonnets had been pirated and that there were so few original copies left in the world. (I suppose that I had imagined Shakespeare had authorized an edition.)

  19. I’m jumping on board – please add my name to the hat! The book sounds delightful, and I have a looooonnnnggggg winter to do nothing but sit and read!

    Blessed happy holidays to you!

  20. This sounds like the kind of novel I would love. Thanks for posting about it in such detail. And Merry Christmas!

  21. Sounds fascinating! As a former Shakespearean actress, this book is right up my alley!

  22. Oh, I can’t wait. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on 16th century sonnets and cherish a love for the century despite being a staid lawyer now.

    I gave one of your earlier books to my mother several years ago; I must borrow it now while I wait for this one to come out.

    • Constance, this has been out for a time! It came out in 1997. I have also written a sequel to it which I hope will be published in the next few years, But lately, oddly a lot of people have been reading again and writing to me for which I am grateful.

  23. this sounds so wonderful – thank you for giving us this beautiful read – i would love to be able to read it!

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