Barnfield was born at Norbury, Staffordshire, and brought up in Newport, Shropshire. He studied at Brasenose College, Oxford. In 1594 he published anonymously the long poem The Affectionate Shepherd, about the love of the shepherd Daphnis for the prince Ganymede. In a preface to his second work, Cynthia he attempts to distance himself from the homosexual theme of The Affectionate Shepherd, but Cynthia also contained poems which were "explicitly and unashamedly homoerotic, full of physical desire". The Passionate Pilgrim, published in 1599, and described on the title page as by Shakespeare, is now thought to include two by Barnefield.
- William Shakespeare, Richard Barnfield, and the sixth Earl of Derby.(Brief article)(Book review)." Reference & Research Book News. Book News Inc. 2010. Accessed via HighBeam Research. 16 December 2013 <http://www.highbeam.com> (subscription required).
- Paul Edmondson & Stanlry Wells, Shakespeare's Sonnets, Oxford University Press, 2004, p.18