Like so many details in William Shakespeare’s life, it is not known exactly when he wrote his sequence of 154 sonnets.
What can be said, with some degree of certainty, is that he had at least started them in 1598, for this was the year that Francis Meres published his Palladis Tamia – or ‘Wits Treasury’ – in which he complained about the ‘mellifluous’ and ‘honey-tongued Shakespeare’ passing his ‘sugared sonnets among his private friends.”
Who is “Mr. W.H.”?
So far as we can tell, the sonnets first made it to print in 1609; distributed by the London publisher, Thomas Thorpe.
The dedication in the frontispiece of the collection has long been the cause of debate among literary historians. It reads as follows:
To the only begetter
of these ensuing sonnets
Mr. W.H. all happiness and
that eternity promised by
our ever-lasting poet wisheth
the well-wishing adventurer
in setting forth.
It is assumed that ‘T.T.’ is the publisher Thomas Thorpe – but the mystery of ‘Mr W.H.’s’ identity has tantalised generations of Shakespeare scholars.
Many have argued that Mr. W.H. was either the ‘fair youth’ to whom many of the sonnets are addressed, or that he was a patron who earned Thomas Thorpe’s gratitude in procuring Shakespeare’s sonnets for him to publish.
Among the names often offered for consideration as ‘fair youth’ are those of Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton (with his initials unaccountably switched over), to whom Shakespeare dedicated his first narrative poem Venus and Adonis in 1593; and William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, to whom Shakespeare’s First Folio would be later dedicated.
William Hatcliffe, who was the ‘Lord of Misrule’ – a fabulous job title – during the celebrations at court’s Christmas revels, has also been suggested. As has the printer William Hall, both of whom might have conveyed Shakespeare’s manuscript to Thorpe.
The oblique nature of the dedication means that very little can be said with any degree of confidence.
And, indeed, many researchers have been quick to point out that the form of address of Mr. W.H. suggests that, whoever he was, he was unlikely to be a titled person (thus both Earls are probably out of the running) and that, though described as ‘the only begetter’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets, it is far from clear what this actually means.
It also seems possible that the sonnets were printed without Shakespeare’s knowledge or consent – as the manuscripts are littered with errors and many of the sonnets appear to be unfinished.
In 1640, the publisher John Benson released a ‘corrected’ edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets (renamed his ‘poems’) in which he edited out the references to Shakespeare’s ‘fair youth’, replacing all masculine pronouns with feminine ones. He also removed titles referencing Shakespeare’s ‘young man’, in favour of his ‘mistress’.
Benson’s revision became the standard text until 1780, when the Shakespeare scholar Edmond Malone reproduced the sonnets in their original form.
Many contemporary Shakespeare enthusiasts were scandalised to find out that the first 126 of Shakespeare’s sonnets – including his ‘shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ (sonnet 18)’ – were originally addressed to a man.
Unsurprisingly, there has since been much debate about Shakespeare’s sexuality. However, it is impossible to say just how autobiographical the sonnets are; and, in any case, the nature of the relationship between Shakespeare and his male muse is highly ambiguous, and it is difficult to tell if he is describing platonic or erotic love.
However you might choose to interpret Shakespeare’s sonnets, and by extension his sexuality, in recent years, sonnet 20 – with its opening lines: “A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted / Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion” – has become a firm favourite at civil union ceremonies.
Learn more about Shakespeare’s sonnets in The Bluffer’s Guide to Poetry.