New Research May Solve a Mystery Behind Shakespeare’s Sonnets

The first printing of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets was dedicated to a “Mr. WH”—has a scholar finally identified him?

An oil painting dated 1609 that is the portrait engraved by Martin Droeshout for the First Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays published in 1623. Heritage Images/Corbis

The life and plays of William Shakespeare have generated academic debate for centuries—and scholars have long speculated about the identity of the man to whom his Sonnets was dedicated. But now one researcher thinks he might have solved the mystery, once and for all.

As the Guardian writes, the dedication to the sonnets’ first printing was apparently written by its publisher, Thomas Thorpe. It reads: “To the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets Mr WH. All happiness and that eternity promised by our ever-living poet wisheth the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth. TT [Thorpe].”

Using clues from the text and historical documents, researcher Geoffrey Caveney has recently presented a new theory on just who this “Mr. WH” could have been: a friend and a fellow publisher of Thorpe’s, William Holme.

When Sonnets hit the presses in 1609, Holme was recently dead, “which would explain the dedication’s strangely funereal form,” writes the Guardian. Caveney suggests that the dedication was written as a memorial tribute, and that previous studies hadn’t concentrated on Holme because he was confused with a stationer with a similar name who was still alive up to 1615.

Furthermore, if Holme were the subject of the book’s dedication, it may help to explain the line “the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets.” Caveney speculates that Thorpe may have found the Sonnets manuscript amongst Holme’s papers after his death. As evidence, he points to a number of plays Thorpe published in the days right after Holme was buried, suggesting they could have been from the dead man’s belongings. “How Holme had obtained a copy of the Sonnets cannot be precisely determined, but he had the connections to literary figures,” Caveney writes.

The theory is an intriguing addition to a long list of possible “Mr. WH” personas scholars have debated over the years. Writes the Guardian of some of the hypotheses:

Some argue that WH was also the “fair youth” to whom many of the 154 sonnets are addressed, or that he was someone thanked for bringing the manuscript to Thorpe. Candidates have included Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, a noted patron, and William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, with whom Shakespeare is believed to have had some link.

But as aristocrats they would never have been addressed as “Mr”, Caveney said. “It would be an insult. Some people have even said that WH is just a misprint for William Shakespeare and it should have been a WSH.”

Caveney published an essay on his new findings in the journal Notes & Queries. Further debate and discussion is sure to come.  One leading British Shakespeare scholar, Professor Stanley Wells told the Guardian that, while the theory is “better than any other suggestion so far,” it may prove “less attractive” to some if “Mr. WH” is “not somebody whom we could associate possibly with the substance of the sonnets”—especially in relation to some of the collection’s love poems.

Even after all the tales of romance Shakespeare gave us, some are still searching for another love story. 

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