When Shakespeare’s Sonnets were published in 1609, no-one at all seemed anxious to unravel the mystery of the Dedication. This was not signed by Shakespeare, as might reasonably be expected, but with the initials of Thomas Thorpe, the publisher. There is a theory that the edition was pirated, without the knowledge of the author; if Shakespeare had authorised it, however, why didn’t he sign it?
Another difficulty lies with the ‘Onlie Begetter.’ In the usage of the period, who does it refer to? The inspirer, the obtainer of the Sonnets, the publisher or the author?
And against this is the problem of the identity of Mr. W.H. in the Dedication.
Does the Dedication refer to Mr. W.H.or not? The confusing wording and spacing, together with a lack of punctuation – apart from the full-stops inserted between the words for decorative effect – allow for all sorts of different interpretations. A full stop after ‘SONNETS’ might indicate that the Dedication is to Shakespeare himself. But commas after ‘SONNETS’ and ‘Mr. W.H.’point to Mr. W.H. himself. Other interpretations suggest themselves according to different punctuation and the stress put on certain words. One can have endless fun – without ever arriving at a firm conclusion.
At the end of the 18th century, the scholar Thomas Tyrwhitt noticed the puns on ‘hue’ in Sonnet 20:
‘A man in HUE all HUES in his controlling’
These were italicised and capitalised in the original edition, and Tyrwhitt suggested that they stood for William Hughes, the favourite musician of the Earl of Essex, who would have been known to Shakespeare. Given the number of puns on Shakespeare’s name: ‘Will,’ throughout the Sonnets, he decided that Hughes was the ‘beauteous and lovely youth’ to whom a number of them appear to be addressed. The Shakespearean scholar Edmond Malone, endorsed this view in his edition of the Sonnets in 1790 which was widely circulated. After that, nearly 160 years after the publication of the Sonnets, the flood-gates opened.
‘Few if any published sentences have given rise to so much speculation and controversy’ writes Stanley Wells of the Dedication. The list of suggestions as to the identity of Mr. W.H. is enormous. Candidates have been advanced such as Shakespeare’s brother- in- law, William Hart; or Shakespeare’s supposed patron William Hammond; or an inn-keeper’s son, William Holgate. Amongst aristocratic possibilities were Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. Other contributions asserted that the initials stood for ‘William himself’ or that W.H. was a misprint for W.SH.; Shakespeare. To this very day, theories continue to appear.
One of the most fascinating and unusual responses to the Dedication, however, is Oscar Wilde’s fictionalised account of Shakespeare’s relationship with the young man of the Sonnets. This, The Portrait of Mr. W.H., was written in 1889 and revised by Oscar – I can only think of him by his first name – in a version that remained unpublished until 1921, long after his death.
Oscar chose to be a writer while still at Magdalen College, Oxford. Later in his career he claimed a physical resemblance to and a spiritual kinship with Shakespeare. He was to write various essays on Shakespeare and in his book The Critic as Artist laid down various precepts for understanding the plays:
‘He who desires to understand Shakespeare truly must understand the relations in which Shakespeare stood to the Renaissance…to the age of Elizabeth and the age of James…he must know the conditions of theatric presentation… he must study…blank or rhymed verse’
Perhaps inevitably, given that he was gay, Oscar was drawn to the homoerotic material in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. After leaving Oxford he declared himself as a ‘Professor of Aesthetics.’ He had read widely in the classics and identified closely with the concept that sex between men was the highest form of love. This rationalised, purified and elevated what was criminalised in Victorian Society and referred to as ‘sodomy’ –but which Oscar regarded as ‘aesthetic truth’: spiritually fruitful and a stimulus to thought and virtue.
Oscar was fascinated by Tyrwhitt’s initial theory: that William Hughes was the young man of the Sonnets. With his vivid imagination he began to create in his mind the image of a young actor, who played the female leads in some of Shakespeare’s plays. Oscar imagined Shakespeare to be captivated by this ‘beautiful boy’ as he himself had been by Robert Ross, his former lover at Oxford with ‘the face of Puck.’ In conversation with Ross, the plot of what would become The Portrait of Mr. W.H. began to evolve. ‘You must believe in Willy Hughes’ Oscar told a friend. ‘I almost do myself.’ To Ross he wrote ‘indeed the story is half yours, and but for you it would not have been written.’
Fired up by his idea, Oscar commissioned a painting of Willie Hughes with which to illustrate his story:
‘A young man….about seventeen…and…of quite extraordinary personal beauty …somewhat effeminate…with…dreamy, wistful eyes and…delicate scarlet lips’
Early in the text, the portrait is revealed. The young man’s hand rests on a copy of the Sonnets and Oscar’s protagonist cries: ‘ “Good heavens! Is this Shakespeare’s Mr. W.H.?”.’
In his story, Oscar’s characters try to prove Tyrwhitt’s theory. The plot is convoluted and involves the narrator being shown the beautiful but faked portrait in an attempt to convince the world that Willy Hughes was indeed ‘Mr. W.H.’ When the forgery is revealed, the perpetrator commits suicide, a martyr to his poetic cause. The narrator is left to take on the challenge of proving the theory. In doing so, he exhausts his enthusiasm and comes to see Willie Hughes as a myth.
The story is pure Oscar Wilde: full of brilliant and extravagant ideas. On one hand, it is about presumably gay men trying to prove other men gay. Yet it also comments on the allure of literary research, on the strange theories about the Sonnets and it encourages the reader to question the lengths to which both ordinary people and scholars will go in order to prove their ideas. To commit suicide over a theory seems absurd. Yet Oscar’s letter to his friend Harry Marillier contains the germ of his idea: ‘I think I would more readily die for what I do not believe in than for what I hold to be true.’ he writes.
Throughout the narrative, Oscar shows off his knowledge of Shakespeare, reading new and vivid meanings into the Sonnets and making a case so convincing that other characters come to believe the Willie Hughes theory. It might well convince readers too, until we remember that Oscar cleverly adopted a fictional form within which to air his most fanciful ideas, without being constrained by scholarly rigour.
In much of Oscar’s work, truth and make-believe, fact and fairy- tale mingle, reflect and glance off each other. Significantly ‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H.’ was written around the same time as ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, in which another portrait – itself a sort of fiction – tells the ugly truth about Gray. Until the end of the book, vice and virtue change places and reality is elusive, to the confusion of the characters and of the reader too.
In his ‘Portrait of Mr. W.H.’ Oscar offers a theory, dazzlingly appears to back it up by an ingenious display of critical expertise, then withdraws it. Even the suicide of the narrator’s friend is a fake like the portrait, for the character has actually died of natural causes. But Oscar teases us to the last line, where the disillusioned narrator still appears to offer us the theory again. Gazing at the portrait, he concludes , ‘“I think that there is really a great deal to be said for the Willie Hughes theory of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.”’
Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant