Wilde About Mr W.H. : Oscar and the Sonnets

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.

Henry Wriothesley

‘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


Jarman’s Renaissance


This summer the Shakespeare Institute Library is celebrating the work of Derek Jarman in an exhibition focusing on his engagement with Renaissance works.

On 7 July we were fortunate to launch the exhibition with a fascinating lecture by Dr Pascale Aebischer entitled, “To the Future”: Derek Jarman’s Edward II in the Archive. Through her researches at Prospect Cottage, Jarman’s home in Dungeness, she revealed a long-term fascination with the play from the edition of the play he used at King’s College University (UCL), through to workbooks and edited scripts for various adaptations, including Sod Em, 28,  Pansy and the film which got made, Edward II.  Pascale’s abstract for an essay she wrote on this theme:

I argue that the play Jarman first read as a student and admired for its rhetorical figures and portrayal of same-sex love took on a political edge in 1986, when Jarman was diagnosed as HIV-positive, and homophobic legislation was first debated by Margaret Thatcher’s Government. The truncated film treatment 28 and the scripts for Sod ‘Em composed in response to these events use Marlowe’s tragedy as a structuring device that lends historical depth to the struggles of Jarman’s modern protagonist. In 1988, Jarman physically stood this script on its head as he started to rework it as Edward II in a script that imagined a Renaissance setting for the tragedy and stuck remarkably close to Marlowe’s words and Ranulph Higden’s chronicle account of the life of King Edward II. The screenplay Jarman eventually used for Edward II moves back in the direction of the political rage and focus on the present of Sod’Em and shows Jarman hesitating over the ending of his film and the significance of young Edward III. The return to Sod’Em is completed in Jarman’s Marlowe-inspired screenplay for the satirical musical Pansy which imagines a hopeful future for its young queer king Pansy, who vanquishes the conservative forces of repression and dedicates his rule to sexual freedom.

24 - Edward II

It’s clear that Jarman found an expression of sexual freedom in Renaissance literature which has never been surpassed.

Whatever life threw at Jarman he transformed it into art. He had an amazing ability to see and translate the most painful situations using film, painting and photography into works of beauty.

Jarman’s films are works of cinematic poetry; in his creations, imagery and atmosphere impress as strongly as thematic content. To Jarman the camera was another artistic medium through which he expressed his unique vision. He wields the camera like an artist manipulating a brush – utilising the language of cinema. Using basic technology and Super 8 cameras in his early works, you can particularly see the influence of early cinema; dissolves, montage, silhouettes, reflections, stunning compositions, blocking, lighting and colour designs which take on form and substance. When given the big budget for Edward II he took full advantage of the richness it could offer. It’s difficult to come away from a Jarman film without an unforgettable image impressed and lingering in the imagination.


The exhibition focuses on The Angelic Conversation (a sequence of Shakespeare’s Sonnets read by Judi Dench), The Tempest, and Edward II. As part of the exhibition you can view various stunning clips from Jarman’s films.

I have always felt that Shakespeare translates rather badly into film. There is a great rift between the artificiality of stage conventions and the naturalism of film settings.’ Jarman (Programme notes, London Film Festival, 1979)

Jarman’s version of The Tempest still stands as one of the most original of all British Shakespeare films. Relocated to a crumbling mansion off the Scottish coast, Jarman taps into the anti-establishment spirit of the punk era. The actor and political poet Heathcote Williams was cast as Prospero; the magic, power and creativity of director, actor, playwright and character melded into a dark, hypnotic brew.


‘Forever a cinematic alchemist – a sage that conjured and devoured celluloid before the eventual ritualistic sacrifice- Derek Jarman is the perfect suitor to Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1979); a play whose heart is bathed in the tragedy and power of magic.’ Adam Scovell, Celluloid Wicker Man blog


It’s clear that Jarman felt a strong connection with Shakespeare and Prospero as artists and creators whose art conjured worlds and possibilities beyond the mind’s imagining.

‘When, shortly after Jarman’s HIV positive diagnosis in 1986, he deliberately broke ‘Prospero’s wand, Dee’s hieroglyphic monad,’ the magic staff which had been used in the film, this was not a repudiation on his previous identification with Prospero-Shakespeare, but rather a confirmation of it and, like Shakespeare, he was to die just after his 52 birthday.’ Rowland Wymer, Derek Jarman (Manchester University Press, 2005)

The exhibition will run until the end of September. Great thanks to Dr Pascale Aebischer for all her support and an inspiring lecture; to Dr Phil Wickham, the Curator of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, University of Exeter for his advice and loan of rare materials from the wonderful Don Boyd and James Mackay collections; and to Neil Bartlett for his beautifully evocative description of his installation of The Angelic Conversation to mark the 20th anniversary of Jarman’s death.

Heathcote Williams

img347Whilst putting up the exhibition the actor and poet Heathcote Williams died. Jarman and he tried to channel the spirit of John Dee into his performance of Prospero. A magician himself he was perfect for the part. According to one obituary ‘he loved magic, because it gave the illusion of breaking rules’. His poetry, like Jarman’s films, often had a lyric beauty but had the visceral power to shock and expose. We also pay tribute to the great man with this exhibition. Obituaries from The Economist, The Guardian, and The Financial Times


Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian