In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores perhaps the most enigmatic inscription in a book of poems
‘To the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets’: so begins perhaps the most puzzling poetic dedication in all of English literature. Here it is, in full:
This is the dedication to the 1609 edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, what must surely be the most baffling and elusive piece of prefatory material to a book that has ever been printed. You’d be hard-pushed to find another single page of text that has generated so much commentary yet without yielding a convincing solution. Critics and biographers remain divided. Who is the mysterious ‘Mr. W. H.’ to whom the volume is dedicated?
And what, precisely, does ‘the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets’ actually mean?
Let’s leave one pair of initials, ‘Mr. W. H.’, to one side for a moment and consider the other initials, ‘T. T.’, for these are easier to decipher. Indeed, they almost certainly refer to Thomas Thorpe, the publisher of the sonnets when they were first published in their entirety, in London in 1609. Thorpe is thanking the dedicatee for being the ‘onlie begetter’ of the sonnets. But what does ‘begetter’ mean here, why are they the ‘onlie begetter’, and does that help us to solve the mystery of who ‘Mr. W. H.’ was?
Numerous candidates have been proposed for the identity of ‘Mr. W. H.’ Many scholars have assumed that the word ‘begetter’ means ‘inspirer’, and that the dedication refers to the ‘Fair Youth’ to whom many of the sonnets are addressed (it isn’t as widely known as it should be that ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’, perhaps the most famous romantic line in all of English literature, is addressed by the male poet to a young man).
William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, is a leading candidate for the ‘Fair Youth’, given that his initials fit, and he was later the dedicatee of the First Folio which gathered together Shakespeare’s works into one volume in 1623. The problem with Pembroke is that dedications to members of the nobility were usually rather obsequious at the time (they still are, when they appear in books at all), so would a mere publisher dare address an earl as ‘Mr’?
The same goes for another candidate proposed for ‘Mr. W. H.’, Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, who had already had two of Shakespeare’s narrative poems dedicated to him. The argument goes that his initials were reversed (whether by accident or design) – ‘H. W.’ became ‘W. H.’ But, again, the argument falls down when we consider that Wriothesley (pronounced ‘rizzly’) was an earl, not a plain old ‘mister’ or ‘master’. So Thorpe would have some cheek to address a nobleman, his social superior, as ‘Mr.’ No: Thorpe is clearly addressing a fellow man who is not a lord or earl but just a plain old ‘mister’. But which mister?
Oscar Wilde put forward his own theory – or rather, his take on an earlier theory first proposed in the eighteenth century – in an 1889 story, ‘The Portrait of Mr. W. H.’ In Wilde’s story, a number of characters become convinced that the initials ‘Mr. W. H.’ refer to Willie Hughes, a boy actor in Shakespeare’s theatre company. The sonnets therefore reveal a passionate homoerotic love affair between Shakespeare and the enigmatic Hughes. Puns on ‘will’ and ‘hews’ in the sonnets provide some internal, if conjectural, evidence for the theory. The main problem is that there’s no evidence a Willie Hughes ever existed, which is a somewhat unfortunate drawback.
Other theories have been proposed by would-be literary detectives. In his 1964 book Mr W. H., the self-styled literary sleuth Leslie Hotson claimed to have identified the Sonnets’ dedicatee in William Hatcliffe, a Lincolnshire man. Others have argued that ‘W. H.’ stands for ‘Who He’, and was thus merely a publisher’s ploy to encourage public speculation concerning the identity of the mystery figure.
The problem with all such theories is that they run with the idea that this dedication, in being addressed ‘to the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets’, is addressed to the man who inspired Shakespeare to write the sonnets. But is that really the case?
Numerous commentators, including Bertrand Russell and, more recently, Jonathan Bate in his excellent book The Genius of Shakespeare, have thought otherwise. It all turns on how we interpret the word ‘begetter’.
During Shakespeare’s time, ‘begetter’ was more likely to mean ‘writer’ than ‘inspirer’. Poets ‘begat’ their poems with their female Muse, like a father siring a child. So the male poet is the begetter of his poems. Who would that be? Well, Shakespeare is the only author of the 154 Sonnets (assuming we discount the conspiracy theories). Could Shakespeare himself be the person to whom the dedication is addressed?
What adds credence to this theory is that Thorpe may have published Shakespeare’s sonnets without the poet’s permission, so this dedication could have been Thorpe’s way of keeping the Bard sweet. He is bestowing a blessing upon Shakespeare and acknowledging him as the ‘begetter’ or author. Jonathan Bate points out another contextual detail which explains the reference to Shakespeare as ‘the onlie begetter’: some of Shakespeare’s sonnets had already appeared in print, in a volume called The Passionate Pilgrim, but not all of the poems in that volume were by Shakespeare. ‘Onlie’ begetter sets the record straight: these are 100% Shakespeare and no one else.
So, for ‘W. H.’ read ‘W. S.’ But if this is the case, why doesn’t the dedication address itself to ‘Mr. W. S.’? William Shakespeare, no nobleman, would certainly have been addressed as ‘Mr.’, but ‘W. H.’ makes no sense. Surely it can’t be a mere misprint?
The idea of a misprint, however – or a printer’s misreading of a handwritten ‘S’ as ‘H’ – is not as far-fetched as it might seem. In The Genius of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate cites the example of a Thomas Goffe play from the period called The Raging Turke, which was actually printed with ‘THE RANING TURKE’ in big letters on its title-page. And that is the title of the play the printers managed to get wrong. If that slipped through, why not ‘W. H.’? After all, nobody in 1609 could have foreseen the amount of speculation those two little letters would inspire, centuries later.
So, for all that, what is perhaps the most enigmatic dedication in all of English literature may be nothing more than a publisher addressing the author of the poems that follow, attempting to flatter him, and then getting his initials wrong. But the truth is that we will never quite know for sure; and the mystery surrounding Shakespeare’s sonnets is likely to continue to exercise its power over readers for years to come. Still, for my money, I think the explanation that ‘Mr W. H.’ is Shakespeare is by some way the theory that makes the most sense.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.