Thursday, May 21, 2009
Sonnets Part Two -- Who was Master WH?
Over the years many theories have been advanced as to the identity of "Mr. W.H." In early modern usage, "Mr." was "master" not "mister."
The following list covers some, but not all, of the WH theories.
1. Early naiveté - Mr WH is Mr WH --- it doesn’t matter who he was.
2. WH as William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, who would be a co-sponsor of the Shakespeare Folio in 1623. This identification has been defended by E.K. Chambers and Dover Wilson. One of the arguments often raised in all WH theories is that the dedicatee, WH, is the same person as the man who is encouraged to overcome reluctance and get married --- as featured in the first 17 sonnets.
Defenders of the William Herbert theory, though usually Stratfordians, inadvertently bump into the Oxford theory when they offer, as demonstration, the fact that William Herbert was engaged to Bridget Vere in 1597. This match was favored by Lord Burghley (Bridget’s grandfather), the 17th Earl of Oxford (Bridget’s father), and Mary Herbert, Countess Pembroke (W. Herbert’s mother). Nevertheless, William Herbert procrastinated and wormed his way out of the marriage. The Stratfordians have proposed that Mary Herbert hired Shakespeare to write sonnets to convince her son to marry. Oxfordians need not make that extra supposition. Instead, the 17-sonnet sequence may have been from a father of the bride to a potential (and wealthy) son-in-law.
3. WH as Wriothesley, Henry, the 3rd Earl of Southampton. Two earlier Shakespeare poetry publications, Venus & Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece, were each dedicated to Southampton. This theory has supporters in all the authorship camps. Southampton had also refused a Burghley-engineered marriage with another Vere daughter, Elizabeth, in the early 1590s. If the first 17 sonnets relate to that failed engagement, Oxford again, emerges as a strong candidate. Many readers of the Sonnets see a continuous story throughout all 154 poems; I’m not one of them. Such assumptions force interpretive schemes that can be self-contradicting. For example, most Stratfordian advocates of the Southampton theory (for WH) see Henry Wriothesely as the love-object of Shakespeare’s desire, by assuming that the same man refused a marriage, seduced Shakespeare’s mistress, and then won the Bard’s undying affection. Among Oxfordians there are widely divergent Southampton theories. Joseph Sobran argues that Oxford was in love with the long-haired Southampton. Hank Whittemore presents the notion that Southampton was Oxford’s secret son.
4. In A Life of William Shakespeare, 1898, Sir Sidney Lee introduced a novel approach: WH was William Hall, a Stationer who was known for acquiring manuscripts on the sly, who had apprenticed with Anthony Munday, and who had other associations with George Eld, the printer of the 1609 Sonnets. In 1923, researcher Colonel B.R. Ward in The Mystery of Mr. W.H. amplified Sidney Lee’s theory, suggesting that the dedication’s “W.H. all” gently encodes the dedicatee’s name. Further, a William Hall was found via a marriage license as being resident in Hackney around 1609. It is not impossible that due to his proximity, he acquired a manuscript from the household of the widowed Countess Oxford (Elizabeth Trentham).
5. Oscar Wilde famously advanced the obscure idea of 18th century scholars, Thomas Tyrwhitt and Edmund Malone, that WH must have been one Willie Hughes, a supposed boy actor with whom the Bard was in love. There is no record of such a Willie Hughes; Tyrwhitt and Wilde were taken by the hews-hues puns in the Sonnets.
6. Canadian scholar Leslie Hotson suggested that WH was William Hatcliffe, who at least was a real person, but otherwise an unlikely candidate.
7. WH as a misprint for WS (William Shakespeare). Bertrand Russell, Don Foster, and others promoted this. A similar suggestion is that WH = "William Himself."
It is strange for me to remain undecided on such an important issue. But I find merit in the William Hall, William Herbert, and Henry Wriothesley theories, in that order. Much of ones decision making on this depends on how one interprets the Sonnets. The literary view tends to influence the acceptance or rejection of various possible historical contexts.
Robert Sean Brazil -- copyright 2009
More Sonnets analysis to follow!