Some of the finest, most quoted verses in the English language were dedicated to him, and for centuries literary scholars have tried to establish his identity.
Now fresh research suggests that the mysterious Mr WH, to whom Shakespeare’s sonnets were dedicated, was not, as had been thought, a contemporary English nobleman, but a recently deceased associate of the Sonnets’ publisher, Thomas Thorpe, which would explain the dedication’s strangely funereal form.
Geoffrey Caveney, an American researcher, has unearthed possible evidence to link the initials with William Holme, who had both personal and professional connections to Thorpe. Both came from prominent Chester families, were publishing apprentices in 1580s London and had strong connections with theatres through publishing major playwrights such as Ben Jonson and George Chapman.
The Sonnets’ dedication 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].”
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 forWilliam Shakespeare and it should have been a WSH.”
He now believes the dedication’s printed page was designed to resemble an inscription on a Roman funerary monument – a memorial tribute to Holme. Caveney discovered that Holme died in 1607, two years before the Sonnets were published. He concludes that Holme had previously been overlooked because he was confused with a stationer, William Holmes, who was known to be publishing up to 1615.
“Nobody was aware that there was [also] a publisher of that name who had died in 1607,” said Caveney. “Seeing the dedication as a memorial makes a lot of sense.” His research will be published this month by Oxford University Press in its academic journal, Notes & Queries.
Professor Stanley Wells, the leading British Shakespeare scholar, said: “If it were agreed by scholars, this would be pretty momentous. People have spilled an enormous quantity of ink trying to identify this figure.”
He described the theory as “better than any other suggestion so far. It’s very interesting.” That it is nobody well known, he added, is “one of the strengths”.
“That it’s not an aristocrat fits in with the fact that it’s Mr WH. That has always been a stumbling block for the attempts to identify him with [aristocrats],” said Wells. He agrees that the fact that it’s a person who was in the publishing trade, linked with Thorpe, and who had recently died all helps to explain the dedication’s funerary form, “which has always also been a mystery”.
But he commented that it will be “less attractive to some people if it’s not an aristocrat”. Some who challenge Shakespeare’s authorship argue that only an aristocrat would have been knowledgeable enough to write his plays, although Wells is among those who dismiss such snobbery, which ignores Elizabethan education and Shakespeare’s background in general.
He added: “It’s also less attractive if it’s not somebody whom we could associate possibly with the substance of the sonnets” – particularly the love poems to that person.
Caveney also finds Holme interesting because he published major playwrights of the day, including Jonson’s Every Man out of His Humour in 1600, and Chapman’sMonsieur D’Olive in 1606. Caveney’s research shows that Holme had a London bookshop and was a close colleague of the printer Adam Islip, who printed Every Man out of His Humour and worked with George Eld, who printed the Sonnets for Thorpe.
Thorpe and Holme both had close relatives who were sheriffs and mayors of Chester. Caveney has discovered evidence that both seem to have had links with prominent Catholic sympathisers of the period and were further connected with supporters of the Earl of Essex’s rebellion in 1601. He said that following the rebellion, and the gunpowder plot four years later, “it was a controversial time for people to be associated with such circles”.
Caveney revealed that Holme had crucial connections to royal circles through his brother, Randle, an antiquarian and authority on heraldry, who was in the service of Prince Henry, giving him close connections with “the elite circles in which Shakespeare’s sonnets would have circulated”.
In Caveney’s essay, he speculates on why Thorpe referred to Holme as the sonnets’ “begetter”. “As a colleague and friend of Holme, Thorpe could have found the manuscript of the Sonnets among Holme’s belongings after his death … Thorpe and his printer, Eld, registered a flurry of plays just nine days after Holme’s burial … How Holme had obtained a copy of the Sonnets cannot be precisely determined, but he had the connections to literary figures.”
Whether supporters of other explanations will be silenced remains to be seen.