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Biography in the Sonnets

The Biography in Shakespeare's Sonnets

- An Outline of Discovery, Old and New


The notion of biography in Shakespeare's Sonnets was once popular with influential English Literature academics. Most now shy away from the topic. It has become fashionable to reject any serious probability that these unusual poems describe relationships with real persons, be they bisexual friend, dark mistress or rival poet.

However, the indicators of truth within the sonnets remain undimmed. Evidence that the poems are substantially fiction is as remote as ever. If part or most of the work were found to be reliably biographic, there would be significant payback in areas of historical research, literary analysis and human interest. Inquiry continues to be relevant, particularly when there is new information.

The Oddities of Shakespeare's Sonnets

The Quarto edition of the Sonnets, published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe, has many peculiarities. Unusually, there is no foreword, dedication, commentary or other acknowledgment by the author, who had conformed with such custom in his earlier publications of poetry. Thorpe's foreword enigmatically refers to an unidentified Master WH, whom he describes as “the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets”. The 154 sonnets are almost entirely expressed in the first person, "I" and addressed to the second, "you", "thou" or "thee". Completely unannounced until the reader gets past the sonnets is an accompanying poem, entitled “A Lover's Complaint by William Shakespeare”. Though so characterized, that poem shares little in common with other published Complaints of the period. It is based on no known antecedents; it is far shorter; and it is a work of thinly disguised levity, given the improbable sexual capabilities of its hero (who, in other respects, resembles the principal character of the preceding sonnets).

Unlike every other publication in Shakespeare's name, there was no reprint of the Sonnets Quarto within the span of anyone then living. Perhaps part of the reason for this peculiarity was yet another one: the homoeroticism which (as we shall see) pervades the main sequence of sonnets. There is no other publication of that era which so graphically depicts sexual activity between men. The Ganymede poems of Richard Barnfield, more emotionally oriented (and attacked by contemporary readers), are tame by comparison.

The Sonnets are numbered and categorized into a primary sequence and a secondary collection. The primary sequence, Sonnets 1-126, appears to be addressed to, or directly concerned with, an aristocratic Fair Friend of the poet. The secondary collection, Sonnets 127-154, appears to deal mainly with the poet's Dark Mistress. Unusual, overlapping themes imply that the Fair Friend is also associated with the secondary collection.

The primary sequence, read as autobiography, suggests a highly unusual underlying story, for which there are no literary antecedents. The following summary of that story is derived from a detailed analysis of every sonnet (see Hidden Song).

  • In Sonnets 1-17 the Fair Friend is a beautiful, effeminate-looking youth, reluctant to wed. He is urged, almost ad nauseam, to marry and sire a son. The poet teases his wasteful masturbation.

  • The relationship and affection between Friend and poet deepen through Sonnets 18-23.

  • Disquiet and separation unfold in Sonnets 24-32. The hard-up poet begs for support from his wealthy Friend.

  • An unspecified lewd betrayal of the poet by the Friend is bemoaned, but forgiven, in Sonnets 33-35.

  • The poet acknowledges the risk of scandal via Sonnets 36-39. He glumly accepts that he must stay away from the Friend.

  • In Sonnets 40-42 a distraught, now reluctantly forgiving poet reproaches the Friend for bedding (or continuing to bed) the poet's girlfriend.

  • Sonnets 43-51 portray further periods of separation regretted by the poet. However, in Sonnet 48 appears the first hint of a theme of jealousy, which eventually comes to predominate.

  • Temporary reconciliation and joy between poet and Friend (in Sonnets 52-55) are superseded in Sonnet 56, which hints at the Friend's distraction by lust elsewhere.

  • In Sonnet 57 the poet complains of the Friend's selfishness. Thereafter his jealousy becomes a pervasive theme, although he attempts to balance his complaints with interspersions of flattery and patronage poems. Eventually, however, he is driven to insult (in Sonnet 691), which affront he attempts to defuse in Sonnet 70.

  • Sonnets 71-74 are themed on the poet's death. In this context they suggest wry, self-deprecating and witty attempts to placate an angry Friend, who has responded that, to him, the poet is dead.2

  • With this clever grovelling the poet obtains a stay of dismissal - but continues to flounder. Finally, in Sonnets 78-80, he directly acknowledges the source of his jealousy: a rival poet, who has been the better gratifier of the Friend, both in verse and (as we shall see in the poet's implications) sexually.

  • The poet produces more patronage poetry in Sonnets 81-85, albeit spiced with barbs on the exaggerations of the Rival and the tastes of the Friend. In Sonnet 84 he insults the latter for a second time.3

  • Suddenly, in Sonnet 86, the Rival is gone. The poet seems assured that the absence is permanent, and he never again alludes to the rivalry.

  • In succeeding sonnets the poet struggles to recover the Friend's goodwill, plunging bitter depths in Sonnet 94. Equanimity returns in Sonnets 95 and 96. However, the relationship is less intense and more distant. There are signs in Sonnets 97-103 of significant periods of non-communication. Sonnet 103 suggests the poet has run out of inspiration.

  • Sonnets 104-107 burst upon the reader with renewed vigour. The poet evokes his early relationship with the Friend and suggests that the latter is as beautiful as ever4 - despite the trauma of a “confined doom” (in Sonnet 107), from which he has unexpectedly escaped.

  • An apparently more mature and rather timeworn Friend is unimpressed. In Sonnet 108 the poet is forced to defend his unrealistic portrayal by attributing this to a love “which weighs not the dust and injury of age”. He uses a pet form of address to maintain this conceit, but from now on he is on the defensive.

  • In Sonnets 109-125 the poet drops any pretence of the Friend's eternal youth and beauty, as he is forced almost continuously to contest charges of disloyalty. As the sequence draws to a close, he reacts ever more strongly with wounded pride and righteous indignation.

  • In Sonnet 125 the poet rejects the now-hostile Friend, to bring to a close the story of their relationship. Sonnet 126 cleverly draws together several of the preceding themes, in an envoi of regret and finality.

The construction of the above story depends implicitly on two key assumptions: that the characters depicted are consistently the same quartet (poet-speaker, Friend, Mistress and Rival) and that Sonnets 1-126 were composed broadly in the order in which they were first printed.

Certain factors encourage these assumptions, the first being the internal coherence of the various threads. Second, the speaker (the “I” of the sonnets) looks consistently like William Shakespeare. He is a writer and poet (eg: Sonnets 23, 26, 76, 80-86); he is a commoner (eg: Sonnets 25, 26, 89, 111); up to around Sonnet 94 he is unwealthy (e.g.: Sonnets 26, 29, 37, 80); he lacks university education (Sonnet 78); and his name is Will (Sonnets 57, 135, 136, 143)5. Third, the language of the sonnets is consistent with a male addressee (or main subject) throughout the primary sequence. Fourth, independent studies of developments in Shakespeare's style suggest that Sonnets 104-126 were composed significantly later than the other sonnets, in line with the suggested story.6

This notion of autobiography is reinforced by themes whose presence and/or persistence do not fit easily with an interpretation as fiction.7 They prompt further inquiry: of consistency with history and the peculiarities of publication; of the existence of the characters and the reality of their unusual shenanigans.

The Fair Friend

If the Sonnets are indeed biography, the stand-out candidate for their aristocratic Fair Friend is Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton. He it was to whom Shakespeare addressed, in 1593 and 1594, his only known dedications. Each address was (as we shall see) unusual in its intimacy.

In the first of the works so dedicated, Venus & Adonis, the Earl is a dead ringer for its hero, the woman-shy but beautiful and noble Adonis. The poem's source-material, theme of resistance to female attentions, protagonist and dedicatee match, and thereby give it the appearance of a counter-balm to, Narcissus, a work offensively addressed only a few months before to Southampton.8

Venus & Adonis also carries striking echoes of Sonnets 1-17 in its otherwise rather jarring pleadings of Adonis to reproduce9. All three sets of work mirror a stage in Southampton's life when this only surviving male of his line was resisting considerable pressure from his guardian to marry and get an heir.

There are numerous other correspondences between the Sonnets and Southampton. Most haunting is a pervasive “Rose” theme within Sonnets 1-126. This starts immediately, in Sonnet 110, and continues intermittently: conspicuously so in Sonnets 54, 67, 95 and 109 (in which sonnet the addressee is hailed as “my Rose”). Wriothesley was strongly associable with this flower – doubly so, given the “Rosely” rendition of his name and his family's heraldic links.11

A second pervasive theme of correspondence is the homoeroticism discernible throughout the primary sequence. Sometimes this has been disguised by commentator mindset or editorial changes to the Sonnets. For example, the references of Sonnet 20 to the penis of the poet's “master-mistress” have been dismissed as jocularly heterosexual. Yet, it is the addition of apostrophes in the final couplet which help disguise to the modern reader the implications of the youth enjoying pleasure women-style, loving the poet's penis and being “used” by his lovers. In Sonnet 52 Shakespeare represents the penis as a key, as did Marlowe and Sidney before him12 – whereupon the whole poem becomes homoerotic. Sonnet 80 has the addressee's Rose (his “name” in the Sonnets, and a word used elsewhere by Shakespeare to denote a sexual prize) subjected to vigorous “use” by a rival who thereon “spends all his might”. Later the poem describes his “ride” on the addressee's “soundless deep” (reminding of another sexually loaded maritime metaphor in Sonnet 137, where the subject is a “bay where all men ride”). In Sonnet 110 the friend is a “god in love” to whom the poet swears to be confined, notwithstanding that he has been known to “grind” his “appetite” elsewhere.13 If the Sonnets are biographic it is clear that the Fair Friend is bisexual – and there is independent evidence that so was Southampton.14

To continue the theme of correspondences: Wriothesley was the sole potential progenitor of a family house which had sprung from a dynasty of heralds; the addressee of Sonnet 1 is exhorted to reproduce and is the “only herald to the gaudy spring”.15 The Earl's father died in 1581: the addressee of Sonnet 13 is similarly fatherless. Based on portraiture and independent narrative description, Southampton was an unusually effeminate-looking youth: just like the addressee of Sonnet 20 (and others).

Shakespeare's two dedications to Southampton (of Venus & Adonis and Lucrece) include affirmations of "your[s] in all duty" - a form of bond echoed in Sonnets 26 and 117. He says (in the dedication of Lucrece) “What I have done is yours, what I have to do is yours, being part in all I have, devotedly yours”: a claim made to the addressee of each of Sonnets 103 and 105 and corresponding in each case to the absence of dedications by Shakespeare to any person apart from Wriothesley.

The so-called “dating” sonnet, 107, is strongly associable with Elizabeth Tudor's death in 160316 and a transition to the rule of James I. Unusually it also refers to the unexpected relief of the poet's “love” from a “confined doom”. This portrayal and the strength of image match the release (on Elizabeth's death) from life confinement in the Tower of none other than Henry Wriothesley.

Sonnet 17 is, literally, cryptic. It likens itself to a tomb, which hides the existence of the addressee. Its punch-line couplet suggests that the addressee exists in the rhyme. Uniquely in the Sonnets Quarto, the couplet contains the interspersed letters of “Wriothesley” in strict sequence (each one perhaps emphasized in the original manuscript). The odds of chance coincidence of these occurrences within one sonnet are more than 20,000 to 1 against.17

Of equal importance to these many unusual alignments is the absence of any mismatch or contradiction. The phases of the suggested story are consistent with the histories of both men. Given Wriothesley as Fair Friend, internal references point to the composing of Sonnets 1-96 around 1592-94. The London playhouses were then shut for extended periods18 and Shakespeare was clearly focused on the young Earl, as is borne out by his two long poems of dedication. The separations discernible in Sonnets 97-103 correspond to the period 1595 to 1603, when each party had significantly divergent career paths and distractions. Sonnets 104-126 point to a failed attempt by Shakespeare to re-cultivate Southampton after his release from the Tower (at a time when the London playhouses were again shut and the Earl had been elevated to more wealth and status than ever before).19

Shakespeare and his only known dedicatee are flawless matches for the poet and Fair Friend of the Sonnets. Moreover, the congruence applies to all aspects of the underlying story, including – crucially - the two extraordinary triangular relationships depicted in the poems.

Consider first the intimacy, jealousy and insults of the poet, described above (in relation to Sonnets 56-85). His disrespect is ascribed to the appearance of a Rival, who has displaced the previously favoured poet in the affections and esteem of the Friend. The imputation to Shakespeare (a common actor) of such unusual and intimate behaviour with the high-born Earl of Southampton is, initially, incredible. It is probably a significant factor for the rejection of biography in the Sonnets by so many commentators. Yet intercourse of just this ilk is attested by the messages in Shakespeare’s dedication to Southampton, dated to around April 159320. The dedication, attached to the poem, Venus & Adonis, runs as follows:

To the Right Honourable Henry Wriothesley,

Earl of Southampton, and Baron of Titchfield.

Right Honourable,

I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your Lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden, only if your Honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour. But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather: and never after ear [plough] so barren a land, for fear it yield me still so bad a harvest. I leave it to your Honourable survey, and your Honour to your heart’s content, which I wish may always answer your own wish, and the world’s hopeful expectation.

Your Honour’s in all duty,

William Shakespeare.

A cursory reading of the above is unlikely to arouse any sense of disaffection or disinformation. The address looks like the conventional interpretation of it - a grovelling supplication to a superior who has perhaps not even met the author. However, the latter is Shakespeare, master of the pun. With this prompt, some potential wordplay becomes perceptible in the middle of the address, where “the first heir of my invention” also evokes the first, or primary, dedicatee of any of Shakespeare's art, ie the addressee, Wriothesley. More significantly, however, this double meaning represents but one element in a persistence of ambiguity - as indicated in the following rendition of the dedication in valid, alternate meanings:

I know not how you will perceive offense, as I address my frank and truthful lines to your Lordship. Nor do I know how people will censure me for choosing so substantial a work to uphold such a lightweight. If only you seem pleased I shall congratulate myself and vow to work as hard as I can to honour you with a more serious labour. But, if the first dedicatee of my art proves twisted from how he was, I shall be sorry its promoter was so noble: and I will never again try to cultivate so fruitless a patronage for fear of the same miserable return. I leave it for your honourable scrutiny. I leave your honour to the one who most warms your heart, who I hope will be the constant slave of your selfishness, as all do eagerly expect.

Now, either this phenomenon (of pervasive and cohesive ambiguity) is a fluke - or Shakespeare intended to construct (and conceal) the hostile address alongside the dedication's overt theme of supplication and apology. Such intent would not have been inconsistent with the circumstances of publication, given the contextual bitterness. Moreover, linguistic features of the address point to a high probability of deliberate punning. Supplementary analysis shows that the odds of the phenomenon occurring by accident are in the order of one in many millions! The substance for all these conclusions may be examined in the article: Puns in the Dedication of Venus & Adonis: Evidence for Shakespeare's Relationship with his Patron. 

Accordingly, the presence of the punning provides
several pieces of information. It shows (at the high levels of probability indicated above) that Shakespeare had an unusually intimate and stormy relationship with the Earl - which must have started, at the least, several months before April 1593. It affirms
that Southampton had originally been a champion of the poet and his works. However, Shakespeare was now badly upset by a change of attitude and the threat of losing that sponsorship. He was sufficiently moved to vent his feelings by raising a silent finger to the Earl in what was designed to look like a respectful supplication.There are strong and bitter hints that Wriothesley's affections were now focused elsewhere.

These discoveries, independent of the Sonnets, expand the histories of Shakespeare and Southampton. Remarkably, however, they correspond perfectly with the unique story underlying Sonnets 56-85, as summarized above.22

The other unusual triangular relationship, suggested in Sonnets 40-42, has the Friend bedding the mistress of his poet/lover, to the chagrin of the latter. As above, the concept that Henry Wriothesley may have had a sexual relationship with both his poet and that poet's lover is, initially, incredible. Yet just such a relationship is evoked in an address of June 1593 to the same young aristocrat by the waspish writer, Thomas Nashe.23 Within this address he says to the Earl: “A dear lover and cherisher you are, as well of the lovers of Poets, as of Poets themselves. Amongst their sacred number I dare not ascribe myself, though now and then I speak English...

The thrust of these comments is revealed by their context, including the nature of the relationship between Nashe and Southampton. On analysis of the evidence, it becomes clear that this relationship had turned sour in 1592 and that the whole of the address was a disrespectful jibe at Southampton (with sideswipes at Shakespeare).24 Nashe wanted to embarrass the Earl, not praise him, and his words on loving poets as well as their lovers point to scandal not eulogy.

What is the probability that so much cohering evidence should point purely by chance to the involvement of the same aristocrat in every one of the extraordinary situations manifesting in the primary Sonnet sequence? The answer, in the absence of any contradictory data, is approximately zero. (There is, by the way, no other candidate for Fair Friend who can provide anything remotely approaching this order of convergence between history and the Sonnets.) On these bases it becomes - to say the least - highly probable that the manuscript poems were correspondence from William Shakespeare to his patron, Henry Wriothesley, reflecting real relationship issues.

If this assessment is correct, it should help to decipher - or at least not be contradicted by - the other mysteries surrounding the poems. With such test in mind, we should consider the other problematic features of the Sonnets Quarto.

The Rival Poet

To date, despite the proliferation of arguments supporting one or other of a variety of candidates, there has been no conclusive identification of the Rival Poet. This omission does not, of course, contradict the conclusion that the Sonnet manuscripts were a form of correspondence with Henry Wriothesley. For the purpose of our test, it is enough to show that there is at least one candidate, consistent with all the evidence.

The evidence cited above, including, in particular, Shakespeare's barbed address to Southampton of around April 1593, suggests that the Rival existed and that he was provoking the Stratfordian at this time. He was at least on a par with Shakespeare as a poet. He was the superior when it came to satisfying the needs for praise and sexual gratification of their mutual Friend. He was winning the rivalry, prior to a sudden unexpected, permanent disappearance.

Shakespeare's rival for Southampton's patronage, Thomas Nashe, had dealings with the Earl in 159225 - in line with the required chronology. However, the content of his address in June 1593 and its insults, respectively, make it clear that he had neither received, nor then expected, any meaningful encouragement from the Earl. Whether or not Nashe fits other aspects of the above profile, he is not the Rival.

One poet, however, fits remarkably well: Christopher Marlowe, championed by A.L. Rowse and others.26 He was killed unexpectedly on 30 May 1593, in line with the implications of Sonnet 86 and the imputed chronology. His unfinished long poem, Hero & Leander, has significant correspondences with Shakespeare's Venus & Adonis. Each poem is based on classical sources. Each has as protagonist a beautiful youth, who is more androgynous than the original. Marlowe's poem contains unnecessary, invented detail which points to Shakespeare's.27 In an unlikely coincidence, Sonnet 56, which heralds Shakespeare's extended disquiet and jealousy in the Sonnets (see above), uses the theme of Hero and Leander.

In its original publication there is a Latin slogan placed below the title of Venus & Adonis. Extracted from Ovid's love poems, it translates along the lines of “Let the common man admire vile things: may golden Apollo fill me with inspiration for art”. Given that the author of the publication was, himself, a common actor, publishing his work for the first time, the insertion appears curiously pompous. However, an extra dimension and a motivation for the insertion are suggested by the story in the Sonnets and the hypothesis that the Rival Poet was Marlowe. The “common man” of the slogan resonates with the earlier-described insult of Sonnet 69 (which accuses the Friend of having grown "common"). The source poem from Ovid was popularly associated with Marlowe, who had produced an acclaimed translation in lines of rhyming English pentameter.28 With these correspondences and the accompanying barbed dedication, the slogan appears to become another cleverly disguised insult of Wriothesley, here castigated for base fondness of vile Marlowe and/or his trash.

Crucially (as will emerge), there is no detail of history, or the Sonnets, to contradict the proposition that Hero & Leander was designed to compete with Venus & Adonis and that Marlowe intended to dedicate his poem to Henry Wriothesley, the model for its protagonist, Leander.29 Moreover, the proposition provides a credible explanation for at least two other matters of mystery. The first is the strange set of circumstances surrounding Marlowe's death, including Shakespeare's remarkable familiarity with the final scene. The second is the provenance of the unusual poem at the back of the Sonnets Quarto, A Lover's Complaint.

Marlowe's end was certainly odd. During April 1593 the London authorities were clamping down on anti-immigrant protests. In early May there appeared, attached to a church wall, a savagely anti-immigrant poem, which carried implications that Marlowe was its author.30 The authorities, not unreasonably sceptical of self-implication, looked elsewhere and, by 12 May had arrested his onetime room-sharer, the poet, Thomas Kyd. Under imprisonment and the prod of torture, Kyd implicated Marlowe with Christian heresies and treasonable support for James of Scotland. On 18 May, Marlowe was summoned to account for himself before the Queen's Privy Council, though, in the event, these proceedings were stayed. Shortly after, more evidence emerged from an old enemy of Marlowe. Richard Baines reinforced Kyd's testament of heresies and he associated Marlowe with sodomy (including an inference that the poet lusted for boys). Ominously (though in curious style for a man with no relevant authority), Baines threatened to involve witnesses receptive to the heresies, described as “some great men who in convenient time shall be named”.

Most unusually for the time, Marlowe was never given the Kyd treatment, perhaps because of his previous service for the Queen's spy network.31 It appears, instead, that he was quarantined under the supervision of a loan-shark and fellow former associate of the spy service, Thomas Walsingham.32 Within days of Baines' evidence, and with no record that he ever addressed the Privy Council, Marlowe was killed, in the sole company of three professional liars, all associates of Walsingham (or the spy service). Two days later, an inquest of sixteen jurors inspected the corpse and heard the testimony of the three. The inquest, chaired by the Coroner of the Queen's Household, concluded that the killing had occurred in self defence. Within four weeks the killer was pardoned by the Queen and it is only through its attachment to the document of pardon that the record of the inquest survives.

This outcome left obvious questions apparently unresolved - in particular, whether there had been a cover-up, whether Marlowe was guilty of the charges against him and, if so, whether he had associates. Nevertheless, the closure of the matter was accepted by the Queen and all factions within the Privy Council. The absence of any suspicion shows that the deviations from normal practice must have been sanctioned at the highest levels. The latter included the Queen's principal advisor, William Cecil, Lord Burghley (who previously knew Marlowe and Baines - and of their enmity). With his fellow Privy Councillor and son, Robert, he directed elements of that spy network which had once employed Marlowe. If there had been a cover-up, the Cecils were the most likely expediters.

However, Burghley was also the guardian of Henry Wriothesley. With this connection and Burghley's awareness of the Earl's proximity to Marlowe during April 1593, all the incongruities may be resolved. For Kyd's indictment of the poet would have threatened to embroil Southampton, who, apart from being Burghley's ward, was a member of the Queen’s infrastructure of authority.33

Here is the scenario, briefly developed. On learning of Kyd's accusations, Burghley acted immediately to distance Marlowe from his ward to an environment where the poet and any news he might wish to share could be controlled. The residence of a mutual former colleague, Walsingham (who conveniently had enforcers in place if necessary), was ideal. The threat to all concerned could then be assessed and managed. With that process underway (and Marlowe scheduled to appear before the Privy Council), the threat became escalated. Baines emerged on to the scene with his references to heresy, sodomy and the involvement with “great men” (though, intriguingly, the latter allegation - perhaps planted by Burghley to keep rival Council factions in line - is omitted from the final version of a briefing note sent to the Queen34). Such information would normally have galvanized the investigation. However, none of Burghley, the Privy Council, or the Queen would have wanted the young Southampton to be implicated and publicly disgraced if his only offenses were narcissism and poor judgment in his relationships. Better to condemn the heretical loose cannon, Marlowe, without trial or opportunity to embroil privileged innocents.

Probably, as fits the facts, there was a cover-up within a cover-up. Burghley may have felt threatened (and primarily motivated) by Kyd's allegation of Marlowe's activities for James of Scotland (notably absent from Baines' accusations).35 Irrespective, there had to be a significant, exonerating and confidential concern to justify machinations to Council and Queen. The Marlowe-Wriothesley relationship, independently inferred, reconciles all the evidence, as does no other explanation to date. As for the Earl, under this scenario he would, no doubt, have been privately questioned by (or for) Elizabeth. It is a matter of history that her regard for him demonstrably dipped around this time and never subsequently revived.

Some five years later, Marlowe's Hero & Leander was printed under a peculiarly phrased publisher's dedication to Walsingham, now much risen in the world and knighted36. Evidently, the former conman had retained the incomplete poem after Marlowe's death and was now contentedly represented as the poet's friend. The publication seems to have stirred Shakespeare. In As You Like It he refers to both the dead Marlowe and Hero & Leander.37 Much more strangely, given the wildly inaccurate accounts of Marlowe's death then circulating, he refers to Marlowe's end in terms which reflect the unpublished Coroner's report.38 However, with Marlowe as Rival, the puzzle is resolved. Southampton would have had both the motivation and status to acquire the official, but restricted, information on Marlowe's death and it would have been natural for Shakespeare to have learned some detail from the Earl.39

A Lover's Complaint did not emerge into the public eye until its curiously low-key inclusion in the Sonnets Quarto of 1609. It has remained ever since in the shadow of the Sonnets. As previously remarked, it does not resemble traditional Complaints: it is too short, it has no antecedents and its theme is really one of levity, given the improbable sexual feats of its protagonist.

The unnamed hero is remarkably similar to Shakespeare's Adonis and Marlowe's Leander. He is young, androgynously beautiful: an idealized version of Henry Wriothesley. There is however, significant variation in the sexual prowess of the fictional characters. Adonis is desirable, but sexually inadequate with a beautiful woman (unlike the original, as recounted by Ovid). In hindsight he does not seem particularly intelligent. Leander is equally desirable but is an intelligent woman-seducer. His physical charms and gift of the gab enable him to seduce “Venus' nun” from the chastity of her vows. However, the Lothario of A Lover's Complaint outdoes Leander. Not only does he (pointedly it seems) seduce a nun from the chastity of her vows, but he tumbles countless other women with his charms – even the weeping, jilted complainant of the poem says she would re-succumb were he to try her again.

It is not difficult to perceive here a trend and a linkage, given the earlier evidence of Rivalry. Shakespeare conceived Adonis as an affectionate projection of Wriothesley at a time when the young lord was regarded as a Narcissus, incapable of responding sexually to a woman. In this scenario Marlowe upped the stakes with his more rounded projection (probably at a time when Wriothesley had bedded Shakespeare's girlfriend). A shaken and disgruntled Shakespeare became concerned about Southampton's response to his second long project for the Earl, the poem, Lucrece.

Lucrece is a serious work – a true Complaint - with no flattering projection of Wriothesley. Under the scenario, the Earl would have appreciated its dedication for the associations of gravitas. However, he was still a Narcissus, moved primarily by praise of his charms. Shakespeare redressed the position by projecting him into another poem –  with a spoof of the excesses criticized in Sonnets 82-84. A Lover's Complaint is composed in the same Rhyme Royal structure as Lucrece. In this scenario it was provided privately to the Earl during the composition of the serious poem, probably under a personal address which was suppressed on preparation of the Sonnets Quarto (for an expansion of this topic read A Lover's Complaint).

The Dark Mistress

Shakespeare's mistress appears mainly in the secondary collection of Sonnets, 127-154. Descriptions in overlapping themes suggest black hair and eyebrows, dark eyes, wit and a beauty which is mainly in the heart of her beholder, Shakespeare. He starts by singing her praises but becomes derogatory after she seduces his fair friend. Then she is depicted as mercurial, unfaithful, promiscuous and perhaps infected with venereal disease.

The consistency of triangular-affair detail with Sonnets 40-42 suggests that the three characters of those sonnets also inhabit the secondary sequence. If so, the Fair Friend is here a minor character, for he is never the addressee and he is absent from most of the sequence. However, under the Shakespeare-Wriothesley biography inferred above, these features would also explain its separation from the primary sequence, as follows.

In this scenario, most of the later Mistress poems were not sent to her, the ostensible, but still lusted-after, addressee - because they were so derogatory. However, her involvement with Wriothesley made him an interested recipient and Shakespeare wanted to encourage the Earl's readership. The sonnets demonstrated the poet's wit. They enabled him to share his distress at length, without appearing to criticize his patron. The defamatory descriptions might dissuade the latter from continuation or resumption of the affair, so bemoaned by the poet.

Nevertheless, as a Narcissus, Wriothesley favoured poems dealing directly with him. In this scenario he kept these together, stored in order of receipt. The Mistress sonnets (plus any on unrelated subjects) were relegated to a separate batch. An author's copy (or draft) of some of these “secondary” sonnets may have been shown by Shakespeare to other friends, as implied by Francis Meres. He wrote in his Palladis Tamia of 1598: “the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives on in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus & Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugared sonnets among his private friends”. Versions of Sonnets 138 and 144 (perhaps reconstructed from the memory of such a friend) did appear around 1599 in an unauthorized collection of poems attributed to Shakespeare, The Passionate Pilgrim.

As for the Mistress, Nashe's mocking address of Wriothesley in June 1593 suggests that the triangular affair occurred before that date – perhaps many months before. Her identity remains elusive, despite the efforts of many analysts over the years.40 The anonymity is neither surprising nor detrimental to the thesis. Unlike the Rival Poet, her characteristics, as deduced from the Sonnets, are insufficiently rare to distinguish her. Nevertheless, Nashe's evidence for her existence is beautifully reinforced in Shakespeare's plays.

It is unusual for the plays to describe their characters. We know nothing, for example, of any distinction of appearance of Romeo, Juliet or Hamlet. Yet, in each of two disparate settings authored in the early 1590s there appears a distinctively described character of the same name - Rosaline. The Rosalines are consistent in appearance and demeanour with each other - and with the Dark Mistress. In Love's Labour's Lost, she is beautiful, has black eyes, eyebrows and hair, and is witty, wanton but elusive. In Romeo & Juliet, she is beautiful, has black eyes, is witty, scarlet-lipped and elusive. Each has pale skin, consistent with the ironic tone of Sonnet 130 (which mocks the common, but impossible, skin-as-white-as-snow conceit, as applied to the Dark Mistress)41. Here we see three characters in utterly disconnected settings who are each cast from the same unusual mould – a situation unique in Shakespeare (and maybe in other authors). However, the real eye-opener is the name. Rosa (rose in Latin) and line (cf. Latin's lino, linere – to befoul or stain) combine to convey the meaning, Rose Besmircher - exactly the accusation made in the Sonnets of the Dark Mistress!42

Publication of the Sonnets Quarto

It is, at first sight, odd that the “sugared sonnets”, praised by Meres in 1598, were not published before or, at least, soon after. According to his history, Shakespeare chased status and money. The successes of Venus & Adonis and The Passionate Pilgrim (including its versions of Sonnets 138 and 144) showed that he had a ready and appreciative market.

However, none of the persons underlying characters discernible in the Sonnets-Quarto publication of 1609 would have relished its appearance, particularly so the Fair Friend. The physical intimacy of two poets with an aristocratic patron (and other scandal) though artfully and discreetly expressed, was too damning. The inference is supported by Shakespeare's absence from the publication process. He provided no dedication, benediction, linking material or elaborated title, contrary to the practice for author-sponsored collections (and to the precedent of his earlier publications of Venus & Adonis and Lucrece).43 This then begs the questions of Thorpe's source of supply, his enigmatic foreword and why he would have risked retribution from an angry and powerful Fair Friend.

Yet again, Wriothesley's history offers an elegant resolution. The Earl was at loggerheads with his stepfather, William Hervey. Southampton had failed in robust attempts (aided by his friend, the Earl of Essex) to dissuade Hervey from marrying Wriothesley's widowed mother, the Dowager Countess of Southampton. During his marriage to the much older Countess, Hervey befriended, and defended the wealth of, a younger woman, Cordell Annesley. He subsequently became engaged to her, within weeks of becoming a widower in 1607. From the deceased Countess he inherited assets derived from her previous, second marriage. Through his new wife he became lord of more, including an estate. It is unlikely that any of this would have been palatable to Wriothesley, who had evidently perceived Hervey as a gold-digger from the onset of his wooing of the Countess. Nor is it likely that the outspoken Earl would have refrained from expressing his contempt.

However, Hervey had a redoubtable character, not prone to take insult lightly. In 1588 he had distinguished himself in boarding a ship of the Spanish Armada and killing its captain in personal combat. In 1596 he was knighted for action as a ship commander (in the Cadiz expedition). He had resisted the threats of two earls in marrying the Countess.44 He was a member of the House of Commons and he later became Baron Hervey of Kidbrooke, after a distinguished career. Unfortunately for Southampton (but luckily for posterity) it appears, too, that he had inherited, from the Countess, poems provided to her son by Shakespeare.45

In this scenario all the unusual features of the Quarto publication may be explained, as follows. Hervey, seeking to rattle or retaliate, knew that his stepson would be discomfited by publication of the Sonnets. With his wealth, standing, relationship and inside knowledge, he was uniquely armoured against the Earl's retribution (and could offer protection to a publisher). He took the two batches of sonnets to Thorpe, together with A Lover's Complaint (the latter and its covering address perhaps used to convince the publisher that the manuscript poems were in Shakespeare's hand). The stepfather's motives were conveyed (or became clear) to Thorpe, who would otherwise have minimized his own risk by suppressing the more provocative sonnets.

A deal was struck, aided by monetary inducement. Thorpe would publish the sonnets in their entirety, provided that Southampton was not openly identified and - crucially - that the Earl would understand that it was Hervey, alone, who was responsible for the mischief. Thorpe designed his cryptic foreword to capture these conflicting conditions. Hervey, the inheritor of the manuscript sonnets and the sole instigator of publication, became the “only begetter” of their printed offspring. To protect Southampton, Thorpe identified the knight only by his initials and he broadened his title from “Sir” to “Master”, the latter substitution a practice common both socially and in the House of Commons. The scenario is developed in the accompanying article, Who was Mr WH?, which includes a plain text rendition of Thorpe's address, unique in its consistency with the circumstances. Southampton (but hardly anyone else) would know instantly that Mr WH was the Earl's stepfather46.

Thorpe prepared the sonnets for printing. He ordered them under Hervey's guidance and/or in accordance with the categorization and internal sequences preserved from Wriothesley's original storage practices (see earlier). Probably he edited out any over-obvious clues to the identity of the Fair Friend. At a late stage, after title page and foreword had gone to print, he decided to include A Lover's Complaint in the Quarto, having removed any covering address by Shakespeare.

The subdued public reception of the Quarto and the otherwise curious absence of any reprint suggest that Southampton was indeed discomfited. Probably there was a visit to Thorpe and a bulk purchase negotiated of all unsold copies of the book (and, perhaps, its source manuscripts). Shortly after, there was, no doubt, a large bonfire. Shakespeare's Sonnets, in their original content, effectively disappeared from public view for the remainder of the Earl's lifetime and a long time beyond.


There are many striking oddities of the Sonnets Quarto – as outlined in the second section of this analysis. Uniquely, all are coherently explained by the identification in Sonnets 1-126 of biography – that of the relationship between William Shakespeare and his only known personal patron, Henry Wriothesley. Conversely, there are no grounds for asserting that these poems are substantially a work of fiction.

The evidence for Wriothesley as the Fair Friend of the Sonnets is now beyond reasonable doubt. It has depth and breadth. It is internal to the Sonnets and external. It is literary and historical. It is uncontradicted by facts. There even survives an address from Shakespeare to Wriothesley, which corroborates all the key facets of the extraordinary artist-aristocrat relationship depicted in the poems.

Further, the relationship so identified offers credible explanations for other mysteries: Marlowe's intentions of Hero & Leander; the puzzles of his death and Shakespeare's unusual knowledge thereof; the provenances of A Lover's Complaint and Shakespeare's two Rosalines. It provides the only non-compromised explanation to date for the construction of Thorpe's cryptic foreword. As a by-product, it sheds a different and fuller light on a number of interesting anomalies pointed to by challengers of Shakespeare's authorship47.

No doubt, there is more to discover. The time remains ripe for those who care about Shakespeare to revisit the issue of biography in his Sonnets.

Ian Steere, from October 2011

Commentary: Input or queries on the above content are welcome, via Contact.


1 By implying that the fair flower of the Friend is now tainted with the smell of weeds and that he has become “common”. The latter implication, in particular, would outrage any aristocrat so addressed, notwithstanding any presumed privacy of communication.

2 Against this background it should be noted that the beautiful Sonnet 73, though conventionally interpreted as the thoughts of an aged man, never actually represents the speaker as old. Rather, the addressee is depicted with the perception that the speaker is passé and that their relationship is nearly done. The Friend is on the verge of abandoning the poet, who puts in a clever plea to be loved well nevertheless – tacitly in the form of a good redundancy package (see Hidden Life).

3 By telling him that he is over-fond of being praised.

4 Sonnet 104 suggests that the “process of the seasons” has, to the speaker's eyes, inflicted no more than three years' worth of ravages. He is still a beauty and fresh, as remarked also in Sonnets 106 and 107.

5 Moreover, he looks like Shakespeare in his prime. As noted earlier, Sonnet 73 does not, in fact, describe the speaker as an old man. The speaker's “antiquity” of Sonnet 62 here suggests the process or evidence of maturing, as does the addressee's in Sonnet 108. Nor should the “injurious hand” of time in Sonnet 63 be separated from the witty jocularity of that poem, in which “hours” was pronounced like “whores”, “blood” was a synonym for “semen” and “Age's steepy night” conjures up, in this context, the dark steeping places (or orifices) of old hags.

6 See, for example, Rhymes in Shakespeare's Sonnets: Evidence of Date of Composition by MacDonald P Jackson (Oxford Journals, June 1999) or Shakespeare's Sonnet Sequence: A statistical approach to determining the order in which they were written by Peter Farey (online).

7 For example, in Sonnets 1-17, 26, 77, 82, 122 and 152. In fact, the sense of the sequence as a whole, including its banal interludes, is one of gritty reality - far removed from any fiction, then or now.

8 Narcissus, though based on the classic theme in Ovid's Metamorphoses, is transparently set in Elizabethan England. It was published through the office of Southampton's impatient guardian, William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Its content implicitly chides Southampton for his sterile narcissism. The dedication is more direct in its criticism. It hopes for an increase in manliness of the young earl.

9 See, for example, verses 28, 29 and 127.

10 Where, in the Sonnets Quarto, the word is italicized – in line with that publication's similar emphasis of only some twenty five expressions. The practice appears designed to signify some extra meaning or property of the word concerned.

11 His surname was usually elided: for example his son's name has been spelled as Wryosley, his sister's as Wrisley. Other renditions of the period include “Wrosley”, as described in Wriothesley's Roses (Clevedon Books, 1993, Maryland) by Martin Green. Green draws out the strong emblematic connections of the family with the heraldic red and white roses of the town of Southampton, prominently displayed at the Wriothesley seat in Titchfield. He points also to Shakespeare's unusual “rosafication” of Adonis (in Venus & Adonis).

12 The use of "key" to depict a phallus (usually in connection with a vaginal lock) was commonplace in literature of the time (see Gordon Williams' works, Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature and A Glossary of Shakespeare's Sexual Language). In Scene 19 of Marlowe's The Massacre at Paris, Mugeroun is accused of cuckolding the Duke of Guise, by using his “key” to access the “privy chamber” of the Duchess. In Sonnet 77 of Astrophel and Stella, Sidney uses the same depiction in his praise of the "kiss". Here the latter represents the conjunction of private (sexual) parts, amid the exertions and joys of coitus, itself depicted by allusions, inter alia, to "coupling", "charge", "retreat", "nest", "schoolmaster [synonymous here with "rod"] of delight", "take and give", "friendly fray where blows both wound and heal", "the pretty death [orgasm]. The "double key" of the poem represents the dual properties of an instrument which unlocks the heart as well as bringing carnal delight.  

13 Other homoerotic indicators are brought out in Hidden Song.

14 The most direct corroboration comes in the accusations of wanton, homosexual behaviour testified by a witness at his trial of 1601. However, there is additional circumstantial evidence, described, for example, in Martin Green's Labyrinth of Shakespeare's Sonnets (C. Skilton, 1974, London) and Wriothesley's Roses (Clevedon Books, 1993, Maryland).

15 The Writh/Wriothesley dynasty of heralds and Southampton's pride in his forebears' work are described by Rowse in Discovering Shakespeare (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989, London).

16 Elizabeth was generally portrayed in poems of the time as the moon or its goddess. Unusually, however, the Moon of Sonnet 107 is both “mortal” and has undergone her “eclipse”.

17 This analysis is based on the frequency of Sonnet themes and an analysis of letter distributions in their original Quarto spellings see Wriothesley's Tomb?.

18 Due to riots and outbreaks of plague.

19 The subsequent estrangement of the pair, indicated by the Sonnets, also explains why Shakespeare's colleagues did not dedicate to Southampton the First Folio of plays (compiled after Shakespeare's death).

20 The work was registered at the Stationer's Company on 28 April 1593. There is a record of sale on 12 June 1593 (preserved in the diary of one, Richard Stonley, at the Folger Shakespeare Library).

21 Not used.

22 There are other features associated with the dedication (via a preceding quotation from Ovid in its original publication) which suggest a deliberate disguise of messages consistent with unusual themes in the Sonnets. These correspondences will become clear on reading either the next section of this article, The Rival Poet, or a summary provided in Venus & Adonis - the Allusions.

23 The address, ostensibly a dedication, was carried in the first edition of Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller, published in the following year. It was removed from a second edition of that work a short time later.

24 Strangely disrespectful elements of the address are apparent to anyone who reads the purported dedication without preconception. In a detailed analysis, drawing on evidence from the writings of Nashe, Gabriel Harvey and the author of the Parnassus plays, I show how Nashe fell out with the Earl in the summer of 1592 and how his address of June 1593 continues several of the themes of an earlier, long and skilfully sarcastic diatribe. The essay may be read at Crossing Paths with Thomas Nashe. An explanation for Nashe's otherwise strange jibe at the "English" employed by Wriothesley's favourite(s) is offered in Double Dealing (by way of its footnote 3).

25 As brought out in the essay on Nashe referred to earlier. In addition, the poets, Barnabe Barnes and Gervase Markham made one dedication each to Southampton, in 1593 and 1595 respectively. In each case he was one of several dedicatees and low down in the pecking order. His low ranking and the absence of any repeat dedication by either poet suggest that these were speculative, unsuccessful plays for patronage.

26 Marlowe was a fine playwright and poet. His recorded exploits suggest boldness, impulsiveness and ambition. On the basis of recorded reputation and formal accusation, he was homosexual. All this information and more is routinely available in a number of modern biographies. Rowse interpreted the nightly ghostly gulling of Sonnet 86 as a reference to showings of Dr Faustus, Marlowe's successful play, whose haunted protagonist was perceived as a projection of Marlowe, himself. This interpretation is at least as reasonable as any other put forward to date.

27 For example: in the opening lines of his poem, Marlowe invents Hero's dress, whose sleeve he has carrying a depiction of Venus attempting to seduce an Adonis described as “disdainful”. Such disdain is a distinguishing characteristic of Shakespeare's poem, absent from the classical source. Marlowe goes on to describe Adonis as “rose-cheeked” - exactly the description in Shakespeare's opening verse and one absent from the classical sources of each poet; he invents a deity's failed seduction of Leander, just as a deity, Venus, fails (in Shakespeare's poem only) to seduce Adonis.

28 Marlowe had rendered these lines as “Let base-conceited wits admire vile things: Fair Phoebus lead me to the Muses' springs”.

29 The eventual dedication of the poem is dealt with later. In Marlowe's poem, Leander is depicted as a beautiful, long-haired, eloquent charmer of both sexes. Although he falls in love with, and seduces, a nun, Hero, there are many homoerotic compliments to him, including the invented attempted seduction by Neptune.

30 The poem survives in the Bodleian library, comprising over fifty lines of iambic pentameter, starting in the rhyming couplet style favoured by Marlowe. It is signed “per Tamberlaine”, evoking Marlowe's famous play and contains other discernible references to his works.

31 The service is well documented in Marlowe's biographies. However, the theory that it would, of itself, have justified non-standard treatment does not wash. The charges represented a serious threat to the regime, as shown by other cases, the involvement of Council and the briefing of the Queen.

32 Walsingham had previously been imprisoned for debt default. During early 1593 he was involved in a loan scheme designed to fleece the inheritance of a young man, Drew Woodleff. These circumstances and his links to the spy service are recorded in a number of biographies, for example: The World of Christopher Marlowe by David Riggs (Faber, 2004, London).

33 He was also Burghley's prospective grandson-in-law, contracted by Burghley to marry the guardian's granddaughter, though procrastinating.

34 Looking at the evidence in detail it is difficult to avoid the sense of a Machiavellian hand at work. Was Baines being used by Burghley as both evidence and leverage to support a scheme to assassinate Marlowe?

35 (A) Burghley's involvement in such activity would not necessarily have been disloyal. England had an aging monarch, who not only refused to name an heir but forbade, under penalty of treason, any discussion of the eventual succession. Such policy invited anarchy, which the Cecils would have wished to avoid. (B) For reasons of brevity this outline does not deal with the involvement of other known characters in Marlowe's final scene, such as Drury and Cholmeley. Nevertheless, their activities can be readily assimilated into the scenario, with Drury tasked by Cecil (or an ally) to find Baines urgently, once the latter witness became needed to discredit Marlowe.

36 Such elevation was perhaps not unconnected with his services for Burghley in the Marlowe affair.

37 In Act III, Scene v, where Phoebe says “Dead Shepherd now I find thy saw of might, Who ever lov'd that lov'd not at first sight?”

38 In Act III, Scene ii, where Touchstone says “...it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room”. The Coroner had concluded that Marlowe was killed following an argument about “the reckoning”, or bill, a term absent from any of the recorded Marlovian rumours of the time.

39 It is interesting to contemplate who might have initiated this chain of events with the creation of the anonymous church poem. On the evidence now available to us, Shakespeare must be a prime candidate, though he could hardly have envisaged much more than the discomfiture of Marlowe and pressure for his separation from the Earl.

40 A credible candidate, consistent with Wriothesley as Fair Friend, is Emilia Bassano – proposed by AL Rowse and subsequently much studied. She has an appropriate background, would have been known to Shakespeare and has a recorded connection to Wriothesley. Ostensibly supporting puns have been derived from the Sonnets – most credibly by Martin Green, who spotted the dark connotations of her maiden surname. However, so far the evidence is inconclusive.

41 As elaborated on in Hidden Song.

42 This curiosity also reinforces the proposition that the triangular affair characters (in both primary and secondary sequences) are the same, since the “Rose” characterization is a feature only of the primary sequence.

43 Duncan-Jones has theorized that the Quarto was, nevertheless, published by Shakespeare. In principal support she cites a letter of 1612 by Thomas Heywood. However, Heywood was here clearly referring to the publication of his own material – not the Sonnets - in the new, expanded edition of The Passionate Pilgrim (put out under Shakespeare's name). Her secondary arguments are contradicted by evidence described in Appendix A of Shakespeare: a Hidden Life Sung in a Hidden Song and in A Lover's Complaint.

44 Their threats to Hervey are recounted by the Earl of Essex in the Cecil papers of the trial of the two earls in 1601. See Hidden Song for more detail.

45 This proposition is not a far stretch. A compliment in Sonnet 3 suggests a mother privy to, and approving of, the early sonnets. The Countess' unconditional love of her only son (and all his complex nature) is evident from her letters. In 1601 she became the natural, emergency custodian of his private papers, when the documented confiscation of all his personal property was triggered by his conviction for treason. On the Earl's subsequent rejection of Shakespeare, per Sonnets 104-126, it would have been reasonable for her to add these to a collection which she, if not her son, valued. Her surviving will shows that any such possessions at her death would have gone to Hervey.

46 In his peculiarly punctuated message, Thorpe also wished (“in setting forth”) for “that eternity promised by our ever living poet”. Probably this aspiration was aimed at the Fair Friend, to excuse the perpetuation of the sonnets. No other theory to date credibly explains the circumstances of publication and Thorpe's cryptic foreword.

47 The case argued by Marlovians fades when its main elements are interpreted in the light of Marlowe-as-Rival. The striking resemblance of Wriothesley's history to that of the 17th Earl of Oxford further dilutes the Oxfordian identifications of their favourite in Shakespeare's plays. In any case, the biography inferred herein permits only one author of the Sonnets: William of Stratford, who, with the key connection to an aristocrat, was able to expand his circle substantially.