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Double Dealing

Puns in the Dedication of Venus & Adonis: Evidence of Shakespeare's Relationship with his Patron

Synopsis of this article: Shakespeare's dedication of Venus & Adonis has been regarded as the epitome of self-deprecating flattery from the humble supplicant of an aristocratic patron. However, on closer inspection the address is pervasively ambiguous - and its alternate meanings cohere to convey a fluent, parallel theme of insults and reproach of the dedicatee.

The article explores whether the punning was deliberate. It analyses the construction and linguistic features of each of the two themes. The chances of accidental occurrence of the phenomenon are assessed, both qualitatively and quantitatively. The logic for the ostensible wordplay is tested, taking account of authorial ability, motivation and the circumstances of publication.

The analysis shows that the secondary meanings were, in all probability, intentional: a discovery which sheds new light on Shakespeare and the relationship underlying the dedication. Finally, highly unusual parallels with the content of Shakespeare's Sonnets are identified, inviting further consideration of these developments.

Note: The  note links below do not work on this webpage. However, each of the five footnotes may be read by scrolling to the end of the piece. 


In late 1591, Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton, had just turned eighteen. He was the only surviving male of his dynasty, which would terminate if he died with no legitimate son. He had been resisting a marriage arranged by his guardian, Henry Cecil, Lord Burghley, who was the Queen's principal advisor. The effeminate-looking young Earl became the dedicatee of a small book in Latin verse, entitled (in short) Narcissus. Its authorship was attributed to one of Burghley's secretaries, John Clapham.[i]

Clapham's tale is based on the classical myth, elaborated in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. His Narcissus, like Ovid's, is consumed with self-love and dies without offspring. However, the young hero dwells in a “blessed” island ruled by a Virgin Queen – transparently the England of Elizabeth Tudor. In his dedication, Clapham wishes for increase of manliness (“virtutis”) and of honour (“honoris”) in Wriothesley. The Earl was thus associated with Narcissism, disreputable sterility and lack of virility. The unflattering implications must have been approved by Burghley.

Some months later, around April 1593, a hitherto unpublished and relatively unknown actor-author, William Shakespeare, produced a long, sexually lurid poem entitled Venus & Adonis. According to the register of the Stationers' Company, it was printed “under the hands of the Archbishop of Canterbury”. Like Clapham's, this work was based on a tale in the Metamorphoses. Like Clapham, Shakespeare took liberties with the source material. His beautiful Adonis remains unmoved by even the sweetest or earthiest of female charms - and he requires exhortations to beget offspring. The dedicatee of the work was the same Henry Wriothesley, still, to the continued displeasure of his guardian, resisting marriage.

Though they shared classical sources, themes, hero characteristics and dedicatee, Venus & Adonis was much more supportive of Wriothesley than was Narcissus. Anyone construing projections of the Earl would see in Shakespeare's poem a sympathetic depiction of resistance to female sexuality and a celebration of the hero's manly attributes. In these respects it appears (as noted by Akrigg – see footnote 1, referenced earlier) to be a deliberate counterbalance to the earlier work, albeit containing the tactful encouragements to fatherhood which would have had the approval of Burghley and other members of the senior circle around Southampton. The Archbishop's underwriting of the publication must have taken account of its content (including the dedication) and suggests that he supported the book's promotion of, or by, the Earl.

Shakespeare's cultivation of Wriothesley was encouraged by severe professional pressures. The London stages were closed for prolonged periods between mid-1592 and the spring of 1594 (due to plague outbreaks and social disturbances). All who depended on that theatre for a living were suffering. The young Earl was also short of ready cash, due to a tendency to spend more than the allowance permitted by his guardian. However, as the resource-rich, impending inheritor of his family estates, he represented a viable source of succour and a potentially affluent sponsor.

In the circumstances, all would have expected Shakespeare's dedication of his maiden publication to be, in effect, an effusive eulogy. In large part these expectations were met. Here is the wording:

To the Right Honorable Henrie Wriothesley, Earle of Southampton, and Baron of Titchfield.

Right Honourable,

I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolisht lines to your Lordship, nor how the worlde will censure mee for choosing so strong a proppe to support so weake a burthen, onelye if your Honour seeme but pleased, I account my selfe highly praised, and vowe to take advantage of all idle houres, till I have honoured you with some graver labour. But if the first heire of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorie it had so noble a god-father: and never hereafter eare so barren a land, for feare it yeeld me still so bad a harvest, I leave it to your Honourable survey, and your Honor to your hearts content which I wish may alwaies answere your owne wish, and the worlds hopefull expectation.

Your Honors in all dutie, William Shakespeare.

In his biography of Shakespeare, Bill Bryson says of the dedication: "[it is] so florid and unctuous that it can raise a sympathetic cringe even after four hundred years". He goes on to observe: "we know nothing at all about the relationship, if any, that existed between Shakespeare and Southampton". With these views, Bryson faithfully reflects orthodoxy, which interprets the above address broadly along the following lines:

I am concerned that I shall cause offence by dedicating my unsophisticated verses to your Lordship and that everyone will censure me for choosing such an important person to support so undistinguished a work. If my only reward is your Honour's apparent pleasure I shall nevertheless be flattered and promise to work as hard as I can to provide you with something more serious in theme. But if the first product of my art proves to be unlovely I shall be sorry that it had so noble a patron and will never again attempt to apply so dull a skill, for fear that the outcome will be just as bad. I leave it to your Honourable survey, and your Honour to your most complete happiness, which I wish may ever accord with your own wishes and the hopeful expectations of all.

The strong flavour of self-deprecation and flattery was undoubtedly intended to dominate the way the dedication would be perceived by Wriothesley and other readers of Shakespeare's first book. However, one may reasonably question whether this was all that occupied the poet's thoughts when he composed the address. On analysis of the original, some oddities of construction are perceptible. For example, “I leave ... your Honor to your hearts content which I wish may alwaies answere your owne wish” is a strangely convoluted way to express a wish for perpetual happiness. Shakespeare conveyed the overt sentiments to the same addressee much more straightforwardly with the “I wish [you] long life still lengthned with all happinesse” of his closely subsequent Lucrece dedication.

However, the fundamental peculiarity of the address lies in its pervasive double meanings and their cohesion to provide an alternative (and self-justifying) theme of insult and reproach! This aspect of the dedication (hereafter termed the “Angry” aspect) is heavily cloaked by the natural predisposition of a reader to see only a eulogy. Nevertheless, it is there. It may be portrayed in phrases of similar meaning as follows:

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.

At first sight, the Angry aspect seems to present an irreconcilable conflict with the dedication's overt theme of servility (representing what is hereafter termed the “Toady” aspect of the address). It is also completely at odds with reasonable preconceptions as to the purposes of the dedication. Paradoxically, it is the invisibility fostered by these perspectives which supports its presence and which helps (with the thrust of its messages, as we shall see) to explain and justify its construction. Moreover, despite its camouflage, the Angry aspect is as validly represented by Shakespeare's address as is the Toady. Its deployment of each of his words or phrases is unexceptionable under conventions of language common to both (as suggested above and justified below). In combination, these renditions deliver a complex message, which is at least as coherent as that of the Toady. Accordingly, either this phenomenon is a fluke or the poet intended to construct (and conceal) the Angry aspect alongside the Toady.

Let us address the proposition that the duality of the dedication was a fluke. How likely is it that puns of this frequency and coherence arose purely through accidents of word selection, having regard to normal patterns of language formulation? For a reasoned answer, we must assess each of the ambiguities which contributes to the Angry aspect (hereafter described as an “Ambiguity”) and of its qualities in each aspect.

Ambiguity 1 comes in the opening line, with the words, “I know not how I shall offend”. In isolation, these convey a simple message: of ignorance as to how offence might be taken. It is only with perceptions of context that slants occur. In Toady aspect, the perceived context (of deference and apology) suggests that the author is blaming his ignorance for the possibility of offence. Attention is thereby focused on the offender's concern for his shortcomings, rather than the means by which the offence might be conveyed. In Angry aspect (with a context of disdain) the emphasis is on the means (as when a frustrated tutor might say of his disinterested and stupid pupil: “I know not how I shall educate”). Shakespeare's words then suggest his assessment that the addressee is unlikely to comprehend the following affronts.

Ambiguities 2 and 3 follow closely. The “lines” of “in dedicating my unpolisht lines to your Lordship” naturally evoke the verses which are the subject of the dedication in its Toady aspect. Their description as unpolished suggests a portrayal of the poetry as unrefined and, by extension, unworthy of dedication. However, “unpolisht” could also convey meanings of straightforwardness or freedom from niceties (Ambiguity 2): as illustrated by the following extract from the Oxford English Dictionary (“OED”): “c1489 My wordes vnpullysht be, nakide and playne. (J. Skelton Dethe Erle of Northumberlande)”. Moreover, because the dedicatory address is itself an offering (a circumstance emphasized by its commencement with the word, “To”), it may reasonably be represented as the output of an act of dedicating (Ambiguity 3). In these circumstances, “unpolisht lines” produces a reference to the contents of the dedicatory address in its Angry aspect and their frankness. Those contents are indeed frank, providing a corroborating consistency which is at least as valid as that of the Toady (in which the relevant lines are far from unpolished, but where there is taken to be a self-deprecatory tongue in cheek).

Ambiguity 4 appears in the words “choosing so strong a proppe to support so weake a burthen”. The duality of the expression arises from its failure to identify prop and burden. The reader depends on perceptions of context. In each Aspect these lead to the same two subjects (the poem and the dedicatee) but - with equal internal harmony – a reversal of roles.

The succeeding passage, read straightforwardly, fits equally well with its perceived context in either Aspect (as may be seen by looking at the full representations of each above): “onely if your Honour seeme but pleased, I account my selfe highly praised, and vowe to take advantage of all idle houres, till I have honoured you with some graver labour”.

We come now to a cornerstone passage, which contains three Ambiguities: “But if the first heire of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather: and never hereafter eare so barren a land, for fear it yeeld me still so bad a harvest”.

Ambiguity 5 arises in the phrase “first heire of my invention”. In Toady aspect, the context obliges the reader to identify the heir with the poem under dedication. The qualification “first” might cause hesitation, however, given that the poem was far from being the first offspring of Shakespeare's creativity[ii]. In this respect, the phrase would have been less obtrusive had it been presented as, say, “this newborn heir of my invention”. Such description of the heir would have destroyed the Angry aspect - which raises the possibility that this is why it was not used. Conventional explanation has it that, like disenfranchised bastards, earlier works did not carry any acknowledgement of paternity by Shakespeare. The plays may have contained significant contributions from other authors and were, in any case, the property of the acting company. For any, or all, of these reasons they were excluded from the status of “heir”.

This justification is strained. Shakespeare's primacy of authorship, his paternity, of the relevant plays was accepted by all when the latter were eventually printed in 1623 under his name (with the cooperation of former acting company colleagues). There is no strong reason why he, their acknowledged principal author, should have denied all these works that status in 1593. Nor was there any mandate or custom for an heir to be designated thus in writing before the person warranted that description in common English. The plays (in both manuscript and staged forms) were thus properly heirs of Shakespeare’s invention, in the Toady sense. Consequently, a more tenable explanation for the use of “first heir” (in Toady) is the author’s assessment that readers would associate the phrase with a first excursion by him into print (or a first effort at poetry), and would give little, if any, thought to ineptness of word combination.

He may also have rightly assumed that they would be unlikely to dwell on a mix of metaphor. The Toady aspect depicts the verse of the poet as a child (“heir”) and then as agricultural produce (“harvest”), within the same sentence. The metaphoric mix is unnecessary to that Aspect and so appears clumsy when read objectively. By way of illustration, the line might have been rendered (without mix of metaphor) as: But if the (first) fruit of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a husbandry: and never hereafter ear so barren a land, for fear it yield me still so bad a harvest. Alternatively: But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather and never hereafter enjoin so rude a womb, for fear it breed me still so lame an issue. Or again: But if the first such device of my invention prove unseemly I shall be sorry it had so noble a patron and never hereafter apply so mean a craft for fear it yield me still so coarse a furniture.

As it happens, had the word, “heir”, been replaced by any unambiguous expression for the poetry, or had it been used without metaphoric mix, the Angry aspect would have been destroyed. Perhaps the mix was forced upon Shakespeare.

In Angry, the words, “first heir”, are each imbued with their most natural meanings and are each unencumbered with any awkwardness of usage. There is no mix of metaphor. An heir is a human who inherits or receives as a result of a gifting: in this context, the person for whom the work has been created. “First” means he is the first or primary person so honoured by Shakespeare (as was indeed the case). Because the heir is clearly not an inanimate object, all succeeding usages of the word “it” become references to the author's “invention” (ie: his creativity or art). It follows that the beneficiary of the poem is being represented as the “godfather” or patron who has promoted that invention.

Ambiguity 6 (the second of this cornerstone passage) arises with the interpretation of “deformed”. In Toady aspect the word suggests a marred or distorted configuration of the poem. In Angry, the reference is to a change of character or behaviour in the patron (implicitly for the worse). It is at least as appropriate in context. Similar usage is exampled in the OED: “1604. Sure thou wouldst make an excellent elder in a deformed church [J. Marston Malcontent iv. III.]”. Shakespeare, himself, implies both senses simultaneously in Loves Labours Lost, having Berowne say (Act V, Scene ii, lines 751-753): Your beauty, ladies, hath much deformed us, fashioning our humours even to the opposed end of our intents.  

Ambiguity 7 (the third of this passage) occurs in the usage of the words “land” and its yield, the “harvest”. In Toady, these linked ideas present a metaphor for the poet's “invention” (his creativity) and its output, his poetry. In Angry, they present no less acceptable a metaphor for the patronage and the poet's returns from his cultivation thereof.

Before we leave this cornerstone passage, let us assess its character as a whole. In the earlier language of the dedication, each of the latter's Aspects is competently represented. Now, in the Toady only, come suggestions of disjointedness. Apart from the manifestations of  ineptness associated with the uses of each of the words “first” and “heir” (see above), the degree of abnegation by the author is almost absurd - even by some extreme standards of contemporary precedence. Were the passage absent, we might reasonably suppose that none of Bryson's cringes would have been prompted! More significant, however, is the superfluity. The Toady aspect would read as well (and arguably better) without the passage. In Angry, by contrast, “first” and “heir” are essential to the aspect and the passage provides a powerful representation of (and justification for) the underpinning bitterness. It is a vital element, of elegant fit. All of these circumstances suggest that if either construction was at the forefront of the author's mind when composing this passage, it was that of the Angry.

The remaining two Ambiguities occur in the following extract from the final lines of the dedication: “I leave ... your Honor to your hearts content which I wish may alwaies answere your owne wish”.

In normal usage (as described in the OED) the phrase, “heart's content”, represented the full capacity for happiness. On this basis, “I leave your Honour to your heart's content” equates in Toady to something like “I leave you to your state of greatest happiness”. One might instead interpret it as “I leave you to the contentedness of your heart”. Either looks like an attempt to say “I leave you as happy as you can be”. The assertion suggests familiarity or presumptuousness. Each of these attitudes jars with the decorum and distance appropriate to the Toady backdrop.

Other rough edges appear in the remainder of the extract. Shakespeare goes on to wish that Wriothesley's total capacity for happiness will always be answerable to the lord's desires. The concept is incongruously complex, with its implications of variability in emotional capacity and the latter’s susceptibility to self-direction. However, the Toady context inclines the reader to gloss over the meanings of the individual expressions, prompting an assumption that the passage represents simply the poet's wish that the Earl will always be completely happy. Yet, as earlier noted, Shakespeare expressed these very sentiments with both decorum and clarity in his Lucrece dedication. Either the skills of the author are here proving deficient or something else is going on.[iii]

Given what has already emerged, that something else is most likely to be Shakespeare's focus on the Angry aspect. We can discern in Angry another meaning to “your heart's content”. In an extension of the normal usage, this may be taken to mean “what most contents your heart”. The source of happiness is evidently able to respond to (“answer”) the Earl's wishes, suggesting that it is a person, rather than the emotion, or other intangible equivalent, in Toady (Ambiguity 8). The reference to a person, who evidently interacts with the Earl, brings a different colour to the adjective, “owne”. The latter is superfluous in Toady. In Angry it carries an emphasis of direction, given an overtone of priority by the preceding “always”. Shakespeare wants the person who most contents the Earl to be responsive to the demands for Wriothesley's satisfaction whatever the circumstances – in other words to be a slave to the aristocrat's self-centredness (Ambiguity 9).

At this point let us pause, to test objectivity of argument. Perhaps the nature of the messages conveyed in Toady, and the number of relevant, available expressions, were such as to constrain the author's choices of words to the point that at least some of the Ambiguities became inevitable? However, even brief consideration shows that this is not the case. Already presented above is a form of the dedication as it is construed by orthodoxy. This is hardly ambiguous. Here, following, is another rendition, which draws on different expressions from many available to Shakespeare. It too is far from ambiguous. It too demonstrates that the choice of each of the nine expressions of Ambiguity is one essentially free of, and unlinked to, the other eight (unlike, for example, the "prop" and "burden" within Ambiguity 4 and the "land" and "harvest" within Ambiguity 7):

I know not if I shall be taxed of presumption in dedicating my rude poetry to your lordship, nor if the world will censure me for choosing so great a power to uplift so slight an undertaking, 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 issue of my invention prove gross I shall be sorry it had so noble a champion and never after blow so mean a pipe for fear it yield me still so coarse a music. I leave it to your Honourable survey and join with the world in wishing for your Honour the height of happiness. 

The above analyses of the dedication lead to a number of conclusions and inferences. Each of the two Aspects is competently represented in its first few lines. Thereafter, there is some fraying at the edges – but this is almost entirely on the part of the Toady. Such degradation would be inconsistent with the author's known skills, if all he had had in mind was that Aspect. However, it becomes entirely understandable, if he had assumed the burden of deliberate and sustained punning. It is difficult – probably impossible in a passage of such complexity - to construct a dichotomy of theme in which each of the two threads is expressed perfectly. Shakespeare's word selection would have been severely constrained throughout the address. It would be surprising were there not signs of this handicap, even with so skilled an author. As it happens, fault lines are most perceptible towards the end of the dedication. Here (where the risk of pun recognition is at its lowest) Shakespeare was apparently more ready to compromise the aptness and elegance of the overt theme, in order to enable the alternate meanings.

We see also that, in order to present both Aspects, the dedication contains at least nine independent applications of double meaning. It is not unusual for scripts of this length to contain an isolated ambiguity or two. In the absence of external indicators (or preconceptions of purpose), reliance is placed on the immediately surrounding narrative to clarify the meaning intended by the author. If, however, the double meaning becomes reinforced with as few as one or two other contextual ambiguities, one becomes suspicious that punning was intended. With nine mutually reinforcing occurrences, occupying essentially the whole of a short script and authored by a skilled exponent of wordplay, most would take this to be a certainty.

On the above qualities and anomalies of construction alone, we may conclude it highly probable that Shakespeare engineered his dedication to include both Aspects. However, to appreciate just how high is this probability, let us make the contrary assumption: that only the Toady aspect was on his mind when he composed the dedication. In these circumstances, the occurrences and cohesion of the nine unintended, radically different messages which give rise to the Angry become random events of chance. Accordingly, we may analyse these phenomena by applying the mathematics of probability.

Consider a passage of writing by a competent author, who intends that it should convey intelligent, unambiguous messages (such writing hereafter referred to as “the passage”). Each element or expression within the passage is selected by the author to meet these ends. Sometimes, as already remarked, secondary meanings may be conveyable by individual words or phrases: but usually only if these are considered in isolation. It is unlikely that the author would apply (or keep) the form of words in the passage if there was any significant chance of an alternative meaning being conveyed by that expression in context. We may present this condition mathematically by saying that the probability of accidental misdirection associated with each expression within the passage is generally significantly less than 50%.

Should several such accidents occur in the passage, it is even more unlikely that their secondary meanings will cohere - either with each other or with the remaining unambiguous body of the passage. Because the alternative meanings are accidental (and hence random in nature), the composite probability of their overall cohesion (within a self-justifying theme radically different to that intended) is, under the rules of mathematics, derived by multiplying together the individual probabilities of occurrence of each cohesive accident.

This mathematical principle is also used by searchers for deliberate anagrams, acrostics and other secondary letter combinations within scripts – who apply it to assess the probability of selected combinations occurring by chance. In these explorations, the analyst assesses the composite probability of certain letters performing a function not intended by the author: that is their cohesion through secondary usage into meaningful words not envisaged by him. In our exploration, we are assessing the composite probability of certain expressions performing a function not intended by the author: that is their cohesion through secondary usage into meaningful messages not envisaged by him.

So far, so good. However, the assessors of secondary letter combinations have a big advantage. They can obtain a reasonably accurate estimate of the probability of occurrence of each individual accident. It corresponds to the frequency of usage of the relevant letter in the author’s normal writing style. This may be estimated statistically by analysing a suitable sample of the author’s works. In contrast, we have no similarly precise method of estimating the probability of occurrence of each accident of secondary usage of written expressions. Nevertheless, we may make a reasonable, empirically-based estimate of the lowest odds against their chance occurrence in a cohesive cluster: derived cautiously to allow a sizeable cushion for error. 

As noted above, the probability of accidental miscommunication associated with each expression within the passage (as defined) is generally significantly less than 50%. A moment’s reflection and common experience reinforce this observation. It would be impossible for language to function as a means of communication were this not the case. Moreover, it is rare for a competent reader to misconstrue the writings of a competent author who has intended these to be unambiguous - particularly if that author has exercised the care normally associated with a maiden publication and its dedication to a person of importance. In these circumstances, we would not expect even one expression in ten by such an author to be capable of significant misreport in context. With heavy bias for the sake of caution, however, let us allow that there may be, on average, one in five such expressions occurring throughout the passage. For the purpose of our exercise, this points to an average probability of 20% for the occurrence of each accident of cohesive secondary usage.

On this basis, the composite lowest odds against the chance occurrence of nine Ambiguities and the cohesion of their secondary meanings within the theme of the Angry Aspect becomes 20% to the power of nine (i.e. nine multiplications of 20%). This presents odds against of 1 to 1,953,125 or approximately 1 in 2 million.

However, these cautiously derived odds reflect only the chances of simultaneous fluke occurrence, and cohesion in their radically different theme, of the nine unintended expressions which contribute to the Angry aspect. They provide no measure of the elegance of the latter's structure relative to that of the Toady. Of course, because the Ambiguities are embedded in an existing platform (in the shape of the Toady aspect), the survival of much of the latter's order in the second Aspect is unsurprising. Nevertheless, we would expect some deterioration, if, as we are assuming, the presence of each of the nine Angry components was a fluke. We certainly would not expect the secondary aspect to show an improvement in construction. Yet, as brought out above, this improvement is manifest in the Angry. Consequently, to refine the above measure of probability, we must also factor in the odds that a complex of nine accidents will have a construction which is superior to that of the deliberately formulated platform from which it has, by chance, emerged.

With this extra factor of unlikelihood, the chances of accidental manifestation of the Angry aspect must fall to a small fraction of that already tiny fraction derived above for the occurrence of its nine distinguishing elements. Say, for the sake of reasonable illustration, that the chance of accidental improvement falls in the range of 1:10 to 1:1000. This would bring us to conservative probability measures for the accidental manifestation of the Angry aspect, which range between 1 in 20 million to 1 in 2,000 million. These odds are akin to those against fluke DNA matches in humans. By extension, what has already been shown to be highly probable becomes a reliable premise - that the double meanings in the dedication of Venus & Adonis were deliberate.

On this basis, certain pieces of information emerge directly and inevitably from Shakespeare's words. The content of the hostile theme demonstrates that he had an intimate relationship with the Earl – which must have started, at the least, several months before April 1593. It affirms that Wriothesley had been a champion of the poet and his work. It indicates that Shakespeare was badly upset by a change of attitude (from a “deformed” patron). There are strong and bitter hints that Wriothesley’s affections (and any future sponsorship consequent on these) were now directed elsewhere.

Concomitantly, the overt pandering of the composite address shows that the venture to print the poem remained dependent on the Earl's support[iv]. In these circumstances, the deliberate inclusion of a hostile theme (however well disguised) might seem to present a fatal contradiction. To so conclude would be to ignore the poet's bitterness (portrayed in the Angry aspect as due to the above-described changes in the Earl and his preference of another).

With this spur, it would have been unsurprising human behaviour to mitigate the gall of enforced obeisance to a despised offender, by making a suitably discreet gesture of defiance. The expectations of others would be satisfied by the overt toadying of the dedication. The poet's true thoughts would be conveyed in its hostile aspect, albeit that this finger of disdain would be brandished only when he had got the butt of his wit (and spectators) to look the other way. The creativity needed for such elegant repudiation would be an added joy for this author. Nor can Shakespeare's boldness and judgement of his skills and the associated risks be said to have been misplaced. The dedication was printed, (and even re-printed several times in short order). The hostile theme evidently remained invisible to anyone who would have taken exception to it.[v]

About a year later, Shakespeare produced his second public tribute to Wriothesley: the long poem, Lucrece. This was accompanied by a handsome dedication to the Earl, conveying affection and esteem relatively unambiguously. Following the above scenario, there must have been a significant turn of events. Presumably the inferred source of Shakespeare's umbrage was there no longer. Whatever the case, the poet was, by May 1594, apparently doing his best to preserve or restore his relationship with the young lord.

There is a final curiosity - though its resolution falls outside the compass of this article. As shown above, the nature and extent of the ambiguity in the Venus & Adonis dedication lead inexorably to several inferences. Taken with the other history outlined, they point to the development of an intimate, yet troubled, relationship between a common poet seeking patronage and an aristocratic, androgynous young Narcissus reluctant to take steps to produce an heir. They suggest the aristocrat's switch to a new favourite, his selfish attitude and the poet's resultant indignation and willingness to risk insult of his social superior. Thereafter, however, the poet behaves as though the threat from the new favourite has disappeared.

These circumstances and developments are extraordinary. Taken as a whole, they provide the details of a relationship which is unique in history. Yet all these details may be discerned in Shakespeare’s Sonnets – if the latter’s first 103 poems are, like the dedication of Venus & Adonis, read as sequential autobiography by Shakespeare in address of a specific aristocrat. By way of example, let us briefly consider the relationship developments which emerge from Sonnets 56-103, when they are read on this basis.

Sonnet 56 carries a tone of disquiet as to the future of the relationship. In Sonnet 57, Shakespeare complains of the selfishness of the aristocrat. In succeeding sonnets 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 69 he implies that the aristocrat is now tainted with the “smell of weeds” and that he has become “common”: affronts which the poet attempts immediately to defuse in Sonnet 70. Sonnets 71-74 are, however, themed on Shakespeare’s death or departure[vi]. In this context they suggest wry, self-deprecating and witty attempts to placate an angry aristocrat, who has responded that, to him, the poet is dead.

With this clever grovelling Shakespeare 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 aristocrat. Shakespeare goes on to produce more patronage poetry in Sonnets 81-85, albeit spiced with barbs on the exaggerations of the Rival and the tastes of the aristocrat. In Sonnet 84 he insults the latter again by telling him that he is too focused on being praised.

Suddenly, in Sonnet 86, the Rival is gone. Shakespeare seems assured that the absence is permanent and he never again alludes to the rivalry. In succeeding poems he attempts to recover his position with the aristocrat, albeit 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 that Shakespeare is, at this stage of the relationship, running out of poetic inspiration from it.  

Theories of biography in the Sonnets are not new. What has come to be known as the Southampton theory was first mooted at least 200 years ago. Then it was based primarily on the known association of Shakespeare with Wriothesley (evidenced by the two published personal dedications) and the extent of consistency of subject matter, mainly in Sonnets 1-17, with the history of the young Earl. The theory, in various forms, has been in and out of favour over the years, but never (in its fundamental tenet that the fair youth of the Sonnets was the third earl of Southampton) disproved, nor displaced by one better-evidenced. With the incremental information emerging from the puns in the Venus & Adonis dedication and the accompanying expansion in highly unusual correspondences (exemplified above, in relation to Sonnets 56-103), it gains promise. These developments invite renewed investigation: into the proposition that Shakespeare’s Sonnets contains autobiography which, like the Venus & Adonis dedication, was originally addressed by Shakespeare to Henry Wriothesley, his intimate, though unreliable associate and sometime patron.

Afterword: For development of the concluding proposition above, see Biography in the Sonnets



[i] The biography in these opening paragraphs is uncontroversial. It accords with leading works on the third Earl of Southampton (or Shakespeare) and, in particular, with Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton by GPV Akrigg, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1968. 

[ii] Though the precise dating of each of Shakespeare's plays is problematic, it is generally accepted that several of the plays must have been written and performed before 1593. Some of the early plays, like Henry VI, Parts 1-3 and Titus Andronicus are known from independent evidence to have been very popular. 

[iii] A contemporary of Shakespeare, the waspish writer, Thomas Nashe, may have leaned to the former view. Within weeks of the publication of Venus & Adonis he produced a parody of its dedication in his own address of Wriothesley (under the date of June 27, 1593, as included in the first printing of his novel, The Unfortunate Traveller). As well as lampooning most of Shakespeare's phraseology and the excessive servility of the dedication in its Toady aspect, he avers in his address that he dare not ascribe himself as amongst those loved by the Earl, “though now and then I speak English”. The address, which appears to mock both Wriothesley and Shakespeare, was removed from a reprint of the publication shortly afterwards. 

[iv] Perhaps he was financing the printing or, more probably, was the reason that the Archbishop would underwrite it. 

[v] Possibly the dedication contained another subtle manifestation of the poet’s defiance and wordplay. He signed off as "Shakespeare”, thereby producing (at the age of 29) the first record of this version of his name, strengthening its evocation (in London and its environs) of the brandishing of a weapon or tool of penetration.