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Questions & Answers

Seeking the Truths of Shakespeare and his Sonnets

Q1: Were Shakespeare's sonnets autobiography (ie expressed substantially in the author's voice)?

A1: Most probably, yes. The replicated poems are, to an exceptional degree in their genre, presented in the first person ("I") and addressed to the second ("you", "thou" or "thee"). Most of their content is congruent with abnormal history, specific to William Shakespeare. The number and extent of the correspondences, their sheer peculiarity, and the absence of inconsistencies preclude anything other than a vanishing probability that this phenomenon is accidental. The inferred autobiography clears otherwise unresolved mysteries of publication (outlined at A3 below). It also provides the best answers for certain related puzzles - including some curiosities highlighted by Authorship sceptics (see A5 and A11 below).

Q2: Give an example of the match with “abnormal" history alleged at A1 above.

A2: The circumstances (see here) of Shakespeare's only recorded dedications of poetry - both to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton - show that the author, a common poet without formal higher education and sometimes called Will: (i) dedicated his poetry to but one person; (ii) sought support and received encouragement from that person, a young, marriage-resistant, androgynous-looking lord; but (iii) then felt let down by a change of attitude and the aristocrat's preference of a rival; and so (iv) was moved to direct written reproaches and insults towards his social superior, the young noble; albeit thereafter (v) attempting to resume the cultivation of his dedicatee. Most of this development of an intimate relationship (distinguished above, in italic lettering) is unusual. Some is extraordinary. In its entirety it constitutes a history unique to Shakespeare and Wriothesley. Each detail of, and development in, this unique historical relationship also emerges, with no inconsistency, from a sequential autobiographic reading of the greater part of the same author's subsequently published sonnets (as do several other peculiar matches with Wriothesley's history - for more see here). 

Q3: What are the “mysteries” of publication, referred to in A1 above?

A3: (i) The decision to publish, without explanation or excuse, some readily redactable homoerotic content, which was offensive to public morals; (ii) the banal, incongruous or repetitious themes in many of the sonnets – inconsistent with a fictional work intended to be marketable or to enhance the standing of the author; (iii) the absence of any formal dedication or accompanying commentary by an author who had abided by this custom in his earlier publications of poetry; (iv) the cryptic foreword of the original publisher, Thomas Thorpe, which, in introducing the poems, refers to an anonymous Mr WH as “the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets”; (v) the disjointed, accompanying presentation of a long poem, A Lover's Complaint, and its shortcomings in comparison to other Complaints of the period (including the author's Lucrece of 1594); (vi) the absence – unique in Shakespeare's works – of any reprint of the book during the span of anyone then alive.

Q4: How are those mysteries solved by the proposition of biography?

A4: They are solved as a whole by only one theory of biography, first mooted some 200 years ago – that which identifies Henry Wriothesley with the Friend, recipient and main addressee of poems subsequently published without the consent of poet or muse. The Earl's history and connections resolve the resultant conundrum that the publisher, Thorpe: (i) was able to obtain private poems in manuscript, some content of which would have been detrimental to the reputations of both Wriothesley and Shakespeare; yet (ii) was prepared to publish the sonnets without the few expurgations which would have defused the risks of defamation and of retaliation from the then powerful aristocrat. As significant is the developed theory's unique ability to predict or explain every detail of Thorpe's enigmatic foreword with resort to neither strain of parlance nor manipulation of the letters, “WH” (see more here). Incidentally, it allows reasonable explanations for the provenance of A Lover's Complaint (as a product of the rivalry for Wriothesley's attentions) and for the anomalies of its inclusion and presentation with the Sonnets (as brought out here).

Q5: What are the “related puzzles” of A1?

A5: The inspiration for, and probable identity of, the Rival Poet of the Sonnets; the strange sharing of characteristics and nomenclature by the two Rosalines of Shakespeare's plays (in Loves' Labours Lost and Romeo & Juliet) and the dark-haired woman apparently loved, lost and castigated in the Sonnets; the close resemblance of some content of Shakespeare's plays to the history of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (made much of by Oxfordian Authorship sceptics); the oddities of official actions concerning Christopher Marlowe during the days preceding his death and in its aftermath (made much of by Marlovian Authorship sceptics); the unusual knowledge displayed in As You Like It of the Marlowe inquest findings. For more detail, read the sections entitled The Rival Poet and The Dark Mistress within the essay here.

Q6: Is there any evidence to suggest that the Sonnets are substantially fiction?

A6 : No. For example, in contrast to most of Shakespeare's plays and his two separately published long poems, there is nothing to suggest that the relationship stories perceptible in the Sonnets (rather than the poetic techniques) are based in the earlier works of others.

Q7: Does the inferred biography imply that Shakespeare was bisexual?

A7: It suggests that, at a time when the business of the London playhouses was disabled for prolonged periods (and when there were few welfare benefits), Shakespeare had a complex relationship with Wriothesley, the physical aspect of which was infrequent and ultimately unsatisfying. It also suggests that Shakespeare was strongly drawn to sex with women. On these bases, the poet appears to have been essentially heterosexual in his tastes, though (with the need to survive and the drive to prosper) prepared to do what he thought to be necessary to secure Wriothesley's patronage. Read more here.

Q8: Why is the probability of biography in the Sonnets not yet generally accepted?

A8: Earlier theories of biography in the Sonnets have suffered from significant defects. Some of the evidence referred to above has been promulgated only since 2010. Those experts on whom the public rely in this arena tend to be English Literature scholars (not historians): more interested (and qualified) in the constitution, transmission and interpretation of the works than in their author. For some decades now, this body has applied (and taught) a doctrine of resistance to even a contemplation of biography in the Sonnets (though there is no evidence that these are primarily fiction). One reason for this stance may be the unsavoury (to many) implications about the author which would follow. Others might be the grounding of such scholars in the study of superficially comparable works, almost entirely fictional - and/or perceptions of constraints against free interpretation, associated by them with biography. For some flavour of this background, see "Receptivity" below.

Q9: What is the recently promulgated evidence referred to above?

A9: (i) Much of that outlined in Answers 2, 4 and 5 above; (ii) some aspects of writings associated with Thomas Nashe (a contemporary of Shakespeare), which illuminate his reference to Wriothesley's involvement in triangular relationships with poets; (iii) rational and grounded interpretations of Sonnets 62, 63, 71-74, 104, 108, which rebut opinion that these conflict with the notion of a Shakespeare-Wriothesley biography; (iv) other previously unremarked correlations of the Sonnets with that history. Further detail of these developments may be found via The Biography in Shakespeare's Sonnets.

Q10: Probability assessments are not hard facts. Why should we pay attention to them?

A11: In reality, probability assessments underlie most of that which we deem to be truth. For example, Shakespeare's name on an original book cover (accepted by most as hard evidence) is no guarantee that he was author of its contents - as demonstrated by various editions of The Passionate Pilgrim and some related surviving evidence. However, with proper application, probability assessments provide high confidence in various Shakespearean issues: such as the nature of his early schooling, the contributions to his plays by other authors and the form of his literary sources (for none of which is there direct evidence). They also underpin the earliest evidence of his move to London for a career there as an author (through the identification of him with "Shake-scene", the upstart, common player without university education, whose competitive authorial skills so upset Robert Greene in 1592). Since it is inferred using identical methodology and comparable discipline (including respect of Occam), the presence of significant autobiography in the Sonnets is no more dismissable than much of what is already scholastically accepted of Shakespeare's history.

Q11: Do the above developments reinforce Shakespeare's authorship of works credited to him?

A11: Yes. The biography inferred provides the best explanations for certain anomalies or phenomena which are relied upon by Marlovians or Oxfordians, and which are not well dealt with by orthodox Stratfordianism. It also allows a reasonable theory for other oddities pointed to by Baconians. The relevant peculiarities are included in a list of the commonly quoted aspersions of Authorship sceptics at  Probate of Will. Their resolution by, or consistency with, the biography in the Sonnets strengthens the evidence of the latter for authorship by William Shakspere of Stratford, and illuminates other aspects of his history.


The zeitgeist of English Literature academe (when faced with the prospect of biography in the Sonnets - see A8 above) may be glimpsed in aspects of the following interactions. By way of background, there was a protracted online debate of the subject during April 2014, hosted and recorded by the SHAKSPER forum (an institution dominated by English Literature academia). The argument for biography (organized to reflect matters raised earlier in the debate) was summarized on the SHAKSPER website (and remains recorded therein) as follows:

1. The Sonnets may be interpreted in many different ways. In the absence of his direct guidance, we need strong alternative evidence before we may reasonably infer any of the author's intentions.
2. Given their style and the variety of subject matter, it is difficult (some have suggested impossible) to establish a coherent narrative sequence from the poems.

3. However, independent evidence of Shakespeare's cultivation of a young, effeminate-looking patron, Henry Wriothesley, does present at least one credible lead: to the scenario that the poems portray the circumstances of, and developments in, their relationship - privately expressed.

4. With this perspective, and despite the obstacle noted at 2 above, a coherent narrative sequence emerges with minimal further assumption or strain of interpretation
[as outlined for Sonnets 1-126, earlier in the debate, and as separately described on the first page of Biography in the Sonnets]. This strengthens the promise of the lead (described in 3).

5. But the emergent story contains some extraordinary content. This feature works for or against the hypothesis, dependent on the availability of independent evidence. If uncorroborated, the bizarreness of the suggested developments will undermine the credibility of the scenario. Otherwise, it will be strengthened in direct proportion to the rarity of the story portrayed.

6. The story at 4 is corroborated by objective, independent evidence associated with Shakespeare and/or Wriothesley. It is not just rare: it is unique. There are no inconsistencies. The scenario at 3 is therefore upgraded from promising lead to probable reality (for more see Biography).

7. The biography thus inferred also provides elegant solutions to a number of otherwise unresolved, knotty problems associated with the Sonnets in their original printing, for example: the strange foreword included by their publisher (for more see A3 at Truths).

8. Consequently, we have the strong alternative evidence sought in 1. This presents a high probability that the Sonnets represent private correspondence from Shakespeare to Wriothesley, subsequently published without their consent.

In public forum, the reaction of English Literature academics to these contentions was either muteness or disagreement. Those who engaged in the debate relied on traditional arguments as to why we cannot, from their content alone, assume autobiography in the Sonnets. Of course, the case presented for autobiography had already acknowledged this principle (see 1 above) - and, as was further pointed out in debate, such restriction does not preclude the presence of biography. Nevertheless, despite repeated urging, none of the dissenters would identify which elements of the above argument were disputed and why - though this did not stop one eminent traditionalist from dismissing it all as "fiction".

Out of the public eye, by contrast, there was no such dogma. Indeed, an equally eminent English Literature scholar was moved to remark: "I like [this] take on biography in the sonnets very much: a smart and interesting and persuasive approach".

Commentary invited: Input to, or queries on, the above are welcome. Please use the email address indicated in Contact.