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Questions & Answers

Seeking the Truths of Shakespeare and his Sonnets


Q1: Why should we entertain the probability that Shakespeare's Sonnets are autobiography?

A1: Their content corresponds too closely (to ignore) with abnormal history of Shakespeare and his only personal patron. The number and extent of the correspondences, their sheer peculiarity, and the absence of inconsistencies preclude anything other than a minimal probability that the correlation is accidental. Further, the inferred biography provides the only comprehensive resolution to several mysteries of the poems (outlined at A3 below). It also provides the best answers to certain related puzzles. Read more on this below.


Q2: Give one example of the match with “abnormal” history, alleged in A1 above.

A2: In 1593 Shakespeare published his first long poem, Venus & Adonis, printed under his personal dedication to Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton. The content and circumstances of the dedication reveal a socially inferior poet aspiring to the friendship and patronage of a young effeminate-looking nobleman, resistant to marriage. Its messages show the poet, named William, receiving early encouragement from the lord, but subsequently feeling let down by a change of attitude and the aristocrat's preference of a rival – impelling him to reproach and insult the young noble (see here for more on this). All these features of the relationship - collectively unique in history - are mirrored straightforwardly and with consistency in the content of Shakespeare's Sonnets (as are several other peculiar facets of Wriothesley's past - see more here).


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

A3: (i) The decision to publish, without 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 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 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 inclusion 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 – 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 powerful aristocrat. As significant is the theory's unique ability to explain Thorpe's enigmatic foreword with resort to neither linguistic strain 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 poetic 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 identity of the Rival Poet of the Sonnets; the strange sharing of characteristics 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 article 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 stories perceptible in the Sonnets are based on the earlier works of others.


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

A7: It suggests that, at a time when the business of the London playhouses was disabled (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 only recently been promulgated. Those experts on whom the public rely in this arena tend to be English Literature scholars (not historians): more interested in the constitution, transmission and interpretation of the author's plays (and long poems) than in the 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. Another might be the perception of consequential restrictions on the free interpretation of the poems. For more food for thought on these matters, see "Related Issues" 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 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. Even supposedly hard facts are based on such assessments. 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 and regard to circumstances, probability assessments provide high confidence in various Shakespearean issues: such as the nature of his early schooling 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). The proposition that the Sonnets were a form of correspondence between Shakespeare and Wriothesley is supported by a quality of evidence at least on a par with that underpinning such generally accepted deductions.


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.


Related Issues:

The zeitgeist of English Literature academe (when faced with the prospect of biography in the Sonnets - see A8 above) may be glimpsed in various aspects of the following interactions. By way of background, I had become involved in a protracted online debate during April 2014, kindly hosted and recorded by the SHAKSPER forum (an institution dominated by English Literature academia). My argument (organized to reflect matters raised earlier in the debate) was summarized 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.
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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.

The public reaction of Academics to my 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. I agree, of course, with this principle (see 1 above) - but, as I pointed out, it 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 traditionalist from dismissing it all as "fiction".

By contrast and privately, the following remarks were e-mailed to me during the debate, by one of the more eminent English Literature scholars on the forum: "I like your take on biography in the sonnets very much: a smart and interesting and persuasive approach".


Commentary invited: Constructive feedback, input or further queries are welcome, via Contact.