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Who was Mr WH?

(And how was he the "only begetter" of Shakespeare's Sonnets?)

The original Quarto edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets contains an introductory address, which refers prominently to an “onlie begetter”, Master WH. The writer identifies himself with the initials “TT”. He is evidently Thomas Thorpe, who recorded his venture to print the Sonnets in an entry in the Stationers' Register of May 1609.

The enigmatic content of Thorpe's foreword has triggered curiosity for centuries. Here is a representation:














The triangular blocks of capital letters and the flow of language from object to subject echo a dedication in which Thorpe had already been involved - that of his publication, Volpone, printed by George Eld. The dedication, written by the author, Ben Jonson, was published just two years before the Sonnets Quarto (also printed by Eld). Consequently (and contrary to the assertion of certain Oxfordians), the layout of the above address suggests nothing extraordinary. It is its content which demands attention.

The address is often referred to as Thorpe's dedication of the Sonnets. Yet nothing is dedicated. The “adventurer”, as Thorpe describes himself, says he is well-wishing in setting forth. He appositely expresses two wishes. The first is for Master WH to receive all happiness. The second is for that eternity promised by “our ever-living poet”. Due to the absence of distinguishing punctuation and the ordering of the words it is unclear whether this eternity is wished for WH or for someone else.

There are other curiosities. Why is WH brought so prominently into the spotlight, then kept anonymous? What does Thorpe mean by "begetter of these insuing sonnets"? Why does he feel the need to say he is “well wishing” in performing his role? Indeed, why include any of the words after “poet”?  

Over the years there have been various theories as to the identity of WH. All of the most commonly cited are compromised by strains of interpretation and/or by the need to manipulate the WH initials (in defiance of Occam). For example, one class of propositions has WH as the aristocratic Fair Friend of the Sonnets. It is undermined by the untenable nomenclature: a nobleman was never publicly referred to as a plain "Master" or with vulgar abbreviation - and Thorpe knew the ropes (as demonstrated by Volpone and other material). That genre also requires that Thorpe intended "onlie begetter" to equate to "sole inspirer" - but there was more than one inspirer of the poems (since these included the Dark Lady sonnets). A second class of propositions (which sometimes overlaps) relies on contorting the WH initials by way of substitution, reversal, or unlikely assignation within a single name. For example, one theory in this class has "WH" as the poet, via a postulated misprint of Shakespeare's initials - unlikely, given the prominence of the reference and its author (who was also the manager of the publication). A third class of propositions has the begetter as a commercial supplier of the manuscript poems to Thorpe. This concept is undermined by: (i) its interpretation of "begetter" as "obtainer" (a usage which is both unsupported and unnecessary, according to the content of the Oxford English Dictionary); (ii) the absence of any evidence supporting the imagined supplier's access to the manuscripts; and (iii) by Thorpe's own role as a begetter under this interpretation (which would disqualify WH from being the sole such). Moreover, each of the theories in these classes struggles to reconcile its postulated background with the editorial decision to perpetuate disreputable aspects of the poems (as touched on further, below).  

Nevertheless, there is one scenario which avoids all of these pitfalls. It is based on the premises that the Sonnets were essentially biographic (which probability is justified below) and that Thorpe's wish for the "eternitie promised" refers to their oft-repeated suggestion that their main subject would live on with the poems. Such immortality might be anonymous - like that of the model for the Mona Lisa - but, by publishing the Sonnets, Thorpe could reasonably claim to be furthering these poetic promises. The scenario is underpinned by unusually strong independent evidence (some of which only recently discovered - see here) that the main subject of the poems was Shakespeare's patron, Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton (who was also the dedicatee of his poems, Venus & Adonis and Lucrece). However, (as brought out early in the afore-linked evidence) Thorpe's published replications preserve disreputable implications: disclosures which would have been damaging to both patron and author (to the extent that each was identified with underlying original missives).

Accordingly, it is likely that neither Wriothesley nor Shakespeare was consulted on the publication of the poems: nor was either the supplier to Thorpe of the originals. Aside from the identity of this source, it begs the question of why the publisher would risk damage to (and retribution from) the powerful Earl, whose fine qualities he professed to want immortalized. He could easily have eliminated the risks with some minor expurgation: editing which would hardly have impaired (and might well have enhanced) the commercial value of the publication. It follows, then, that Thorpe's discretion in this respect was constrained: in which case the most likely cause of his editorial straitjacket was an unusually influential supplier of the original manuscripts:  Mr WH.

If Thorpe's source was WH, the latter evidently cared relatively little for Wriothesley's (or Shakespeare's) feelings and reputation; considered himself immune from a serious risk of retaliation; could persuade Thorpe to a substantially unexpurgated printing; could, therefore, reward and defend the publisher and - as one prerequisite to the latter ability - could demonstrate legitimate possession of the manuscript poems. To date, there is only one potential fit: Wriothesley's stepfather, William Hervey, subsequently Baron Hervey of Kidbrooke. The deduction is supported by the documented histories of the two characters and their clashes (which began with Hervey's wooing of Wriothesley's much older, and twice-widowed, mother). Interested (or skeptical) readers are referred to the penultimate section of Biography in the Sonnets, headed Publication of the Sonnets Quarto - which deals with Hervey's title, his interactions with Wriothesley, Thorpe's arrangement of the Quarto and its inclusion of A Lover's Complaint. These developments shed new light on Thorpe's cryptic address and allow - uniquely - a straightforward interpretation of all the nuances of its construction.

Thorpe's words limit the act of begetting to “these insuing sonnets” (in whose “setting forth” he, Thorpe, has been involved). In the English of the time, "insuing" carried meanings along the lines of "following from" and "arising as  a consequence of". These meanings suggest that it is the consequences (or outcomes) of Thorpe's involvement which are begotten or initiated by Hervey. Those outcomes are the printed sonnet reproductions (commonly then, as now, referred to though they were the originals).  In other words, Hervey - WH - is the person who has hatched the idea of publishing a book of the sonnets and who has been the sole driver of the project. The qualification, onlie, suggests (on this basis) that Thorpe paid nothing for the manuscripts (otherwise the publisher would have been - at the least - a co-begetter of the reproduction). It strengthens the inferences that the wealthy Hervey was able to direct or control key aspects of the publication and that he was motivated purely by a wish to discomfit his antagonistic stepson. On these bases - and in contrast to all commonly cited theories of WH - it emerges that the latter was Thorpe's customer.

Against this background, the foreword of the "well wishing" Thorpe is revealed as a statement designed to explain and to excuse his participation. It is directed primarily towards those privy to the background of the Sonnets. He uses the headlines of his address to put responsibility for the publication firmly on his customer, WH (the priority of this objective perhaps explaining the flow of language). He genuflects to the Fair Friend of the Sonnets, by aspiring to make good their promise of immortality. He eulogizes (and suggests a share of that immortality to) Shakespeare - perhaps in an attempt to mollify the latter for the exploitation of his name. However, other identities are disguised. To protect the Earl (and maybe himself from Wriothesley's wrath) Thorpe evidently intended that the full meanings of his foreword, including WH's identity, should be intelligible only to Southampton (and the few associated insiders). Either there was only so much risk that the publisher was prepared to countenance; or Hervey wished merely to rattle his sabre at, rather than disgrace, his stepson. In any event, it appears that an agreement was reached between the publisher and his customer as to the balancing of disreputable exposure with protective disguise. 

With this perspective, here is a rendition of the foreword in modern, conventionally-ordered English (showing Thorpe's corresponding words below). It explains, or is consistent with, each curiosity of publication. It relies on no misprints, "forcing" of initials or strained anomalies of address. Its interpretations of Thorpe's original phrases are entirely in line with the parlance of the time, in context. In these respects collectively it is unique:

I – the well-meaning entrepreneur – in

arranging their printing wish all happiness

to the sole instigator of this resultant book of poems

Mr WH and that the venture delivers the immortality

 promised by our famous and never-to-be-forgotten poet.

The well wishing adventurer in

setting forth wisheth all happinesse

to the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets

Mr WH and that eternitie

promised by our ever living poet.

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