WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE‘s Sonnets were first published on this date in London, perhaps illicitly, by the publisher Thomas Thorpe who was known to steal manuscripts. Even so, if it weren’t for him we would not have this priceless work by the master. Among the greatest and well known and loved poems in the English language, most people do not realize that Shakespeare wrote these sonnets to “a fair youth.” The ‘Fair Youth’ is an unnamed young man to whom sonnets 1-126 are addressed. Shakespeare clearly writes of the young man in romantic and loving language, a fact which serves to confirm a homosexual relationship between them.
The more prudish and near-sighted prefer to call it “platonic.” But it is quite clear that he addresses a man and once read, “platonic” seems a ridiculous attempt at denying the obvious. Do you remember Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 18? (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”). That poem, taught to us as a poem of heterosexual love, is in fact written between men, and is from Shakespeare to another man in a tone of clear romantic intimacy. While Sonnet 20 explicitly laments that the young man is not a woman.
Through the years there have been many attempts to identify “the Fair Youth.” Shakespeare’s one-time patron, the Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton is the most commonly suggested candidate, although Shakespeare’s later patron, William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, has recently become a popular candidate. Both claims have much to do with the dedication of the sonnets to ‘Mr. W.H.’, “the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets”: the initials could apply to either Earl. However, while Shakespeare’s language often seems to imply that the ‘friend’ is of higher social status than himself, this may not be the case.
The apparent references to the poet’s inferiority may simply be part of the rhetoric of romantic submission. An alternative theory, most famously espoused by Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” notes a series of puns that may suggest the sonnets are written to a boy actor called William Hughes; however, Wilde’s story acknowledges that there is no evidence for such a person’s existence. Samuel Butler believed that the friend was a seaman, and recently Joseph Pequigney in “Such Is My love” argued for the idea that “Mr. W.H.” was an unknown commoner.