OVR. EVER. LivING. POET.
The dedication of the sonnets has puzzled readers for centuries. Was it intended by the poet, or is it an unwarranted interpolation put there by the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, without the consent of the author? In fact the possibilities are not endless, and may be narrowed down to just four, given below:
1. The edition was unauthorised by Shakespeare and the dedication is entirely Thorpe's work.
2, The edition was unauthorised by Sh. but the dedication is an adaptation of one that he originally wrote.
3. The edition and the dedication were authorised by Shakespeare.
4. The edition was authorised by Shakespeare but the dedication is entirely Thorpe, without the author's consent.
Most commentaries start with 1 as premise, mainly based on the assumption that the sonnets are too compromising to the man who wrote them, and therefore cannot have been authorised by him. Recent opinion is however swinging round more to 3, that the book and its dedication were done with Shakespeare's full consent.
The chief reason for this change of opinion is the more liberal moral climate
which currently prevails, and further considerations of the facts relating to
the publishing history of his works. For it is well known that Shakespeare's
other poems were published under his auspices and he does not appear to have
been in any way reluctant to give them to the world.
It is also worthy of consideration that Thomas Thorpe was a respectable publisher who had recently published works by Jonson, Marston and Chapman, and that the invective heaped upon him by those anxious to prove that the sonnets were published in this, a supposedly pirated edition, is undeserved, desperate and unsupported by any evidence.
The main 'evidence' against the sonnets is their supposedly unsavoury
character and the conclusion that they could not therefore have been intended by
the author for public consumption. However it is only conjecture that he
himself, or the circles in which he moved, would have disapproved of them, and
at this distance of time it is impossible to say what the circumstances of
publication were. If these sonnets are in any way linked to 'his sugred sonnets
among his private friends' mentioned by Francis Meres
I therefore take the view that the sonnets were published with Shakespeare's full consent, that he was aware of Thorpe's enigmatic dedication, or that he was not available at the time for comment, being away because of the plague, or for other reasons, and that he had every reason to hope that the book would be a success.
(For further discussion of these points see K. Duncan-Jones' introduction to
the Arden edition of the Sonnets, and her recently
The dedication is grammatically fairly complex and could be re-written as
The well wishing adventurer, (T.T), in setting forth these ensuing sonnets, wisheth to the only begetter, Mr. W. H., all happiness, and that eternity promised by our ever living poet.
The natural sense of this line is 'to the one who alone inspired' these sonnets, that is, the beautiful youth, who is hymned in most of them. It refers forward to Mr. W. H. in line 3. Portraying the beloved as the sole motive and mover of the lover's thoughts was commonplace in the sonnet tradition, and Shakespeare subscribes to the idea in several places in these sonnets, e.g.
O know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument. 76.
Sing to the ear that doth thy lays esteem,
And gives thy pen both skill and argument. 100.
For to no other pass my verses tend
Than of your graces and your gifts to tell; 103.
Poet's often referred to their poems as children of their brain, and a child requires a begetter.
Other commentators have preferred to interpret 'begetter' as 'the one who obtained the manuscript for me'. If, as has been suggested frequently, this book is a pirated and unauthorised printing of the sonnets, it seems unlikely that Thorpe would choose to trumpet the fact to the world and praise the one who had stolen the manuscript. The entire credit of the book and its salesworthiness depended on people believing that it was genuine Shakespeare. To give the game away that it was a stolen copy and not necessarily even by Shakespeare would have undermined its potential attraction to readers, not to mention the damage it might do to Thorpe himself as a publisher. Would he really wish to have portrayed himself as a purloiner of other men's works?
The word 'begetter' is not used by Shakespeare either in the plays or poems. However he does use 'beget' (23 times), 'begets' (7 times) and 'begotten' (4 times), either with literal meanings of 'to father, to create, to procreate.', or in a metaphoric sense. He does not use it to signify 'to procure'. The absence of the word 'begetter' in the corpus could signify that Shakespeare did not have a hand in writing this dedication (it is signed by Thomas Thorpe). However that does not show that he thereby disapproved of it. Probably he enjoyed its puzzling ambiguity and was quite happy to have it attached to the poems, as it hid the dedicatee's name from all those who were not already in the secret, and left open the possibility that all might be revealed in time.
See the additional
Not all of the sonnets that follow are written to the man, but it could be argued that, without the original impulse to write the first ones, no others would have been written. Sonnets 1-126 are addressed to the youth, if not directly so, at least by implication. Of the 28 that follow to the mistress, in three of them the youth is deeply implicated, so that only 25 out of more than 150 are addressed to the 'Dark Lady'. Even these could be regarded as supplementary to the main body, as they depict a less than ideal love in contrast to that which has already been amply shown to be divine in the preceding 126.
MR. VV. H.
There are many candidates who have been put forward for the honour of being
referred to by these intials, the two most prominent being Henry Wriothesley,
Earl of Southampton, to whom both
Such a fulsome dedication is unparalleled in Elizabethan literature, and clearly betokens a close friendship. Hence many have thought that he might be the youth addressed in the sonnets, especially as he is also known to have been reluctant to marry, and to have turned down several proposed matches.
However one of the great difficulties attached to Southampton being the 'lovely boy' is that he was too old, as he would have been 26 in 1600, and at that date it is quite probable that many of the sonnets had not yet been written. Even if they were written at the end of the century, he would still be too old for many of the compliments addressed to him, and his marriage would not have helped matters. The fact that his initials are H.W. rather than W.H. also counts against him, although the reversal could have been a deliberate part of the enigma of the dedication.
The other main contender is William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. (1580-1630). (See his coat of arms opposite). He would have been in his late teens when the so called procreation sonnets (1-20) might have been written, perhaps from 1597-1599, and he is known to have rejected several proposed marriages. He came from a renowned literary family, a supporter of the theatres through its own company of actors (Pembroke's men), and he is renowned as having the First Folio dedicated to him by Heminge and Condell in 1623. (The First Folio is the first work containing all of Shakespeare's plays published by two of his fellow actors, Heminge and Condell, some years after his death).
Many other names have been put forward, including the poet himself, the W.H. being supposedly a misprint for W.S.
It is worth remembering that dogmatism in these matters is out of place, since we do not have the documentary evidence to settle the identity of W.H., or to be certain that he is the same person as the young man addressed in the sonnets.
Many of the sonnets promise eternal fame to the youth. E.g.
Your name from hence immortal life shall
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die; 81.
See also 18, 19, 60, 63, 101.
Shakespeare was in 1609 famous both as a poet and a playwright.
applied to the adventurer, who wishes success to his own venture (of publishing).
Cui dono lepidum novum libellum
arida modo pumice expolitum?
Corneli, tibi: namque tu solebas
meas esse aliquid putare nugas
iam tum, cum ausus es unus Italorum
omne aevum tribus explicare cartis
doctis, Iuppiter, et laboriosis.
quare habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli
qualecumque; quod, patrona virgo
plus uno maneat perenne saeclo.
To whom should I give this, my new book,
Polished but now with dry pumice stone?
To you Cornelius; for you were accustomed
To think something of my silly trifles,
Even then when you alone of Italians had dared
To set forth our whole history in three tomes,
Learned ones by God, and of much labour.
So please accept this book, this nothing,
Whatever it be. And O virgin Muse, I beseech you,
Let it survive fresh in men's minds for at least a century.
144d - to promulgate, publish, issue ( a regulation, proclamation etc.).
144e - to publish (a literary work). Thus, Greene 1590
The meaning therefore would be 'the publisher, in publishing this work,
wishes etc.' But the cryptic phrasing suggests also that the wishes are directed
not only to the
Thomas Thorpe. It is almost impossible that Shakespeare would not have known him, since he had only recently published works by Jonson, Marston and Chapman. With Jonson's works especially a great deal of care had been taken to provide an accurate text, and it is probable that Thorpe had gained the reputation of being a considerate and responsible publisher. It is probable also that he offered good prices to well known authors. There is no evidence to indicate that he made a habit of stealing literary manuscripts.