The “Fair Youth” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets:

Sir Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton

When I first began to research the controversies and ambiguities within the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy I was overwhelmed by the number of diverse theories being espoused and proposed from various quarters on not only the identity of the playwright and poet, William Shakespeare, but on the identity of the “Dark Lady” and the “Fair Youth” or for that matter the “Rival Poet” described in his Sonnets’ sequence. While at my local library one day I noticed a copy of Oscar Wilde’s; “Portrait of Mr. W.H.” although I had already dismissed his friend’s interesting theory (Cyril Graham) that the fair youth was a young, effeminate boy actor named “Willie Hughes” who Shakespeare secretly idolised and admired as the epitome of youth and beauty in the Sonnets. Reading through the book I noted that Oscar Wilde had compared the forged portrait to be in the style of a legitimate and well-known French artist, Francois Clouet, but he was still unable to find any evidence of the existence in the late 15th to early 16th century of anyone on the London stage, let alone the Boy’s of St. Paul’s or the Queen’s Chapel of anyone with that name. The other high-born candidates proposed (eg; Earl of Pembroke or Earl of Southampton) were ruled out by Oscar Wilde because the dedication of the Sonnets reads: “Mr. W.H.” and the publisher Thomas Thorpe would not have had the audacity to address any nobleman of the realm with such a common title as: Mister!

Any serious study into Shakespeare’s life and work generally resembles the opening and dismantling of a series of Russian dolls. Once I had identified who was most likely to be the author of the plays, I then had the awesome task of finding the next needle in the haystack, namely the identity of the “Dark Lady”. Having narrowed down, despite the contradictions and discrepancies, who she might be, I now had to unmask the identity of the “Fair Youth”, at least to my own personal satisfaction.

The popular invention and prolific use of ambiguity in stage and drama, as well as in poetry or satire is credited to John Lyly, the secretary of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Critics of poetry are conscious of the use of ambiguity in various ways to great effect by poets for various purposes. It may be employed metaphorically, symbolically, purely accidentally or syntactically. Paradox, irony, contradiction and equivalence might exist in some accidental or intentional innuendo or double entendre as for example in satire or as a joke. Because words may have more than one meaning or can be used in an original or symbolic manner then ambiguity, which relies heavily on contradiction and contradistinction, can therefore be seen as a form of similarity or dissimilarity in a semantic sense, in a syntactical or even in a metaphorical sense. Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence is shrouded in the frequent use of universal yet unconscious ambiguity. In 1930 the literary critic William Empson actually identified “Seven Types of Ambiguity” in a book of the same name and they consist of the following:

  1. Paradox
  2. Irony
  3. Satire
  4. Contradistinction
  5. Ambivalence
  6. Equivalence (Coincidence)
  7. Distinction

In poetry ambiguity tends to exploit some discrepancy in meaning, symbolic/syntactic or other wise. In this sense it is a form of double-meaning or camouflage and it is worth noting that the Earl of Oxford was a secret benefactor to several acting companies, numerous playwrights and poets as well as supporting or sponsoring their endeavours in literature, art, drama and music. Over thirty authors and translators of books dedicated their own works to Edward de Vere as was the custom in the Elizabethan era. Furthermore, the accepted order of the Sonnets, when they were first printed in quarto format, has subsequently been a bone of contention among scholars and academics. The current conventional view (The Oxford Shakespeare) based on stylometric analysis suggests the following:

Sonnets 1-60 were composed c. 1595-6 (possibly with later revisions).
Sonnets 61-103 composed c. 1594-5.
Sonnets 104-126 composed c. 1598-1604.
Sonnets 127-154 composed c. 1591-5.

The verses of the sonnets also fall into a decasyllabic rhythm. The author Neil Graves, a researcher into this area, believes that there is a hidden numerical symbolism and structure to the sonnets which has inspired additional speculation on the possible nature or matrix of numerical cryptography. The number of lines in the Sonnets (154 = 14 x 11), as he points out seems deliberate. Did Shakespeare organise the Sonnets into groups of fourteen? So that for example each group represents a singular or combined Seraphic intelligence on the Tree of Life:

The symbolic and numerical elements of all of the sonnets 1-154 are listed in full below, but there are several overt examples which stand out most clearly. In Sonnet 6 there is a clue:

If ten of thine ten times refigured thee:
Then what could death do if thou shouldst depart,
Leaving thee living in posterity?

Traditionally six was a perfect number and as any student of mathematics knows six times 10 is 60, the number of seconds in a minute and the number of minutes in an hour and there are 24 hours in one day. Therefore, as the sonnets are rife with references to Time and Nature there should be some numerical reference to numbers they might generate. In Sonnet 60 there is a clear connection to sonnet 6 with the following phrase:

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;

Similarly, sonnet 12 suggests the numbers of a clock with the following:

When I do count the clock that tells the time,

Sonnets 44 and 45 appear to refer to the elements or humours, sonnet 55 to the planet Mars and 63 (a multiple of 9) refers indirectly to “Time’s injurious hand” and this theme recurs in sonnet 126 (2×63 = 126) to the Grand Climacteric year of Elizabethan astrology composed of 630 human years (126×10=1,260 years) when all events return to their cause or beginning and then begin anew. At this time human beings are thought to be brought to account and are then audited by the Divine Accountant. Since Mars in Neoplatonic symbolism was considered the ruler of the “Virtues” it is no surprise that Shakespeare seems obliged to include some mention of this pagan God. There is also clearly some veiled homage to Ovid’s Metamorphoses in sonnet 60 and each couplet seems to echo or respond to Ovid’s own poetic remarks regarding time.

So, while Oscar Wilde and his friend Cyril Graham had unravelled a biographical narrative contained in Shakespeare’s Sonnets it does not follow that the narrative actually took place or for that matter was the whole truth about Shakespeare’s life. Oscar Wilde’s fascinating and rather disturbing account of Cyril Graham’s theory rests on his friend’s unravelling a pun on the seventh line in sonnet #20:

A man in hew, all Hews in his controlling.

He goes on to say that in the original 1609 Sonnets edition the word “hews” is italicised with a capital H to identify it as a pun on the name “Hughes” and might be a coded reference to an Oxford poet named Willie Hughes, with sonnets #135 and #143 (Thou art as fair in knowledge as in hew) referring to his Christian name being, William or Willobie. Oscar Wilde’s main objection to Cyril’s theory was that no actor of that name is listed among the Globe Theatre’s register of Shakespeare’s Company. That fact however did nothing to dissuade Cyril Graham from his pet theory, and Wilde then describes how a heated argument took place between them which sadly resulted in Cyril later while alone of committing suicide with a revolver, leaving Oscar with a suicide note declaring that he was so convinced of the truth of his theory that he was even prepared to take his own life in order to prove its’ authenticity. Cyril’s close family members maintain that Cyril’s apparent suicide was merely an accident. This left Oscar Wilde with the precarious task of presenting Cyril’s theory to the public with the publication of “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” (Alma Classics) in which he suggests merely that the fair haired youth was a commoner, a boy-actor, renowned for his female acting parts who left his patron, William Shakespeare to work with another company, possibly Pembroke’s Men, was then entangled with Penelope Rich (the Dark Lady) or possibly Mary Fitton, then returned to work alongside Kit Marlowe (Dr. Faustus) and then travelled to Germany or alternatively died anonymously of the plague in London. Oscar Wilde was obliged to explain why the name of the “boy-actor” could not be found and the only reason he was able to supply for this anomaly was that the boy was originally “kidnapped” for the London stage from the Low Countries (according to Wilde by possibly Sir Robert Dudley-Leicester’s Men) because of his startling beauty, grace and skill at the impersonation of women. Should that have occurred then no doubt the youth would have been presented at court and even to Queen Elizabeth herself such was Dudley’s high status at court. However, reading through volume 2 of “Shakespeare’s England” it became clear that records of actors and performances were held at the wooden Whitehall Banqueting house which burned down soon after the accession of James 1st It was subsequently rebuilt in stone and its’ destruction may also explain the lack of records for court performances of early Shakespeare plays and the lack of any record concerning a certain “Willie Hughes”, that is if he ever existed.

The Famous Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth 1st by George Gower (Folger Shakespeare Gallery)

Searching the gallery archives it seems that the famous Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth (presumably by the Italian artist Frederico Zucarro) depicts two young men alongside Sir Robert Dudley, one of whom could quite conceivably be an image of the “Fair Youth”. While the famous painting of the Queen’s procession (Eliza Triumphans), listed in “Shakespeare’s England” has puzzled historians to this day as to who the fifth figure from the left was. Another anonymous portrait of a golden-haired youth painted at the age of 21, (c. 1604, again presumably by Zucarro) soon after the Earl of Oxford died could very easily be a painting of the “Fair Youth”.

Detail showing the two figures standing behind Sir Robert Dudley who are
presumed to be “his sons”, one of which could easily be the “Fair Youth”.

Now I have already discussed the quality and derived style of Shakespeare’s sonnet verses (The Sonnets Revisited) and should point out that there are numerous scribal or compositor errors as the printers William Elde and Wilson/Lownes collaborated to work from a now lost hand-written manuscript/s from which numerous errors have subsequently been discovered. This was due to the fact that the real author was without doubt dead by the date of publication and unable to make any further revisions or corrections to the verses or for that matter arrange or number them sequentially in the correct order. For example the Quarto edition contains the odd line that does not rhyme (25:9, 69:3, 113:6), that a couplet is repeated in two poems (36 & 96), a 15 line sonnet (99) mysteriously appears, a sonnet with a second line which repeats, un-metrically a phrase from its’ first line (146) and a repeated error in which the word “their” is printed for “thy”, an error which mysteriously disappears around sonnet #128 at a point when some other odd spellings occur. Finally, the strange and unexplained redactions at the end of sonnet #126, bracketed for some unknown reason (ref: “The Complete Sonnets And Poems”-edited by Stanley Wells and Colin Burrow). The manner in which the Sonnets were appended to “A Lover’s Complaint” is also a common or accepted practice. The revision of already published poems was quite common and acceptable and the author could very easily have imitated Michael Drayton (re; Idea), who wrote for the Admiral’s Men or Samuel Daniel (re; Complaint of Rosamund-1592), who wrote the masque Philotas for the Queen’s Revels. The literary influence for the Sonnets is not overtly apparent but obviously draws from Petrarch, Ovid and contemporaries such as Sir Phillip Sidney’s Astrophil & Stella (1598) which celebrates his love for Penelope Rich.

The unidentified figure fifth from the left could easily be the mature “Youth”

However, aside from these rather technical errors, some of which were subsequently “poorly corrected” by Ben Jonson in the second edition to appear as being addressed solely to a woman, but what is more significant in the investigation is why the Sonnets dedication is itself so strangely worded? It was rare for a printer to provide a dedicatory preface unless the author or the dedicatee was abroad or had recently died, so what are we to deduce from this principal fact? Signed with the initials T. T. (Thomas Thorpe) a man whose reputation for surreptitiously printing privately owned works was notorious. One perfectly good reason is that the dedication itself contains a coded cipher which leads to the name of the real author of the Sonnets which I have presented in my article: “The Sonnets Code Deciphered”. In my view, “the well-wishing adventurer” could easily have been the Earl of Southampton, before he set out on his West Indies expedition on board Edward de Vere’s ship the “Edward Bonaventure” (1609) to found the first Virginia colony in America. Further researches suggest that as a young man the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, was occasionally given over to performing anonymously taking parts at the Globe or Blackfriar’s Theatre even though this practice was frowned upon by his contemporaries. And although in his youth was bound over as a ward of Lord Burghley to marry Elizabeth de Vere (Oxford’s daughter), was prepared to pay a fine of £5,000 pounds to avoid such an arrangement given his father was conceivably none other than Edward de Vere. He secretly married Elizabeth Vernon on his return from France and was subsequently briefly imprisoned. The Earl had previously refused to marry Elizabeth Carey and Bridget Vere. The 3rd Earl of Pembroke (William Herbert), although beguiled by the beautiful and alluring Mary Fitton, eventually chose the plain but wealthy Mary Talbot as his wife. Mary Fitton was found to be pregnant by 1601 and the Earl denied being the father. The date of his affair with Mary rules out any possibility she was the “Dark Lady” or that he was the “Youth”. The marriage of these two noblemen is considered to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Wilde’s narrative interpretation, however misplaced, does seem the most plausible background to the creation of the sonnet verses, even though he is unable to pinpoint who the youth might be. The allusions Wilde deduces are worth reading even though he had failed to convince the world of his friend’s hypothesis. I can well understand Cyril Graham’s own assertions “ringing true” like bells from a submerged cathedral and Oscar Wilde’s own need to console a dead friend whose death he may have caused by denying the theory, however well espoused. Nevertheless, the premise of whether the author of the Sonnets was presumably homosexual, bisexual or a paedophile poet is stretching the world of possibilities a bit too far. The Sonnets remain as sublime and ineffable poetry even without the background story of the author’s love life. I would admit however some strong sexual association veiled in equivocal or ambiguous terms within the sonnets but Wilde’s own theory is far more nuanced than that of course. Wilde clearly posits that Shakespeare’s relationship to the fair youth and to the dark lady is based largely on the Neo-Platonic view of an artist to his numinous muse (The tenth muse is Memory), and where in certain instances an artist might find a living mortal in whom those qualities of beauty, grace, bearing and dramatic skills are both an inspiration to write the most perfect plays in which he comfortably inherits a character and where he is able to express a greater sincerity than other less talented actors can.

Of course this would not have been the first time someone had deliberately concocted fraudulent evidence to prove their lunatic assertions for personal gain or academic status. As Wilde includes in his own addendum the story of the Irish poet James Macpherson (1736-96) who claimed to have discovered an entire manuscript in Gaelic by some unknown poet which later turned out to be a forgery. Or, William Ireland’s attempt to forge an “unknown Shakespeare play” purely for financial gain and Thomas Chatterton’s own attempts to imitate the work of Thomas Rowley, a 15th century poet.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,