Wednesdays with Will – A Few Words About the Sonnets Dedication Puzzle

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A Book by Shakespeare under a Magnifying GlassMuch has been written regarding the dedication of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and, although I cannot settle the issue, I can comment upon it.

The sonnets were published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe, and the dedication was signed and presumably created by him. It reads in a slightly updated translation: To The Only Begetter Of These Ensuing Sonnets Mr. W.H. All Happiness And That Eternity Promised By Our Ever-Lasting Poet Wisheth The Well-Wishing Adventurer In Setting Forth.

The dedication is difficult to understand, and, as with the sonnets, changing the emphasis on a word makes a slight change in the interpretation. It is clear they were not Shakespeare’s words as it is not his writing style and also, once again, as it was signed by Thorpe himself. In fact, it can be presumed that because of the personal nature of the sonnets, it was unlikely the poet wanted them made public.

The question has been: Who is W.H.? Most scholars have claimed it is either William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, or Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, although neither can be proven without a doubt to be the one to whom the poems are dedicated.

Some have pointed out that the use of Mr. in the dedication rules out the nobles as they never would have been properly addressed as Mr. As a result, it has been postulated that W.H. stands for William Hall, Thorpe’s assistant, who was instrumental in procuring the sonnets for the publisher and whose initials were recognized by his peers.

My take is that W.H. was William Hall. He certainly was a begetter presumably, the major begetter of the sonnets, and would have deserved recognition for his efforts. Thorpe would not have presumed to speak for the poet and dedicate the sonnets to either of the earls, and he would have never referred to them as Mr. To hide the identity of an earl by referring to him as Mr. would have been unthinkable, if not dangerous, at the time. So, I vote for William Hall as being the W.H. of the sonnets. dedication.