The Mysterious Mr. W. H.
Copyright 1969 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Spring 1969.
MR. W.H. is news again! A recent correspondence in The Times, beginning with a letter from Dr. A. L. Rowse (February 17th), not only brought him back into the limelight, but before the blinding glare of the television lamps, for The Times correspondence was followed by a brief discussion in the course of “24 Hours”. As a result, one brand new candidate has emerged in the person of Nicholas Dethick, Windsor Herald; proposed, perhaps not very seriously, by John Brooke-Little, Richmond Herald of Arms. (Times, 20th February). But the main issues of the controversy have not changed much since the nineteenth century and perhaps an historical “recap” would be helpful. To quote from A Shakespeare Encyclopaedia (Methuen 1966):
“The controversy stems from the cryptic dedication by Thomas Thorpe, the editor of the first edition: TO. THE. ONLIE. BEGETTER. OF./ THESE. INSUING. SONNETS./ Mr. W.H. ALL. HAPPINESSE./ AND. THAT. ETERNITIE./ PROMISED./ BY./ OVR. EVER. LIVING. POET./ WISHETH./ THE. WELL. WISHING./ ADVENTVRER. IN./ SETTING./ FORTH./ T.T.
“Generally speaking, scholars have followed two lines of thought in connection with the identity of Mr. W.H.: some see him as the Fair Youth to whom most of the sonnets are addressed and others suggest that he is separate and distinct from the Fair Youth. The latter point of view was held by most of the early 19th-century critics, who took the term ‘begetter’ in Thorpe’s dedication to mean ‘getter’ or ‘procurer’ of the manuscript for the printer . . . This anonymous ‘getter’ became identified as William Hall, a stationer’s assistant, who, according to Sir Sidney Lee (A Life of William Shakespeare, 1898) was professionally engaged in procuring copy for printers”.
Sir Sidney Lee was overestimated as a Shakespeare scholar in his own day, but later critics have done him an injustice by slighting references to the “obscure stationer”, implying that the case for William Hall rested on no more than his bare existence. He remains as obscure as ever, but Lee’s suggestion was prompted by the discovery that in 1606, three years before the publication of the Sonnets, someone who signed himself simply with the initials W.H. had published (or anyway, sponsored) a poem entitled “A Fourfold Meditation”, by Robert Southwell; and that the printer was George Eld, who also printed Shakespeares Sonnets for Thomas Thorpe. The dedication of A Fourfold Meditation begins “To the Right Worshipfull and/ Vertuous Gentleman, Mathew/ Saunders, Esquire./ W.H. wisheth, with long life, a prosperous/ achievement of his good desires”. A dedicatory epistle follows, in which W.H. writes of these meditations: “Long have they lien hidden in obscuritie, and happily had never seene the light, had not a meere accident convayed them to my hands”. The epistle is signed—”Your Worships unfained affectionate W.H.”.
Lee very naturally concluded that this was the same W.H. as the dedicatee of the Sonnets, and that he was a stationer (publisher). It so happened that (with one exception, named but dismissed as unsuitable) William Hall was the only member of the Stationers’ Company who bore the right initials at the right time. Lee was able to show that Thorpe had dedicated one other book to a fellow stationer, and though he did not prove his claim that William Hall was a friend of Thorpe’s, his theory was as good as most and at one time widely accepted.
Others in the category of those who see Mr. W.H. as a distinct and separate person from the Fair Youth have identified him as Sir William Harvey, step-father of Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. This identification depends, of course, on the theory that the Fair Youth was Southampton, himself. The Dowager Countess of Southampton died in 1607 and it is inferred that, among her effects, Harvey found a manuscript of the Sonnets, which, with or without his stepson’s permission, he passed onto Thorpe for publication. This was the view adopted by Charlotte Carmichael Stopes who, in her biography of Southampton (1922), added an original idea of her own. In 1608, the year after the death of the Countess and the year before the publication of the Sonnets, Harvey married again, and Mrs. Stopes suggested that Thorpe sent him a copy of the book “somewhat as a wedding present”, wishing him “that eternitie promised by our ever-living poet”, in the sense of posterity through his marriage. It has been pointed out that the poet did not promise that kind of eternity, but he was, after all, very much concerned with it in the first seventeen sonnets and, in the circumstances Thorpe might well have stretched the point. It is his language we are dealing with, not Shakespeare’s, and it may have been deliberately ambiguous. Whether he could possibly have meant “procurer” by “begetter” is still hotly debated.
Not all “Southamptonites”, however, belong to the category of those who make a distinction between Mr. W.H. and the Fair Youth. Many, perhaps most, have been content with the belief that W.H. stands for Henry Wriothesley, with the initials reversed. This, as well as the suppression of the title, can be explained as a prudent though no doubt transparent disguise. Those who believe that Southampton was the Fair Youth (whether or not he was also Mr. W.H.) date the Sonnets from about 1590, when negotiations began for a marriage between the young Earl and Lord Burghley’s granddaughter, Lady Elizabeth Vere. On the other hand, the supporters of the Earl of Pembroke, Southampton’s only serious rival for the role of Fair Youth, date them some years later—beginning in 1597, when negotiations were in progress for a marriage between William Herbert, the future Earl of Pembroke, and another of Burghley’s granddaughters, Lady Brigit Vere. In both cases the negotiations failed—a prerequisite for identification as the Fair Youth.
So much for the Stratfordians, but though I have no wish to trespass upon the subject of Miss Wainewright’s lecture, “Oxfordian Views on the Sonnets” (reported p. 16), there is one Oxfordian book which must be included here. The Mystery of Mr. W.H., by Colonel B. R. Ward, was published in 1923, the year after Charlotte Stopes’ Life of Southampton, and only three years after J. T. Looney’s Shakespeare Identified in Edward de Vere Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Colonel Ward, father of B. M. Ward, who was later to write the Life of Oxford, was one of Looney’s first converts, and was the founder of the Shakespeare Fellowship, the inaugural meeting of which, at Hackney, on 6th November 1922, is recorded in his book. The Mystery of Mr. W.H. is in fact an account of Ward’s original research at Hackney, where he went, in the first place, in search of the Earl of Oxford, not Mr. W.H., and the title is rather misleading for it contains a fund of information relating to Oxford which has nothing to do with the dedicatee of the Sonnets. Mr. W.H. was, however, thrust upon him.
He seems to have accepted without question Sir Sidney Lee’s obscure stationer theory, and believing, as he did, that the author of the Sonnets was Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford, he was surprised, but intrigued, to find that the Jesuit poet, Robert Southwell, had spent much of his time, from 1586 to about 1592, at Lord Vaux’s house in Hackney; which according to the historian of Hackney, William Robinson, was probably Brooke House, then known as King’s Place. Robert Southwell was executed in 1595 and Lord Vaux died in the same year. In the following year, 1596, the Countess of Oxford bought King’s Place, and apparently during that year she and Lord Vaux’s widow were both in residence there. It is not actually recorded that the Earl of Oxford was living there at this time, but there is no reason to suppose he was not. In any case, it was here that Oxford spent his last years, and died in 1604. In 1606 A Fourfold Meditation was published, with its dedication signed W.H. In 1609, Lady Oxford sold King’s Place, and in the same year Shakespeare’s Sonnets were published and dedicated by the publisher “To the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets Mr. W.H.”. On the strength of this remarkable sequence of events Ward formulated the hypothesis that Mr. W.H. was, himself, a Hackney man. After a fruitless search among the records in the public library, he turned to the parish register, and there found the entry of the marriage of a certain William Hall on 4th August 1608, just nine months before the Sonnets were entered in the Stationers’ Register. The names William and Hall are both common and Ward did not attempt to prove that this was indeed the Obscure Stationer, but Hackney was only a village then and, as Ward himself put it:
“I emphasize the fact that I went to the Registers to find a definite individual to fit a particular case, because a successful find under such circumstances is more valuable as evidence than a chance discovery, for the reason that it tends to confirm the hypothesis on the strength of which the search was being conducted, namely, in this case, that The Sonnets had been found at King’s Place, and that William Hall was a Hackney man”.
If it could be definitely established on independent grounds that William Hall, of Hackney, and William Hall, the Obscure Stationer, were one and the same person, Ward’s argument would be unassailable; but his book is very rare now and little read, even by Oxfordians.