The Dedication


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. Indeed Venus and Adonis ran to many editions and was extraordinarily popular at the time. We might also consider that work to be morally compromising if we wished, for it was condemned in its day as an encouragement to masturbation. (See Reading Vernacular Literature by Diana E. Henderson and James Siemen in A Companion to Shakespeare, Blackwells 1999, p.210.)). The Rape of Lucrece was less popular, but it was published with a fulsome dedication by Shakespeare to the Earl of Southampton. The success of these two works coupled with the fact that Shakespeare was the most famous playwright of his day should in theory have ensured the success of whatever he published, and the fact that the sonnets were published in 1609, in a year when the plague in London resulted in the closure of the theatres, gave him the additional pecuniary motive of attempting to recoup some of his lost income.

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 in Palladis Tamia published in 1598, as seems probable, we are entitled to assume that they were much admired, at least by one other writer.

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 published Ungentle Shakespeare (Arden Shakespeare), pp. 213-8.)

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 notes for further discussion of the onlie begetter.


insuing = ensuing, following.

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 Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece are dedicated; and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, to whom the First Folio is dedicated. In the dedication to The Rape of Lucrece Shakespeare writes:




The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end: wherof this Pamphlet without beginning is but a superfluous Moity. The warrant I have of your Honourable disposition, not the worth of my untutord Lines, makes it assured of acceptance. What I have done is yours, what I have to doe is yours, being part in all I have, devoted yours. Were my worth greater my duety would shew greater, meane time, as it is, it is bound to your Lordship; To whom I wish long life still lengthned with all happinesse.

Your Lordships in all duety.



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 have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die; 81.

See also 18, 19, 60, 63, 101.


Ever-living - famous, immortal.

Shakespeare was in 1609 famous both as a poet and a playwright. His Venus and Adonis had run through several editions, and many of his plays were printed in Quarto versions, besides being well known to the theatre going public of the time. The epithet ever-living would have been considered appropriate for a poet who was already well known, and poets by tradition claimed immortality for themselves and their verses.


wisheth - the subject is the adventurer below. He desires that eternity be bestowed upon 'the onlie begetter'.


applied to the adventurer, who wishes success to his own venture (of publishing).


 adventurer = one who undertakes a risky venture; a bold and energetic person, explorer, thinker. Thorpe may have been worried that the book was a risky undertaking. The word could also apply to the book itself. Since ancient times poets thought of themselves as sending their children (their poems) to venture forth in the world. See for example Catullus' poem to Cornelius about his new book:

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.


setting forth - publishing. OED gives this meaning under set 144 d and e.
144d - to promulgate, publish, issue ( a regulation, proclamation etc.).
144e - to publish (a literary work). Thus, Greene 1590 I have ... set forth many Pamphlets, full of much love and litle scholarism.

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 onlie begetter, but also to the book itself, which is a sort of adventurer in the vast sea of the world and its fortunes.

T. T.

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.