Marie’s Musings

No. 7: Mr. W.H.o?

By Marie Delgado Travis

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Over the last posts, I’ve adopted and proposed a series of interrelated theories and asides, based, inter alia, on the following sources:

  • Introduction to Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, better known as the First Folio (1623), specifically:
    • The List of « Principal Actors. »
    • Ben Jonson’s Poems:
      • « To the Reader »
      • « To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare »
    • Martin Droeshout the Younger’s Portrait of Shakespeare
    • Heminges and Condell’s « Letter to the Great Variety of Readers »
  • The Epistle in the first Quarto of Troilus and Cressida
  • The Dedications to Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece
  • The Title Page and clues in Shake-Speares [sic] Sonnets
  • Superb work by non-Stratfordian scholars.

The resulting theories do not exclude the possibility of influence and collaboration of other Elizabethan and Jacobean writers and thinkers, as I hope to outline in a future post. But these have been some of my conclusions, so far:

  • that, as much as I wanted to believe otherwise, Shakespeare was a pseudonym for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford;
  • that although his was a rather unbridled life, it was precisely that nonconformity—along with his classical education and travel as a young man— that helped make him, not just a better writer, but arguably the greatest writer in the world;
  • that de Vere’s hereditary position as Lord High Chamberlain made it difficult for him to claim ownership of his work;
  • However, he and his followers took the precaution of embedding his name, initials, family motto, etc., through anagrams (i.e. rearranged letters) in key texts;
  • that the actor from Stratford-upon-Avon, who could barely write his own name, and never claimed to be a writer, e.g., in his application for a coat of arms, played the front man, and profited from the arrangement, e,g, obtaining the title of gentleman, and becoming the second richest man in his hometown;
  • that William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby— among the nobles in the line of succession to the English throne— married de Vere’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth in 1595;
  • that the Stanley – Vere marriage occurred shortly after Elizabeth’s broken engagement to the Earl of Southampton, the dedicatee to Shakespeare’s narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The  Rape of Lucrece;
  • that William Stanley was known to be « penning plays for the common players » by at least mid-1599, and likely continued writing under the Shakespeare brand when de Vere died in 1604;
  • that this changing of the guard would help explain marked stylistic differences in Shakespeare’s work, a point I hope to elaborate on soon.
Only Known Signatures of the Man
from Stratford-upon-Avon

I invite you to scroll down to read the related discussions in my previous posts. Today, however, I’d like to muse a bit on the Dedication to Shake-Speares Sonnets, in particular, its Dedication to the mysterious Mr. W.H.

Published in 1609, the collection of 154 Sonnets was most likely written over time, and circulated privately among a small circle of friends, as was the custom at the time.

Although theoretically « even a mouse can look at the Queen, » it would be inappropriate— cheeky is the word that comes to mind—for the man from Stratford to openly address his aristocratic dedicatee in intimate terms, e.g., in the Dedication to Lucrece: « deuoted yours »— which happens to be an anagram for Edvv. de Vere.

So let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Edward de Vere’s private collection of Sonnets was published five years after his death, when there could no longer be censure. He is called « Euer-Liuing Poet, »— ever another anagram for Vere— precisely because by 1609, he is living only through his work and/or in the afterlife, depending on your point of view. Shaxpere was vere much alive at that time. He would pass away in 1616.

If all is true— and it certainly makes more sense than the alternative— then William Herbert, the future 3rd Earl of Pembroke— as one of the de Vere daughters’ less-than-ardent suitors— certainly fits the W.H. acronym. But perhaps finding him would lead inexorably away from the man from Stratford, so W.H. has remained, for the most part, « ignoto, unknown. »

It’s actually vere simple. If the man who wrote the Shakespeare canon dedicated two works— Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece in 1594— to his then future son-in-law, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, why wouldn’t he write a dedication to an illustrious young man contemplating marriage with another of his daughters, Bridget, circa 1597?

We know the timing because in a letter dated September 3, 1597, William Herbert’s father, Henry, 2nd Earl of Pembroke tells Bridget’s maternal grandfather, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, that it is his understanding that at barely 13 years of age, Bridget is not too young to marry. The men try to work an arrangement, whereby the groom will travel, while the bride remains with her in-laws, presumably until it is safe for her to bear children:

.… For the first, I have often heard that after a woman has attained 12 years she can by law consent and be bound by marriage. If this be the case, the marriage of your daughter may lawfully proceed, and she by it shall be no less bound than my son, yet their continuance together may be deferred until you think good. But for preventing many inconveniences, I prefer a marriage to a contract.
For the second, I think it most convenient that after the marriage, and my son is gone to travel, your daughter should remain with my wife, whose care of her shall answer the nearness whereby she shall then be linked unto her.

Source: THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES SP 12/264/106 (modern transcription by Nina Green)

William Herbert would have been 17 years old at the time of these negotiations, which helps to explain the « Mr. W.H. » designation. According to various sources, including the Oxford English Dictionary, in Elizabethan times, Mr. stood for « Master, an honorific title given to a young male who had yet to reach adulthood, usually the eldest son of a titled gentleman. » The designation actually predates the title for an older man, with which we are more familiar today: Mr. as the abbreviation of Mister.

Herbert was indeed the elder half of the « Incomparable Paire. » His brother Philip Herbert, 1st Earl of Montgomery and later 4th Earl of Pembroke, was four years younger than William. 

William was also thirty years younger than de Vere, and Henry Wriothesley, twenty three years de Vere’s minor, which might well make them « fair youths » in the eyes of their prospective father-in-law.

In fact, in a September 8, 1597 letter to his father-in-law Burghley, de Vere speaks of William Herbert as being « fair conditioned » and having « many good parts. » Coincidentally, there are no extant letters from William Shaxpere to anyone, not even to his wife, which as Diana Price points out in her seminal work, Shakespeare’s Unauthorized Biography (2013) is extremely rare for Elizabethan / Jacobean writers.

Available at

The following letter is a bit long, but we get a sense of de Vere’s voice, far mellower than the « I am what I am » arrogance of his fiery earlier exchanges with his father-in-law:

My very good Lord, I have perused these letters which, according to your Lordship’s desire, I have returned. I do perceive how both my Lord and Lady do persevere, which doth greatly content me for Bridget’s sake, whom always I have wished a good husband such as your Lordship and myself may take comfort by. And as for the articles which I perceive have been moved between your Lordship and them, referring all to your Lordship’s wisdom and good liking I will freely set down mine opinion, according to your Lordship’s desire.

My Lord of Pembroke is a man sickly, and therefore it is to be gathered he desireth in his lifetime to see his son bestowed to his liking, to compass which methinks his offers very honourable, his desires very reasonable; again, being a thing agreeable to your Lordship’s fatherly care and love to my daughter, a thing which, for the honour, friendship and liking I have to the match, very agreeable to me, so that all parties desire but the same thing. I know no reason to delay it but, according to their desires, to accomplish it with convenient speed. And I do not doubt but your Lordship and myself shall receive great comfort thereby, for the young gentleman, as I understand, hath been well brought up, fair conditioned, and hath many good parts in him.

Your Lordship’s most assured, Edward Oxenford

Source: THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES SP 12/264/111, f. 151 (modern transcription by Nina Green)

Edward de Vere’s Signature at age 19 (1569). Source:

But returning to the Dedication to the prospective groom … There are, of course, other acceptations to the word « Master. » Sonnet 20, for instance, speaks to « the master-mistress of my passion, » a young man so beautiful that he could easily be mistaken for a woman. The term « Master » here not only reflects the young man’s age, but also the subjugating effect his beauty has over the narrator and Nature itself.

Source: Wikimedia. Below:
Pembroke Print by Simon van de Passe (1617)
Southampton Miniature by Nicholas Hilliard (c. 1594), Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, U.K. at Wikipedia.
All Images for Educational Purposes Only.

Had one or both of the young suitors followed through with the arranged marriages, their « fair offspring » would have « begotten » (if you’ll excuse the pun) the writer’s grandchildren, not to mention, the heirs to their families’ joint fortunes and titlesquite the inspiration.

Both young men proved reticent to marry, however, which could well have inspired the Sonnets, particularly Sonnets 1 to 17, counseling a young man to perpetuate his beauty through his offspring. Their reluctance— which now that he was on the other side of the negotiations, must have seemed ironic to de Vere, since he had failed to display their courage when he was young— likely inspired, at least in part, some of Shakespeare’s early plays, e.g., Love’s Labour Lost (published 1598), and Romeo and Juliet (performed 1597).

Recall that Shakespeare’s Juliet is only 13 (Bridget’s age) when she resists her parents’ choice of groom (Paris), and marries Romeo, whom she has just met. [A little pun on place names, no? And perhaps the religions associated with those places. Will have to muse on that]. In any case, in sources Shakespeare may have used, her given age is 16, e.g., Arthur Brooke’s The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet(1562), based on an Italian novella by the monk Matteo Bandello (1554), or its French translation by Pierre Boaistuau (1559).

The Dedication to Shakespeare’s Sonnets famously proclaims that Master W.H. is « the only begetter of these insuing Sonnets. » There was, however, a tradition in literature, dating back to Homer and Hesiod (750 – 650 B.C.) of invoking « the Muse » to aid in creativity.

W.H. may be the « Muse, » who initially inspired the Sonnets. But this likely is flattery, since the author may have used poetic license to create a composite character, e.g., by merging H.W. and W.H.’s  « good parts.» Or he may have relied on something observed, read, heard, dreamt, etc. In the creative process, one can’t be too literal. Once out of the ink well, the fair child of the poet’s imagination—his poem, or product of [ink] well wishing— is often said to take on a life of its own.

Sonnets 1 to 17, for example, sometimes referred to as « Procreation Sonnets, » clearly echo Erasmus’ « Letter to Persuade a Young Gentleman to Marriage » (c. 1518), published in Thomas Wilson’s Art of Rhetorique (1553).

Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus
by Hans Holbein (1523)

Compare the following excerpt by Erasmus to Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 2 below:

Erasmus’ Letter Persuading a Young Gentleman to Marriage

Old age cometh upon us all, will we or ill we, and this way nature provided for us, that we should wax young again in our children. For what man can be grieved that he is old when he seeth his own countenance which he had being a child to appear lively in his son?

Source: Folger Shakespeare Library, Plays, Sonnets, and Poems: Appendix of Intertextual Material

Source: Wikimedia

Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 2 (Excerpt)

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field…
Then being ask’d where all thy beauty lies…
How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,
Proving his beauty by succession thine!

William Herbert was certainly in demand as an eligible bachelor, leaving a trail of broken hearts in his wake. He turned down proposals to marry Elizabeth Carey (1595), granddaughter of Henry Carey, and daughter of George Carey, patrons of Shakespeare’s Company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (previously Lord Hunsdon’s Men, later The King’s Men) … and more to our current interest, rejecting poor Bridget Vere (1597).

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the matches, « … failed thanks to the earl’s [William’s father, Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke] steep terms and Herbert’s reluctance. » 

In Sex in Elizabethan England (2011) at 52, scholar Alan Haynes described the deal-breaker:

William Herbert’s father did negotiate for a marriage between his son and Burghley’s granddaughter, Bridget Vere, but this failed because having been offered £3,000 and an annuity to begin at Burghley’s death, Pembroke greedily wanted immediate payment of the annuity.

Bridget would be married off to Francis Norris, 1st Earl of Berkshire in 1599. Sadly, Norris suffered from « melancholy, » as mentioned in a previous post. The couple separated two years later, and he would committed suicide in 1622. Bridget married, secondly, Sir Hugh Pollard, 2nd Baronet, and had a daughter in each marriage. 

William Herbert would have a scandalous affair with Mary Fitton, who gave birth to their out-of-wedlock son (1601). The child died shortly after birth (some suggest due to his syphilis). William’s refusal to marry her— he reportedly « renounced all marriage » at the time— resulted in his imprisonment in Fleet Prison, followed by house arrest, and was said to have ended his career at Elizabeth’s Court.

In 1604, he married Mary Talbot, daughter of Gilbert Talbot, 7th Earl of Shrewsbury. Their children died in infancy. But none of this kept William from maintaining a secret affair with Lady Mary Wroth, who bore him two children.

Nonetheless, Willim and his wife were avid patrons of the arts. Among those benefitting from their generosity were Ben Jonson, Inigo Jones, Nicholas Hilliard, Marcus Gheeraerts,and the Bodleian Library to name a few. Pembroke College is named after William, and Jonson dedicated his (unfortunately, unsuccessful) political plays Sejanus (1603) and Catiline His Conspiracy (1611), to him.

William’s was, in fact, a literary family. His mother, the Dowager Countess of Pembroke, was the poetess, Mary Sidney Herbert, and his uncle, the poet Philip Sidney. Sidney’s treatise,The Defence of Poesy (written c. 1580, but published posthumously in 1595) greatly influenced Elizabethan writing.

William himself dabbled in poetry, also published after his death. A sample:

Nay, I must love thee still; Be it for those good deeds thou hast done, That thou hast lov’d me once, hath won, And made me ever thine; Though I am tempted and provok’d with scorn, My Love cannot decline. Though I with hopes, doubts, and despairs am torn, Nay should I fret, think, grieve and dye For thee, and know not why; Yet I must love thee still.

Source: Poems written by the Right Honorable William earl of Pembroke, lord steward of his Majesties household, &c.

So … Nay! He did not « beget » Shakespeare’s Sonnets, in the sense of writing them. He may have inspired or facilitated their publication, but he did not inherit his uncle Philip’s gracious hand. He would have done well to follow his uncle Philip Sidney’s advice in the first Sonnet of Astrophil and Stella (published posthumously, 1591):

« “Fool,” said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart, and write.’ »

Under the succeeding Monarch, James I, William Herbert— by 1601, 3rd Earl of Pembroke—regained favor, and earned a great number of honors and titles, though never to the extent of his court rivals, Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.

William’s résumé included, among others:

  • Knight of the Garter (1603)
  • Gentleman of the Privy Chamber (1603)
  • M.A. from Oxford University (1605)
  • Member of the Privy Council (1611)
  • Lord Chamberlain (1615)  
  • Commissioner to execute the office of Earl Marshal (1616)
  • Chancellor of Oxford University (1617)
  • Acting Commissioner for the Great Seal (1621)
  • Lord Steward of the Household (1626)

His vast land holdings gave him a powerful influence over Parliament, as he was able to name his supporters to the corresponding seats.

Along with the Earl of Southampton, William was an investor (then called an « Adventurer, » a reference used in the Dedication to the Sonnets) in the exploration of the New World. He was a major investor in the Virginia Company, East India Company, Bermuda Company, and many similar ventures, including Henry Hudson’s attempt to find the Northwest Passage to Cathay. De Vere himself had expressed great interest in Frobisher’s unsuccessful attempts to find such a Passage as a young man. Southampton, Pembroke and Oxford. They were peas in a pod, after all.

Sources for Pembroke’s biography:

In my next post, we’ll look at the Dedication to Shakes-Speares Sonnets ever more curiously!

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

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