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The Mysterious Identity of the 'Fair Youth'

Some of the most infamous love poems in English literature are addressed to the ‘fair youth’ but who is this mysterious figure that inspired 126 of Shakespeare’s sonnets?

Jessica-May Smith

This guest post was written by Jessica-May Smith, an English undergraduate studying at the University of Birmingham. 

They’re considered by many to be the most romantic poems ever written but it may come as a surprise to some to hear the theory that Shakespeare’s love sonnets were not written for his wife, Anne Hathaway – but rather for a young man. The ‘man in hue’ (20.7) is central to over two-thirds of all of Shakespeare’s sonnets and is the inspiration behind some of Shakespeare’s most quotable lines, yet his identity remains unknown. Today I examine the representation of the fair youth and explore some of the most popular theories surrounding his identity, in an attempt to put a name to the man ‘more temperate’ (18.2) than a summer’s day.

inside sonnet
Sonnets 17 and 18

Platonic or romantic?

Whilst the sonnets are usually interpreted as being romantic, it has been suggested by some critics that the speaker’s love for the young man is strictly platonic. They argue that this is evident in the opening 17 sonnets, commonly referred to as the Procreation Sonnets. The impermanent depiction of life and beauty is a recurring theme throughout this sequence and sees the speaker urging the youth to marry or ‘Die single and thine image dies with thee’ (3.14). The speaker becomes more impassioned as the sonnets go on, frequently questioning the youth’s reluctance to settle down. The concluding couplets, for example, emphasize the importance of producing an heir:

‘O! none but unthrifts. Dear my love, you know, / You had a father: let your son say so.’

— 8.13-14

This sense of encouragement on the speaker’s part could be indicative of a father-son relationship, with the speaker advising the youth not to waste his time and good looks. Supposing that the sonnets are autobiographical, perhaps then, the youth was a young man with whom Shakespeare was close to and wanted to mentor.

Despite this, the romantic sentiments within the later sonnets are undeniable. Sonnet 18 is perhaps the most notorious of Shakespeare’s sonnets and I would argue it is because of its passionate love. When the speaker begins to ‘compare thee [the youth] to a summer’s day’ (18.1), he contrasts the dissonant, ‘rough winds’ (18.2) of summer with the ‘fair’ (18.10) nature of the youth to create a tone of utter adoration: the youth is even more beautiful than a bright day. However, it is the inclusion of the eternity motif throughout the sequence that cements the speaker’s romantic love for the youth:

‘Yet do thy worst, old Time! Despite thy wrong / My love shall in my verse ever live young.’

— 19.13-14

Documenting their relationship in the sonnets is the ultimate act of love, providing their love with the ability to transcend time – a powerful thought to dedicate to just a mentee. The idea of the fair youth being a lover is explored in more detail in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's podcast, ‘Was Shakespeare Gay?’.

The dedication to Mr.W.H.

Sonnet image
1609, 'Shakespeare's Sonnets' Manuscript

A curious detail from the sonnets manuscript is the inclusion of a dedication to a ‘Mr W.H.’ It is widely accepted that Mr W.H. and the fair youth are interchangeable and so these initials, to some, are perceived as being a clue as to the youth’s identity. Several candidates find themselves at the centre of theories – most of whom we will study – but it is possible that the name is a red herring generated by Shakespeare or his publisher Thomas Thorpe, with the intention to create speculation. Other sceptics of the theories suggest that the name could be a misprint of Shakespeare’s name, which would have usually been printed ‘Mr.W.SH.’ Regardless of your stance, the theories make for interesting, if not compelling, reading. 

William Hart

Founded in the interpretation that the relationship was platonic, this theory suggests that the fair youth was Shakespeare’s nephew, William Hart. The first son of Shakespeare’s sister, Joan Hart, William was born in 1600 – 4 years after the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet. With Hamnet dead, William became Shakespeare’s male heir, leading some to believe that Shakespeare found another son in William. Did Shakespeare write these sonnets, particularly the Procreation sonnets, as guidance for his nephew – guidance that he was unable to pass to his own son?

William Hart (1600-1639) was the son of Joan Shakespeare

However, it has been proposed that Shakespeare began writing the sonnets as early as 1598 because of Francis Meres reference to them in his book ‘Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury’: "The witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honey-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugared sonnets among his private friends."  If this was the case then William Hart would not have even been born yet. Another question to ask is whether a nephew would warrant 126 sonnets? It seems a staggering amount of poems for Shakespeare to have written for a relative that he was unlikely to have had many encounters with (it is thought that Shakespeare moved to London in the 1580s whilst Joan’s family was based in Stratford-upon-Avon).  

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton

Perhaps the most popular theory, this one points to the identity of the youth being Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. As one of Shakespeare’s patrons, Wriothesley helped Shakespeare, financially, to produce some of his works in the 1590s. ‘Venus and Adonis’ (1593) and ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ (1594) were both dedicated to Wriothesley, with the latter’s dedication being excessively flattering towards the Earl: "The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end ... What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours." It must be appreciated that, at that time, intense praise of this sort may have been common – the writer’s attempt of securing continued support from the patrons – but could there be more weight to this particular acknowledgement? 

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton and Shakespeare's patron (from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections)
Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton and Shakespeare's patron

Others also evidence earlier portraits of the Earl as proof that he is the fair youth. The John de Critz painting, in particular, is said to present Wriothesley in an androgynous light, which lends comparisons to the youth in the sonnets who had ‘A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted’ (20.1). Wriothesley would have been in his late teens when Shakespeare is thought to have started writing his sonnets, therefore, he could certainly match the description of being the ‘lovely boy’ (126. 1).

Despite this, Wriothesley’s initials would be H.W. rather than W.H. Is this, as some suggest, an attempt to disguise Wriothesley’s identity or evidence that he was not the youth in the sonnets? 

William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke

William Herbert, by Daniel Mytens, oil on canvas, 1625
1625, William Herbert, by Daniel Mytens, oil on canvas.

Another of Shakespeare’s patrons and the final contender in this list, William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, also has a strong case for being Shakespeare’s fair youth. Other than possessing W.H. initials, Herbert was 16 years Shakespeare’s junior and rejected marriage proposals until he was 24 – reminiscent of the youth in the Procreation Sonnets. Further to this, Herbert was infamous in Court for his affairs with Mary Fitton, who is rumoured to have been the inspiration for the ‘Dark Lady’ in sonnets 127-154.  The connections between Herbert and the youth are obvious.

Final thoughts

While we may never definitively know the identity of the youth, the sonnets will remain to be some of the most loving and intimate poems in English literature. It is interesting to try to piece together the profile of the youth but perhaps the mystery surrounding this figure is what makes the poems so enthralling. Whomever this man was, he obviously had a significant impact on Shakespeare and his work, and will continue to captivate readers for the indefinite future. 

'All days are nights to see till I see thee, / And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.'

— 43.13-14