Isabel Gortazar interprets the title page of Shake-speares Sonnets
Isabel Gortazar in her office, Spain
OUR. EVER. LIVING POET AND MR WH:
An interpretation of the title page of:
Never before Imprinted:
By G. Eld for T.T. 1609
THESE. INSVING. SONNETS.
Mr W.H. ALL. HAPPINESS.
AND. THAT. ETERNITIE.
OVR. EVER.LIVING. POET.
It seems presumptuous to propose yet another interpretation to this Dedication, as T.T. (presumably the publisher Thomas Thorpe), seems decided to thwart our attempts. For reasons that we may try to guess, Thorpe created this riddle, which must however have a solution if only we can find it.
Starting with the title: Shake-speare’s Sonnets: As we know, the book contains a series of 154 sonnets which, according to this title, had been written by somebody calling himself SHAKE-SPEARE. Academia has therefore concluded that the author was William Shakespeare of Stratford.
However, the Dedication (1609), says the sonnets were written by OUR.EVER.LIVING.POET. An “ever-living poet” is meant to be a dead poet and William Shakespeare did not die until 1616; therefore, this SHAKE-SPEARE must be another Shakespeare. The use of the hyphenated name also suggests a pseudonym, which means we need to find a famous poet, dead, but ever-living (because famous), who may have used the alias of SHAKE-SPEARE, and who therefore has at least a reasonable chance of being also the author of other works published under the same hyphenated name: for example, six out of the nine Quartos, including King Lear, published between 1603 and 1608, and later attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford.
Luckily, my candidate, Christopher Marlowe, could be said to be “ever- living”, as he was officially dead and famous, and nevertheless (in my opinion) still alive in 1609. Since I personally believe many of the Sonnets point directly at Marlowe’s predicament in, and after, 1593, I am persuaded that the EVER-LIVING POET, Christopher Marlowe alias SHAKE-SPEAR, was the author of the Sonnets (as well as the 36 plays in the First Folio).
In his dedication Thomas Thorpe appears to be doing two things: a) Dedicate the sonnets to “the only begetter” Mr WH; and b) Wish the best of luck to some adventurer on his setting forth. I shall deal with a) first.
So, who is Mr W.H. and what does Thorpe mean by calling him “the only begetter”?
In theory, the “begetter”, Mr WH, should be the author of these sonnets, but in this case the author already has an alias: Shake-speare. It would have been perverse on the part of Thomas Thorpe to give two different aliases to the poet in the same book. So we must look for another possible meaning for the word “begetter”. The OED gives us “Beget: 4 (fig and transit): To call into being. 1581. So not necessarily the author, nor the inspirer, but someone so essential to bring about the act of creation, that the author is bound to recognize this person as the only/real originator of such act.
The rhetorical device of adding the word only emphasizes this. If Thorpe had been referring to the author he could have said so: To the author; but no, he uses the ambiguous word begetter and emphasizes its ambiguity by adding a rhetorical only. The idea that this only has something to do with the sonnets being all by the same hand is not convincing. The begetter of all these sonnets might have been the author, but the only begetter is the person who caused the sonnets to exist; he is the only reason why the sonnets were written at all.
Shakespeare uses this rhetorical device in Henry V (IV, 8):
Come, go we in procession to the village.
And be it death proclaimed through our host
To boast of this or take the praise from God
Which is his only.
According to this, King Henry obtained the victory at Agincourt, but only God caused the victory to happen. God was, therefore, the only begetter of the victory, and all praise was due to him.
So, Mr W.H is someone inextricably connected with the creation of the sonnets, and his identity is being masked, probably on purpose. Apparently Mr W.H does not wish to be identified either with the sonnets, or with the ever-living poet, which may be understandable if the poet was the embarrassingly ever-living, Christopher Marlowe.
And here we come up against the fact that the 154 sonnets are definitely not all dedicated to, or written for, the same person. There is no way we can defend the possibility that Mr W.H is the Dark Lady, for example. But what about the redundant word INSVING? Why did Thorpe not write simply: TO THE ONLY BEGETTER OF THESE SONNETS?
Agreed, all 154 sonnets are in a way ensuing, but the word is redundant, so I propose that the unnecessary word INSVING means that the sonnets dedicated to Mr WH are only the first seventeen sonnets, those immediately ensuing the dedication page, all seventeen of which clearly constitute an item, or “collection”, in themselves. (OED: To ensue, 4, intr: to be immediately subsequent, etc.1485). The word ensuing is the origin of the expression en-suite, implying immediacy.
So, Mr WH could be the only begetter of the ensuing first seventeen sonnets, perhaps because it was on account of Mr WH that the sonnets were written at all. These first seventeen sonnets are dedicated to a young man, encouraging him to marry and beget children; it has been suggested that the occasion was the said young man’s seventeenth birthday.
There are two favourite candidates for the role, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. Southampton was already an earl on his seventeenth birthday, in 1590, so that calling him Mr W.H, even at that time, would be impertinent and incorrect. Also, had the Sonnets been written by Marlowe in 1590, Thorpe could not have published them in 1609 under the name of Shake-speare without spilling a lot of beans.
Whereas, William Herbert was seventeen in 1597, before he had succeeded to the earldom, so he was at that time plain Mr W.H. (Possibly addressed as Master William Herbert by the household servants). As it happens, in 1597, William Herbert had entered in negotiations with Lord Burghley to marry Bridget De Vere, Lord Burghley’s granddaughter and the Earl of Oxford’s second daughter. The negotiations were unsuccessful, as Herbert seems to have demanded that the full dowry be paid in advance. Although Lord Burghley was trying to marry his granddaughters into the aristocracy, it seems that Herbert made excessive difficulties and the marriage did not take place.
Focusing on William Herbert as Mr WH, let us imagine that in 1597, Marlowe (perhaps prompted by the boy’s mother, Mary Sidney) wrote those seventeen sonnets to William, encouraging him to marry Bridget De Vere. The boy was the reason why the sonnets were written. The event of his seventeenth birthday “called the sonnets into being”; had it not been for this anniversary, the sonnets would not have been written.
So maybe, in 1597, the author dedicated the seventeen sonnets to William Herbert with the words:
TO THE ONLY BEGETTER OF THESE SONNETS: Mr W.H. ALL HAPPINESS AND ETERNITIE.
The sonnets insistently advise the youth to marry and beget children in order to obtain happiness and “eternity” (immortality); thus, Mr WH would be immortalized both in the poet’s rhyme and in the life of his descendants:
“But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice, in it and in my rhyme.” (Sonnet 17)
Another indication that this may be the case is the reference that Francis Meres makes in his pedantic Palladis Tamia (1), published in 1598 (so within a year after William Herbert’s birthday on April 8th 1597). In his work, Meres refers to Shakespeare’s “sugared sonnets”. Now, it would be difficult to think of the bulk of Shakespeare’s sonnets as “sugared”. In those 154 sonnets we find lines of love, envy, despair, regret, disappointment, etc; in other words, Shake-speares’ sonnets encompass the whole gamut of human emotions.
Whereas the first seventeen sonnets could well be described as “sugared”. The author is writing them for a young man of whom he is obviously fond, perhaps to be read during a private party, probably a family gathering, on occasion of his birthday and in reference to the marriage prospects about which he is making difficulties. This seems to be confirmed by Meres’ clarification: his sugared sonnets among his private friends. Indeed, if the Sonnets were NEVER BEFORE IMPRINTED, a private reading, possibly at Wilton House, in April of the previous year, was the only chance for anyone like Meres to have been acquainted with their “sugared” contents.
Eventually, Herbert seems to have rejected the sonnets as well as the proposed bride, so perhaps Marlowe left the batch (possibly with its dedication) either to Thorpe or to Edward Blount (or to Mary Sidney), who waited for the appropriate time to publish them.
Obviously, if a powerful man like Pembroke did not wish to be connected with the Sonnets, Thorpe had to make his identification difficult (but eventually not impossible), and, just as the best place to hide a man is in a multitude, the best place to “hide” seventeen sonnets is among over one hundred sonnets dedicated to various people.
And now we need to tie this first part of the Dedication to the second. Who is the well-wishing adventurer, setting forth?
The coincidence of dates, as well as the word adventurer makes it inevitable to consider the facts related to The Treasurer and Company of Adventurers and Planters of the City of London for the First Colony of Virginia.
This elaborate title distinguished between two types of people involved in the “Virginia Company”: Adventurers and Planters. The term Adventurers was used for the stockholders, the entrepreneurs, who rarely went to the Colony but followed the progress of their investment from London. The term Planters referred to the men who actually went to Virginia as settlers, and for this they received a share in stock. They included craftsmen, artisans and gentlemen, as well as their women and children.
As I have said, the coincidence of dates in 1609 is interesting. The Sonnets were entered into the Stationers' Register on 20th May (2) (and published by Thorpe the same year). The Second Charter of the Virginia Company was signed by King James three days later, on 23rd May, and the Flagship The Sea Venture (3) sailed towards America ten days later, on June 2nd, together with eight other vessels.
A digression: The Sea Venture was wrecked in Bermuda on 28th July, four days after the fleet was hit by a storm. In September 1610 a ship arrived in England bringing a detailed report written by one William Strachey, with the title: A True Reportory of the Wracke. This document, written as a private letter to an unidentified lady, was dated 15th July 1610 but was not published until 1625, so it is unlikely that anyone not connected to the Company of Adventurers (or with the lady in question) would have been able to read it. Orthodox scholars have observed the similarities between Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Strachey’s document; I entirely agree that such similarities exist, in my opinion beyond reasonable doubt of simple coincidence. Moreover, I think that another, anonymous report, published by the Company in 1610, also found its way into the play. However, this is matter for another essay.
But how could all this transoceanic business have anything to do with Shake-speares Sonnets? In any case, if the well-wishing adventurer were connected with this particular “venture”, he would be someone who had shares in the Company, not necessarily someone who was setting forth on his way to America.
So, who WISHETH what to whom? As T.T. is the author of the dedication, he should be the well-wishing adventurer, setting forth; also, the dedication is unambiguously addressed to Mr WH. Therefore, leaving aside elaborate conjectures as to possible hidden meanings, and considering only the syntactic/grammatical point of view, it seems that Thomas Thorpe is the adventurer who wisheth all those nice things to Mr WH. Thus:
THE. WELL.WISHING.ADVENTURER, Thomas Thorpe,
(IN. SETTING. FORTH.)
WISHETH TO. Mr W.H.
(THE.ONLY.BEGETTER. OF.THESE. INSVING. SONNETS.)
ALL. HAPPINESS.AND. THAT. ETERNITIE.
PROMISED. BY. OVR. EVER.LIVING. POET.
Perhaps the way to understand the second part of Thorpe’s Dedication is to simply set our minds back to 1609: The Virginia Company, with its jargon of adventurers and planters would probably have been the talk of the town for months, so that the word adventurer could have become the trendy adjective to be applied familiarly to anyone embarking (no pun intended) in a (daring) commercial enterprise.
Thorpe’s book seems to have disappeared shortly after publication. Daryl Pinksen quotes (4) Kenneth Muir (1979) on this subject: “But as very few copies are extant, it seems possible that the volume was suppressed; (…) the publisher would not have withdrawn a profitable volume because of complaints from the author, but he would doubtless have succumbed to pressure from a member of the aristocracy.”
If Pembroke’s reaction was such as may perhaps be inferred by the withdrawal of the volume (5), it is possible that Thorpe saw the publication of Shake-speares Sonnets as a daring adventure.The reference to an adventurer, meaning an investor or an entrepreneur, such as a publisher, may have been clear to Thorpe’s contemporaries if not to us.
In his letter to Blount (6), on the publication of Marlowe’s Lucan, in 1600, Thorpe already used a convoluted, sarcastic and somewhat cryptic language to complain about the negative behaviour of some prospective Patrons. It seems that Thorpe had been expecting one of Blount’s former Patrons (in the circle of your Patronage), to take an interest in Marlowe’s work (the First Book of Lucan in this case). As books in those days were dedicated to aristocrats, I think we may assume that such was Thorpe’s intention, as his letter to Blount indicates; it also suggests that his eventual decision to dedicate the volume to Blount was due to the evasive and discourteous behaviour of one or more of such Patrons.
Whether Thorpe’s letter is referring to Southampton, Pembroke or Thomas Walsingham, we will probably never know. But what we might infer from its content is that by 1600, the year the Lucan was published, Marlowe’s name had become too embarrassing socially and/or too dangerous politically, so that his former friends among the nobility may have been wishing to distance themselves from it as much as possible.
Which raises a question worth another digression as to whether perhaps the use of the hyphenated name for Shakespeare happened to be in some way indicative of the changing value of Marlowe-shares, or Marlowe-prospects, over the years.
If this were the case, we might wish to consider the fact that although some printers, such as Valentine Simmes and Richard Field, and some publishers such as Edward Blount and Matthew Law were more or less consistent in the form they spelt the name, there seems to be no repetitive pattern in the choice of any one form of spelling which might be attributed to simple inertia or automatic repetition on the part of printers and/or publishers.
A sort of pattern emerges, however, when we consider the dates. (7) During 1598/1599, when the name of Shakespeare appears in the plays for the first time, the hyphenated form is used in about half of the non-anonymous Shakespeare Quartos published in those two years. The percentage drops to zero for the thirteen Quartos of plays published between 1600 and 1602; not a hyphen in sight, except for the Poem, The Turtle and the Phoenix, printed by Richard Field for Edward Blount in 1601. Within those years, the disgrace and execution of the Earl of Essex would have left Marlowe lost in the Continent, without a Patron and without a job; so what did he do to survive, and was it something so questionable that his London friends turned their backs on him?
The percentage in the hyphenation goes back to an approximate 50% between 1603 (so after the Queen’s death) and 1607, and, in 1608 it raises to an unprecedented 100% for the three Quartos published that year, including 1Q King Lear. Then, in 1609 Shake-speares Sonnets was the only volume to appear with the hyphenated name against 1Q Pericles and 1Q Troilus and Cressida which bore the full name, plus an anonymous 3Q Romeo and Juliet.(8)
Does this basic schedule for the use of the hyphenated name tell us anything? I honestly don’t know, but the figures I have just quoted may give us food for thought. (A proper analysis of a hypothetical, date-based pattern would exceed the scope of this essay.)
So let’s go back to the Sonnets. By the expression the well-wishing adventurer Thorpe might be referring both to his own adventure in publishing a book of Sonnets by Marlowe (that EVER LIVING POET combined with the name Shake-speare was a give-away), and to the Adventurers in the Virginia Company, the list of whom was headed by the Earls of Southampton and Pembroke (whose initials, by the way, happen to be HW and WH, respectively).
But leaving aside all the uncanny coincidences, if the Mr WH of the seventeen sonnets was William Herbert after all, Thorpe’s good wishes were perhaps no less appropriate for being cryptically worded. And if the Publisher had already been offended nine years earlier by the evasive and impolite treatment of some of Marlowe’s former Patrons, that may have tempted him to write his equivocal Dedication to one of them.
So let me re-interpret:
TO THE ONLY BEGETTER OF THESE INSVING (seventeen) SONNETS: Mr WH. (Master William Herbert)
ALL HAPPINESS AND THAT ETERNITIE (immortality)
PROMISED (to Master William Herbert, in the said sonnets)
BY OVR EVER LIVING POET (Christopher Marlowe).
WISHETH THE WELL WISHING ADVENTURER (Thomas Thorpe), IN SETTING FORTH (launching this book).
© Isabel Gortázar, May 2011
Thorpe’s letter to Blount (modernized spelling):
To his Kind and True Friend: Edward BIount
Blount: I purpose to be blunt with you, and out of my dullness to encounter you with a Dedication in the memory of that pure Elemental wit, Chr. Marlow; whose ghost or Genius is to be seen walk the Churchyard in (at the least) three or four sheets. Methinks you should presently look wild now, and grow humorously frantic upon the taste of it. Well, least you should let me tell you.
This spirit was sometime a familiar of your own. Lucan’s first book translated; which (in regard of your old right in it) I have raised in the circle of your Patronage. But stay now, Edward (if I mistake not), you are to accommodate your self with some few instructions, touching the property of a Patron that you are not yet possest of; and to study them for your better grace as our Gallants do fashions. First, you must be proud and think you have merit enough in you, though you are ne’re so empty; then when I bring you the book take physique. and keep state, assign me a time by your man to come again and afore the day, be sure to have changed your lodging; in the mean time sleep little, and sweat with the invention of some pitiful dry jest or two which you may happen to utter, with some little (or not at al) marking of your friends, when you have found a place for them to come in at; or if by chance something has dropt from you worth the taking up weary all that come to you with the often repetition of it; Censure scornfully enough, and somewhat like a travailer: commend nothing least you discredit your (that which you would seem to have) judgement. These things if you can mould your self to them Ned I make no question but they will not become you. One special virtue in our Patrons of these days I have promised my self you shall fit excellently, which is to give nothing: Yet, thy love 1 will challenge as my peculiar Object both in this, and (I hope) many more succeeding offices: Farewell, I affect not the world should measure my thoughts to thee by a scale of this Nature: leave to think good of me when I fall from thee.
Thine in all rites of perfect friendship, THOM.THORPE
1. Meres, Francis: Palladis Tamia: Wit's Treasury: A Comparative Discourse of our English Poets, with the Greek, Latin, and Italian Poets. (1598)
2. I cannot seriously consider the date, 20th May -the date of Marlowe’s arrest-, to be anything but an uncanny coincidence.
3. A colleague has argued that Marlowe went to America in The Sea Venture. See: Gamble, C. W.H: Shake-speare’s Voyage to America. (Capella Archive 2006).
4. Pinksen, Daryl: Marlowe’s Ghost, IUniverse, pg 202 and ref to K. Muir 1979.
5. Shortly after publication, Thorpe’s volume disappeared from circulation; in 1640 one John Benson used all but eight of the Sonnets as the basis for a badly compiled book called “Poems: Written by Will Shake-speare. Gent.” which included Poems by other people. Thorpe’s Quarto texts were not properly published again until 1709. Ref: Booth, Stephen: Shake-speare’s Sonnets. Yale NB, 2000.
6. See full text of the letter below.
7. I wish to thank Ros Barber for sharing with me her detailed chart, in reference to the publication of Shakespeare’s Quartos and Octavos.
8. Printed by John Windet for John Smithewick. As an example of the apparent randomness in the publishing pattern: In 1622, two Quartos of Romeo and Juliet, both printed by William Standby also for John Smethwicke appeared, one anonymous, the other with the author’s name hyphenated.