William Shakespeare is arguably one of the most recognizable names in literature to this day. Though you have most definitely heard of Shakespeare and his works, you may not have heard the theories about Shakespeare’s bisexual love affair.
In some of his sonnets written in the late 16th century, Shakespeare writes about a young man who he calls “the Fair Youth.” This character is depicted as the Petrarchan ideal; he’s blonde, fair-skinned, innocent, all characteristics consistent with beauty in Elizabethan England. Shakespeare confesses his deep infatuation and jealousy for the Fair Youth in his enduring 126 sonnets dedicated to the initials W.H., who many believe is interchangeable with Fair Youth.
So who was Shakespeare’s mystery man in these sonnets? Was he a real person? Is Shakespeare giving us LGBTQIA+ representation? Today, we’re looking at the people suspected to be the Fair Youth!
Some Shakespeare scholars suspect William Hart to be the Fair Youth, considering the possibility that Shakespeare’s relationship with the Fair Youth was strictly platonic. Hart was born around 1600, and was technically Shakespeare’s nephew.
Hart was born soon after Shakespeare’s own son, Hamnet, died of unknown causes. By this theory, Shakespeare’s procreation sonnets were meant to mentor Hart as a paternal figure.
However, there are some doubts about this theory. Firstly, the timeline of these sonnets don’t quite match up with Hart’s life stages. Hart was born after many of the Fair Youth poems were written and published, so though he was young when the sonnets were popular, he was too young to have been the Fair Youth. Secondly, I think we can all agree that it would be slightly bizarre for Shakespeare to write 126 sonnets for his nephew.
Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton
Henry Wriothesley was a prominent noble in court during this period, which put him in a perfect position to admire and produce some of Shakespeare’s work. Shakespeare had even dedicated some of his famous works such as “Venus and Adonis” to Wriothesley. At the time, this dedication was standard to encourage the patron to continue financially supporting his work.
The strongest piece of evidence that suggests Wriothesley as Shakespeare’s Fair Youth is portraits painted of him. Because the Fair Youth is depicted as the Petrarchan ideal, which was mainly used to describe women in writing, Shakespeare notes his androgynous features. Similarly, Wriothesley was also painted in an androgynous light.
Again, many are skeptical of this theory because of Wriothesley’s age. By the time that the Fair Youth sonnets were published, Wriothesley was in his late thirties, making him a little too old to be the Fair Youth. Additionally, many question why Shakespeare would specifically dedicate some of his works to Wriothesley, but keep his identity secret in the Fair Youth sonnets.
William Hughes was a young actor who performed in some of Shakespeare’s plays in the theatre. Since Hughes often played female roles in the plays, many suspected that he was the androgynous Fair Youth.
This theory was first proposed by Thomas Tyrwhitt. In one of the sonnets, Tyrwhitt found that Shakespeare has several puns on the name “Will” and the word “hues.” Tyrwhitt’s theory was later taken on by Oscar Wilde, who wrote the short story The Portrait of Mr. W.H..
William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke
William Herbert was another patron for Shakespeare’s pieces. Herbert was born in 1580, meaning he was around the Fair Youth’s age when the sonnets were written in the late 1590’s. Additionally, Herbert denied two marriage proposals until he was 24. This fact could relate to Shakespeare’s intent behind writing the procreation sonnets. These sonnets try to convince the Fair Youth to have children with another woman so that his beauty could live on forever.
The best piece of evidence in favor of Herbert is that he was infamous for his affairs at court. When he was 20 years old, he had an affair with Mary Witton. Witton is also suspected to be another character in Shakespeare’s sonnets coined “the Dark Lady.” According to the sonnets, both the Fair Youth and Shakespeare were vying for the Dark Lady’s attention.
A Final Suspect to consider
The final suspect for the Fair Youth is that there is no Fair Youth at all. Many critics refuse to believe that there actually was a Fair Youth because there is no evidence to suggest that Shakespeare’s sonnets were purely autobiographical.
After all, just because Shakespeare wrote about a romantic relationship between two men does not necessarily mean that it was a relationship he personally experienced.
If you ask me, there is some truth to both sides of this argument. William Herbert seems to be the best candidate for the Fair Youth if the sonnets are autobiographical. It is also possible that Shakespeare only based these characters off of real people.
For example, the Fair Youth and Dark Lady are the total opposite of each other. The Dark Lady is depicted as manipulative, experienced and unconventionally attractive. This type of depiction intentionally disrupts the Petrarchan tropes of love, beauty and relationships. Since Shakespeare’s intention was to go against that trope, his intent for writing about the Fair Youth could be to give readers a new perspective on love and relationships. The Fair Youth and the Dark Lady could very well be real people, but suspects like William Herbert and Mary Witton might have been mere inspirations for Shakespeare.
On one hand, I wonder how Shakespeare could possibly write about these feelings in such detail and depth if he never experienced them himself. On the other hand, Shakespeare is one of the most celebrated writers in history for his writing abilities, so it’s odd to simultaneously deny him the credit of being able to write about love and relationships as he sees them.