30 Facts and Speculations on the Possible Subjects of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, 126 seem to have been written to The Fair Youth, the remaining 28 to The Dark Lady. None appears to have been dedicated to his wife Anne, and the actual identities of the people concerned are unknown but much speculation surrounds the mysteries. As a result, names have surfaced and the most likely candidates are Lord Southampton (Henry Wriothesley) and Emilia Lanier.
THE FAIR YOUTH
12 Facts on Lord Southampton (Henry Wriothesley)
- Henry Wriothesley was born on 6th October 1573 at Cowdray House in Sussex.
- He was the only son of the 2nd Earl of Southampton, also Henry Wriothesley, and Mary Browne, daughter of the 1st Viscount Montague, Anthony Browne.
- He had two older sisters: Jane who died before his birth and Mary born around 1567.
- On his father’s death in 1581 he inherited the title, becoming the 3rd Earl of Southampton, and liked to be known as Harry Southampton.
- In October 1585, aged 12, Lord Southampton became a student at St John’s College, Cambridge from where he graduated with an MA in 1589, having been admitted to the Gray’s Inn legal society on 29th February 1588.
- In Henry’s young years, his father had suspected his mother of infidelity and turned his son against her and women in general. It is thought that for this reason Henry’s interest in women was late in developing.
- At the age of 21 he was betrothed to Mary Vere but this arrangement did not appeal to Henry and he refused to marry her.
- In February 1598, facing financial difficulties and having fallen out of favour with Queen Elizabeth, Henry travelled to France with Robert Cecil, returning in April of that year.
- In August 1598, at the age of 24, Henry secretly married his pregnant mistress Elizabeth Vernon and they went on to have at least four children.
- Henry travelled in Europe, promoting home and overseas industry and trading. His name appeared in the 1605 panel of The New World Tapestry.
- He was also very interested in the arts and had many works dedicated to him. These include two poems by William Shakespeare, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece”, which has an introduction addressed to Lord Southampton beginning “The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end…”. In addition there are Shakespeare’s 126 Fair Youth sonnets, dedicated to “Mr. W.H.”, though Will never revealed the name of the person to whom they were written.
- Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, died on 10th November 1624 in the Dutch Republic, and the title of 4th Earl of Southampton passed to his younger son Thomas whose elder brother James had predeceased their father by five days.
Footnote: Although the dedication of the Fair Youth sonnets is to “Mr. W.H.”, there is a train of thought that Henry Wriothesley’s initials were reversed intentionally. There is also speculation that Shakespeare dedicated his Fair Youth sonnets to his son, Hamnet, who died aged 11 in 1586, or to William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, as the First Folio was dedicated to him, though none of the sonnets appeared in this. There are many other candidates – could there have been private dedications to more than one subject?
A portrait of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, at the age of 21.
THE DARK LADY
18 Facts and Speculations on Emilia Lanier
- Emilia Lanier was born in January 1569, probably in Bishopsgate, London.
- Her birth name was Aemilia Bassano and she was baptised on 27th January 1569 at St Botolph’s Church, London.
- Her father was Venetian-born Baptista Bassano, her mother Margret Johnson. Emilia is presumed to have been illegitimate.
- She had two brothers, Lewes and Phillip, as well as a half-sister, Angela.
- Her father, like his five older brothers, was a celebrated Elizabethan court musician and Emilia is believed to have been an accomplished musician herself – the reference to a woman playing “the virginals” (forerunner to the piano) in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 128 has led to speculation that Emilia was The Dark Lady.
- Her father died in April 1576 when she was seven and in his will he left Emilia £100 for her to inherit either at the age of 21 or at the time of her wedding, if this took place sooner.
- Following her father’s death she went to live with Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent, and was given a good education, which included the study of Latin.
- It is not known how long Emilia spent with the Countess of Kent but she later lived with Margaret Clifford, the Countess of Cumberland, and her daughter Lady Anne Clifford.
- When Emilia was 18 her mother died and soon after this she entered into a relationship with a man 45 years her senior – Henry Carey, 1st Baron of Hunsdon, a courtier and cousin of Queen Elizabeth I.
- In 1592, aged 23, Emilia became pregnant with Carey’s child. His reaction to this was to pay her off with a sum of money (amount unknown).
- She was then married to her cousin Alfonso Lanier, one of Queen Elizabeth’s musicians, at St Botolph’s Church on 18th October 1592.
- In 1593 she gave birth to a boy, Henry, presumed to have been named after his father. Little is known of her son but he did survive into adulthood and is thought to have had children.
- In 1598 Emilia’s daughter Odillya was born but survived only 10 months.
- It seems Emilia was happier as Carey’s mistress than as Lanier’s wife, but their marriage survived till his death in 1613.
- In 1611 Emilia published a volume of poetry, “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum” (translation: “Hail, God, King of the Jews”), dedicated entirely to women. Although Emilia was baptised in a Christian church, it seems likely her father’s family was Jewish.
- Emilia is regarded as the first woman to declare herself a poet, and among very few females of the time to publish poetry.
- After her husband’s death, Emilia opened a school, renting a house from Edward Smith for this purpose. However, following disagreements over the cost of the rent, she was twice arrested, gaining her a reputation which deterred parents from having their children educated by her, and the school closed, probably in 1619.
- Emilia died in 1645 at the age of 76 and was buried on 3rd April in East London’s Clerkenwell.
Footnote: As with The Fair Youth, there is much speculation as to the identity of Shakespeare’s 28 “Dark Lady” sonnets. Another interesting candidate is Lucy, also known as Black Luce, an African woman who worked in the South London taverns which Will may have frequented.
The above details are correct to the best of my knowledge but please let me know if you notice any inaccuracies. I am indebted to a variety of online sources for the information I have gathered for the above lists.