Thursday, 2 August 2012

Who Was Shakespeare’s Fair Youth?

Who Did Shakespeare Write His
Fair Youth Sonnets For?
The vast majority (126 to be exact) of Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed to a young man, known as the ‘fair youth’. So, who was this whipper-snapper and what relationship did he have with Shakespeare?

If you’ve already read my closer look at Shakespeare’s sonnets, you’ll know that numbers 1 to 126 are collectively known as the fair youth sonnets. Yes, these seemingly romantic poems, including the most famous Shakespearean sonnet of all, “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?” are written about (and for) a young gentleman.

Who Was The Subject of Shakespeare’s Fair Youth Sonnets?

Well, the fact of the matter is that no-one knows who this mysterious ‘fair youth’ was. There are some educated  guesses, but we may never know for sure. So, who’s in the running?

Henry Wriothesley in His Teenage
Years - Can  We Say Effeminate?
Henry Wriothesley (3rd Earl of Southampton) The most commonly supposed ‘fair youth’, Henry was, at one time, a patron of Shakespeare’s. He was, in his adolescent years, what can only be described as a ‘pretty boy’. And is certainly a man whose beauty could conceivably be spoken about amongst other men. 

It also seems likely that Will would want to flatter someone who was allowing him to make his livelihood writing. Moreover, there is the sonnets’ dedication, which is addressed to Mr W. H., which could be in reference to Henry Wriothesley, although the initials are the wrong way around.

William Herbert (3rd Earl of Pembroke) Now, Mr Herbert’s initials would be the right way around. William Herbert was also patron to Shakespeare at some point, which seems to suggest that Shakespeare had a thing for 3rd earls. Again, the purpose of penning a series of extremely flattering poems to your patron seems painfully obvious.

Could Shakespeare’s Fair Youth Have Been a Commoner?

William Herbert - Not Looking Particularly
Fair or Youthful

However, there are other possibilities. For example, although many of the sonnets suggest that the poet is of a more lowly status, this may be part and parcel of the romantic poetic form, indicting that he is ‘not worthy’ of the object of his affection. 

For example, Oscar Wilde suggests that W. H. might be a boy actor, named William Hughes. This is a nice theory, but, unfortunately, there is no evidence that this man even existed, much less that he was the object of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

And there is, of course, another possibility. The fair youth might not have been an actual person at all. The tale woven through the sonnets may simply be a fiction. 

Shakespeare Wrote Romantic Poetry to a Man!?

Was Shakespeare Gay?

So, does this mean that Shakespeare was gay? Well, you can find out more about my opinion on that topic in my post on the subject, ‘Was Shakespeare Gay?’ But the quick answer is there is no way of knowing. 

But it’s worth remembering that, at the time, it was not uncommon for men to refer to and revere the beauty of other men, especially that of young men and teenage boys. It was also not uncommon for a man to express ‘love’ for another man - there are many instances of that in Shakespeare’s plays.

Shakespeare may have taken a fancy to his fair youth and he might have engaged in an affair with him. But the sonnets alone are not evidence enough to suggest that he did. Unfortunately, there are some questions about the Bard they may never be answered: Who was the fair youth and did Shakespeare love him?, are just two of them.


  1. William Herbert was born in 1580; Henry Wriothesley was born 1573. So William Herbert could have been the Fair Youth.

    1. Hi there,

      Yes, you're right, he absolutely could. He was the right age. I was just having some fun with the picture's caption, as it's clearly a portrait from later in life.

      Thanks for shopping by.