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Were printed in 1609 and probably date from the 1590s. Most of them trace the course of the writer's affection for a young man of rank and beauty: the first 17 urge him to marry to reproduce his beauty. The complete sequence of 154 sonnets was issued by the publisher Thomas Thorpe in 1609 with a dedication to ‘Mr W. H., the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets’. Mr W. H. has been identified as (among others) William, Lord Herbert, afterwards earl of Pembroke, or Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, and further as the young man addressed in the sonnets. Another view argues that Mr W. H. was a friend of Thorpe, through whose good offices the manuscript had reached his hands—‘begetter’ being used in the sense of ‘getter’ or ‘procurer’. Other characters are alluded to in sequence including a mistress stolen by a friend (40–42, a rival poet (78–80 and 80–86), and a dark beauty loved by the author (127–52. Numerous identifications for all the ‘characters’ involved in the sequence, as well as for Mr W. H., have been put forward. Perhaps the most ingenious and amusing of these is Wilde's The Portrait of Mr W. H.

For the form of these poems see sonnet.

Subjects: Shakespeare Studies and Criticism.

Reference entries

William Shakespeare (1564—1616) playwright and poet