The Sonnets include a dedication to one "Mr. W.H.". The identity of this person remains a mystery and, since the 19th century, has provoked a great deal of speculation.
The dedication reads:
TO.THE.ONLIE.BEGETTER.OF. THESE.INSUING.SONNETS. Mr.W.H. ALL.HAPPINESSE. AND.THAT.ETERNITIE. PROMISED. BY. OUR.EVER-LIVING.POET. WISHETH. THE.WELL-WISHING. ADVENTURER.IN. SETTING. FORTH.
Its oblique nature has led Colin Burrow to describe it as a "dank pit in which speculation wallows and founders". Don Foster concludes that the result of all the speculation has yielded only two "facts," which themselves have been the object of much debate: First, that the form of address (Mr.) suggests that W.H. was an untitled gentleman, and second, that W.H., whoever he was, is identified as "the only begetter" of Shakespeare's Sonnets (whatever the word "begetter" is taken to mean).
The initials 'T.T.' are taken to refer to the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, though Thorpe usually signed prefatory matter only if the author was out of the country or dead. Foster points out, however, that Thorpe's entire corpus of such consists of only four dedications and three stationer's prefaces. That Thorpe signed the dedication rather than the author is often read as evidence that he published the work without obtaining Shakespeare's permission.
The capital letters and periods following each word were probably intended to resemble an ancient Roman lapidary inscription or monumental brass, thereby accentuating Shakespeare's declaration in Sonnet 55 that the work will confer immortality to the subjects of the work:
- Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
- Of princes shall outlive this pow'rful rhyme,
126 of Shakespeare's sonnets are addressed to a young man, often called the "Fair Youth." Broadly speaking, there are branches of theories concerning the identity of Mr. W.H.: those that take him to be identical to the youth, and those that assert him to be a separate person.
The following is a non-exhaustive list of contenders:
- William Herbert (the Earl of Pembroke). Herbert is seen by many as the most likely candidate, since he was also the dedicatee of the First Folio of Shakespeare's works. However the "obsequious" Thorpe would be unlikely to have addressed a lord as "Mr".
- Henry Wriothesley (the Earl of Southampton). Many have argued that 'W.H.' is Southampton's initials reversed, and that he is a likely candidate as he was the dedicatee of Shakespeare's poems Venus & Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Southampton was also known for his good looks, and has often been argued to be the Fair Youth of the sonnets; however, the same reservations about "Mr." also apply here.
- A simple printing error for Shakespeare's initials, 'W.S.' or 'W. Sh'. This was suggested by Bertrand Russell in his memoirs, and also by Foster and by Jonathan Bate. Bate supports his point by reading 'onlie' as something like 'peerless', 'singular' and 'begetter' as 'maker', ie. 'writer'. Foster takes "onlie" to mean only one, which he argues eliminates any particular subject of the poems, since they are addressed to more than one person. The phrase 'Our Ever-Living Poet', according to Foster, refers to God, not Shakespeare. 'Poet' comes from the Greek 'poetes' which means 'maker', a fact remarked upon in various contemporary texts; also, in Elizabethan English the word 'maker' was used to mean 'poet'. These researchers believe the phrase 'our ever-living poet' might easily have been taken to mean 'our immortal maker' (God). The 'eternity' promised us by our immortal maker would then be the eternal life that is promised us by God, and the dedication would conform with the standard formula of the time, according to which one person wished another "happiness [in this life] and eternal bliss [in heaven]". Shakespeare himself, on this reading, is 'Mr. W. [S]H.' the 'onlie begetter', i.e., the sole author, of the sonnets, and the dedication is advertising the authenticity of the poems.
- William Hall, a printer who had worked with Thorpe on other publications. According to this theory, the dedication is simply Thorpe's tribute to his colleague and has nothing to do with Shakespeare. This theory, originated by Sir Sidney Lee in his A Life of William Shakespeare (1898), was continued by Bernard Rowland Ward in his The Mystery of Mr. W.H. (1923), and has been endorsed recently by Brian Vickers, who notes Thorpe uses such 'visual puns' elsewhere. Supporters of this theory point out that "ALL" following "MR. W. H." spells "MR. W. HALL" with the deletion of a period. Using his initials W.H., Hall had edited a collection of the poems of Robert Southwell that was printed by George Eld, the same printer for the 1609 Sonnets. There is also documentary evidence of one William Hall of Hackney who signed himself 'WH' three years earlier, but it is uncertain if this was the printer.
- Sir William Harvey, Southampton's stepfather. This theory assumes that the Fair Youth and Mr. W.H. are separate people, and that Southampton is the Fair Youth. Harvey would be the "begetter" of the sonnets in the sense that it would be he who provided them to the publisher, after the death of Southampton's mother removed an obstacle to publication. The reservations about the use of "Mr." do not apply in the case of a knight.
- William Himself (i.e., Shakespeare). This theory was proposed by the German scholar D. Barnstorff, but has found no support.
- William Haughton, a contemporary dramatist.
- William Hart, Shakespeare's nephew and male heir. Proposed by Richard Farmer, but Hart was nine years of age at the time of publication, and this suggestion is regarded as unlikely.
- William Hatcliffe of Lincolnshire, proposed by Leslie Hotson in 1964.
- Who He. In his 2002 Oxford Shakespeare edition of the sonnets, Colin Burrow argues that the dedication is deliberately mysterious and ambiguous, possibly standing for "Who He", a conceit also used in a contemporary pamphlet. He suggests that it might have been created by Thorpe simply to encourage speculation and discussion (and hence, sales of the text).
- Willie Hughes. The 18th-century scholar Thomas Tyrwhitt first proposed the theory that Mr. W.H. and the Fair Youth were one "William Hughes", based on presumed puns on the name in the sonnets. The argument was repeated in Edmond Malone's 1790 edition of the sonnets. The most famous exposition of the theory is in Oscar Wilde's short story "The Portrait of Mr. W. H.," in which Wilde, or rather the story's narrator, describes the puns on "will" and "hues" in the sonnets, (notably Sonnet 20 among others), and argues that they were written to a seductive young actor named Willie Hughes who played female roles in Shakespeare's plays. There is no evidence for the existence of any such person. However, several scholars in the early 20th century identified other persons with that name as possible candidates.