The story begins with the narrator whose name is unknown and an older man George Erskine, dining in a house in Birdcage Walk engaging in a conversation and landing on the topic of literary forgeries. The narrator is of the opinion that ‘to censure an artist for a forgery is to confuse an ethical with an aesthetic problem’. As a reaction to this thought Erskine places his hand on the man’s shoulder and asks the narrator what does he think of a situation when man believes in a theory about a work of art so strongly, that he commits a forgery just to prove it. He replies that such situation would be a different matter and inquires whether Erskine knew someone who did that.
Erskine reveals to the narrator that indeed, he knew such a man. His name was Cyril Graham and he was a great friend of Erskine’s, so dear in fact that he left him his legacy. Afterwards Erskine shows the narrator a portrait of a young man ‘of quite an extraordinary personal beauty’. He introduces it as the portrait of Mr. H. W., a young actor Cyril Graham believed to be the Mr. H. W. from Shakespeare’s sonnets. The narrator is deeply captivated and insists that his companion elaborates, and thus Erskine tells the story of Cyril Graham.
First Erskine presents his friend's personal history. Cyril and Erskine knew each other back from school days, where they did ‘all their work and all their play together’. Cyril’s parents were long dead and his grandfather did not appreciate his 'effeminate' grandson, therefore Cyril spent most of his holidays with Erskine’s family. Erskine describes Cyril as an extremely charming and attractive young man with passion for acting and poetry, who due to his delicate feature was frequently cast for female roles in Shakespeare’s plays, in which he excelled. He never worked and he spent his days reading Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Erskine reveals that one day he received a message from his friend asking him to come over, which he found quite surprising, since he used to visit his friend almost daily. When he arrived, Erskine found Cyril in state of great enthusiasm. Moments on, Cyril had proudly announced that he discovered the great secrete of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The true identity of Mr. H. W.
According to Cyril, the object of Shakespeare’s sonnets was a young man, an actor, who played Shakespeare’s greatest female roles, named Willie Hughes. He produced his notes and took Erskine step by step through his thought process. Erskine enjoyed the evening, however, he did not believe that the theory stood a chance without a proof of Wille’s existence. His friend was irritated by such an approach, but the two men agreed not to go public with the theory until sufficient evidence was found. They conducted a research but found no validation of Willie’s existence. As a result, Cyril found himself an in awful state and disappeared for some time.
Later, Erskine was invited again back to Cyril’s house where Cyril presented him with unquestionable evidence of Willie Hughes’s existence. He showed Erskine a painting, a portrait of Mr. H. W., ‘with his hand resting on the dedicatory page of the Sonnets’ with writing on the frame that said: “Master Will. Hews”. It did not cross Erskine’s mind to accuse Cyril of forgery. He warmly congratulated him on the discovery and together they went line by line through the sonnets again.
It was not until a few days later that Erskine was introduced to a young artist Edward Merton, who happened to have the portrait of Mr. H. W. in his portfolio. Upon this sight Erskine grew agitated. The artist’s wife explained it was a work her husband painted for Mr. Cyril Graham. The revelation infuriated Erskine, who decided to confront his friend. He told Cyril that if he really believed his theory himself, he would not feel the need to commit a forgery in order to prove it. The two gentlemen wound in a quarrel that ended up being their last interaction. Cyril committed a suicide the next day, Erskine says at the end of his story. He also confesses to the narrator that Cyril had entrusted him the theory of Willie Hughes and it is up to him to introduce it to the world. To his disbelief, Erskine finds out, the narrator actually converted to the ridiculous theory. After a heated discussion on the topic, the two men part.
The next day the narrator encloses himself in his home and begins to examine the sonnets. He is captivated by his work and withdraws from social life for two weeks. After three weeks he summons wonderful new evidence, however, still no actual proof of the existence of Willie Hughes. Nonetheless, he founds himself on the verge of enthusiasm and is persuaded of the absolute truthfulness of Cyril’s and now also his theory, so persuaded that he decides to make an appeal to Erskine.
In his letter he presents all the new evidence that has found, but as he finished the letter he is stunned to discover his sudden indifference to the topic. Suddenly, the Willie Hughes theory seems like a mere myth. Mentioning some rather unjust accusations in his letter, the narrator decides to visit Erskine and apologise, only to find out that his friend has been converted by the evidence assembled in the letter. The two gentlemen argue for hours and eventually part in anger. Later, when the narrator calls on Erskine, he is informed Erskine went to Germany.
In matter of two years, the narrator receives a letter, a suicide note from Erskine, where it is mentioned that as Cyril gave up his life for the sake of the theory, Erskine is prepared to the same thing. Furthermore, Erskine indirectly blames the narrator for driving him to this deed. The narrator is terrified and decided to travel to Cannes, where Erskine is supposed to be, hoping he can save his friends.
When he arrives to the Hotel l’ Angleterre, he is informed that Erskine had been buried two days before his arrival. The narrator stumbles upon Lady Erskine, George Erskine’s mother, and a doctor, who to his surprise informs him that Erskine did not commit suicide but died of consumption which had been killing him for a long time. Lady Erskine announces that her sons asked her to give a possession of his to the narrator to serve as a memento. Alas, she presents the narrator with the ‘fatal picture of Willie Hughes’.