154 sonnets by William Shakespeare were first published on May 20, 1609 by Thomas Thorpe. Nearly everything about the sonnets – their composition, dedication, and publication – leads to a rabbit’s warren of confusion, speculation and disagreement.
The controversy starts with Thomas Thorpe himself and the question of how and where he obtained the sonnets (which were written in the 1590s and circulated by Shakespeare himself among his friends in manuscript form) and whether or not he had Shakespeare’s permission to publish them in the first place.
Today, many scholars look at the errors and misprints in the text, the enigmatic dedication, and Thorpe’s shady reputation for literary piracy as pointing to the sonnets being published without Shakespeare’s knowledge or consent.
The dedication page itself has kept readers guessing and scholars speculating for centuries. The dedication (in modern spelling) reads in part: “To the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets Mr. W.H.” and is signed “T.T.,” presumably Thomas Thorpe.
There is debate over whether Shakespeare actually wrote the dedication himself or if Thorpe wrote it, either on his own or Shakespeare’s behalf. This also raises many questions and peculiar answers.
The biggest mystery is the identity of “Mr. W.H.” Is he merely Shakespeare’s patron or should he be identified with the “Fair Youth” that Shakespeare (or at least the narrator of the poems) addresses in homoerotic terms?
There is even some speculation that Thorpe is the actual author of the dedication and is thanking “Mr. W.H.,” the person who supplied him with a purloined manuscript of the sonnets.
If the dedication is Shakespeare’s own, the two most serious contenders for the identity of “Mr. W.H.” are William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke and Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. Shakespeare later dedicated his First Folio to Herbert and had previously dedicated poems to Wriothesley.
If the dedicatee of the sonnets is actually Wriothesley (which makes sense if we look at the sonnets as autobiographical) then that means switching his initials around.
Then there is the question of adressing an Earl with the disrespectful term “Mr.”
Still, in the end, these controversies (no matter how interesting) are distractions from the grace and beauty of the sonnets themselves, which have kept people reading them for four centuries.
As arranged in Thorpe’s edition (although probably not in the chronological order in which Shakespeare wrote them) the sonnets tell the story of Shakespeare first advising a younger, handsome, higher-born young man to settle down and marry.
He then goes on to describe his own tortured love for the Fair Youth in erotic terms. Shakespeare reveals hurt and jealousy as he fears the Fair Youth’s affections being drawn toward a Rival Poet and then the Fair Youth’s sexual affair with the Dark Lady, whom Shakespeare also finally ends up seducing.
Even at this distance, the poems are full of raw human emotions, passions, and insecurities, which still make them powerful pieces of literature today, however they came into being and however they eventually reached the public.