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Mr. W.H. is William Shakespeare

novembre 7, 2016

Studi inglesi ed americani



Inizio questa sezione dedicata agli studi inglesi ed americani con un saggio che scrissi tempo fa per un sito inglese che oggi ha chiuso le pubblicazioni. Trattandosi di un saggio di una certa rilevanza storiografica, lo ripresento in questa sede, ripromettendomi a breve di darne anche la versione originale in italiano.



The following  essay is meant to be a small tribute to William Shakespeare, on the centenary of his death.


Recently, and with great emphasis in the media, it was alleged that “finally” the famous and ever-elusive Mr. W.H., to whom Thomas Thorpe had addressed his respectful obeisance to letting him have Shakespeare’s Sonnets, had been identified by Professor Geoffrey Caveney (1). The figure in question would  be  William Holme.  But the name of William  Holme  is not an absolute novelty, because this hypothesis   had already been ventilated by Samuel Schoenbaum, who criticized Sir Sidney Lee because he proposed indubitably William Hall as Mr. W.H. But Sir Sidney Lee had actually added something else, explaining why he had chosen William Hall instead of William Holmes (or Holme).


“A bookseller (not a printer), William Holmes who was in business for himself  between 1590 and 1615, was the only other member that the Stationer’s Company bearing  at the required dates the initials of W.H. But he was ordinarily known  by his full name and there is no indications that he had  either professional  or private relations with Thorpe, ” Lee wrote (2).


However, Schoenbaum  disagrees  with Lee forcefully, “William Hall of the Halls at Hallow, near Worcester; but more likely the stationers’ assistant William Hall, who piratically offered the manuscript of the Sonnets to Thorpe for surreptitious publication. This dubious theory […] has had many followers […]  In Lee’s view, only Hall, of those known familiarity to Thorpe had the right initials. But how can he be so certain of Thorpe’s circle? The name Hall is common, and so  too are the initials: William Holme, a bookseller known to Lee, belonged to the Stationer’s  Company and followed his trade in London in the first decade of the seventeenth century.” (3).


Since 1985, the issue  about  William Holme or  William Holmes has been touched by Robert F. Fleissner , “As has been fairly well known, William Holmes, who was a bookseller in business […] In his widely heralded recent edition of the poems, Shakespeare’s  Sonnets (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1977), Stephen Booth contended that to see the name ‘W. Hall’ in the words of the dedication (W. Hall) is to apologize  ‘ a misprint’ (p. 548), thus ignoring the possibility of deliberately contrived ambiguity as discussed in this pastiche. The ‘real’ misprint is that Booth refers , in the same context, to one of the candidates for W.H. being William Holme rather than William Holmes (p. 548)” (4) .


But, there is also one major  fact that Mr. William Holme has  the same credentials as William Hall, the famous bookseller  who, as we have seen,  enjoyed  of considerable credit among  the criticism for being the only one who would provide T. Thorpe with  the famous manuscript of 1609. In fact, all hypotheses so far proposed  lack of one  important point, namely  “how” the manuscript of the Sonnets might arrive in their hands. And Professor  Geoffrey Caveney  recognized that, “How Holme had obtained a copy of the Sonnets cannot be precisely determined.”



But perhaps not less important is the name of William Honing,  a  powerful Official of the Revels, who was proposed as  possible Mr. W.H.  by  E. Fisher  with excellent arguments , “As for W.H. there was at least one man of power he [ that is Shakespeare] would have tried to please. This was William Honing, Clerk Controller in Her Majesty’s Office of the Revels” (5). Besides, we can find both the names of William Honing and William Shakespeare in “an account book for the procession among the Lord Chamberlain’s papers  that includes  a long list of grants of cloth for liveries, including damask to the Master of the Revels. Edmund  Tiney, scarlet cloth to three officers of the Revels (William Honing, Edward Kirkham, and Edward Pakenham), and red cloth  to nine members of the King’s Men (Robert Amin, Richard Burbage, Henry Condell, Richard Cowley, Laurence Fletcher, John Heminges, Augustine Philips, William Shakespeare, William Sky)” (6).


Among other things,  William Honing would not have the problems of  other candidates , because the manuscript of Shakespeare’s Sonnets  would be  given directly to him  by T. Thorpe for permission to publish. If I had to choose between all possible candidates, I would choose William Honing for the reasons above mentioned. But I will go beyond this hypothesis. However, before  arriving at a meaningful conclusion, it is necessary to reconsider the dedication of Thorpe  from a formal point of view, because, in my opinion, in this case, the form is “the shape of content.”


Mr. W.H. is William Shakespeare


No one has fully explained  “why” Thorpe  used in his dedication to Mr. W.H.  the Latin Capital letters. So, the assumption of this essay is that  Mr. W.H. is William Shakespeare. In the past  some critics adopted this assumption, but without demonstrating  it. The aims of  this essay is to demonstrate just that: Mr. W.H. is William Shakespeare “himself.”  Among the most famous advocates of authorship of Shakespeare I mention in particular W. Carew  Hazlitt, according to whom Shakespeare “was an accessory before the fact” of Thorpe,


Thorpe does not appear  to have had at any time business relations with the poet, but there is just this distant possibility that Shakespeare was an accessory before the fact, insomuch that he acquiesced in the step, and even had a hand in the title page, which is characteristically and suspiciously laconic” (7).


The idea was good, but no one has ever believed seriously in it.


Now we come to the point.


Many critics  have said that Thorpe was a pirate, and that he seized  Shakespeare’s manuscript through illegal ways; but recent acquisitions argue that at the time when Thorpe presented the manuscript of the Sonnets,  he had become a more than respectable publisher, who would hardly have undermined his reputation with a pirate edition on  an important writer like Shakespeare, who, in the meantime, had acquired a considerable reputation at court, “Thorpe was not a pirate, but a perfectly respectable publisher,” Alfred Leslie Rowse wrote (8).


This established, why Thorpe  would had use  the solemn Latin Capital  if the subject does  not   refer himself  to a figure of high rank? It’s very unlikely that such a form is to be applicable  to a simple bookseller, and, most importantly,  though  an “unauthorized Edition.”  Besides,  Thorpe cited  his “benefactor” as  a Master. This is an honorary title that Shakespeare really possessed. In his coats of arms that he did get to his father, John Shakespeare, we will discover the meaning and the relevance of that distinction, “He [William Shaskespeare] wanted to secure the coat-of-arms for his father as a consolation in old age, and he wanted the title to reflect on himself and prove him ‘William Shakespeare, gentleman‘.” (9).



In the first volume of The Works of Shakespear. [sic]”, edited by Alexander Pope and Nicholas Rowe we can read,

[“The following instrument was transmitted to us by John Antis, Esq.,  Garter King at Arms:  It is marked G. 13. 349. There is also a manuscript in the herald’s office,  marked  W. 2.  p 276;  where notice is taken of this coat, and  that the Person to whom it was granted, was born at Stratford upon Avon]

“We the said Garter and Clarencieulx have assigned, granted,  and confirmed and by these Presents exemplified unto the said John Shakespere,  and to his posterity,  that Shield and coat of Arms,  viz.  In a field of Gold upon a Bend Sables,  a Spear of the first,  the Point upward, headed Argent; and for his Crest or Cognizance.  A falcon,  Or,  with his Wings displayed,  standing on a Wreathe of his Colours,  supporting a spear armed headed, or steeled Silver, fixed upon an helmet with Mantles and Tassels,  as more plainly may appear depicted in this Margent; and We have likewise impaled the fame with the ancient Arms of the said Arden of Wellingcote; signifying thereby,  that it may and shall be lawful for the said John Shakespere, Gent. to bear and use the same Shield of Arms, single or impaled,  as aforesaid during his natural Life […] Given at the Office of Arms, London,  the Day of  … [blank-dated] in the Forty second Year of the Reign of our most Gracious Sovereign Lady Elizabeth by the Grace of God, Queen of England, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith etc. 1599.” (10).


Now, Shakespeare’s coat of arms is very similar to that of  Pope “Adrian IV, an Englishman; his name was Nicholas Brekespere, or Breakspere, or Breakspear, in Latin Hastifrangus.” (11).


Nicholas Brekespere’s  name, as we can see, is very similar to that of Shakespeare, and  the Latin name that he assumed was  Hastifrango.  From this we can deduce that the Latin name of Shakespeare, “spear[e],” had to be  like this. It is very likely that, if not Hastifrango, the  Latin honourific name of Shakespeare could be Hastifer, meaning “a lance bearer,” “a soldier,”  Latin hastifer [he who holds the spear, spearbearer].  In fact, Shakespeasre’s coat of arms shows “A falcon or with his wings displayed standing on a wreath of his colours supporting a spear”. Besides, since 1901  Charlotte Stopes  noticed that, “The origin of the name of Shakespeare is hidden in the mists of antiquity. Writers in Notes and Queries have formed it from Sigisbert, or from Jacques Pierre, or from Haste-vibrans.” (12).


The Latin verb “vibrans” [ present participle of “vibro”]  in English sounds like shake, while “haste” sounds in Latin as “hasta” (spear).  So Haste-vibrans means exactly Shake-spear[e]. But I must get right to the bottom of the problem. Since 1845, George Lillie Craik wrote, “William Shakespeare was born at Stratford on Avon in this county; in whom three eminent poets may seem some sort to be compounded,  1. Martial in the warlike sound of his surname (whence some may conjecture of a military extraction) hastivibrans,  or Shakespeare.” (13).


As a result, the famous and elusive Mr. W.H. is  Shakespeare, that is Wilhelmus Hastifer or Hastivibrans.


At the moment when  Shakespeare had gotten his prestigious coat of arms, he also had the privilege of being able to use the title of  Master, and this was underlined by all biographers of Shakespeare. If we  consider the importance that Shakespeare gave that honour, and  that Thorpe had by his own hands the manuscript of the Sonnets, it is understandable the emphasis that Thorpe placed in his dedication, where Master  is  in a prominent position. As for the  “ever living poet”  who would give eternity to the poems of Shakespeare, he was evidently not the same Shakespeare, but a very great Latin poet.


Now the greatest Latin poet who built a monument to poetry  (Exegi monumentum aere perennius) is Horace, in my opinion.  Thorpe knew  Latin language with correctness, which suggests to me  that this dedication to Shakespeare shows at first  his honorary title, Master,  and then the Latin name of the great English  poet, that is Wilhelmus Hastifer-Hastivibrans. So, the first edition of a work (The Sonnets), which would have given Shakespeare immortality,  consecrated forever,  with both a gimmick and an outstanding invention, his inclusion  among the gentry. Shakespeare did not  want to incur the risk of appearing  both immodest and ambitious, and so he chose (through Thorpe) these enigmatic words,

“To the Onlie Begetter of these ensuing sonnets Mr. W. H. all happiness and that eternity promised by our ever-living poet wisheth the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth. T. T.”




1)      Geoffrey Caveney, “ ‘Mr.  W.H.’: Stationer William Holme (d. 1607), Notes and Queries, Oxford University Press,  (2015) Vol. 62 (issue 1), pp. 120-124-

2)      Sir Sidney Lee, A Life of William Shakespeare, Macmillan, 1916, p. 679 n. 2.

3)      Samuel Schoenbaum, Shakespeare’s Lives, Oxford New York, Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 319 and  p. 377.

4)      Robert F. Fleissner,  “A Sherlockian Treatment of the Mystery of the Dedication to Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” Clues 6.1 (1985 Sp/S), pp. 57–66;  p. 65, footnote 2 ).

5)      E. Fisher, Shakespeare & Son, London, Abelard Schuman, 1962, p. 10.

6)      Martin Wiggins and Catherine Richardson, British Drama (1533-1642): A Catalogue. 1603-1608, Oxford University Press, 2015,  p. 88.

7)      W. Carew  Hazlitt, Shakespeare Himself and His Work, London, Bernard Quaritch, 1908. P. 223.

8)      Alfred Leslie Rowse, Shakespeare the man, Macmillan, 1973, p. 239.

9)      Robert Howarth, “Shakespeare’s Gentleness”, in  Shakespeare Survey, edited by A. Nicoll, Cambridge University Press, 1961, [First Edition 1948 and First Paper Edition 2002],  p. 90.

10)    The Works of Shakespear.[sic] In six Volumes. Carefully Revised and Corrected by the former Editions. London, MDCCXLV [1745], with Mr. Pope’s Preface and Some Account of the Life of Mr. William Shakespear. Written by Mr. Rowe, pp.  XLIII-XLIV.

11)    Bibliotheca Biographica: A Synopsis of Universal Biography, Ancient and Modern,  edited by T. Flloyd, Esq., London, MDCCLX [1760], Vol. I, reference Adrian IV.”

12)    Mrs. C. C. Stopes, Shakespeare’s Family, London, 1901, p. 1.

13)    George Lillie Craik, Sketches of the History of Literature and Learning in England, London, 1845, Vol. III, p. 79.