The Portrait of Mr W.H.

Oscar Wilde

Table of Contents


I HAD been dining with Erskine in his pretty little house in Birdcage Walk, and we were sitting in the library over our coffee and cigarettes, when the question of literary forgeries happened to turn up in conversation. I cannot at present remember how it was that we struck upon this somewhat curious topic, as it was at that time, but I know we had a long discussion about Macpherson, Ireland, and Chatterton, and that with regard to the last I insisted that his so called forgeries were merely the result of an artistic desire for perfect representation; that we had no right to quarrel with an artist for the conditions under which he chooses to present his work; and that all Art being to a certain degree a mode of acting, an attempt to realise one’s own personality on some imaginative plane out of reach of the trammelling accidents and limitations of real life, to censure an artist for a forgery was to confuse an ethical with an aesthetical problem.

Erskine, who was a good deal older than I was, and had been listening to me with the amused deference of a man of forty, suddenly put his hand upon my shoulder and said to me, “What would you say about a young man who had a strange theory about a certain work of art, believed in his theory, and committed a forgery in order to prove it?”

“Ah! that is quite a different matter,” I answered.

Erskine remained silent for a few moments, looking at the thin grey threads of smoke that were rising from his cigarette. “Yes,” he said, after a pause, “quite different.”

There was something in the tone of his voice, a slight touch of bitterness perhaps, that excited my curiosity. “Did you ever know anybody who did that?” I cried.

“Yes,” he answered, throwing his cigarette into the fire—“a great friend of mine, Cyril Graham. He was very fascinating, and very foolish, and very heartless. However, he left me the only legacy I ever received in my life.”

“What was that?” I exclaimed laughing. Erskine rose from his seat, and going over to a tall inlaid cabinet that stood between the two windows, unlocked it, and came back to where I was sitting, carrying a small panel picture set in an old and somewhat tarnished Elizabethan frame.

It was a full-length portrait of a young man in late sixteenth-century costume, standing by a table, with his right hand resting on an open book. He seemed about seventeen years of age, and was of quite extraordinary personal beauty, though evidently somewhat effeminate. Indeed, had it not been for the dress and the closely cropped hair, one would have said that the face, with its dreamy, wistful eyes and its delicate scarlet lips, was the face of a girl. In manner, and especially in the treatment of the hands, the picture reminded one of François Clouet’s later work. The black velvet doublet with its fantastically gilded points, and the peacock-blue background against which it showed up so pleasantly, and from which it gained such luminous value of colour, were quite in Clouet’s style; and the two masks of Tragedy and Comedy that hung somewhat formally from the marble pedestal had that hard severity of touch—so different from the facile grace of the Italians —which even at the Court of France the great Flemish master never completely lost, and which in itself has always been a characteristic of the northern temper.

“It is a charming thing,” I cried; “but who is this wonderful young man whose beauty Art has so happily preserved for us?”

“This is the portrait of Mr W. H.” said Erskine, with a sad smile. It might have been a chance effect of light, but it seemed to me that his eyes were swimming with tears.

“Mr W.H.!” I repeated; “who was Mr W.H.?”

“Don’t you remember?” he answered; “look at the book on which his hand is resting.”

“I see there is some writing there, but I cannot make it out,” I replied.

“Take this magnifying-glass and try,” said Erskine, with the same sad smile still playing about his mouth.

I took the glass, and moving the lamp a little nearer, I began to spell out the crabbed sixteenth-century handwriting. “To The Onlie Begetter Of These Insuing Sonnets. . . . “Good heavens!” I cried, “is this Shakespeare’s Mr W. H.?”

“Cyril Graham used to say so,” muttered Erskine.

“But it is not a bit like Lord Pembroke,” I rejoined. “I know the Wilton portraits very well. I was staying near there a few weeks ago.”

“Do you really believe then that the Sonnets are addressed to Lord Pembroke?” he asked.

“I am sure of it,” I answered. “Pembroke, Shakespeare, and Mrs Mary Fitton are the three personages of the Sonnets; there is no doubt at all about it.”

“Well, I agree with you,” said Erskine, “but I did not always think so. I used to believe—well, I suppose I used to believe in Cyril Graham and his theory.”

“And what was that?” I asked, looking at the wonderful portrait, which had already begun to have a strange fascination for me.

“It is a long story,” he murmured, taking the picture away from me—rather abruptly I thought at the time —“a very long story; but if you care to hear it, I will tell it to you.”

“I love theories about the Sonnets,” I cried; “but I don’t think I am likely to be converted to any new idea. The matter has ceased to be a mystery to any one. Indeed, I wonder that it ever was a mystery.”

“As I don’t believe in the theory, I am not likely to convert you to it,” said Erskine, laughing; “but it may interest you.”

“Tell it to me, of course,” I answered. “If it is half as delightful as the picture, I shall be more than satisfied.”

“Well,” said Erskine, lighting a cigarette, “I must begin by telling you about Cyril Graham himself. He and I were at the same house at Eton. I was a year or two older than he was, but we were immense friends, and did all our work and all our play together. There was, of course, a good deal more play than work, but I cannot say that I am sorry for that. It is always an advantage not to have received a sound commercial education, and what I learned in the playing fields at Eton has been quite as useful to me as anything I was taught at Cambridge. I should tell you that Cyril’s father and mother were both dead. They had been drowned in a horrible yachting accident off the Isle of Wight. His father had been in the diplomatic service, and had married a daughter, the only daughter, in fact, of old Lord Crediton, who became Cyril’s guardian after the death of his parents. I don’t think that Lord Crediton cared very much for Cyril. He had never really forgiven his daughter for marrying a man who had no title. He was an extraordinary old aristocrat, who swore like a costermonger, and had the manners of a farmer. I remember seeing him once on Speech-day. He growled at me, gave me a sovereign, and told me not to grow up a ‘damned Radical’ like my father. Cyril had very little affection for him, and was only too glad to spend most of his holidays with us in Scotland. They never really got on together at all. Cyril thought him a bear, and he thought Cyril effeminate. He was effeminate, I suppose, in some things, though he was a capital rider and a capital fencer. In fact he got the foils before he left Eton. But he was very languid in his manner, and not a little vain of his good looks, and had a strong objection to football, which he used to say was a game only suitable for the sons of the middle classes. The two things that really gave him pleasure were poetry and acting. At Eton he was always dressing up and reciting Shakespeare, and when we went up to Trinity he became a member of the A.D.C. his first term. I remember I was always very jealous of his acting. I was absurdly devoted to him; I suppose because we were so different in most things. I was a rather awkward, weakly lad, with huge feet, and horribly freckled. Freckles run in Scotch families just as gout does in English families. Cyril used to say that of the two he preferred the gout; but he always set an absurdly high value on personal appearance, and once read a paper before our Debating Society to prove that it was better to be good-looking than to be good. He certainly was wonderfully handsome. People who did not like him, Philistines and college tutors, and young men reading for the Church, used to say that he was merely pretty; but there was a great deal more in his face than mere prettiness. I think he was the most splendid creature I ever saw, and nothing could exceed the grace of his movements, the charm of his manner. He fascinated everybody who was worth fascinating, and a great many people who were not. He was often wilful and petulant, and I used to think him dreadfully insincere. It was due, I think, chiefly to his inordinate desire to please. Poor Cyril! I told him once that he was contented with very cheap triumphs, but he only tossed his head, and smiled. He was horribly spoiled. All charming people, I fancy, are spoiled. It is the secret of their attraction.

“However, I must tell you about Cyril’s acting. You know that no women are allowed to play at the A.D.C. At least they were not in my time. I don’t know how it is now. Well, of course Cyril was always cast for the girls’ parts, and when ‘As You Like It’ was produced he played Rosalind. It was a marvellous performance. You will laugh at me, but I assure you that Cyril Graham was the only perfect Rosalind I have ever seen. It would be impossible to describe to you the beauty, the delicacy, the refinement of the whole thing. It made an immense sensation, and the horrid little theatre, as it was then, was crowded every night. Even now when I read the play I can’t help thinking of Cyril; the part might have been written for him, he played it with such extraordinary grace and distinction. The next term he took his degree, and came to London to read for the Diplomatic. But he never did any work. He spent his days in reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and his evenings at the theatre. He was, of course, wild to go on the stage. It was all that Lord Crediton and I could do to prevent him. Perhaps, if he had gone on the stage he would be alive now. It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is absolutely fatal. I hope you will never fall into that error. If you do, you will be sorry for it.

“Well, to come to the real point of the story, one afternoon I got a letter from Cyril asking me to come round to his rooms that evening. He had charming chambers in Piccadilly overlooking the Green Park, and as I used to go to see him almost every day, I was rather surprised at his taking the trouble to write. Of course I went, and when I arrived I found him in a state of great excitement. He told me that he had at last discovered the true secret of Shakespeare’s Sonnets; that all the scholars and critics had been entirely on the wrong track; and that he was the first who, working purely by internal evidence, had found out who Mr W. H. really was. He was perfectly wild with delight, and for a long time would not tell me his theory. Finally, he produced a bundle of notes, took his copy of the Sonnets off the mantelpiece, and sat down and gave me a long lecture on the whole subject.

“He began by pointing out that the young man to whom Shakespeare addressed these strangely passionate poems must have been somebody who was a really vital factor in the development of his dramatic art, and that this could not be said of either Lord Pembroke or Lord Southampton. Indeed, whoever he was, he could not have been anybody of high birth, as was shown very clearly by Sonnet XXV, in which Shakespeare contrasts himself with men who are ‘great princes’ favourites’; says quite frankly—

‘Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars,
Unlooked for joy in that I honour most’;

and ends the sonnet by congratulating himself on the mean state of him he so adored:

‘Then happy I, that love and am beloved
Where I may not remove nor be removed.’

This sonnet Cyril declared would be quite unintelligible if we fancied that it was addressed to either the Earl of Pembroke or the Earl of Southampton, both of whom were men of the highest position in England and fully entitled to be called ‘great princes’; and he in corroboration of his view read me Sonnets CXXIV and CXXV, in which Shakespeare tells us that his love is not ‘the child of state, ’ that it ‘suffers not in smiling pomp, ’ but is ‘builded far from accident. ’ I listened with a good deal of interest, for I don’t think the point had ever been made before; but what followed was still more curious, and seemed to me at the time to dispose entirely of Pembroke’s claim. We know from Meres that the Sonnets had been written before 1598, and Sonnet CIV informs us that Shakespeare’s friendship for Mr W. H. had been already in existence for three years. Now Lord Pembroke, who was born in 1580, did not come to London till he was eighteen years of age, that is to say till 1598, and Shakespeare’s acquaintance with Mr W. H. must have begun in 1594, or at the latest in 1595. Shakespeare, accordingly, could not have known Lord Pembroke till after the Sonnets had been written.

“Cyril pointed out also that Pembroke’s father did not die till 1601; whereas it was evident from the line,

‘You had a father, let your son say so,’

that the father of Mr W. H. was dead in 1598; and laid great stress on the evidence afforded by the Wilton portraits which represent Lord Pembroke as a swarthy dark-haired man, while Mr W. H. was one whose hair was like spun gold, and whose face the meeting-place for the ‘lily’s white’ and the ‘deep vermilion in the rose’; being himself ‘fair,’ and ‘red,’ and ‘white and red,’ and of beautiful aspect. Besides it was absurd to imagine that any publisher of the time, and the preface is from the publisher’s hand, would have dreamed of addressing William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, as Mr W. H.; the case of Lord Buckhurst being spoken of as Mr Sackville being not really a parallel instance, as Lord Buckhurst, the first of that title, was plain Mr Sackville when he contributed to the ‘Mirror for Magistrates, while Pembroke, during his father’s lifetime, was always known as Lord Herbert. So far for Lord Pembroke, whose supposed claims Cyril easily demolished while I sat by in wonder. With Lord Southampton Cyril had even less difficulty. Southampton became at a very early age the lover of Elizabeth Vernon, so he needed no entreaties to marry; he was not beautiful; he did not resemble his mother, as Mr W. H. did—

‘Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime’;

and, above all, his Christian name was Henry, whereas the punning sonnets (CXXXV and CXLIII) show that the Christian name of Shakespeare’s friend was the same as his own—Will.

As for the other suggestions of unfortunate commentators, that Mr W. H. is a misprint for Mr W. S., meaning Mr William Shakespeare; that ‘Mr W. H. all should be read ‘Mr W. Hall’; that Mr W. H. is Mr William Hathaway; that Mr W. H. stands for Mr Henry Willobie, the young Oxford poet, with the initials of his name reversed; and that a full stop should be placed after ‘wisheth,’ making Mr W. H. the writer and not the subject of the dedication,—Cyril got rid of them in a very short time; and it is not worth while to mention his reasons, though I remember he sent me off into a fit of laughter by reading to me, I am glad to say not in the original, some extracts from a German commentator called Barnstorff, who insisted that Mr W. H. was no less a person than ‘Mr William Himself.’ Nor would he allow for a moment that the Sonnets are mere satires on the work of Drayton and John Davies of Hereford. To him, as indeed to me, they were poems of serious and tragic import, wrung out of the bitterness of Shakespeare’s heart, and made sweet by the honey of his lips. Still less would he admit that they were merely a philosophical allegory, and that in them Shakespeare is addressing his Ideal Self, or Ideal Manhood, or the Spirit of Beauty, or the Reason, or the Divine Logos, or the Catholic Church. He felt, as indeed I think we all must feel, that the Sonnets are addressed to an individual,—to a particular young man whose personality for some reason seems to have filled the soul of Shakespeare with terrible joy and no less terrible despair.

“Having in this manner cleared the way, as it were, Cyril asked me to dismiss from my mind any preconceived ideas I might have formed on the subject, and to give a fair and unbiased hearing to his own theory. The problem he pointed out was this: Who was that young man of Shakespeare’s day who, without being of noble birth or even of noble nature, was addressed by him in terms of such passionate adoration that we can but wonder at the strange worship, and are almost afraid to turn the key that unlocks the mystery of the poet’s heart? Who was he whose physical beauty was such that it became the very corner-stone of Shakespeare’s art; the very source of Shakespeare’s inspiration; the very incarnation of Shakespeare’s dreams? To look upon him as simply the object of certain love poems was to miss the whole meaning of the poems: for the art of which Shakespeare talks in the Sonnets is not the art of the Sonnets themselves, which indeed were to him but slight and secret things—it is the art of the dramatist to which he is always alluding; and he to whom Shakespeare said—

‘Thou art all my art, and dost advance
As high as learning my rude ignorance,’—

he to whom he promised immortality,

‘Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men,’—

he who was to him the tenth ‘muse’ and

‘Ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate,’

was surely none other than the boy-actor for whom he created Viola and Imogen, Juliet and Rosalind, Portia and Desdemona, and Cleopatra herself.”

“The boy-actor of Shakespeare’s plays?” I cried.

“Yes,” said Erskine. “This was Cyril Graham’s theory, evolved as you see purely from the Sonnets themselves, and depending for its acceptance not so much on demonstrable proof or formal evidence, but on a kind of spiritual and artistic sense, by which alone he claimed could the true meaning of the poems be discerned. I remember his reading to me that fine sonnet—

‘How can my Muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O give thyself the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thyself dost give invention light?

—and pointing out how completely it corroborated his view; and indeed he went through all the Sonnets carefully, and showed, or fancied that he showed, that, according to his new explanation of their meaning, things that had seemed obscure, or evil, or exaggerated, became clear and rational, and of high artistic import, illustrating Shakespeare’s conception of the true relations between the art of the actor and the art of the dramatist.

“It is of course evident that there must have been in Shakespeare’s company some wonderful boy actor of great beauty, to whom he intrusted the presentation of his noble heroines; for Shakespeare was a practical theatrical manager as well as an imaginative poet; and Cyril Graham had actually discovered the boy-actor’s name. He was Will, or, as he preferred to call him, Willie Hughes. The Christian name he found of course in the punning sonnets, CXXXV and CXLIII; the surname was, according to him, hidden in the eighth line of Sonnet XX, where Mr W. H. is described as—

‘A man in hew, all Hews in his controwling.’

“In the original edition of the Sonnets ‘Hews’ is printed with a capital letter and in italics, and this, he claimed, showed clearly that a play on words was intended, his view receiving a good deal of corroboration from those sonnets in which curious puns are made on the words ‘use’ and ‘usury and from such lines as—

‘Thou art as fair in knowledge as in hew.’

Of course I was converted at once, and Willie Hughes became to me as real a person as Shakespeare. The only objection I made to the theory was that the name of Willie Hughes does not occur in the list of the actors of Shakespeare’s company as it is printed in the first folio. Cyril, however, pointed out that the absence of Willie Hughes’ name from this list really corroborated the theory, as it was evident from Sonnet LXXXVI, that he had abandoned Shakespeare’s company to play at a rival theatre, probably in some of Chapman’s plays. It was in reference to this that in the great sonnet on Chapman Shakespeare said to Willie Hughes—

‘But when your countenance filled up his line,
Then lacked I matter; that enfeebled mine’—

the expression ‘when your countenance filled up his line’ referring clearly to the beauty of the young actor giving life and reality and added charm to Chapman’s verse, the same idea being also put forward in Sonnet LXXIX:

‘Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid,
My verse alone had all thy gentle grace,
But now my gracious numbers are decayed,
And my sick Muse doth give another place’;

and in the immediately preceding sonnet, where Shakespeare says,

‘Every alien pen hath got my use
And under thee their poesy disperse,’

the play upon words (use = Hughes) being of course obvious, and the phrase, ‘under thee their poesy disperse,’ meaning ‘by your assistance as an actor bring their plays before the people.’

“It was a wonderful evening, and we sat up almost till dawn reading and re-reading the Sonnets. After some time, however, I began to see that before the theory could be placed before the world in a really perfected form, it was necessary to get some independent evidence about the existence of this young actor, Willie Hughes. If this could be once established, there could be no possible doubt about his identity with Mr W. H.; but otherwise the theory would fall to the ground. I put this forward very strongly to Cyril, who was a good deal annoyed at what he called my Philistine tone of mind, and indeed was rather bitter upon the subject. However, I made him promise that in his own interest he would not publish his discovery till he had put the whole matter beyond the reach of doubt; and for weeks and weeks we searched the registers of City churches, the Alleyn MSS. at Dulwich, the Record Office, the books of the Lord Chamberlain—everything, in fact, that we thought might contain some allusion to Willie Hughes. We discovered nothing, of course, and each day the existence of Willie Hughes seemed to me to become more problematical. Cyril was in a dreadful state, and used to go over the whole question again and again, entreating me to believe; but I saw the one flaw in the theory, and I refused to be convinced till the actual existence of Willie Hughes, a boy-actor of the Elizabethan stage, had been placed beyond the reach of doubt or cavil.

“One day Cyril left town to stay with his grandfather, I thought at the time, but I afterwards heard from Lord Crediton that this was not the case; and about a fortnight afterwards I received a telegram from him, handed in at Warwick, asking me to be sure to come and dine with him in his chambers, that evening at eight o’clock. When I arrived, he said to me, ‘The only apostle who did not deserve proof was St. Thomas, and St. Thomas was the only apostle who got it.’ I asked him what he meant. He answered that he had been able not merely to establish the existence in the sixteenth century of a boy-actor of the name of Willie Hughes, but to prove by the most conclusive evidence that he was the Mr W. H. of the Sonnets. He would not tell me anything more at the time; but after dinner he solemnly produced the picture I showed you, and told me that he had discovered it by the merest chance nailed to the side of an old chest that he had bought at a farmhouse in Warwickshire. The chest itself, which was a very fine example of Elizabethan work, and thoroughly authentic, he had, of course, brought with him, and in the centre of the front panel the initials W. H. were undoubtedly carved. It was this monogram that had attracted his attention, and he told me that it was not till he had had the chest in his possession for several days that he had thought of making any careful examination of the inside. One morning, however, he saw that the right-hand side of the chest was much thicker than the other, and looking more closely, he discovered that a framed panel was clamped against it. On taking it out, he found it was the picture that is now lying on the sofa. It was very dirty, and covered with mould; but he managed to clean it, and, to his great joy, saw that he had fallen by mere chance on the one thing for which he had been looking. Here was an authentic portrait of Mr W. H. with his hand resting on the dedicatory page of the Sonnets, and on the corner of the picture could be faintly seen the name of the young man himself written in gold uncial letters on the faded bleu de paon ground, ‘Master Will Hews.’

“Well, what was I to say? It is quite clear from Sonnet XLVII that Shakespeare had a portrait of Mr W. H. in his possession, and it seemed to me more than probable that here we had the very ‘painted banquet’ on which he invited his eye to feast; the actual picture that awoke his heart ‘to heart’s and eye’s delight.’ It never occurred to me for a moment that Cyril Graham was playing a trick on me, or that he was trying to prove his theory by means of a forgery”

“But is it a forgery?” I asked.

“Of course it is,” said Erskine. “It is a very good forgery; but it is a forgery none the less. I thought at the time that Cyril was rather calm about the whole matter; but I remember he kept telling me that he himself required no proof of the kind, and that he thought the theory complete without it. I laughed at him, and told him that without it the entire theory would fall to the ground, and I warmly congratulated him on his marvellous discovery. We then arranged that the picture should be etched or facsimiled, and placed as the frontispiece to Cyril’s edition of the Sonnets; and for three months we did nothing but go over each poem line by line, till we had settled every difficulty of text or meaning. One unlucky day I was in a print-shop in Holborn, when I saw upon the counter some extremely beautiful drawings in silver-point. I was so attracted by them that I bought them; and the proprietor of the place, a man called Rawlings, told me that they were done by a young painter of the name of Edward Merton, who was very clever, but as poor as a church mouse. I went to see Merton some days afterwards, having got his address from the print-seller, and found a pale, interesting young man, with a rather common-looking wife,—his model, as I subsequently learned. I told him how much I admired his drawings, at which he seemed very pleased, and I asked him if he would show me some of his other work. As we were looking over a portfolio, full of really very lovely things,—for Merton had a most delicate and delightful touch,—I suddenly caught sight of a drawing of the picture of Mr W. H. There was no doubt whatever about it. It was almost a facsimile,—the only difference being that the two masks of Tragedy and Comedy were not lying on the floor at the young man’s feet, as they were in the picture, but were suspended by gilt ribands. ‘Where on earth did you get that?’ I asked. He grew rather confused, and said, —‘Oh, that is nothing. I did not know it was in this portfolio. It is not a thing of any value.’ ‘It is what you did for Mr Cyril Graham,’ exclaimed his wife; ‘and if this gentleman wishes to buy it, let him have it.’ ‘For Mr Cyril Graham?’ I repeated. ‘Did you paint the picture of Mr W. H.?’ ‘I don’t understand what you mean,’ he answered, growing very red. Well, the whole thing was quite dreadful. The wife let it all out. I gave her five pounds when I was going away. I can’t bear to think of it, now; but of course I was furious. I went off at once to Cyril’s chambers, waited there for three hours before he came in, with that horrid lie staring me in the face, and told him I had discovered his forgery. He grew very pale, and said,—‘I did it purely for your sake. You would not be convinced in any other way. It does not affect the truth of the theory.’ ‘The truth of the theory!’ I exclaimed; ‘the less we talk about that the better. You never even believed in it yourself. If you had, you would not have committed a forgery to prove it.’ High words passed between us; we had a fearful quarrel. I daresay I was unjust, and the next morning he was dead.

“Dead!” I cried.

“Yes, he shot himself with a revolver. By the time I arrived,—his servant had sent for me at once,—the police were already there. He had left a letter for me, evidently written in the greatest agitation and distress of mind.”

“What was in it?” I asked.

“Oh, that he believed absolutely in Willie Hughes; that the forgery of the picture had been done simply as a concession to me, and did not in the slightest degree invalidate the truth of the theory; and that in order to show me how firm and flawless his faith in the whole thing was, he was going to offer his life as a sacrifice to the secret of the Sonnets. It was a foolish, mad letter. I remember he ended by saying that he intrusted to me the Willie Hughes theory, and that it was for me to present it to the world, and to unlock the secret of Shakespeare’s heart. ”

“It is a most tragic story,” I cried, “but why have you not carried out his wishes?”

Erskine shrugged his shoulders. “Because it is a perfectly unsound theory from beginning to end,” he answered.

“My dear Erskine,” I exclaimed, getting up from my seat, “you are entirely wrong about the whole matter. It is the only perfect key to Shakespeare’s Sonnets that has ever been made. It is complete in every detail. I believe in Willie Hughes.”

“Don’t say that,” said Erskine, gravely; “I believe there is something fatal about the idea, and intellectually there is nothing to be said for it. I have gone into the whole matter, and I assure you the theory is entirely fallacious. It is plausible up to a certain point. Then it stops. For heaven’s sake, my dear boy, don’t take up the subject of Willie Hughes. You will break your heart over it.”

“Erskine,” I answered, “it is your duty to give this theory to the world. If you will not do it, I will. By keeping it back you wrong the memory of Cyril Graham, the youngest and the most splendid of all the martyrs of literature. I entreat you to do him this bare act of justice. He died for this thing,—don’t let his death be in vain.”

Erskine looked at me in amazement. “You are carried away by the sentiment of the whole story,” he said. “You forget that a thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it. I was devoted to Cyril Graham. His death was a horrible blow to me. I did not recover from it for years. I don’t think I have ever recovered from it. But Willie Hughes! There is nothing in the idea of Willie Hughes. No such person ever existed. As for bringing the matter before the world, —the world thinks that Cyril Graham shot himself by accident. The only proof of his suicide was contained in the letter to me, and of this letter the public never heard anything. To the present day Lord Crediton is under the impression that the whole thing was accidental.

“Cyril Graham sacrificed his life to a great idea,” I answered; “and if you will not tell of his martyrdom, tell at least of his faith.”

“His faith,” said Erskine, “was fixed in a thing that was false, in a thing that was unsound, in a thing that no Shakespearian scholar would accept for a moment. The theory would be laughed at. Don’t make a fool of yourself, and don’t follow a trail that leads nowhere. You start by assuming the existence of the very person whose existence is the thing to be proved. Besides, everybody knows that the Sonnets were addressed to Lord Pembroke. The matter is settled once for all.”

“The matter is not settled,” I exclaimed. “I will take up the theory where Cyril Graham left it, and I will prove to the world that he was right.”

“Silly boy!” said Erskine. “Go home, it is after three, and don’t think about Willie Hughes any more. I am sorry I told you anything about it, and very sorry indeed that I should have converted you to a thing in which I don’t believe.”

“You have given me the key to the greatest mystery of modern literature,” I answered; “and I will not rest till I have made you recognise, till I have made everybody recognise, that Cyril Graham was the most subtle Shakespearian critic of our day.”

I was about to leave the room when Erskine called me back. “My dear fellow,” he said, “let me advise you not to waste your time over the Sonnets. I am quite serious. After all, what do they tell us about Shakespeare? Simply that he was the slave of beauty.”

“Well, that is the condition of being an artist!” I replied.

There was a strange silence for a few moments. Then Erskine got up, and looking at me with half closed eyes, said, “Ah! how you remind me of Cyril! He used to say just that sort of thing to me.” He tried to smile, but there was a note of poignant pathos in his voice that I remember to the present day, as one remembers the tone of a particular violin that has charmed one, the touch of a particular woman’s hand. The great events of life often leave one unmoved; they pass out of consciousness, and, when one thinks of them, become unreal. Even the scarlet flowers of passion seem to grow in the same meadow as the poppies of oblivion. We reject the burden of their memory, and have anodynes against them. But the little things, the things of no moment, remain with us. In some tiny ivory cell the brain stores the most delicate, and the most fleeting impressions.

As I walked home through St. James’s Park, the dawn was just breaking over London. The swans were lying asleep on the smooth surface of the polished lake, like white feathers fallen upon a mirror of black steel. The gaunt Palace looked purple against the pale green sky, and in the garden of Stafford House the birds were just beginning to sing. I thought of Cyril Graham, and my eyes filled with tears.


It was past twelve o’clock when I awoke, and the sun was streaming in through the curtains of my room in long dusty beams of tremulous gold. I told my servant that I would not be at home to any one, and after I had discussed a cup of chocolate and a petit-pain, I took out of the library my copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and Mr Tyler’s facsimile edition of the Quarto, and began to go carefully through them. Each poem seemed to me to corroborate Cyril Graham’s theory. I felt as if I had my hand upon Shakespeare’s heart, and was counting each separate throb and pulse of passion. I thought of the wonderful boy-actor, and saw his face in every line.

Previous to this, in my Lord Pembroke days, if I may so term them, I must admit that it had always seemed to me very difficult to understand how the creator of Hamlet and Lear and Othello could have addressed in such extravagant terms of praise and passion one who was merely an ordinary young nobleman of the day. Along with most students of Shakespeare, I had found myself compelled to set the Sonnets apart as things quite alien to Shakespeare’s development as a dramatist, as things possibly unworthy of the intellectual side of his nature. But now that I began to realise the truth of Cyril Graham’s theory, I saw that the moods and passions they mirrored were absolutely essential to Shakespeare’s perfection as an artist writing for the Elizabethan stage, and that it was in the curious theatric conditions of that stage that the poems themselves had their origin. I remember what joy I had in feeling that these wonderful Sonnets,

“Subtle as Sphinx; as sweet and musical
As bright Apollo’s lute, strung with his hair,”

were no longer isolated from the great æsthetic energies of Shakespeare’s life, but were an essential part of his dramatic activity, and revealed to us something of the secret of his method. To have discovered the true name of Mr W. H. was comparatively nothing: others might have done that, had perhaps done it: but to have discovered his profession was a revolution in criticism.

Two sonnets, I remember, struck me particularly. In the first of these (LIII) Shakespeare, complimenting Willie Hughes on the versatility of his acting, on his wide range of parts, a range extending, as we know, from Rosalind to Juliet, and from Beatrice to Ophelia, says to him:

“What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you, but one, can every shadow lend”—

lines that would be unintelligible if they were not addressed to an actor, for the word “shadow” had in Shakespeare’s day a technical meaning connected with the stage. “The best in this kind are but shadows,” says Theseus of the actors in the “Midsummer Night’s Dream”;

“Life’s but a walking shadow, and poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,”

cries Macbeth in the moment of his despair, and there are many similar allusions in the literature of the day. This sonnet evidently belonged to the series in which Shakespeare discusses the nature of the actor’s art, and of the strange and rare temperament that is essential to the perfect stage-player. “How is it,” says Shakespeare to Willie Hughes, “that you have so many personalities?” and then he goes on to point out that his beauty is such that it seems to realise every form and phase of fancy, to embody each dream of the creative imagination,—an idea that is still further expanded in the sonnet that immediately follows, where, beginning with the fine thought,

“O, how much more doth beauty beauteous seem
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!”

Shakespeare invites us to notice how the truth of acting, the truth of visible presentation on the stage, adds to the wonder of poetry, giving life to its loveliness, and actual reality to its ideal form. And yet, in Sonnet LXVII, Shakespeare calls upon Willie Hughes to abandon the stage with its artificiality, its unreal life of painted face and mimic costume, its immoral influences and suggestions, its remoteness from the true world of noble action and sincere utterance.

“Ah, wherefore with infection should he live,
And with his presence grace impiety,
That sin by him advantage should receive,
And lace itself with his society?
Why should false painting imitate his cheek,
And steal dead seeing of his living hue?
Why should poor beauty indirectly seek
Roses of shadow, since his rose is true?”

It may seem strange that so great a dramatist as Shakespeare, who realised his own perfection as an artist and his full humanity as a man on the ideal plane of stage-writing and stage-playing, should have written in these terms about the theatre; but we must remember that in Sonnets CX and CXI, Shakespeare shows us that he too was wearied of the world of puppets, and full of shame at having made himself “a motley to the view.” Sonnet CXI is especially bitter:—

“O, for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means which public manners breeds.
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand:
Pity me, then, and wish I were renewed”—

and there are many signs of the same feeling elsewhere, signs familiar to all real students of Shakespeare.

One point puzzled me immensely as I read the Sonnets, and it was days before I struck on the true interpretation, which indeed Cyril Graham himself seemed to have missed. I could not understand how it was that Shakespeare set so high a value on his young friend marrying. He himself had married young and the result had been unhappiness, and it was not likely that he would have asked Willie Hughes to commit the same error. The boy-player of Rosalind had nothing to gain from marriage, or from the passions of real life. The early sonnets with their strange entreaties to love children seemed to be a jarring note.

The explanation of the mystery came on me quite suddenly and I found it in the curious dedication. It will be remembered that this dedication was as follows:—


Some scholars have supposed that the word “begetter” here means simply the procurer of the Sonnets for Thomas Thorpe the publisher; but this view is now generally abandoned, and the highest authorities are quite agreed that it is to be taken in the sense of inspirer, the metaphor being drawn from the analogy of physical life. Now I saw that the same metaphor was used by Shakespeare himself all through the poems, and this set me on the right track. Finally I made my great discovery. The marriage that Shakespeare proposes for Willie Hughes is the “marriage with his Muse,” an expression which is definitely put forward in Sonnet LXXXII where, in the bitterness of his heart at the defection of the boy-actor for whom he had written his greatest parts, and whose beauty had indeed suggested them, he opens his complaint by saying—

“I grant thou wert not married to my Muse.”

The children he begs him to beget are no children of flesh and blood, but more immortal children of undying fame. The whole cycle of the early sonnets is simply Shakespeare’s invitation to Willie Hughes to go upon the stage and become a player. How barren and profitless a thing, he says, is this beauty of yours if it be not used:

“When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed, of small worth held:
Then being asked where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.”

You must create something in art: my verse “is thine and born of thee”; only listen to me, and I will bring forth eternal numbers to outlive long date,” and you shall people with forms of your own image the imaginary world of the stage. These children that you beget, he continues, will not wither away, as mortal children do, but you shall live in them and in my plays: do but

“Make thee another self, for love of me,
That beauty still may live in thine or thee!”

Be not afraid to surrender your personality, to give your “semblance to some other”:

“To give away yourself keeps yourself still,
And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.”

I may not be learned in astrology, and yet, in those “constant stars” your eyes,

“I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert.”

What does it matter about others?

“Let those whom Nature hath not made for store,
Harsh, featureless, and rude, barrenly perish”:

With you it is different, Nature —

“carv’d thee for her seal, and meant thereby
Thou shouldst print more, nor let that copy die.”

Remember, too, how soon Beauty forsakes itself. Its action is no stronger than a flower, and like a flower it lives and dies. Think of “the stormy gusts of winters day,” of the “barren edge of Death’s eternal cold,” and—

“ere thou be distilled,
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-killed.”

Why, even flowers do not altogether die. When roses wither,

“Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made”:

and you who are “my rose” should not pass away without leaving your form in Art. For Art has the very secret of joy.

“Ten times thyself were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigur’d thee.”

You do not require the “bastard signs of fair,” the painted face, the fantastic disguises of other actors:

“... the golden tresses of the dead,
The right of sepulchres,”

need not be shorn away for you. In you—

“… those holy antique hours are seen,
Without all ornament, itself and true,
Making no summer of another’s green.”

All that is necessary is to “copy what in you is writ”; to place you on the stage as you are in actual life. All those ancient poets who have written of “ladies dead and lovely knights” have been dreaming of such a one as you, and—

“All their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring.”

For your beauty seems to belong to all ages and to all lands. Your shade comes to visit me at night, but, I want to look upon your “shadow” in the living day, I want to see you upon the stage. Mere description of you will not suffice:

“If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, ‘This poet lies;
Such heavenly touches ne’er touched earthly faces.’”

It is necessary that “some child of yours,” some artistic creation that embodies you, and to which your imagination gives life, shall present you to the world’s wondering eyes. Your own thoughts are your children, offspring of sense and spirit; give some expression to them, and you shall find—

“Those children nursed, delivered from thy brain.”

My thoughts, also, are my “children.” They are of your begetting and my brain is—

“the womb wherein they grew.”

For this great friendship of ours is indeed a marriage, it is the “marriage of true minds.”

I collected together all the passages that seemed to me to corroborate this view, and they produced a strong impression on me, and showed me how complete Cyril Graham’s theory really was. I also saw that it was quite easy to separate those lines in which Shakespeare speaks of the Sonnets themselves, from those in which he speaks of his great dramatic work. This was a point that had been entirely overlooked by all critics up to Cyril Graham’s day. And yet it was one of the most important in the whole series of poems. To the Sonnets Shakespeare was more or less indifferent. He did not wish to rest his fame on them. They were to him his “slight Muse,” as he calls them, and intended, as Meres tells us, for private circulation only among a few, a very few, friends. Upon the other hand he was extremely conscious of the high artistic value of his plays, and shows a noble self-reliance upon his dramatic genius. When he says to Willie Hughes:

“But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee”;—

the expression “eternal lines” clearly alludes to one of his plays that he was sending him at the time, just as the concluding couplet points to his confidence in the probability of his plays being always acted. In his address to the Dramatic Muse (Sonnets C and CI) we find the same feeling.

“Where art thou, Muse, that thou forget’st so long
To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?
Spend’st thou thy fury on some worthless song,
Darkening thy power to lend base subjects light?”

he cries, and he then proceeds to reproach the mistress of Tragedy and Comedy for her “neglect of truth in beauty dyed,” and says—

“Because he needs no praise, wilt thou be dumb?
Excuse not silence so; for ’t lies in thee
To make him much outlive a gilded tomb,
And to be praised of ages yet to be.
Then do thy office, Muse, I teach thee how,
To make him seem long hence as he shows now.”

It is, however, perhaps in Sonnet LV that Shakespeare gives to this idea its fullest expression. To imagine that the “powerful rhyme” of the second line refers to the sonnet itself was entirely to mistake Shakespeare’s meaning. It seemed to me that it was extremely likely, from the general character of the sonnet, that a particular play was meant, and that the play was none other but “Romeo and Juliet.”

“Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Not Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
’Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.”

It was also very suggestive to note how here as elsewhere Shakespeare promised Willie Hughes immortality in a form that appealed to men’s eyes—that is to say, in a spectacular form, in a play that is to be looked at.

For two weeks I worked hard at the Sonnets, hardly ever going out, and refusing all invitations. Every day I seemed to be discovering something new, and Willie Hughes became to me a kind of spiritual presence, an ever-dominant personality. I could almost fancy that I saw him standing in the shadow of my room, so well had Shakespeare drawn him, with his golden hair, his tender flower-like grace, his dreamy deep-sunken eyes, his delicate mobile limbs, and his white lily hands. His very name fascinated me. Willie Hughes! Willie Hughes! How musically it sounded! Yes; who else but he could have been the master-mistress of Shakespeare’s passion,1 the lord of his love to whom he was bound in vassalage,2 the delicate minion of pleasure,3 the rose of the whole world,4 the herald of the spring,5 decked in the proud livery of youth,6 the lovely boy whom it was sweet music to hear,7 and whose beauty was the very raiment of Shakespeare’s heart,8 as it was the keystone of his dramatic power? How bitter now seemed the whole tragedy of his desertion and his shame!—shame that he made sweet and lovely9 by the mere magic of his personality, but that was none the less shame. Yet as Shakespeare forgave him, should not we forgive him also? I did not care to pry into the mystery of his sin or of the sin, if such it was, of the great poet who had so dearly loved him. “I am that I am,” said Shakespeare in a sonnet of noble scorn,—

“I am that I am, and they that level
At my abuses reckon up their own;
I may be straight, though they themselves be bevel;
By their rank thoughts my deeds must not be shown.”

Willie Hughes’ abandonment of Shakespeare’s theatre was a different matter, and I investigated it at great length. Finally I came to the conclusion that Cyril Graham had been wrong in regarding the rival dramatist of Sonnet LXXX as Chapman. It was obviously Marlowe who was alluded to. At the time the Sonnets were written, which must have been between 1590 and 1595, such an expression as “the proud full sail of his great verse” could not possibly have been used of Chapman’s work, however applicable it might have been to the style of his later Jacobean plays. No; Marlowe was clearly the rival poet of whom Shakespeare spoke in such laudatory terms; the hymn he wrote in Willie Hughes’ honour was the unfinished “Hero and Leander,” and that

“Affable familiar ghost
Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,”

was the Mephistophilis of his Doctor Faustus. No doubt, Marlowe was fascinated by the beauty and grace of the boy-actor, and lured him away from the Blackfriars Theatre, that he might play the Gaveston of his “Edward II.” That Shakespeare had some legal right to retain Willie Hughes in his own company seems evident from Sonnet LXXXVII, where he says:—

“Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate:
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thyself thou gav’st, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gav’st it, else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.”

But him whom he could not hold by love, he would not hold by force. Willie Hughes became a member of Lord Pembroke’s company, and perhaps in the open yard of the Red Bull Tavern, played the part of King Edward’s delicate minion. On Marlowe’s death, he seems to have returned to Shakespeare, who, whatever his fellow-partners may have thought of the matter, was not slow to forgive the wilfulness and treachery of the young actor.

How well, too, had Shakespeare drawn the temperament of the stage-player! Willie Hughes was one of those—

“That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone.”

He could act love, but could not feel it, could mimic passion without realising it.

“In many’s looks the false heart’s history
Is writ in moods and frowns and wrinkles strange,”

but with Willie Hughes it was not so. “Heaven,” says Shakespeare, in a sonnet of mad idolatry—

“Heaven in thy creation did decree
That in thy face sweet love should ever dwell;
Whate’er thy thoughts or thy heart’s workings be,
Thy looks should nothing thence but sweetness tell.”

In his “inconstant mind” and his “false heart” it was easy to recognise the insincerity that somehow seems inseparable from the artistic nature, as in his love of praise, that desire for immediate recognition that characterises all actors. And yet, more fortunate in this than other actors, Willie Hughes was to know something of immortality. Intimately connected with Shakespeare’s plays, he was to live in them, and by their production.

“Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead.

Nash with his venomous tongue had railed against Shakespeare for “reposing eternity in the mouth of a player,” the reference being obviously to the Sonnets.

But to Shakespeare, the actor was a deliberate and self-conscious fellow-worker who gave form and substance to a poet’s fancy, and brought into Drama the elements of a noble realism. His silence could be as eloquent as words, and his gesture as expressive, and in those terrible moments of Titan agony or of god-like pain, when thought outstrips utterance, when the soul sick with excess of anguish stammers or is dumb, and the very raiment of speech is rent and torn by passion in its storm, then the actor could become, though it were but for a moment, a creative artist, and touch by his mere presence and personality those springs of terror and of pity to which tragedy appeals. This full recognition of the actor’s art, and of the actor’s power, was one of the things that distinguished the Romantic from the Classical Drama, and one of the things, consequently, that we owed to Shakespeare, who, fortunate in much, was fortunate also in this, that he was able to find Richard Burbage and to fashion Willie Hughes.

With what pleasure he dwelt upon Willie Hughes’ influence over his audience—the “gazers” as he calls them; with what charm of fancy did he analyse the whole art! Even in the “Lovers Complaint” he speaks of his acting, and tells us that he was of a nature so impressionable to the quality of dramatic situations that he could assume all “strange forms”

“Of burning blushes, or of weeping water,
Or swooning paleness”:

explaining his meaning more fully later on where he tells us how Willie Hughes was able to deceive others by his wonderful power to—

“Blush at speeches rank, to weep at woes,
Or to turn white and swoon at tragic shows.”

It had never been pointed out before that the shepherd of this lovely pastoral, whose “youth in art and art in youth” are described with such subtlety of phrase and passion, was none other than the Mr W. H. of the Sonnets. And yet there was no doubt that he was so. Not merely in personal appearance are the two lads the same, but their natures and temperaments are identical. When the false shepherd whispers to the fickle maid—

“All my offences that abroad you see
Are errors of the blood, none of the mind;
Love made them not”:

when he says of his lovers,

“Harm have I done to them, but ne’er was harmed;
Kept hearts in liveries, but mine own was free,
And reigned, commanding in his monarchy”:

when he tells us of the “deep-brained sonnets” that one of them had sent him, and cries out in boyish pride—

“The broken bosoms that to me belong
Have emptied all their fountains in my well”:

it is impossible not to feel that it is Willie Hughes who is speaking to us. “Deep-brained sonnets,” indeed, had Shakespeare brought him, “jewels” that to his careless eyes were but as “trifles,” though—

“each several stone,
With wit well blazoned, smiled or made some moan”;

and into the well of beauty he had emptied the sweet fountain of his song. That in both places it was an actor who was alluded to, was also clear. The betrayed nymph tells us of the “false fire” in her lover’s cheek, of the “forced thunder” of his sighs, and of his “borrowed motion”: of whom, indeed, but of an actor could it be said that to him “thought, characters, and words” were “merely Art,” or that—

“To make the weeper laugh, the laugher weep,
He had the dialect and different skill,
Catching all passions in his craft of will”?
The play on words in the last line is the same as that used in the punning sonnets, and is continued in the following stanza of the poem, where we are told of the youth who—

“did in the general bosom reign
Of young, of old; and sexes both enchanted,”

that there were those who—

“ . . dialogued for him what he would say,
Asked their own wills, and made their Wills obey.”

Yes: the “rose-cheeked Adonis” of the Venus poem, the false shepherd of the “Lovers Complaint,” the “tender churl,” the “beauteous niggard” of the Sonnets, was none other but a young actor; and as I read through the various descriptions given of him, I saw that the love that Shakespeare bore him was as the love of a musician for some delicate instrument on which he delights to play, as a sculptor’s love for some rare and exquisite material that suggests a new form of plastic beauty, a new mode of plastic expression. For all Art has its medium, its material, be it that of rhythmical words, or of pleasurable colour, or of sweet and subtly-divided sound; and, as one of the most fascinating critics of our day has pointed out, it is to the qualities inherent in each material, and special to it, that we owe the sensuous element in Art, and with it all that in Art is essentially artistic. What then shall we say of the material that the Drama requires for its perfect presentation? What of the Actor, who is the medium through which alone the Drama can truly reveal itself? Surely, in that strange mimicry of life by the living which is the mode and method of Theatric art, there are sensuous elements of beauty that none of the other arts possess. Looked at from one point of view, the common players of the saffron-strewn stage are Art’s most complete, most satisfying instruments. There is no passion in bronze, nor motion in marble. The sculptor must surrender colour, and the painter fullness of form. The epos changes acts into words, and music changes words into tones. It is the Drama only that, to quote the fine saying of Gervinus, uses all means at once, and, appealing both to eye and ear, has at its disposal, and in its service, form and colour, tone, look, and word, the swiftness of motion, the intense realism of visible action.

It may be that in this very completeness of the instrument lies the secret of some weakness in the art. Those arts are happiest that employ a material remote from reality, and there is a danger in the absolute identity of medium and matter, the danger of ignoble realism and unimaginative imitation. Yet Shakespeare himself was a player, and wrote for players. He saw the possibilities that lay hidden in an art that up to his time had expressed itself but in bombast or in clowning. He has left us the most perfect rules for acting that have ever been written. He created parts that can be only truly revealed to us on the stage, wrote plays that need the theatre for their full realisation, and we cannot marvel that he so worshipped one who was the interpreter of his vision, as he was the incarnation of his dreams.

There was, however, more in this friendship than the mere delight of a dramatist in one who helps him to achieve his end. This was indeed a subtle element of pleasure, if not of passion, and a noble basis for an artistic comradeship. But it was not all that the Sonnets revealed to us. There was something beyond. There was the soul, as well as the language, of neo-Platonism.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” said the stern Hebrew prophet: “The beginning of wisdom is Love,” was the gracious message of the Greek. And the spirit of the Renaissance, which already touched Hellenism at so many points, catching the inner meaning of this phrase and divining its secret, sought to elevate friendship to the high dignity of the antique ideal, to make it a vital factor in the new culture, and a mode of self-conscious intellectual development. In 1492 appeared Marsilio Ficino’s translation of the “Symposium” of Plato, and this wonderful dialogue, of all the Platonic dialogues perhaps the most perfect, as it is the most poetical, began to exercise a strange influence over men, and to colour their words and thoughts, and manner of living. In its subtle suggestions of sex in soul, in the curious analogies it draws between intellectual enthusiasm and the physical passion of love, in its dream of the incarnation of the Idea in a beautiful and living form, and of a real spiritual conception with a travail and a bringing to birth, there was something that fascinated the poets and scholars of the sixteenth century. Shakespeare, certainly, was fascinated by it, and had read the dialogue, if not in Ficino’s translation, of which many copies found their way to England, perhaps in that French translation by Leroy to which Joachim du Bellay contributed so many graceful metrical versions. When he says to Willie Hughes,

“he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date,”

he is thinking of Diotima’s theory that Beauty is the goddess who presides over birth, and draws into the light of day the dim conceptions of the soul: when he tells us of the “marriage of true minds,” and exhorts his friend to beget children that time cannot destroy, he is but repeating the words in which the prophetess tells us that “friends are married by a far nearer tie than those who beget mortal children, for fairer and more immortal are the children who are their common offspring.” So, also, Edward Blount in his dedication of “Hero and Leander” talks of Marlowe’s works as his “right children,” being the “issue of his brain”; and when Bacon claims that “the best works and of greatest merit for the public have proceeded from the unmarried and childless men, which both in affection and means have married and endowed the public,” he is paraphrasing a passage in the “Symposium.”

Friendship, indeed, could have desired no better warrant for its permanence or its ardours than the Platonic theory, or creed, as we might better call it, that the true world was the world of ideas, and that these ideas took visible form and became incarnate in man, and it is only when we realise the influence of neo-Platonism on the Renaissance that we can understand the true meaning of the amatory phrases and words with which friends were wont, at this time, to address each other. There was a kind of mystic transference of the expressions of the physical sphere to a sphere that was spiritual, that was removed from gross bodily appetite, and in which the soul was Lord. Love had, indeed, entered the olive garden of the new Academe, but he wore the same flame-coloured raiment, and had the same words of passion on his lips.

Michael Angelo, the “haughtiest spirit in Italy” as he has been called, addresses the young Tommaso Cavalieri in such fervent and passionate terms that some have thought that the sonnets in question must have been intended for that noble lady, the widow of the Marchese di Pescara, whose white hand, when she was dying, the great sculptor’s lips had stooped to kiss. But that it was to Cavalieri that they were written, and that the literal interpretation is the right one, is evident not merely from the fact that Michael Angelo plays with his name, as Shakespeare plays with the name of Willie Hughes, but from the direct evidence of Varchi, who was well acquainted with the young man, and who, indeed, tells us that he possessed “besides incomparable personal beauty, so much charm of nature, such excellent abilities, and such a graceful manner, that he deserved, and still deserves, to be the better loved the more he is known.” Strange as these sonnets may seem to us now, when rightly interpreted they merely serve to show with what intense and religious fervour Michael Angelo addressed himself to the worship of intellectual beauty, and how, to borrow a fine phrase from Mr Symonds, he pierced through the veil of flesh and sought the divine idea it imprisoned. In the sonnet written for Luigi del Riccio on the death of his friend, Cecchino Bracci, we can also trace, as Mr Symonds points out, the Platonic conception of love as nothing if not spiritual, and of beauty as a form that finds its immortality within the lover’s soul. Cecchino was a lad who died at the age of seventeen, and when Luigi asked Michael Angelo to make a portrait of him, Michael Angelo answered, “I can only do so by drawing you in whom he still lives.”

“If the beloved in the lover shine,
Since Art without him cannot work alone,
Thee must I carve, to tell the world of him.”

The same idea is also put forward in Montaigne's noble essay on Friendship, a passion which he ranks higher than the love of brother for brother, or the love of man for woman. He tells us—I quote from Florio’s translation, one of the books with which Shakespeare was familiar —how “perfect amitie” is indivisible, how it “possesseth the soule, and swaies it in all soveraigntie,” and how “by the interposition of a spiritual beauty the desire of a spiritual conception is engendered in the beloved.” He writes of an “internall beauty, of difficile knowledge, and abstruse discovery” that is revealed unto friends, and unto friends only. He mourns for the dead Etienne de la Boëtie, in accents of wild grief and inconsolable love. The learned Hubert Languet, the friend of Melanchthon and of the leaders of the reformed church, tells the young Philip Sidney how he kept his portrait by him some hours to feast his eyes upon it, and how his appetite was “rather increased than diminished by the sight,” and Sidney writes to him, “the chief hope of my life, next to the everlasting blessedness of heaven, will always be the enjoyment of true friendship, and there you shall have the chiefest place.” Later on there came to Sidney’s house in London, one—some day to be burned at Rome, for the sin of seeing God in all thingsGiordano Bruno, just fresh from his triumph before the University of Paris. “A filosofia è necessario amore” were the words ever upon his lips, and there was something in his strange ardent personality that made men feel that he had discovered the new secret of life. Ben Jonson writing to one of his friends subscribes himself “your true lover,” and dedicates his noble eulogy on Shakespeare “To the memory of my Beloved.” Richard Barnfield in his “Affectionate Shepherd” flutes on soft Virgilian reed the story of his attachment to some young Elizabethan of the day. Out of all the Eclogues, Abraham Fraunce selects the second for translation, and Fletcher’s lines to Master W. C. show what fascination was hidden in the mere name of Alexis.

It was no wonder then that Shakespeare had been stirred by a spirit that so stirred his age. There had been critics, like Hallam, who had regretted that the Sonnets had ever been written, who had seen in them something dangerous, something unlawful even. To them it would have been sufficient to answer in Chapman’s noble words:

“There is no danger to a man that knows
What Life and Death is: there’s not any law
Exceeds his knowledge: neither is it lawful
That he should stoop to any other law.”

But it was evident that the Sonnets needed no such defence as this, and that those who had talked of “the folly of excessive and misplaced affection” had not been able to interpret either the language or the spirit of these great poems, so intimately connected with the philosophy and the art of their time. It is no doubt true that to be filled with an absorbing passion is to surrender the security of one’s lover life, and yet in such surrender there may be gain, certainly there was for Shakespeare. When Pico della Mirandola crossed the threshold of the villa of Careggi, and stood before Marsilio Ficino in all the grace and comeliness of his wonderful youth, the aged scholar seemed to see in him the realisation of the Greek ideal, and determined to devote his remaining years to the translation of Plotinus, that new Plato, in whom, as Mr Pater reminds us, “the mystical element in the Platonic philosophy had been worked out to the utmost limit of vision and ecstasy.” A romantic friendship with a young Roman of his day initiated Winckelmann into the secret of Greek art, taught him the mystery of its beauty and the meaning of its form. In Willie Hughes, Shakespeare found not merely a most delicate instrument for the presentation of his art, but the visible incarnation of his idea of beauty, and it is not too much to say that to this young actor, whose very name the dull writers of his age forgot to chronicle, the Romantic Movement of English Literature is largely indebted.


One evening I thought that I had really discovered Willie Hughes in Elizabethan literature. In a wonderfully graphic account of the last days of the great Earl of Essex, his chaplain, Thomas Knell, tells us that the night before the Earl died, “he called William Hewes, which was his musician, to play upon the virginals and to sing. ‘Play,’ said he, ‘my song, Will Hewes, and I will sing it myself.’ So he did it most joyfully, not as the howling swan, which, still looking down, waileth her end, but as a sweet lark, lifting up his hands and casting up his eyes to his God, with this mounted the crystal skies, and reached with his unwearied tongue the top of highest heavens.” Surely the boy who played on the virginals to the dying father of Sidney’s Stella was none other than the Will Hews to whom Shakespeare dedicated the Sonnets, and who he tells us was himself sweet “music to hear.” Yet Lord Essex died in 1576, when Shakespeare was but twelve years of age. It was impossible that his musician could have been the Mr W. H. of the Sonnets. Perhaps Shakespeare’s young friend was the son of the player upon the virginals? It was at least some thing to have discovered that Will Hews was an Elizabethan name. Indeed the name Hews seemed to have been closely connected with music and the stage. The first English actress was the lovely Margaret Hews, whom Prince Rupert so madly adored. What more probable than that between her and Lord Essex’ musician had come the boy-actor of Shakespeare’s plays? In 1587 a certain Thomas Hews brought out at Gray’s Inn a Euripidean tragedy entitled “The Misfortunes of Arthur,” receiving much assistance in the arrangement of the dumb shows from one Francis Bacon, then a student of law. Surely he was some near kinsman of the lad to whom Shakespeare said

“Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all”; the “profitless usurer” of “unused beauty,” as he describes him. But the proofs, the links —where were they? Alas! I could not find them. It seemed to me that I was always on the brink of absolute verification, but that I could never really attain to it. I thought it strange that no one had ever written a history of the English boy-actors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and determined to undertake the task myself, and to try and ascertain their true relations to the drama. The subject was, certainly, full of artistic interest. These lads had been the delicate reeds through which our poets had sounded their sweetest strains, the gracious vessels of honour into which they had poured the purple wine of their song. Foremost, naturally, amongst them all had been the youth to whom Shakespeare had intrusted the realisation of his most exquisite creations. Beauty had been his, such as our age has never, or but rarely seen, a beauty that seemed to combine the charm of both sexes, and to have wedded, as the Sonnets tell us, the grace of Adonis and the loveliness of Helen. He had been quick-witted, too, and eloquent, and from those finely curved lips that the satirist had mocked at had come the passionate cry of Juliet, and the bright laughter of Beatrice, Perdita’s flower-like words, and Ophelia’s wandering songs. Yet as Shakespeare himself had been but as a god among giants, so Willie Hughes had only been one out of many marvellous lads to whom our English Renaissance owed something of the secret of its joy, and it appeared to me that they also were worthy of some study and record.

In a little book with fine vellum leaves and damask silk cover—a fancy of mine in those fanciful days—I accordingly collected such information as I could about them, and even now there is something in the scanty record of their lives, in the mere mention of their names, that attracts me. I seemed to know them all: Robin Armin, the goldsmith’s lad who was lured by Tarlton to go on the stage: Sandford, whose performance of the courtezan Flamantia Lord Burleigh witnessed at Gray’s Inn: Cooke, who played Agrippina in the tragedy of “Sejanus”: Nat. Field, whose young and beardless portrait is still preserved for us at Dulwich, and who in “Cynthia’s Revels” played the “Queen and Huntress chaste and fair”: Gil. Carie, who, attired as a mountain nymph, sang in the same lovely masque Echo’s song of mourning for Narcissus: Parsons, the Salmacis of the strange pageant of “Tamburlaine”: Will. Ostler, who was one of “The Children of the Queen’s Chapel,” and accompanied King James to Scotland: George Vernon, to whom the King sent a cloak of scarlet cloth, and a cape of crimson velvet: Alick Gough, who performed the part of Cænis, Vespasian’s concubine, in Massinger’s “Roman Actor,” and three years later that of Acanthe, in the same dramatist’s “Picture”: Barrett, the heroine of Richards’ tragedy of “Messalina”: Dicky Robinson, “a very pretty fellow,” Ben Jonson tells us, who was a member of Shakespeare’s company, and was known for his exquisite taste in costume, as well as for his love of woman’s apparel: Salathiel Pavy, whose early and tragic death Jonson mourned in one of the sweetest threnodies of our literature : Arthur Savile, who was one of “the players of Prince Charles,” and took a girl’s part in a comedy by Marmion: Stephen Hammerton, “a most noted and beautiful woman actor,” whose pale oval face with its heavy-lidded eyes and somewhat sensuous mouth looks out at us from a curious miniature of the time: Hart, who made his first success by playing the Duchess in the tragedy of “ The Cardinal,” and who in a poem that is clearly modelled upon some of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is described by one who had seen him as “beauty to the eye, and music to the ear”: and Kynaston, of whom Betterton said that “it has been disputed among the judicious, whether any woman could have more sensibly touched the passions,” and whose white hands and amber-coloured hair seem to have retarded by some years the introduction of actresses upon our stage.

The Puritans, with their uncouth morals and ignoble minds, had of course railed against them, and dwelt on the impropriety of boys disguising as women, and learning to affect the manners and passions of the female sex. Gosson, with his shrill voice, and Prynne, soon to be made earless for many shameful slanders, and others to whom the rare and subtle sense of abstract beauty was denied, had from pulpit and through pamphlet said foul or foolish things to their dishonour. To Francis Lenton, writing in 1629, what he speaks of as

“loose action, mimic gesture
By a poor boy clad in a princely vesture,”

is but one of the many—

“tempting baits of hell
Which draw more youth unto the damned cell
Of furious lust, than all the devil could do
Since he obtained his first overthrow.

Deuteronomy was quoted and the ill-digested learning of the period laid under contribution. Even our own time had not appreciated the artistic conditions of the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. One of the most brilliant and intellectual actresses of this century had laughed at the idea of a lad of seventeen or eighteen playing Imogen, or Miranda, or Rosalind. “How could any youth, however gifted and specially trained, even faintly suggest these fair and noble women to an audience? . . . One quite pities Shakespeare, who had to put up with seeing his brightest creations marred, misrepresented, and spoiled.” In his book on “Shakespeare’s Predecessors” Mr John Addington Symonds also had talked of “hobbledehoys” trying to represent the pathos of Desdemona and Juliet’s passion. Were they right? Are they right? I did not think so then. I do not think so now. Those who remember the Oxford production of the “Agamemnon,” the fine utterance and marble dignity of the Clytemnestra, the romantic and imaginative rendering of the prophetic madness of Cassandra, will not agree with Lady Martin or Mr Symonds in their strictures on the condition of the Elizabethan stage.

Of all the motives of dramatic curiosity used by our great playwrights, there is none more subtle or more fascinating than the ambiguity of the sexes. This idea, invented, as far as an artistic idea can be said to be invented, by Lyly, perfected and made exquisite for us by Shakespeare, seems to me to owe its origin, as it certainly owes its possibility of life-like presentation, to the circumstance that the Elizabethan stage, like the stage of the Greeks, admitted the appearance of no female performers. It is because Lyly was writing for the boy-actors of St. Paul’s that we have the confused sexes and complicated loves of Phillida and Gallathea: it is because Shakespeare was writing for Willie Hughes that Rosalind dons doublet and hose, and calls herself Ganymede, that Viola and Julia put on pages’ dress, that Imogen steals away in male attire. To say that only a worman can portray the passions of a woman, and that therefore no boy can play Rosalind, is to rob the art of acting of all claim to objectivity, and to assign to the mere accident of sex what properly belongs to imaginative insight and creative energy. Indeed, if sex be an element in artistic creation, it might rather be urged that the delightful combination of wit and romance which characterises so many of Shakespeare’s heroines was at least occasioned if it was not actually caused by the fact that the players of these parts were lads and young men, whose passionate purity, quick mobile fancy, and healthy freedom from sentimentality can hardly fail to have suggested a new and delightful type of girlhood or of womanhood. The very difference of sex between the player and the part he represented must also, as Professor Ward points out, have constituted “one more demand upon the imaginative capacities of the spectators,” and must have kept them from that over-realistic identification of the actor with his rôle, which is one of the weak points in modern theatrical criticism.

This, too, must be granted, that it was to these boy-actors that we owe the introduction of those lovely lyrics that star the plays of Shakespeare, Dekker, and so many of the dramatists of the period, those “snatches of bird-like or god-like song,” as Mr Swinburne calls them. For it was out of the choirs of the cathedrals and royal chapels of England that most of these lads came, and from their earliest years they had been trained in the singing of anthems and madrigals, and in all that concerns the subtle art of music. Chosen at first for the beauty of their voices, as well as for a certain comeliness and freshness of appearance, they were then instructed in gesture, dancing, and elocution, and taught to play both tragedies and comedies in the English as well as in the Latin language. Indeed, acting seems to have formed part of the ordinary education of the time, and to have been much studied not merely by the scholars of Eton and Westminster, but also by the students at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, some of whom went afterwards upon the public stage, as is becoming not uncommon in our own day. The great actors, too, had their pupils and apprentices, who were formally bound over to them by legal warrant, to whom they imparted the secrets of their craft, and who were so much valued that we read of Henslowe, one of the managers of the Rose Theatre, buying a trained boy of the name of James Bristowe for eight pieces of gold. The relations that existed between the masters and their pupils seem to have been of the most cordial and affectionate character. Robin Armin was looked upon by Tarlton as his adopted son, and in a will dated “the fourth daie of Maie, anno Domini 1605,” Augustine Phillips, Shakespeare’s dear friend and fellow-actor, bequeathed to one of his apprentices his “purple cloke, sword, and dagger,” his “base viall,” and much rich apparel, and to another a sum of money and many beautiful instruments of music, “to be delivered unto him at the expiration of his terme of yeres in his indenture of apprenticehood.” Now and then, when some daring actor kidnapped a boy for the stage, there was an outcry or an investigation. In 1600, for instance, a certain Norfolk gentleman of the name of Henry Clifton came to live in London in order that his son, then about thirteen years of age, might have the opportunity of attending the Bluecoat School, and from a petition which he presented to the Star Chamber, and which has been recently brought to light by Mr Greenstreet, we learn that as the boy was walking quietly to Christ Church cloister one winter morning he was waylaid by James Robinson, Henry Evans, and Nathaniel Giles, and carried off to the Blackfriars Theatre, “amongste a companie of lewde and dissolute mercenarie players,” as his father calls them, in order that he might be trained “in acting of parts in base playes and enterludes.” Hearing of his son’s misadventure, Mr Clifton went down at once to the theatre, and demanded his surrender, but “the sayd Nathaniel Giles, James Robinson and Henry Evans most arrogantlie then and there answered that they had authoritie sufficient soe to take any noble man’s sonne in this land,” and handing the young schoolboy “a scrolle of paper, conteyning parte of one of their said playes and enterludes,” commanded him to learn it by heart. Through a warrant issued by Sir John Fortescue, however, the boy was restored to his father the next day, and the Court of Star Chamber seems to have suspended or cancelled Evans’ privileges.

The fact is that, following a precedent set by Richard III, Elizabeth had issued a commission authorising certain persons to impress into her service all boys who had beautiful voices that they might sing for her in her Chapel Royal, and Nathaniel Giles, her Chief Commissioner, finding that he could deal profitably with the managers of the Globe Theatre, agreed to supply them with personable and graceful lads for the playing of female parts, under colour of taking them for the Queen’s service. The actors, accordingly, had a certain amount of legal warrant on their side, and it is interesting to note that many of the boys whom they carried off from their schools or homes, such as Salathiel Pavy, Nat. Field, and Alvery Trussell, became so fascinated by their new art that they attached themselves permanently to the theatre, and would not leave it.

Once it seemed as if girls were to take the place of boys upon the stage, and among the christenings chronicled in the registers of St. Giles’, Cripplegate, occurs the following strange and suggestive entry: “Comedia, base-born, daughter of Alice Bowker and William Johnson, one of the Queen's plaiers, 10 Feb. 1589.” But the child upon whom such high hopes had been built died at six years of age, and when, later on, some French actresses came over and played at Blackfriars, we learn that they were “hissed, hooted, and pippin-pelted from the stage.” I think that, from what I have said above, we need not regret this in any way. The essentially male culture of the English Renaissance found its fullest and most perfect expression by its own method, and in its own manner.

I remember I used to wonder, at this time, what had been the social position and early life of Willie Hughes before Shakespeare had met with him. My investigations into the history of the boy-actors had made me curious of every detail about him. Had he stood in the carved stall of some gilded choir, reading out of a great book painted with square scarlet notes and long black key-lines? We know from the Sonnets how clear and pure his voice was, and what skill he had in the art of music. Noble gentlemen, such as the Earl of Leicester and Lord Oxford, had companies of boy-players in their service as part of their household. When Leicester went to the Netherlands in 1585 he brought with him a certain “Will” described as a “plaier.” Was this Willie Hughes? Had he acted for Leicester at Kenilworth, and was it there that Shakespeare had first known him? Or was he, like Robin Armin, simply a lad of low degree, but possessing some strange beauty and marvellous fascination? It was evident from the early sonnets that when Shakespeare first came across him he had no connection whatsoever with the stage, and that he was not of high birth has already been shewn. I began to think of him not as the delicate chorister of a Royal Chapel, not as a petted minion trained to sing and dance in Leicester’s stately masque, but as some fair-haired English lad whom in one of London’s hurrying streets, or on Windsor’s green silent meadows, Shakespeare had seen and followed, recognising the artistic possibilities that lay hidden in so comely and gracious a form, and divining by a quick and subtle instinct what an actor the lad would make could he be induced to go upon the stage. At this time Willie Hughes’ father was dead, as we learn from Sonnet XIII, and his mother, whose remarkable beauty he is said to have inherited, may have been induced to allow him to become Shakespeare’s apprentice by the fact that boys who played female characters were paid extremely large salaries, larger salaries, indeed, than were given to grown-up actors. Shakespeare’s apprentice, at any rate, we know that he became, and we know what a vital factor he was in the development of Shakespeare’s art. As a rule, a boy-actor’s capacity for representing girlish parts on the stage lasted but for a few years at most. Such characters as Lady Macbeth, Queen Constance and Volumnia, remained of course always within the reach of those who had true dramatic genius and noble presence. Absolute youth was not necessary here, not desirable even. But with Imogen, and Perdita, and Juliet, it was different. “Your beard has begun to grow, and I pray God your voice be not cracked” says Hamlet mockingly to the boy-actor of the strolling company that came to visit him at Elsinore; and certainly when chins grew rough and voices harsh much of the charm and grace of the performance must have gone. Hence comes Shakespeare’s passionate preoccupation with the youth of Willie Hughes, his terror of old age and wasting years, his wild appeal to time to spare the beauty of his friend:

“Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O carve not with thy hours my Love’s fair brow
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.

Time seems to have listened to Shakespeare’s prayers, or perhaps Willie Hughes had the secret of perpetual youth. After three years he is quite unchanged:

“To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters’ cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned,
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh which yet are green.”

More years pass over, and the bloom of his boyhood seems to be still with him. When, in “The Tempest,” Shakespeare, through the lips of Prospero, flung away the wand of his imagination and gave his poetic sovereignty into the weak, graceful hands of Fletcher, it may be that the Miranda who stood wondering by was none other than Willie Hughes himself, and in the last sonnet that his friend addressed to him, the enemy that is feared is not Time but Death.

O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold time’s fickle glass, his sickle hour;
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
Thy lovers withering as thy sweet self grow’st;
If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May Time disgrace and wretched minutes kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure.
Her audit, though delay’d, answer’d must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.”

It was not for some weeks after I had begun my study of the subject that I ventured to approach the curious group of Sonnets (CXXVII-CLII) that deal with the dark woman who, like a shadow or thing of evil omen, came across Shakespeare’s great romance, and for a season stood between him and Willie Hughes. They were obviously printed out of their proper place and should have been inserted between Sonnets XXXIII and XL. Psychological and artistic reasons necessitated this change, a change which I hope will be adopted by all future editors, as without it an entirely false impression is conveyed of the nature and final issue of this noble friendship.

Who was she, this black-browed, olive-skinned woman, with her amorous mouth “that Love’s own hand did make,” her “cruel eye,” and her “foul pride,” her strange skill on the virginals and her false, fascinating nature? An over-curious scholar of our day had seen in her a symbol of the Catholic Church, of that Bride of Christ who is “black but comely.” Professor Minto, following in the footsteps of Henry Brown, had regarded the whole group of Sonnets as simply “exercises of skill undertaken in a spirit of wanton defiance and derision of the commonplace.” Mr Gerald Massey, without any historical proof or probability, had insisted that they were addressed to the celebrated Lady Rich, the Stella of Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnets, the Philoclea of his “Arcadia,” and that they contained no personal revelation of Shakespeare’s life and love, having been written in Lord Pembroke’s name and at his request. Mr Tyler had suggested that they referred to one of Queen Elizabeth’s maids-of-honour, by name Mary Fitton. But none of these explanations satisfied the conditions of the problem. The woman that came between Shakespeare and Willie Hughes was a real woman, black-haired, and married, and of evil repute. Lady Rich’s fame was evil enough, it is true, but her hair was of—

“fine threads of finest gold,
In curled knots man’s thought to hold,”

and her shoulders like “white doves perching.” She was, as King James said to her lover, Lord Mountjoy, “a fair woman with a black soul.” As for Mary Fitton, we know that she was unmarried in 1601, the time when her amour with Lord Pembroke was discovered, and besides, any theories that connected Lord Pembroke with the Sonnets were, as Cyril Graham had shewn, put entirely out of court by the fact that Lord Pembroke did not come to London till they had been actually written and read by Shakespeare to his friends.

It was not, however, her name that interested me. I was content to hold with Professor Dowden that “To the eyes of no diver among the wrecks of time will that curious talisman gleam.” What I wanted to discover was the nature of her influence over Shakespeare, as well as the characteristics of her personality. Two things were certain: she was much older than the poet, and the fascination that she exercised over him was at first purely intellectual. He began by feeling no physical passion for her. “I do not love thee with mine eyes,” he says:

“Nor are mine ears with thy tongue’s tune delighted;
Nor tender feeling to base touches prone,
Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone.

He did not even think her beautiful:

“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.”

He has his moments of loathing for her, for, not content with enslaving the soul of Shakespeare, she seems to have sought to snare the senses of Willie Hughes. Then Shakespeare cries aloud,

“Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.”

Then he sees her as she really is, the “bay where all men ride,” the “wide world’s common place,” the woman who is in the “very refuse” of her evil deeds, and who is “as black as hell, as dark as night.” Then it is that he pens that great sonnet upon Lust (“Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame”), of which Mr Theodore Watts says rightly that it is the greatest sonnet ever written. And it is then, also, that he offers to mortgage his very life and genius to her if she will but restore to him that “sweetest friend” of whom she had robbed him.

To compass this end he abandons himself to her, feigns to be full of an absorbing and sensuous passion of possession, forges false words of love, lies to her, and tells her that he lies.

“My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly express’d;
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.”

Rather than suffer his friend to be treacherous to him, he will himself be treacherous to his friend. To shield his purity, he will himself be vile. He knew the weakness of the boy-actor’s nature, his susceptibility to praise, his inordinate love of admiration, and deliberately set himself to fascinate the woman who had come between them.

It is never with impunity that one’s lips say Love’s Litany. Words have their mystical power over the soul, and form can create the feeling from which it should have sprung. Sincerity itself, the ardent, momentary sincerity of the artist, is often the unconscious result of style, and in the case of those rare temperaments that are exquisitely susceptible to the influences of language, the use of certain phrases and modes of expression can stir the very pulse of passion, can send the red blood coursing through the veins, and can transform into a strange sensuous energy what in its origin had been mere aesthetic impulse, and desire of art. So, at least, it seems to have been with Shakespeare. He begins by pretending to love, wears a lover’s apparel and has a lover’s words upon his lips. What does it matter? It is only acting, only a comedy in real life. Suddenly he finds that what his tongue had spoken his soul had listened to, and that the raiment that he had put on for disguise is a plague-stricken and poisonous thing that eats into his flesh, and that he cannot throw away. Then comes Desire, with its many maladies, and Lust that makes one love all that one loathes, and Shame, with its ashen face and secret smile. He is enthralled by this dark woman, is for a season separated from his friend, and becomes the “ vassal-wretch” of one whom he knows to be evil and perverse and unworthy of his love, as of the love of Willie Hughes. “O, from what power,” he says,—

“hast thou this powerful might,
With insufficiency my heart to sway?
To make me give the lie to my true sight,
And swear that brightness does not grace the day?
Whence hast thou this becoming of things ill,
That in the very refuse of thy deeds
There is such strength and warrantise of skill
That, in my mind, thy worst all best exceeds?”

He is keenly conscious of his own degradation, and finally, realising that his genius is nothing to her compared to the physical beauty of the young actor, he cuts with a quick knife the bond that binds him to her, and in this bitter sonnet bids her farewell:—

“In loving thee thou know’st I am forsworn,
But thou art twice forsworn, to me love swearing;
In act thy bed-vow broke, and new faith torn,
In vowing new hate after new love bearing.
But why of two oaths' breach do I accuse thee,
When I break twenty? I am perjur’d most;
For all my vows are oaths but to misuse thee,
And all my honest faith in thee is lost:
For I have sworn deep oaths of thy deep kindness,
Oaths of thy love, thy truth, thy constancy;
And, to enlighten thee, gave eyes to blindness,
Or made them swear against the thing they see;
For I have sworn thee fair; more perjur’d I,
To swear against the truth so foul a lie!”

His attitude towards Willie Hughes in the whole matter shews at once the fervour and the self-abnegation of the great love he bore him. There is a poignant touch of pathos in the close of this sonnet:

“Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits,
When I am sometime absent from thy heart,
Thy beauty and thy years full well befits,
For still temptation follows where thou art.
Gentle thou art, and therefore to be won,
Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assailed;
And when a woman woos, what woman’s son
Will sourly leave her till she have prevailed?
Ay me! but yet thou mightst my seat forbear,
And chide thy beauty and thy straying youth,
Who lead thee in their riot even there
Where thou art forc’d to break a two-fold truth,
Hers, by thy beauty tempting her to thee,
Thine, by thy beauty being false to me.”

But here he makes it manifest that his forgiveness was full and complete:

“No more be griev’d at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud;
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorising thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense,
Thy adverse party is thy advocate,
And ‘gainst myself a lawful plea commence:
Such civil war is in my love and hate,
That I an accessary needs must be
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from it me.

Shortly afterwards Shakespeare left London for Stratford (Sonnets XLIII-LII), and when he returned Willie Hughes seems to have grown tired of the woman who for a little time had fascinated him. Her name is never mentioned again in the Sonnets, nor is there any allusion made to her. She had passed out of their lives.

But who was she? And, even if her name has not come down to us, were there any allusions to her in contemporary literature? It seems to me that although better educated than most of the women of her time, she was not nobly born, but was probably the profligate wife of some old and wealthy citizen. We know that women of this class, which was then first rising into social prominence, were strangely fascinated by the new art of stage playing. They were to be found almost every afternoon at the theatre, when dramatic performances were being given, and “The Actors’ Remonstrance” is eloquent on the subject of their amours with the young actors.

Cranley in his “Amanda” tells us of one who loved to mimic the actor's disguises, appearing one day “embroidered, laced, perfumed, in glittering show…as brave as any Countess,” and the next day, “all in mourning, black and sad,” now in the grey cloak of a country wench, and now “in the neat habit of a citizen.” She was a curious woman, “more changeable and wavering than the moon,” and the books that she loved to read were Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis,” Beaumont’s “Salmacis and Hermaphroditus,” amorous pamphlets, and “songs of love and sonnets exquisite.” These sonnets, that were to her the “ bookes of her devotion” were surely none other but Shakespeare’s own, for the whole description reads like the portrait of the woman who fell in love with Willie Hughes, and, lest we should have any doubt on the subject, Cranley, borrowing Shakespeare’s play on words, tells us that, in her “proteus-like strange shapes,” she is one who

“Changes hews with the chameleon.”

Manningham’s Table-book, also, contains a clear allusion to the same story. Manningham was a student at the Middle Temple with Sir Thomas Overbury and Edmund Curie, whose chambers he seems to have shared; and his Diary is still preserved among the Harleian MSS. at the British Museum, a small duodecimo book written in a fair and tolerably legible hand, and containing many unpublished anecdotes about Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Spenser, Ben Jonson and others. The dates, which are inserted with much care, extend from January 1600-1 to April 1603, and under the heading “March 13, 1601,” Manningham tells us that he heard from a member of Shakespeare’s company that a certain citizen’s wife being at the Globe Theatre one afternoon, fell in love with one of the actors, and “grew so farre in liking with him, that before shee went from the play shee appointed him to come that night unto hir,” but that Shakespeare “overhearing their conclusion” anticipated his friend and came first to the lady’s house, “went before and was entertained,” as Manningham puts it, with some added looseness of speech which it is unnecessary to quote.

It seemed to me that we had here a common and distorted version of the story that is revealed to us in the Sonnets, the story of the dark woman’s love for Willie Hughes, and Shakespeare’s mad attempt to make her love him in his friend’s stead. It was not, of course, necessary to accept it as absolutely true in every detail. According to Manningham’s informant, for instance, the name of the actor in question was not Willie Hughes, but Richard Burbage. Tavern gossip, however, is proverbially inaccurate, and Burbage was, no doubt, dragged into the story to give point to the foolish jest about William the Conqueror and Richard the Third, with which the entry in Manningham’s Diary ends. Burbage was our first great tragic actor, but it needed all his genius to counterbalance the physical defects of low stature and corpulent figure under which he laboured, and he was not the sort of man who would have fascinated the dark woman of the Sonnets, or would have cared to be fascinated by her. There was no doubt that Willie Hughes was referred to, and the private diary of a young law student of the time thus curiously corroborated Cyril Graham’s wonderful guess at the secret of Shakespeare’s great romance. Indeed, when taken in conjunction with “Amanda,” Manningham’s Table-book seemed to me to be an extremely strong link in the chain of evidence, and to place the new interpretation of the Sonnets on something like a secure historic basis, the fact that Cranley’s poem was not published till after Shakespeare’s death being really rather in favour of this view, as it was not likely that he would have ventured during the lifetime of the great dramatist to revive the memory of this tragic and bitter story.

This passion for the dark lady also enabled me to fix with still greater certainty the date of the Sonnets. From internal evidence, from the characteristics of language, style, and the like, it was evident that they belonged to Shakespeare’s early period, the period of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and “Venus and Adonis.” With the play, indeed, they are intimately connected. They display the same delicate euphuism, the same delight in fanciful phrase and curious expression, the artistic wilfulness and studied graces of the same “fair tongue, conceit’s expositor.” Rosaline, the—

“whitely wanton with a velvet brow,
With two pitch-balls stuck in her face for eyes,”

who is born “to make black fair,” and whose “favour turns the fashion of the days,” is the dark lady of the Sonnets who makes black “beauty’s successive heir.” In the comedy as well as in the poems we have that half-sensuous philosophy that exalts the judgment of the senses “above all slower, more toilsome means of knowledge,” and Berowne is perhaps, as Mr Pater suggests, a reflex of Shakespeare himself “when he has just become able to stand aside from and estimate the first period of his poetry?

Now though “Love’s Labour’s Lost” was not published till 1598, when it was brought out “newlie corrected and augmented” by Cuthbert Burby, there is no doubt that it was written and produced on the stage at a much earlier date, probably, as Professor Dowden points out, in 1588-9. If this be so, it is clear that Shakespeare’s first meeting with Willie Hughes must have been in 1585, and it is just possible that this young actor may, after all, have been in his boyhood the musician of Lord Essex.

It is clear, at any rate, that Shakespeare’s love for the dark lady must have passed away before 1594. In this year there appeared, under the editorship of Hadrian Dorell, that fascinating poem, or series of poems, “Willobie his Avisa,” which is described by Mr Swinburne as the one contemporary book which has been supposed to throw any direct or indirect light on the mystic matter of the Sonnets. In it we learn how a young gentleman of St. John's College, Oxford, by name Henry Willobie, fell in love with a woman so “fair and chaste” that he called her Avisa, either because such beauty as hers had never been seen, or because she fled like a bird from the snare of his passion, and spread her wings for flight when he ventured but to touch her hand. Anxious to win his mistress he consults his familiar friend W. S., “who not long before had tried the curtesy of the like passion, and was now newly recovered of the like infection.” Shakespeare encourages him in the siege that he is laying to the Castle of Beauty, telling him that every woman is to be wooed, and every woman to be won; views this “loving comedy” from far off, in order to see “whether it would sort to a happier end for this new actor than it did for the old player,” and “enlargeth the wound with the sharpe razor of a willing conceit,” feeling the purely æsthetic interest of the artist in the moods and emotions of others. It is unnecessary, however, to enter more fully into this curious passage in Shakespeare’s life, as all that I wanted to point out was that in 1594 he had been cured of his infatuation for the dark lady, and had already been acquainted for at least three years with Willie Hughes.

My whole scheme of the Sonnets was now complete, and, by placing those that refer to the dark lady in their proper order and position, I saw the perfect unity and completeness of the whole. The drama—for indeed they formed a drama and a soul’s tragedy of fiery passion and of noble thought—is divided into four scenes or acts. In the first of these ( Sonnets I-XXXII ) Shakespeare invites Willie Hughes to go upon the stage as an actor, and to put to the service of Art his wonderful physical beauty, and his exquisite grace of youth, before passion has robbed him of the one, and time taken from him the other. Willie Hughes, after a time, consents to be a player in Shakespeare’s company, and soon becomes the very centre and keynote of his inspiration. Suddenly, in one red-rose July (Sonnets XXXIII-LII, LXI, and CXXVII-CLII) there comes to the Globe Theatre a dark woman with wonderful eyes, who falls passionately in love with Willie Hughes. Shakespeare, sick with the malady of jealousy, and made mad by many doubts and fears, tries to fascinate the woman who had come between him and his friend. The love, that is at first feigned, becomes real, and he finds himself enthralled and dominated by a woman whom he knows to be evil and unworthy. To her the genius of a man is as nothing compared to a boy’s beauty. Willie Hughes becomes for a time her slave and the toy of her fancy, and the second act ends with Shakespeare’s departure from London. In the third act her influence has passed away. Shakespeare returns to London, and renews his friendship with Willie Hughes, to whom he promises immortality in his plays. Marlowe, hearing of the wonder and grace of the young actor, lures him away from the Globe Theatre to play Gaveston in the tragedy of “Edward II,” and for the second time Shakespeare is separated from his friend. The last act (Sonnets C-CXXVI) tells us of the return of Willie Hughes to Shakespeare’s company. Evil rumour had now stained the white purity of his name, but Shakespeare’s love still endures and is perfect. Of the mystery of this love, and of the mystery of passion, we are told strange and marvellous things, and the Sonnets conclude with an envoi of twelve lines, whose motive is the triumph of Beauty over Time, and of Death over Beauty.

And what had been the end of him who had been so dear to the soul of Shakespeare, and who by his presence and passion had given reality to Shakespeare’s art? When the Civil War broke out, the English actors took the side of their king, and many of them, like Robinson foully slain by Major Harrison at the taking of Basing House, laid down their lives in the king’s service. Perhaps on the trampled heath of Marston, or on the bleak hills of Naseby, the dead body of Willie Hughes had been found by some of the rough peasants of the district, his gold hair “dabbled with blood,” and his breast pierced with many wounds. Or it may be that the Plague, which was very frequent in London at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and was indeed regarded by many of the Christians as a judgment sent on the city for its love of “vaine plaies and idolatrous shewes,” had touched the lad while he was acting, and he had crept home to his lodging to die there alone, Shakespeare being far away at Stratford, and those who had flocked in such numbers to see him, the “gazers” whom, as the Sonnets tell us, he had “led astray,” being too much afraid of contagion to come near him. A story of this kind was current at the time about a young actor, and was made much use of by the Puritans in their attempts to stifle the free development of the English Renaissance. Yet, surely, had this actor been Willie Hughes, tidings of his tragic death would have been speedily brought to Shakespeare as he lay dreaming under the mulberry tree in his garden at New Place, and in an elegy as sweet as that written by Milton on Edward King, he would have mourned for the lad who had brought such joy and sorrow into his life, and whose connection with his art had been of so vital and intimate a character. Something made me feel certain that Willie Hughes had survived Shakespeare, and had fulfilled in some measure the high prophecies the poet had made about him, and one evening the true secret of his end flashed across me.

He had been one of those English actors who in 1611, the year of Shakespeare’s retirement from the stage, went across sea to Germany and played before the great Duke Henry Julius of Brunswick, himself a dramatist of no mean order, and at the Court of that strange Elector of Brandenburg, who was so enamoured of beauty that he was said to have bought for his weight in amber the young son of a travelling Greek merchant, and to have given pageants in honour of his slave all through that dreadful famine year of 1606-7, when the people died of hunger in the very streets of the town, and for the space of seven months there was no rain. The Library at Cassel contains to the present day a copy of the first edition of Marlowe’s “Edward II,” the only copy in existence, Mr Bullen tells us. Who could have brought it to that town, but he who had created the part of the king’s minion, and for whom indeed it had been written? Those stained and yellow pages had once been touched by his white hands. We also know that “Romeo and Juliet,” a play specially connected with Willie Hughes, was brought out at Dresden in 1613, along with “Hamlet” and “King Lear,” and certain of Marlowe’s plays, and it was surely to none other than Willie Hughes himself that in 1617 the death-mask of Shakespeare was brought by one of the suite of the English ambassador, pale token of the passing away of the great poet who had so dearly loved him. Indeed there was something peculiarly fitting in the idea that the boy-actor, whose beauty had been so vital an element in the realism and romance of Shakespeare’s art, had been the first to have brought to Germany the seed of the new culture, and was in his way the precursor of the Aufklärung or Illumination of the eighteenth century, that splendid movement which, though begun by Lessing and Herder, and brought to its full and perfect issue by Goethe, was in no small part helped on by a young actor —Friedrich Schroeder —who awoke the popular consciousness, and by means of the feigned passions and mimetic methods of the stage showed the intimate, the vital, connection between life and literature. If this was so,—and there was certainly no evidence against it,— it was not improbable that Willie Hughes was one of those English comedians (mimi quidam ex Britannia, as the old chronicle calls them), who were slain at Nuremberg in a sudden uprising of the people, and were secretly buried in a little vineyard outside the city by some young men “who had found pleasure in their performances, and of whom some had sought to be instructed in the mysteries of the new art.” Certainly no more fitting place could there be for him to whom Shakespeare said “thou art all my art,” than this little vineyard outside the city walls. For was it not from the sorrows of Dionysos that Tragedy sprang? Was not the light laughter of Comedy, with its careless merriment and quick replies, first heard on the lips of the Sicilian vine-dressers? Nay, did not the purple and red stain of the wine-froth on face and limbs give the first suggestion of the charm and fascination of disguise?the desire for self-concealment, the sense of the value of objectivity, thus showing itself in the rude beginnings of the art. At any rate, wherever he lay—whether in the little vineyard at the gate of the Gothic town, or in some dim London churchyard amidst the roar and bustle of our great city—no gorgeous monument marked his resting place. His true tomb, as Shakespeare saw, was the poet’s verse, his true monument the permanence of the drama. So had it been with others whose beauty had given a new creative impulse to their age. The ivory body of the Bithynian slave rots in the green ooze of the Nile, and on the yellow hills of the Cerameicus is strewn the dust of the young Athenian; but Antinous lives in sculpture, and Charmides in philosophy.


A young Elizabethan, who was enamoured of a girl so white that he named her Alba, has left on record the impression produced on him by one of the first performances of “Love’s Labours Lost.” Admirable though the actors were, and they played “in cunning wise,” he tells us, especially those who took the lovers’ parts, he was conscious that everything was “feigned,” that nothing came “from the heart,” that though they appeared to grieve they “felt no care,” and were merely presenting “a show in jest.” Yet, suddenly, this fanciful comedy of unreal romance became to him, as he sat in the audience, the real tragedy of his life. The moods of his own soul seemed to have taken shape and substance, and to be moving before him. His grief had a mask that smiled, and his sorrow wore gay raiment. Behind the bright and quickly-changing pageant of the stage, he saw himself, as one sees one’s image in a fantastic glass. The very words that came to the actors’ lips were wrung out of his pain. Their false tears were of his shedding.

There are few of us who have not felt something akin to this. We become lovers when we see Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet makes us students. The blood of Duncan is upon our hands, with Timon we rage against the world, and when Lear wanders out upon the heath the terror of madness touches us. Ours is the white sinlessness of Desdemona, and ours, also, the sin of Iago. Art, even the art of fullest scope and widest vision, can never really show us the external world. All that it shows us is our own soul, the one world of which we have any real cognizance. And the soul itself, the soul of each one of us, is to each one of us a mystery. It hides in the dark and broods, and consciousness cannot tell us of its workings. Consciousness, indeed, is quite inadequate to explain the contents of personality. It is Art, and Art only, that reveals us to ourselves.

We sit at the play with the woman we love, or listen to the music in some Oxford garden, or stroll with our friend through the cool galleries of the Pope’s house at Rome, and suddenly we become aware that we have passions of which we have never dreamed, thoughts that make us afraid, pleasures whose secret has been denied to us, sorrows that have been hidden from our tears. The actor is unconscious of our presence: the musician is thinking of the subtlety of the fugue, of the tone of his instrument; the marble gods that smile so curiously at us are made of insensate stone. But they have given form and substance to what was within us; they have enabled us to realise our personality; and a sense of perilous joy, or some touch or thrill of pain, or that strange self-pity that man so often feels for himself, comes over us and leaves us different.

Some such impression the Sonnets of Shakespeare had certainly produced on me. As from opal dawns to sunsets of withered rose I read and re-read them in garden or chamber, it seemed to me that I was deciphering the story of a life that had once been mine, unrolling the record of a romance that, without my knowing it, had coloured the very texture of my nature, had dyed it with strange and subtle dyes. Art, as so often happens, had taken the place of personal experience. I felt as if I had been initiated into the secret of that passionate friendship, that love of beauty and beauty of love, of which Marsilio Ficino tells us, and of which the Sonnets, in their noblest and purest significance, may be held to be the perfect expression.

Yes: I had lived it all. I had stood in the round theatre with its open roof and fluttering banners, had seen the stage draped with black for a tragedy, or set with gay garlands for some brighter show. The young gallants came out with their pages, and took their seats in front of the tawny curtain that hung from the satyr-carved pillars of the inner scene. They were insolent and debonair in their fantastic dresses. Some of them wore French love-locks, and white doublets stiff with Italian embroidery of gold thread, and long hose of blue or pale yellow silk. Others were all in black, and carried huge plumed hats. These affected the Spanish fashion. As they played at cards, and blew thin wreaths of smoke from the tiny pipes that the pages lit for them, the truant prentices and idle schoolboys that thronged the yard mocked them. But they only smiled at each other. In the side boxes some masked women were sitting. One of them was waiting with hungry eyes and bitten lips for the drawing back of the curtain. As the trumpet sounded for the third time she leant forward, and I saw her olive skin and raven’s-wing hair. I knew her. She had marred for a season the great friendship of my life. Yet there was something about her that fascinated me.

The play changed according to my mood. Sometimes it was “Hamlet.” Taylor acted the Prince, and there were many who wept when Ophelia went mad. Sometimes it was “Romeo and Juliet.” Burbage was Romeo. He hardly looked the part of the young Italian, but there was a rich music in his voice, and passionate beauty in every gesture. I saw “As You Like It,” and “Cymbeline,” and “Twelfth Night,” and in each play there was some one whose life was bound up into mine, who realised for me every dream, and gave shape to every fancy. How gracefully he moved! The eyes of the audience were fixed on him.

And yet it was in this century that it had all happened. I had never seen my friend, but he had been with me for many years, and it was to his influence that I had owed my passion for Greek thought and art, and indeed all my sympathy with the Hellenic spirit. Φιλοσοφεῖν μὲτ’ἐρῶτος! How that phrase had stirred me in my Oxford days! I did not understand then why it was so. But I knew now. There had been a presence beside me always. Its silver feet had trod night’s shadowy meadows, and the white hands had moved aside the trembling curtains of the dawn. It had walked with me through the grey cloisters, and when I sat reading in my room, it was there also. What though I had been unconscious of it? The soul had a life of its own, and the brain its own sphere of action. There was something within us that knew nothing of sequence or extension, and yet, like the philosopher of the Ideal City, was the spectator of all time and of all existence. It had senses that quickened, passions that came to birth, spiritual ecstasies of contemplation, ardours of fiery-coloured love. It was we who were unreal, and our conscious life was the least important part of our development. The soul, the secret soul, was the only reality.

How curiously it had all been revealed to me! A book of sonnets, published nearly three hundred years ago, written by a dead hand and in honour of a dead youth, had suddenly explained to me the whole story of my soul’s romance. I remembered how once in Egypt I had been present at the opening of a frescoed coffin that had been found in one of the basalt tombs at Thebes. Inside there was the body of a young girl swathed in tight bands of linen, and with a gilt mask over the face. As I stooped down to look at it, I had seen that one of the little withered hands held a scroll of yellow papyrus covered with strange characters. How I wished now that I had had it read to me! It might have told me something more about the soul that hid within me, and had its mysteries of passion of which I was kept in ignorance. Strange, that we knew so little about ourselves, and that our most intimate personality was concealed from us! Were we to look in tombs for our real life, and in art for the legend of our days?

Week after week, I pored over these poems, and each new form of knowledge seemed to me a mode of reminiscence. Finally, after two months had elapsed, I determined to make a strong appeal to Erskine to do justice to the memory of Cyril Graham, and to give to the world his marvellous interpretation of the Sonnets—the only interpretation that thoroughly explained the problem. I have not any copy of my letter, I regret to say, nor have I been able to lay my hand upon the original; but I remember that I went over the whole ground, and covered sheets of paper with passionate reiteration of the arguments and proofs that my study had suggested to me.

It seemed to me that I was not merely restoring Cyril Graham to his proper place in literary history, but rescuing the honour of Shakespeare himself from the tedious memory of a commonplace intrigue. I put into the letter all my enthusiasm. I put into the letter all my faith.

No sooner, in fact, had I sent it off than a curious reaction came over me. It seemed to me that I had given away my capacity for belief in the Willie Hughes theory of the Sonnets, that something had gone out of me, as it were, and that I was perfectly indifferent to the whole subject. What was it that had happened? It is difficult to say. Perhaps, by finding perfect expression for a passion, I had exhausted the passion itself. Emotional forces, like the forces of physical life, have their positive limitations. Perhaps the mere effort to convert any one to a theory involves some form of renunciation of the power of credence. Influence is simply a transference of personality, a mode of giving away what is most precious to one’s self, and its exercise produces a sense, and, it may be, a reality of loss. Every disciple takes away something from his master. Or perhaps I had become tired of the whole thing, wearied of its fascination, and, my enthusiasm having burnt out, my reason was left to its own unimpassioned judgment. However it came about, and I cannot pretend to explain it, there was no doubt that Willie Hughes suddenly became to me a mere myth, an idle dream, the boyish fancy of a young man who, like most ardent spirits, was more anxious to convince others than to be himself convinced.

I must admit that this was a bitter disappointment to me. I had gone through every phase of this great romance. I had lived with it, and it had become part of my nature. How was it that it had left me? Had I touched upon some secret that my soul desired to conceal? Or was there no permanence in personality? Did things come and go through the brain, silently, swiftly, and without footprints, like shadows through a mirror? Were we at the mercy of such impressions as Art or Life chose to give us? It seemed to me to be so.

It was at night-time that this feeling first came to me. I had sent my servant out to post the letter to Erskine, and was seated at the window looking out at the blue and gold city. The moon had not yet risen, and there was only one star in the sky, but the streets were full of quickly moving and flashing lights, and the windows of Devonshire House were illuminated for a great dinner to be given to some of the foreign princes then visiting London. I saw the scarlet liveries of the royal carriages, and the crowd hustling about the sombre gates of the courtyard.

Suddenly, I said to myself: “I have been dreaming, and all my life for these two months has been unreal. There was no such person as Willie Hughes.” Something like a faint cry of pain came to my lips as I began to realise how I had deceived myself, and I buried my face in my hands, struck with a sorrow greater than any I had felt since boyhood. After a few moments I rose, and going into the library took up the Sonnets, and began to read them. But it was all to no avail. They gave me back nothing of the feeling that I had brought to them; they revealed to me nothing of what I had found hidden in their lines. Had I merely been influenced by the beauty of the forged portrait, charmed by that Shelley-like face into faith and credence? Or, as Erskine had suggested, was it the pathetic tragedy of Cyril Graham’s death that had so deeply stirred me? I could not tell. To the present day I cannot understand the beginning or the end of this strange passage in my life.

However, as I had said some very unjust and bitter things to Erskine in my letter, I determined to go and see him as soon as possible, and make my apologies to him for my behaviour. Accordingly, the next morning I drove down to Birdcage Walk, where I found him sitting in his library, with the forged picture of Willie Hughes in front of him.

“My dear Erskine!” I cried, “I have come to apologise to you.”

“To apologise to me?” he said. “What for?”

“For my letter,” I answered.

“You have nothing to regret in your letter,” he said. “On the contrary, you have done me the greatest service in your power. You have shown me that Cyril Graham’s theory is perfectly sound.”

I stared at him in blank wonder.

“You don’t mean to say that you believe in Willie Hughes?” I exclaimed.

“Why not?” he rejoined. “You have proved the thing to me. Do you think I cannot estimate the value of evidence?

“But there is no evidence at all,” I groaned, sinking into a chair. “When I wrote to you I was under the influence of a perfectly silly enthusiasm. I had been touched by the story of Cyril Graham’s death, fascinated by his artistic theory, enthralled by the wonder and novelty of the whole idea. I see now that the theory is based on a delusion. The only evidence for the existence of Willie Hughes is that picture in front of you, and that picture is a forgery. Don’t be carried away by mere sentiment in this matter. Whatever romance may have to say about the Willie Hughes theory, reason is dead against it.”

“I don’t understand you,” said Erskine, looking at me in amazement. “You have convinced me by your letter that Willie Hughes is an absolute reality. Why have you changed your mind? Or is all that you have been saying to me merely a joke?”

“I cannot explain it to you,” I rejoined, “but I see now that there is really nothing to be said in favour of Cyril Graham’s interpretation. The Sonnets may not be addressed to Lord Pembroke. They probably are not. But for heaven’s sake don’t waste your time in a foolish attempt to discover a young Elizabethan actor who never existed, and to make a phantom puppet the centre of the great cycle of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.”

“I see that you don’t understand the theory,” he replied.

“My dear Erskine,” I cried, “not understand it! Why, I feel as if I had invented it. Surely my letter shows you that I not merely went into the whole matter, but that I contributed proofs of every kind. The one flaw in the theory is that it presupposes the existence of the person whose existence is the subject of dispute. If we grant that there was in Shakespeare’s company a young actor of the name of Willie Hughes, it is not difficult to make him the object of the Sonnets. But as we know that there was no actor of this name in the company of the Globe Theatre, it is idle to pursue the investigation further.”

“But that is exactly what we don’t know,” said Erskine. “It is quite true that his name does not occur in the list given in the first folio; but, as Cyril pointed out, that is rather a proof in favour of the existence of Willie Hughes than against it, if we remember his treacherous desertion of Shakespeare for a rival dramatist. Besides,” and here I must admit that Erskine made what seems to me now a rather good point, though, at the time, I laughed at it, “there is no reason at all why Willie Hughes should not have gone upon the stage under an assumed name. In fact it is extremely probable that he did so. We know that there was a very strong prejudice against the theatre in his day, and nothing is more likely than that his family insisted upon his adopting some nom de plume. The editors of the first folio would naturally put him down under his stage name, the name by which he was best known to the public, but the Sonnets were of course an entirely different matter, and in the dedication to them the publisher very properly addresses him under his real initials. If this be so, and it seems to me the most simple and rational explanation of the matter, I regard Cyril Graham’s theory as absolutely proved.”

“But what evidence have you?” I exclaimed, laying my hand on his. “You have no evidence at all. It is a mere hypothesis. And which of Shakespeare’s actors do you think that Willie Hughes was? The pretty fellow’ Ben Jonson tells us of, who was so fond of dressing up in girls’ clothes?”

“I don’t know,” he answered rather irritably. “I have not had time to investigate the point yet. But I feel quite sure that my theory is the true one. Of course it is a hypothesis, but then it is a hypothesis that explains everything, and if you had been sent to Cambridge to study science, instead of to Oxford to dawdle over literature, you would know that a hypothesis that explains everything is a certainty.”

“Yes, I am aware that Cambridge is a sort of educational institute,” I murmured. “I am glad I was not there.”

“My dear fellow,” said Erskine, suddenly turning his keen grey eyes on me, “you believe in Cyril Graham’s theory, you believe in Willie Hughes, you know that the Sonnets are addressed to an actor, but for some reason or other you won’t acknowledge it.”

“I wish I could believe it,” I rejoined. “I would give anything to be able to do so. But I can’t. It is a sort of moonbeam theory, very lovely, very fascinating, but intangible. When one thinks that one has got hold of it, it escapes one. No: Shakespeare’s heart is still to us a closet never pierc’d with crystal eyes,’ as he calls it in one of the sonnets. We shall never know the true secret of the passion of his life.

Erskine sprang from the sofa, and paced up and down the room. “We know it already,” he cried, “and the world shall know it some day.”

I had never seen him so excited. He would not hear of my leaving him, and insisted on my stopping for the rest of the day.

We argued the matter over for hours, but nothing that I could say could make him surrender his faith in Cyril Graham’s interpretation. He told me that he intended to devote his life to proving the theory, and that he was determined to do justice to Cyril Graham’s memory. I entreated him, laughed at him, begged of him, but it was to no use. Finally we parted, not exactly in anger, but certainly with a shadow between us. He thought me shallow, I thought him foolish. When I called on him again, his servant told me that he had gone to Germany. The letters that I wrote to him remained unanswered.

Two years afterwards, as I was going into my club, the hall porter handed me a letter with a foreign postmark. It was from Erskine, and written at the Hôtel d’Angleterre, Cannes. When I had read it, I was filled with horror, though I did not quite believe that he would be so mad as to carry his resolve into execution. The gist of the letter was that he had tried in every way to verify the Willie Hughes theory, and had failed, and that as Cyril Graham had given his life for this theory, he himself had determined to give his own life also to the same cause. The concluding words of the letter were these: “I still believe in Willie Hughes; and by the time you receive this I shall have died by my own hand for Willie Hughes’ sake: for his sake, and for the sake of Cyril Graham, whom I drove to his death by my shallow scepticism and ignorant lack of faith. The truth was once revealed to you, and you rejected it. It comes to you now, stained with the blood of two lives,— do not turn away from it.”

It was a horrible moment. I felt sick with misery, and yet I could not believe that he would really carry out his intention. To die for one’s theological opinions is the worst use a man can make of his life; but to die for a literary theory! It seemed impossible.

I looked at the date. The letter was a week old. Some unfortunate chance had prevented my going to the club for several days, or I might have got it in time to save him. Perhaps it was not too late. I drove off to my rooms, packed up my things, and started by the night mail from Charing Cross. The journey was intolerable. I thought I would never arrive.

As soon as I did, I drove to the Hôtel d’Angleterre. It was quite true. Erskine was dead. They told me that he had been buried two days before in the English cemetery. There was something horribly grotesque about the whole tragedy. I said all kinds of wild things, and the people in the hall looked curiously at me.

Suddenly Lady Erskine, in deep mourning, passed across the vestibule. When she saw me she came up to me, murmured something about her poor son, and burst into tears. I led her into her sitting room. An elderly gentleman was there, reading a newspaper. It was the English doctor.

We talked a great deal about Erskine, but I said nothing about his motive for committing suicide. It was evident that he had not told his mother anything about the reason that had driven him to so fatal, so mad an act. Finally Lady Erskine rose and said, “George left you something as a memento. It was a thing he prized very much. I will get it for you.”

As soon as she had left the room I turned to the doctor and said, “What a dreadful shock it must have been for Lady Erskine! I wonder that she bears it as well as she does.”

“Oh, she knew for months past that it was coming,” he answered.

“Knew it for months past!” I cried. “But why didn’t she stop him? Why didn’t she have him watched? He must have been out of his mind.”

The doctor stared at me. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said.

“Well,” I cried, “if a mother knows that her son is going to commit suicide —”

“Suicide!” he answered. “Poor Erskine did not commit suicide. He died of consumption. He came here to die. The moment I saw him I knew that there was no chance. One lung was almost gone, and the other was very much affected. Three days before he died he asked me was there any hope. I told him frankly that there was none, and that he had only a few days to live. He wrote some letters, and was quite resigned, retaining his senses to the last.”

I got up from my seat, and going over to the open window I looked out on the crowded promenade. I remember that the brightly-coloured umbrellas and gay parasols seemed to me like huge fantastic butterflies fluttering by the shore of a blue-metal sea, and that the heavy odour of violets that came across the garden made me think of that wonderful sonnet in which Shakespeare tells us that the scent of these flowers always reminded him of his friend. What did it all mean? Why had Erskine written me that extraordinary letter? Why when standing at the very gate of death had he turned back to tell me what was not true? Was Hugo right? Is affectation the only thing that accompanies a man up the steps of the scaffold? Did Erskine merely want to produce a dramatic effect? That was not like him. It was more like something I might have done myself. No: he was simply actuated by a desire to reconvert me to Cyril Graham’s theory, and he thought that if I could be made to believe that he too had given his life for it, I would be deceived by the pathetic fallacy of martyrdom. Poor Erskine! I had grown wiser since I had seen him. Martyrdom was to me merely a tragic form of scepticism, an attempt to realise by fire what one had failed to do by faith. No man dies for what he knows to be true. Men die for what they want to be true, for what some terror in their hearts tells them is not true. The very uselessness of Erskine’s letter made me doubly sorry for him. I watched the people strolling in and out of the cafés, and wondered if any of them had known him. The white dust blew down the scorched sunlit road, and the feathery palms moved restlessly in the shaken air.

At that moment Lady Erskine returned to the room carrying the fatal portrait of Willie Hughes. “When George was dying, he begged me to give you this,” she said. As I took it from her, her tears fell on my hand.

This curious work of art hangs now in my library, where it is very much admired by my artistic friends, one of whom has etched it for me. They have decided that it is not a Clouet, but an Ouvry. I have never cared to tell them its true history, but sometimes, when I look at it, I think there is really a great deal to be said for the Willie Hughes theory of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

  • Sonnet XX. 2. Back
  • Sonnet XXVI. I. Back
  • Sonnet CXXVI. 9. Back
  • Sonnet CIX. 14. Back
  • Sonnet I. 10. Back
  • Sonnet II. 3. Back
  • Sonnet VIII. I. Back
  • Sonnet XXII. 6. Back
  • Sonnet XCV. I. Back