Fair Youth Sonnets

Home Upcoming Shows HSC Venues Past Productions Articles HSC Programs Shakespeare Library Actor Resources About Us/Contact Us Site Map Links


Sonnets 1-77
Sonnets 87-126




Fair Youth Sonnets

Making up the largest portion of the Sonnets are those dedicated to a young man that has become known as the Fair Youth.  The sonnets are often broken down into various subgroups (see Rival Poet), but the overall section depicts a close relationship between the Sonnet Speaker, a middle aged man, with an aristocratic, good looking young man.  The bulk of these sonnets seem to have been written between 1592 and 1594 since similar sonnet efforts came into vogue either during or just before this period and the play that seems most contemporary with the Sonnets is Love's Labours Lost written in 1593-1594.  Other sonnets hint at being written much later and follow a progression that may have gone on until 1600.  The general depiction is of a man who is down on life and tries to impart fatherly lessons from a well worn life to his young friend.  Some of these lessons include to get married and have children as touched on in the first 17 poems.  Generally, the speaker feels unworthy of the friendship but feels vindicated that through his poetry his friend will live on, while he himself is unworthy of memory.  At this time Shakespeare was pushing 30, early middle age by the period's standards and given that he was a father of 3 by age 21 and inclined to portraying older men, he may indeed have developed a fatherly bent toward a young noblemen.  This premise is further strengthened by later sonnets referring to the Fair Youth as a son and seems contemporary with the death of Shakespeare's own son Hamnet in 1596.  Could Shakespeare have found a surrogate son with the Fair Youth while away from his own son that was later strengthened after his son died?  A second theory that some cling to is that these sonnets depict a homosexual relationship between the two men.  However, an affair is later indicated between the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady of the Sonnets and while the Sonnet Speaker openly admits to a sexual relationship with his Dark Lady, no such references occur here.  Also, as common with the period, the word 'Love' was often used in a more business like manner than today's solely romantic connotations.  Out of all the candidates put forward for the Fair Youth, the most convincing has been Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southhampton.  Below is a brief biography:

Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton (1573-1624) Contemporary of Shakespeare, a patron of the arts to whom Shakespeare dedicated Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). These two dedications are the only certain connection between Shakespeare and Southampton; they were written in the hope of patronage—financial support—from the young nobleman. The first dedication is an ordinary approach by a poet seeking backing from someone he does not know well, but the second reflects considerable friendship between patron and poet. Unlike any other dedication of the period, it is confident of the support it seeks and it radiates an air of intimacy. The poet may have spent some time during the plague years of 1592 to 1594—the period during which he wrote the poems—at Southampton's estate. An 18th-century account attributed to William Davenant the information that Southampton had given Shakespeare £1000, and though the amount is much too large to be believed—perhaps 10 to 20 times Shakespeare's annual income at the time—there may be a germ of truth to the story. Some scholars believe that Southampton may be the young man to whom most of the Sonnets are addressed, or the mysterious 'Mr W. H'. to whom they are dedicated by the publisher. This cannot be proven, but that the two men were friends is accepted by most scholars. 

A portrait miniature of Henry Wriothesley circa 1594 contemporary with the earliest sonnets.

A favorite courtier of Queen Elizabth, Southampton was a patron of John Florio and other writers.  He became a follower of the Earl of Essex and accompanied him on his successful expeditions to Cadiz and the Azores in 1595 and 1596. Essex's cousin was his mistress, and he married her in 1598, when she became pregnant. The queen was angered at the match and briefly imprisoned him; he never recovered the favor of the monarch. In 1599 he joined Essex on his ill-fated mission to Ireland and shared in his subsequent disgrace. He helped plan Essex's rebellion and with him was condemned to death on its failure, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on the intervention of Robert Cecil. Southampton spent the rest of Elizabeth's reign in the Tower of London King James I released him and made him a favored courtier. He became a promoter of colonizing enterprises and was an important member of the Virginia Company. In 1624, commanding English troops against the Spanish in the Netherlands, he died of plague. His family name is pronounced 'Risley'.

To see the Sonnet text click below or on the side links

Sonnets 1-77     Sonnets 87-126


To see other Sonnet sections

Sonnet Main Page     Fair Youth Sonnets      Dark Lady Sonnets     Rival Poet Sonnets     Sonnet Commentary  


To view other Shakespeare Library sections:

Biography     Plays     Poems     Sonnets     Theaters     Shake Links

Send mail to jciccarelli@hudsonshakespeare.org with questions or comments about this web site.
[Home]  [Upcoming Shows]  [HSC Venues]  [Past Productions]  [Articles] [HSC Programs]
 [Shakespeare Library] [Actor Resources]   [Contact Us]  [Links]  [Site Map]