V. L. Barnish writes, “many suggestions have been made as to the identity of the Friend. The two main contenders are the Earl of Southampton (Henry Wriothesley, born 1573) and the Earl of Pembroke (William Herbert, Born 1580), Here we shall summarize the pros and cons very briefly, since a knowledge of the Friend’s name, while of biographical interest, is fortunately not to enjoyment of the sonnets.”
The Identity of Mr. W. H. in relation to the sonnets of Shakespeare has ever been a very puzzling question to the critics of Shakespeare. There is no doubt that Mr. W. H. was the inspirer of the poems, therefore it is this person who is referred to again and again in the first group of sonnets from 1 to 126. During Renaissance, it was customary to elevate the ardent friendship of man with man above mere personal regard to a kind of Neo-Platonism. Dyce points out, “It was not then uncommon for one man to write verses to another in a strain of such tender affection as fully warrants us in terming them amatory.”
The youth addressed by Shakespeare is the master-mistress’ of his passion (Sonnet 20). He possesses the physical perfection of beauty, both of Helen and Adonis (53). He is a lord, friend and beloved one to Shakespeare. This Fair Youth, still a Narcissus in the beginning of the sonnets is asked by the poet to marry and beget a son who would perpetuate his present beauty. Immortality of the beauty of Fair Youth, would be achieved by Shakespeare’s verse, if not, by an issue of the Fair Youth. Then Shakespeare records his varying feelings during the three years of his friendship years of stress and strain, loss and gain, wrongs suffered, sorrow and anger followed by repentance, forgiveness and perfected union, calm of mind restored in a philosophic resignation and spiritual apprehension of Beauty and Truth revealed to the soul of the lover.
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There are some concrete factors which support this view. Shakespeare dedicated his two long, poems, Venus and Adonis and Rape of Lucrece to Southampton. The sonnet harmonizes entirely in theme and language with these two long poems. Besides this, in 1592, when the composition of the sonnets is believed to have begun, Southampton was about eighteen, an appropriate age for a noble young man to marry, all the more so because the Earl’s father had died in 1581. R. J. C. Wait gives an interesting argument in favour of Southampton. Wait argues that the line “O thou, my lovely boy” (126) is addressed not to the young man of the poems, but to a new born baby born to the friend. In the opinion of wait, Sonnet 126 is addressed to the son of the Earl of Southampton. Therefore the inference is that the fair youth is none but the Earl.
An Interesting theory has been put forward by Oscar Wilde. He stands before an imaginary portrait of Mr. W. H. and translates in words the beauty of “this young man in late seventeenth century costume, standing by a table with his right hand on an open book.” Oscar Wilde imagines about this youth: “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”. This 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.” To this youth Oscar Wilde gives the name Willie Hughes. The Chastain name comes from the punning sonnets 135 and 143 the surname from Sonnet 20, where Mr. W. H. is described as “As man in hue, all Hues in his controlling” or “Thou art as fair in knowledge as in hew!” According to Oscar Wilde. in Sonnet 53 Shakespeare is complimenting Willie Hughes on the versatility of his acting and wondering how the boy actor had so many personalities. His beauty is such that it seems to realize every form and phase of fancy. to embody each dream of the creative imagination.
About Shakespeare’s asking his friend to marry. Oscar Wilde observes. “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-actor 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.” Oscar Wilde overrides this objection by saying that “The marriage that Shakespeare proposes for Willie Hughes is the marriage with his Muse’ – an expression which is definitely put forward in Sonnet 82.” Thus Oscar Wilde comes to the conclusion that “The ‘rose-cheeked Adonis of the Venus poem, the false shepherd of the ‘Lover’s complaint, the ‘tender churl’, the ‘beauteous niggard’ of the Sonnets was none other but a young actor….. 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.