By William Boyd

There are many mysteries in the life of William Shakespeare and perhaps none is more intriguing than the one he initiated himself when he published, in 1609, a collection of his sonnets. When we start to consider the enduring enigmas and controversies that circle and shroud the sonnets it’s a good idea to establish the few unarguable facts first.  The sonnets – the greatest lyric sequence of love poems ever written — were published seven years before Shakespeare’s death in 1616, and some years after the last poems were written. There are 154 sonnets in total: 126 of them are addressed to a ‘fair youth’, a young man of aristocratic breeding; 26 of them concern a ‘dark lady’, conspicuously not aristocratic. The last two sonnets in the sequence are bawdy allusions to the notorious mercury baths, the favoured contemporary form of treatment for the pox.

    Furthermore, the sonnets possess a baffling dedication, to one ‘Mr W.H.’, described as ‘the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets’. What more can one add before entering the lists of contention and dissent? It is fair to say that some of the sonnets to the ‘fair youth’ are unabashedly homo-erotic, others display a wistful, unrequited sensuality, rather like that of Aschenbach for Tadzio in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.  On the other hand some of the sonnets addressed to the ‘dark lady’ are unabashedly misogynistic, full of lingering physical detail, and relentlessly explore the consuming and destructive power of lust. However, the problems inherent in the sonnets really begin to multiply incrementally when someone asks you to write a film about them.

    This happened to me last year when the BBC approached me to write a full-length film – a drama — about Shakespeare and the emotional background to the sonnets as a counterpoint to their modern-dress ‘Shakespeare Retold’ season. We would have to cast Shakespeare, Mr W.H. and the Dark Lady (Rupert Graves, Tom Sturridge and Indira Varma, as it turned out) in which case there could be no place for scholarly equivocation: ‘it might be argued that’, ‘evidence would seem to suggest’, and so on. If I was going to make Shakespeare, the fair youth and the dark lady live and breath on the screen I would need to establish their particular identities – if not once and for all (that will never happen) – but at least for the duration of the film.  And so the reading began.

    The very rough narrative of the sequence (and there is no evidence to establish the sonnets were written chronologically) goes something like this. The first seventeen sonnets are somewhat orthodox – the poet encourages the young man to marry and bear children. Then the obsession begins to grow and become more sexually orientated, more yearning and infatuated:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate


Since [nature] pricked thee out for woman’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.

The salacious pun is intended. And then eventually, at sonnet 127, the dark lady arrives.

In the old age black was not counted fair
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name

Now the tone alters, becomes more tormented and idealisation gives way to the concrete.

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow upon her head.

The poet’s relationship with the dark lady is obsessive, rapt and often hate-driven, full of distress and anguished self-analysis. Then it becomes clear that the dark lady and the fair youth are engaged in some sort of sexual dalliance with each other, also. The poet can only look on, impotent and suffering:

Two loves have I 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 coloured ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side…

The sequence ends with the poet ‘sick withal’ going to the mercury baths seeking a cure:

… I, my mistress’ thrall,
Came there for cure, and this by that I prove;
Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.

The conclusion would seem to suggest that desire – love – is wholly out of our control, whatever the emotional agonies endured or other physical penalties paid.

    All this is to make highly complex poems and knotted, sophisticated arguments seem concise and relatively clear-cut. But I think that this redaction essentially conveys the main business of the sonnets.

    From the outset of any reading of the sonnets there is an inevitable and natural tendency to link the fair youth with the dedicatee: ‘Mr W.H.’, the ‘only begetter’.  Many candidates have been suggested over the years but the academic concensus focuses mainly on two: the Earl of Southampton and the Earl of Pembroke.  The arguments for both are strong: there is a biographical Shakespearean connection with each man and the dates fit (though Southampton is older than Pembroke).  The Southampton case, however, requires a fair bit of casuistry to hold securely as The Earl of Southampton’s real name was Henry Wriothesley – which, one would have thought, would make him ‘Mr H.W.’ But no, the Southamptonians argue – Shakespeare was trying to disguise the real identity of the dedicatee, and so swapped the initials round. This might just be acceptable if the Pembrokians didn’t hold the ace in their hand. Pembroke’s real name is William Herbert – so: no initial-juggling required.  The other fact that favours William Herbert is that it makes the composition of the sonnets occur later in Shakespeare’s life. The Shakespeare-Pembroke connection means that Shakespeare was in his thirties and forties when the sonnets were written – a middle-aged man by seventeenth century standards – approximately twice Mr W.H.’s age. Again, internal evidence in the sonnets makes the poet seem substantially older than the fair youth (‘My glass shall not persuade me I am old‘). If it was Southampton then he and the poet would be coevals, young men together – it just doesn’t work or read as plausibly.

    Certainly, identifying the fair youth as William Herbert is dramatically more satisfying. The date-range of the drama then becomes roughly 1596-1604. It places Shakespeare at the height of his reputation (Hamlet was written in 1600); he is making serious money from his share in the Globe and his disastrous marriage to Anne Hathaway is long over in all but name. Enter William Herbert: ‘A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted / Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion.‘ Dramatic licence aside, I feel that all the evidence, scholarly and historically, points to William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, as ‘Mr W.H.’
    So who was the ‘Dark Lady’? Here the arguments enter pure speculation. The most favoured candidates are aristocratic women such as Mary Fitton or Emilia Lanier (the latter famously championed by the historian A.L.Rowse: ‘I have found her!’) but Rowse and others fail to see that such conjectures ignore the irrefutable class differences: a mere gentleman like Shakespeare, socially well below the salt, could never have had a sexual relationship, of the sort described in the Dark Lady sonnets, with an aristocratic woman.

Indeed the more one reads the Dark Lady sonnets the more one sees the lust-driven nature of the relationship and the concomitant self-loathing on the part of the poet as the key to her identity. I take the title of the film from sonnet 129: ‘Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame / is lust in action…‘, one of the more embittered and unceasingly reproachful poems.   To be honest, no one will ever know who the Dark Lady was and perhaps, as some scholars have suggested, she should be regarded as a deliberate inverse of the idealised Petrarchan love-object – a pointedly anti-romantic stereotype. However, this will not do for a film and my own reading of the sonnets leads me in another direction.

    Shakespeare’s working life was in Southwark, south of the river and London Bridge, a noisome, rank and dangerous district, freer of the City of London’s legal edicts by virtue of its location, and home to its theatres, pleasure gardens, bear-fighting pits, and innumerable taverns and brothels.  Historical records establish that there were black and mulatto prostitutes in Southwark brothels at the time and it seems to me highly feasible that the Dark Lady might have been such a working girl. Certainly, such an identification makes immediate sense of the sonnets’ rage and misogyny. It also rather neatly explains how Mr W.H. and the Dark Lady could have met – and why the poet was powerless to intercede in or prevent their union as it was overtly and strictly commercial. Moreover, one of Shakespeare’s known associates was a brothel-keeper called George Wilkins, a violent man, arraigned on at least two occasions for savagely beating up prostitutes (one of them pregnant). I cannot prove that Shakespeare was a brothel-visitor but the numerous documented connections between Shakespeare and Wilkins attest to the fact that he would have been no stranger to Wilkins’s rebarbative and sordid world. All that I require, as screenwriter, was circumstantial evidence — and this circumstantial evidence, conjoined with the tone and deeply troubled spirit of the Dark Lady sonnets (not to mention the allusion to the pox and its cure at the sequence’s end) makes a convincing case that the ‘woman coloured ill‘ of sonnet 144 could have been a whore who worked in a Southwark brothel. Read the poems – it makes very valid sense.

    And so our characters assemble: William Shakespeare, middle-aged, successful, famous, very unhappily married, sexually stirred and enthralled by William Herbert, the talented and epicenely handsome son of the Earl of Pembroke. But love – or lust – was requited not with the ‘lovely boy’ but with Shakespeare’s ‘black beauty’ – a prostitute available for anyone in Southwark with a shilling to spare.  These identifications are, though inevitably conjectural, highly plausible all the same, and can be stringently defended from the scant evidence that exists. And this starting point is all the licence that the imagination requires in the making up of a story that unites these three people in a disturbingly passionate and fraught love-triangle.

    But, overarching all this speculation, the sonnets stand themselves, irreproachable and magnificent. It is, in a way, quite extraordinary that we should have this sequence of intensely intimate poems from Shakespeare to set beside the great masterpieces of the plays. Park Honan, in his biography, remarks that Shakespeare’s ‘curiosity about human nature was in a sense remorseless, though it never outran his sympathy for the human predicament.‘  This seems very true about the plays but it applies equally to the sonnets, I feel, though perhaps in a slightly different sense.  We have no real, absolutely verifiable grounds for thinking so, but — all the same — I believe it’s impossible to read Shakespeare’s sonnets without concluding that, in this case, the particular human predicament that he is so remorselessly curious about and so sympathetic to is, in fact, his own.

A Waste of Shame was broadcast on BBC 4 on 22nd November 2010