The Procreation Sonnets are something of a conundrum: they are entirely clear in their intention, in their message, and in their poetic purpose, and yet they seem to fit nowhere properly.
But perhaps more than anything else, and more than many if not most of the other sonnets that we have of William Shakespeare’s, they raise the question: why? Why does William Shakespeare at some point in his life take time out of what cannot have been anything other than a busy schedule to tell a young man to produce an heir? What concern is the young man of his?
And the assumption that his schedule is, by the time he writes these sonnets, busy is one we can consider reasonably justified going by the sheer volume of his output during the, by our standards comparatively short, thirty-odd years of his adult life.
There is virtually no question as to what these first 17 sonnets in the traditionally accepted and originally published sequence are about: they, without doubt and with hardly any exception exhort a young man to get married and have children.
The only semi-valid exceptions are Sonnets 5 – which simply doesn’t stand alone but sets up the argument to be made in Sonnet 6 – and 15, which also does not on its own make an argument for procreation, but appears to offer an alternative way for the young recipient to perpetuate his memory beyond death, namely the poetry of Shakespeare himself. But unlike the astonishingly famous Sonnet 18 and its immediate successor, Sonnet 19, which both absolutely postulate that the poetry itself will make the young man live forever, Sonnet 15 in fact only sets up Sonnet 16 which suggests there is “a mightier way” for the young man to safeguard his existence, namely making a child.
Some people surmise that Shakespeare may have addressed the Procreation Sonnets to his nephew, but not only is there absolutely no evidence of this being the case, it is also highly unlikely.
William was the oldest son of his parents and the oldest child to survive into adulthood and so it would have fallen to him to continue the family line. His younger brother Gilbert died childless and unmarried, his sister Joan did have several children through whom there are people traceable today who are in fact related to Shakespeare, and his youngest brother Edmund had a son, Edward, who would be the only nephew who in theory would seem a possible candidate.
Except that he was nowhere near prominent or important enough to warrant anyone going to such lengths to try and convince him of the need to produce an heir, especially not in these terms.
As we know: nothing can be said with certainty, because everything is conjecture, except the words. But here, in summary, is what the words themselves tell us about the recipient of these first 17 sonnets:
Very little if any of this points towards a known relative of Shakespeare’s. All of it, without exception applies to one particular young nobleman whom we may as well name now: Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southampton. He is not – I hasten to add – the only candidate for the Fair Youth of William Shakespeare’s sonnets, and we have no proof that even these first 17 Procreation Sonnets are addressed to him, but what we can establish with some degree of certainty is that every single point of those just listed applies to Henry Wriothesley.
He was born on 6 October 1573. We don’t know when exactly Shakespeare writes these 17 or any other of his 154 sonnets, but we do know that they are first mentioned in 1598. It is therefore not only entirely possible but likely that these sonnets were written sometime before then. The Third Earl of Southampton was certainly young then: he turned 21 in 1594 and he was categorically unwilling to marry.
Coming of age and therefore into his inheritance, he paid the Lady Vere, whom he’d effectively been betrothed to, £5000 not to marry her. That’s roughly three million pounds in today’s money. And Lady Vere is none other that the granddaughter to Lord Burghley who just happens to be the Lord High Treasurer to the Queen and thus one of the most powerful men in the country.
Whether or not the Third Earl of Southampton was beautiful is probably mostly a matter of taste but there’s little doubt that he was considered beautiful, not least by himself, that he had admirers, and that – as an immensely rich young aristocrat – he was a tremendous catch.
He is the only son of his parents, Henry Wriothesley, Second Earl of Southampton and Mary Wriothesley; he does as a young man absolutely bear a striking resemblance to his mother, and crucially, his father is no longer alive: the Second Earl of Southampton dies in 1581, when Henry, his son, is aged nine. And the person who becomes responsible for raising him is …Lord Burghley, the Lord High Treasurer to the Queen: one of the most powerful men in the country who then wants him to marry his granddaughter.
None of this proves anything. We simply do not know whether the Procreation Sonnets, which are the first 17 of the Fair Youth Sonnets, are written for and addressed to Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton. But it is possible, and plausible, so as not to say likely. He – of all the people we know of who could be considered candidates – fits the description.
And what we also do know is that in 1593, William Shakespeare dedicates his long narrative poem Venus and Adonis to the young Earl of Southampton, and one year later, in 1594, he follows this with another, by some margin more effusive dedication in the second of his narrative poems, The Rape of Lucrece. Which simply means that there clearly is a connection between the two by the mid-1590s.
The other person who sometimes gets mentioned as a possible recipient of the Fair Youth Sonnets in general and the Procreation Sonnets in particular is William Herbert, the Third Earl of Pembroke.
He also refused several brides who were proposed to him and he was certainly young when he was doing so.
But while he does tick these two boxes, he does not match several others of the criteria that should be met:
He may or may not have borne a resemblance to his mother as a young man, but we don’t have any pictorial evidence that he did. He was a first, but not an only son, and his father does not die until 1601. This is still three years before he himself then finally does marry, aged 24, and so it is possible that William Shakespeare, having written several sonnets earlier, is tasked sometime between 1601 and 1604 to write these sonnets to the young William Herbert, not least because it is also possible, though not certain, that William Shakespeare in the 1590 was working with and for The Earl of Pembroke’s Men, a theatre company which the 2nd Earl of Pembroke and Father to William Herbert was patron of. So a connection between the Pembroke family and Shakespeare may indeed have existed.
Whether it is Henry Wriothesley, or William Herbert, or some other person who might have had these 17 sonnets written for him, the question still remains: why?
And while we don’t know the answer to this either, at least not for certain, the most plausible explanation and one that readily makes sense, is that Shakespeare was simply commissioned to do so by somebody who sought to urge the young man to take on his responsibilities and secure the continuation of his blood line. Who this might be is open entirely to speculation, and this to an extent where it would be imprudent here to make any suggestions, since any that we can make are almost entirely unfounded. There is no document that points to anyone, with one single exception: the publication of the sonnets themselves.
This carries a famous and intensely debated dedication, and it is possible, though not at all certain, that this dedication points to the person who initiated some or many, though almost certainly not al,l of these sonnets. But that is for another special episode because it merits discussing in some considerable and considered detail.
Suffice it to say for now that while we know nothing for certain, and everything is conjecture, except the words, the words themselves actually draw a fairly individual picture. And it would not be in the least unlikely or unusual for a concerned relative, such as a mother, or a friend of the family to employ a working poet to write some poetry to prod the unruly heir to the family’s title to do the right thing and get married so as to produce a son and future heir.
At the same time there is almost no other plausible reason we can think of why William Shakespeare would have written these particular sonnets, and so I am inclined to reiterate: in the absence of certainty, likelihood is our friend. And the most likely explanation for the existence of the Procreation Sonnets to my mind is that William Shakespeare was commissioned to write them for the very rich, very beautiful, and exceptionally reluctant-to-marry Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton.
Overall the way the words characterise the recipient of these seventeen sonnets seems to favour him somewha,t though not absolutely.
But of course, the Procreation Sonnets do not stand in isolation. We noted as we were listening to them, how they appear to chart a trajectory, and we shall notice how this trajectory yields quite naturally and almost seamlessly into the sonnets that follow.
And this will become a critical factor in drawing any conclusion as to who the young man might be, because these next few sonnets contain some extraordinarily revealing clues as to whom they are addressed to, and if there is any likelihood at all that that is the same person as the recipient of these Procreation Sonnets then we shall get much, much closer to the identity of the Fair Youth.