SHAKESPEARE'S BOYFRIEND AND SONNET XX by J.Z. Eglinton, New York
Originally published in the International Journal of Greek Love I (New York, 1965), pp. 24-30.
AUTHOR'S ABSTRACT: From the Sonnets and related literature, conclusions are drawn as to the identity of the dedicatee "Mr. W.H." as William Hostler, boy actor in Shakespeare's company. The context of the Sonnets demands an intimacy of relationship comparable to Greek love, even though Sonnet XX denies an overt sexual aspect. The hypothesis is advanced and supported that W.H. was for some time Shakespeare's special protégé or apprentice, much as Nat Field was Ben Jonson's, learning the acting profession from him and very likely for some time sharing his living quarters. Psychological conclusions as to the nature of the relationship are arrived at through a detailed examination of the crucial Sonnet XX.
In Greek Love I drew a number of conclusions about the mysterious "Mr. W.H." to whom the pirate publisher Thomas Thorpe dedicated the first (1609) edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Among these conclusions were the following: (1) W.H. was still in public life in 1609, hence both the dedication itself and its placatory tone. (2) He was in all probability intimately connected with the theatre, most likely as an actor rather than a noble patron. (3) He had been at the outset a boy acting female roles. (4) Though in his teens in the 1590's when Shakespeare began writing sonnets to him, young W.H. was at least ripe for marriage and beginning to lose his adolescent bloom before the end of the affair -- at least three years later and possibly more. (5) He could nevertheless have continued to act female roles in 1600-09, as many actors in their twenties did; specialized training made such prolongation useful and possible until they became too tall, too broad-shouldered or too fleshed out in the wrong places, or too heavily beardstubbled. Vocal training (Midsummer Night's Dream I ii 36-45, etc.) enabled actors to remain convincing in female roles long after the chest voice had begun to make its appearance. (6) The language of the Sonnets unequivocally indicates that Shakespeare loved young W.H., speaking intimately to him as man to boy rather than as commoner to nobleman; and that for a considerable time the two were in daily or hourly contact. (7) Some references in the Sonnets indicate that Shakespeare and young W.H. had begun to live apart without loss of love, indicating that they had probably lived together previously. (8) Love and intimacy aside, this relationship did not reach the point of overt sex. (9) Sometime during the affair there was a breakup and a reconciliation, perhaps more than one. (10) The affair was not entirely devoid of capriciousness and jealousy, as indicated by their rivalry for the Dark Lady, and by the effect on Shakespeare (Sonnet LXXXVI) of the rival poet's horning in on this affair. (11) There actually is one (and so far as I know only one) W.H. in the roster of actors of the period, who fits the chronology indicated: William Hostler. He played boys' and females' parts side by side with the more famous Nat Field and Dicky Robinson in the King's Company (to which Shakespeare belonged), and in the Fast Folio he is mentioned in the roster of "Principal Actors in all these Plays." His name is sometimes given as Hostler, sometimes as Ostler, the dropped H originally representing a silent letter not picked up by scriveners. (12) His finally dropping the H for good may conceivably have been a coverup to his connection with the Sonnets, after their publication in 1609.
A closer examination of the crucial Sonnet XX, with attention both to meanings of words used therein as those meanings were understood in Shakespeare's day, and to psychological conclusions deducible from the phraseology, allows further conclusions to be drawn about the relationship between Shakespeare and young W.H.
We may take as a point of departure the circumstances under which Shakespeare, then an actor, would have had occasion to share his hours (or even his living quarters) with any teen-age boy actor. Ben Jonson from about 1600 on had young Nat Field, one of the most celebrated of all the boy actors, as his own special protégé; and this fact provides the clue. In all likelihood young Willie Hostler was Shakespeare's protégé, learning the acting profession at first hand, by experience and example, over a period of several years. There was no other convenient way for a member of any skilled trade or profession to learn the necessary skills; the apprenticeship system was at work here too, formally and informally.
And so we see the teen-aged W.H. sticking close by Shakespeare, perhaps flattered into doing so by the pair of courting sonnets now numbered CXXXV and CXXXVI. We see him sooner or later sharing the master actor's rude quarters, very likely also his bed in those unheated winters, for sheer warmth even if not sex. We see between master and apprentice actor a loyalty and affection developing much more closely than would be possible in later epochs when apprenticeship was to become a matter of pure economics. We see him getting pointers from Shakespeare on delivery of lines, on timing, on gestures, on makeup and costuming, on traditional bits of stage business, on the accepted ways in which certain types of role were done -- at first page-boys or children generally, later on ladies-in-waiting, still later queens and heroines. We see the boy growing in skill as an actor in these walk-on parts, and later on in more demanding roles. Not necessarily was he the boy for whom Shakespeare created the characters of Juliet, Rosalind, Ophelia, Cordelia, Cleopatra, etc., but very likely indeed he was one of the small group of boys for whom all the playwrights then active in this circle were writing female parts. We see him growing proud as his skill -- and his reputation -- developed; proud, and quite possibly jealous or demanding.
Nor could Shakespeare have been the easiest person in the world to live with. Actors and artists of all kinds have long been notorious for volatility, demandingness, temper and intensity. And the creator of Lear, Hamlet, The Tempest, Othello, or even of the earlier Romeo and Juliet, must have been a person of volcanic, even of Michelangelesque, intensity indeed. Small wonder, then, that Shakespeare, long womanless, found feelings developing in himself for his young protege which he dared not commit to prose or in any way allow to become matter for local gossip. The spiteful rumors about Marlowe's fate, whatever their degree of truth, had to be kept in mind. Small wonder, for that matter, that the Sonnets indicate a breakup and reconciliation (XXXIII-XXXIV, LXXXVI-XC; the reconciliation is indicated in XXXV). Small wonder, too, at Shakespeare's upset state when a rival poet -- most probably George Chapman -- addressed enough flattery to W.H. to turn his head and cause the boy to pay more attention to him than to Shakespeare; or when W.H. began neglecting Shakespeare (and his own acting job?) for the Dark Lady. But here probable reconstruction gives way to speculation.
With the intensity of Shakespeare's feelings for his young protégé, given his utter rejection of overt homosexual acts, the only safe outlet was a playful one. With a young imp in the ambiguous position of playing female roles on stage -- and likely posing as this and that and the other even offstage -- recognition on both Shakespeare's and W.H.'s part of the playful element was a necessity. This aspect, then, must be considered in the Sonnets. One may conjecture to have comprised Nos. I-XXV, with LIII-LV, LXIII or birthday gift from master actor to apprentice, a gift possible and appropriate only after the relationship had already deepened to such a degree that in it were private jokes, confidences shared and exchanged, and the freedom to express deeper feelings without fear or threat. This sheaf of sonnets (which we may reasonably conjecture to have comprised Nos. I-XXV with LIII-LV, LXIII and CVI interpolated, and XXVI as an envoy) was the most personal gift imaginable, especially written for the youngster, celebrating in the most personal manner possible something W.H. was then most proud of, one of his most valuable -- albeit transient -- professional tools, in a way unthreatening to his own (or his master's) masculine image. Under cover of the playful references to the boy's girlish good looks, and to the way in which the master actor doted on him, and under cover of the almost fatherly admonitions by Shakespeare to this boy, a strained eroticism could be and was harmlessly expressed.
In this light, let us look more closely at Sonnet XX, long the stumbling-block to amateur and professional interpreters of the Sonnets.
A woman's face, with Nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion.
The first line evokes the androgynous beauty which made such boys of value to the stage in those days. "With Nature's own hand painted" we may take in context as contrasted alike with heavily made-up women and heavily made-up older male actors of female roles, whose natural bloom had long since disappeared.
The phrase "master-mistress of my passion" bears much more scrutiny. "Master," though also used to mean a schoolteacher, was in Shakespeare's day a common form of address to a boy or young man (Merchant of Venice, II ii 50, etc.). "Mistress" was commonly used for women (it was the common form of address used for the protagonists in Merry Wives of Windsor, etc.), but it was apparently never used for those of high rank. (Which makes employment of the phrase "master-mistress" unintelligible to those who insist that Shakespeare's tone in the Sonnets was sycophantic, and that their recipient was some nobleman with whom the actor-playwright wished to curry favor!) Even in Shakespeare's day the word "mistress" had sometimes sexual connotations: Merry Wives I i 187-97, Loves Labours Lost V ii 286, Sonnets 127.9 and 130.1, etc. On the other hand, though a "mistress" might be and often was a man's sexual playmate, "master" seems not to have been in use to designate a lover. The OED gives the term "master-miss" as an 18th century and later term for an effeminate youth, but this seems to derive from Sonnet XX rather than accounting for the epithet in that poem, and very likely was a short-lived nonce-word comparable to "nancy-boy" in our own day. "Passion" did not carry exclusively sexual meanings (1 Henry IV II iv 340; Midsummer Night's Dream III ii 75, etc.), though it sometimes did have sexual connotations (Loves Labours Lost I i 246, Romeo and Juliet II Prologue and II i 146, Much Ado About Nothing I i 177, II iii 94-96, etc.). Curiously, the "master-mistress" image seems not to have been carried over into any of the known translations of this sonnet (according to Dr. Warren Johansson).
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion. . . .
Shakespeare was no woman-hater; but a person of his degree of penetration and psychological acumen necessarily had to recognize the frequently inexplicable shifts of mood and attitude common to women, and ascribed to women in poetry, prose and drama of his period as of every other. Here again the transiently androgynous nature of the adolescent is thrown into contrast, even as in the lines following; but one may justly wonder how many adolescent boys Shakespeare had known at that time, as adolescents are as changeable as women, and sometimes even more unpredictable. This by itself is good psychological evidence for an early dating of the Sonnets and in particular for an early dating of this one among the one hundred fifty-odd. In As You Like It III ii 377-82 Shakespeare is far more realistic, probably through having benefited by his experience with young W.H. He has Rosalind (alias "Ganymede," of all imaginable names for her to choose!) say:
"At which time would I -- being but a moonish youth -- grieve, be effeminate, changeable, longing and liking; proud, fantastical, apish, shallow, inconstant, full of tears, full of smiles: for every passion something and for no passion truly anything; as boys and women are for the most part cattle of this colour. . . "
We may even speculate that. these qualities were culturally conditioned, or tacitly encouraged, as characteristic of adolescents and women in Shakespeare's day.
On the middle lines of this Sonnet I have already commented at length in Greek Love, and can add nothing here.
But towards the end we have
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing, to my purpose nothing.
A paraphrase in modern language would run about like this:
"Honey, you should have been born a girl. God intended to make you into one, and gave you a girl's beauty -- appropriately for the roles you play -- but below the waist He slipped up. And am I sorry."
A sentiment like this could only have been possible in the most intimate circumstances, and even then it most likely brought a blush and a giggle from young W.H., whether or not it also brought an embrace. "Thing" as referring to a penis is slang found as far back as Chaucer's time and into the present day: Wife of Bath's Prologue, 121, is perhaps one of its earlier uses. The word "nothing" in the same line is to be pronounced "no-thing," to rhyme with "doting" and to go along with the use of balance and antithesis so strongly marking this poem. In which case we may read in the repeated word a pun on another meaning of "thing" common in Shakespeare's day, i.e., vulva.
But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure.
G. Legman, in The Horn Book, has pointed out that Shakespeare was in his own day primarily known as an erotic poet -- i.e. from the appearance of Venus and Adonis, Rape of Lucrece, etc., until the mss. of the plays (or their prompt-books, or actors' pirated copies, etc.) began to be printed. It is hardly surprising, then, to find in Shakespeare -- as in other poets of his period, in all fairness -- bawdy puns almost everywhere, even in basically serious contexts. Here it is straightforward enough. In modern paraphrase again:
"Since Nature furnished you instead with the kind of tool suitable for giving women (sc. rather than me) pleasure, then love me, and make love to women the way you were built to do."
Despite Shakespeare's explicit denial of sexual intentions in Sonnet XX, it is abundantly clear that this poem could only have been written and transmitted in a context of an affair having at least some of the characteristics of Greek love. And the development of this kind of affection between master actor and apprentice in a womanless society where learning of a skilled trade or profession connoted sharing of lives, appears in context as a natural thing, especially in someone of as intense feelings as Shakespeare.