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December 19, 2006

Sir Henry Neville and the Sonnets: Do the Sonnets show that Shakespeare's work was in fact written by Sir Henry Neville? William D. Rubinstein thinks so

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth and the co-author of The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare and also the author of the Social Affairs Unit's new book, Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution - has previously argued on the Social Affairs Unit Web Review that Sir Henry Neville is the true author of William Shakespeare's plays: Is Sir Henry Neville the true author of Shakespeare's plays? and William Shakespeare and Sir Henry Neville: A conspiracy or an agreement?. Prof. Rubinstein now presents the case that the Sonnets emphatically point to Sir Henry Neville being the author of Shakespeare's work.

Close to the heart of any discussion of the Authorship Question is Shake-speares Sonnets, the volume of 154 Sonnets, plus a separate attached poem, A Lover's Complaint, which was published in May 1609.

Among the very greatest poems in the English language, many of them appear to be autobiographical. They seem to refer to specific and actual individuals, incidents, and situations, but they are also - one assumes deliberately - very vague, their subject-matter imprecise, ambiguous, and just beyond our knowing.

Orthodox scholars and biographers assume as a matter of course that they were actually written by William Shakespeare, the actor, theatre-sharer, and presumed playwright who was born in Stratford in 1564 and died there in 1616. Anti-Stratfordians - those who deny that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him - naturally deny this, and often link the apparently actual and specific incidents in the Sonnets to the life of their particular Authorship "candidate" - without, it must be said, hitherto making a very convincing case. In my view, however, meshing the life of Sir Henry Neville (c. 1562-1615) with the apparently autobiographical reportage in the Sonnets works exceedingly well, and goes very far towards explaining them and resolving many of the famous mysteries which have always surrounded them.

If the Sonnets are actually by William Shakespeare and are autobiographical, it is highly significant that they do not refer to many of the things which one might reasonably suppose would be the subject of his autobiographical verse. Strikingly, there are no Sonnets about Shakespeare's life as an actor, although by 1609 he had spent up to twenty-five years in the trade, or about the world of the theatre, the only exception being the banal opening lines of Sonnet 23:

As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part…
There are no references, even cryptic ones, to his actor-friends, even to those, like Henry Condell and John Heminge, whom Shakespeare later remembered in his will. There are no Sonnets about Stratford-upon-Avon, or for that matter anything about London, or the contrast between the two places in his life.

More curiously, perhaps, there are no moving Sonnets about the death of Shakespeare's son in 1595 or the death of his father in 1601, events which are said by many orthodox biographers to have influenced his work. There are no Sonnets marking such events as the opening of the Globe Theatre or the acquisition, in 1603, of Royal patronage by Shakespeare's acting company. Of course, there are any number of reasons why Shakespeare might have chosen not to have written on these topics, but their complete absence is surely extremely puzzling.

What was included in the Sonnets seems equally strange. Although Shakespeare is widely seen as having addressed many of the Sonnets to a well-born young man, it seems inconceivable that an actor would have advised any high-born young man to marry and have children "for love of me", as he does in Sonnet 10. In Sonnet 107, according to most critics, Shakespeare seems to be glad that Queen Elizabeth has just died:

peace proclaims olives of endless age…this most balmy time.
There is absolutely no reason why he should have been glad that the Queen was dead. The author of the Sonnets repeatedly announces that he is:
in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes

[that his] name receive[d] a brand

[that he] sold cheap what is most dear

None of this relates in any way to what is known of Shakespeare's life. These incongruities, in my opinion, are at the heart of the case which anti-Stratfordians make against the orthodox account of his life and career: Shakespeare's life simply cannot be successfully meshed with the evolutionary trajectory of his works, or with what can reasonably be inferred about his life from them.

For these reasons, many orthodox Shakespearean scholars reject the notion that the Sonnets are autobiographical; instead, they are claimed to be simply "poetic exercises", similar to other Sonnet sequences of the time. While some of the Sonnets may indeed be non-autobiographical, this fails to address the fact that many Sonnets seem to be autobiographical and to refer to actual persons and incidents. Moreover, as "poetic exercises" they lack any coherent narrative quality, and simply fail to tell a coherent story. Instead, they appear to be a jumble of rather miscellaneous compositions whose meaning is quite unclear.

G. Blakemore Evans, the editor of the 1996 Cambridge Shakespeare edition of the Sonnets has asked (p. 111) very cogently:

why would a master dramatist like Shakespeare, creating a dramatic fiction, produce a confused, weakly articulated and sometimes contradictory "sonnet story"?
Orthodox scholars can give no answer to this question.

Posit Sir Henry Neville as the real author of the Sonnets, and we can, in my opinion, go very far towards providing a coherent account of the autobiographical roots of these poems. Neville, who was educated at Merton College, Oxford and was an M.P. throughout his whole adult life, was a major landowner and descended from the celebrated Nevilles.

He served as Ambassador to France in 1599-1601 when he became closely involved in the Essex rebellion. Neville was promised the position of Secretary of State if the rebellion succeeded. When it failed, his role was made public by Essex at his trial and confirmed by Lord Southampton, one of Essex's leading deputies. As a result, Neville was sent to the Tower indefinitely until he paid off an enormous fine of £5000, more than half of his fortune. He was there with Southampton, the only other Essex prisoner. Both were released when James I came to the throne, and became close political allies.

Neville spent much of the rest of his life attempting to recoup the fortune he had lost. He believed that a turning point had come in 1609, when, almost simultaneously, his eldest son (on 2nd May) married the daughter of a rich City merchant who was the niece of the head of the London Virginia Company, while (on 23rd May) King James granted the second London Virginia Company its Charter. Neville (and Southampton) were directors of the Company, and he was pinning his financial hopes upon its success.

With all this in mind, let me outline what can be learned about the Sonnets by assuming that Neville, rather than William Shakespeare, was its author:

1. The Sonnets were published on 20th May 1609, explicitly as a direct response to the launch of the London Virginia Company. This is the meaning of the phrase "wisheth the well-wishing adventurer" in the celebrated Dedication, an "adventurer" being the phrase used in the Company's Charter to describe investors in it. The book also appeared when Neville was in an exuberant mood after the fortunate marriage of his son shortly before.

2. Although the Sonnet's Dedication is signed by "T.T.", as if by Thomas Thorpe, the book's publisher, the Dedication was actually written by Neville himself. Apart from the anomaly of Thorpe, the publisher, writing the book's Dedication rather than its alleged author William Shakespeare - Shakespeare still being alive and active, of course - there exist two other books published by Thorpe for which he wrote their Dedications (both by dead authors) which look absolutely nothing like the Sonnets Dedication.

3. "Mr. W.H.", the Sonnets' "onlie begetter", is plainly Southampton. Many of the Sonnets were plainly written by Neville to or about him.

4. The first seventeen or so Sonnets were, however, not written to Southampton, but certainly to Neville's eldest son, trying to convince him to marry. This is the only cogent explanation which can account for the admonition to marry:

for love of me

You had a father, let your son say so

The addressee of these Sonnets is thus not the same man as the addressee of the other "young man" Sonnets, Southampton, but were written and included in honour of the son's fortunate marriage.

5. Many of the other Sonnets were obviously written by Neville when he was imprisoned in the Tower, often to cheer up Southampton (as well as himself). All of the Sonnets bemoaning Neville's outcast state, his brand, and so on, were plainly written in the Tower in 1601-03. Sonnet 107, celebrating the death of the Queen in 1603 and the simultaneous release from the Tower of Neville and Southampton by James I as soon as he became King, was obviously written in 1603-4, proclaiming his great hopes for the new reign.

6. It is possible that, both imprisoned together for two years, Neville had some sort of homosexual relationship with Southampton, although Neville was emphatically heterosexual, fathering eleven children. (William Shakespeare was married at eighteen after a "shotgun wedding" and fathered three children by the time he was twenty-one. There is no evidence that he was a homosexual.) Neville does appear to have genuinely admired Southampton and was deeply attached to him.

7. I do not know who the "dark lady" was, or if there actually was one, but her identity might well be a mundane one. Neville's wife, Anne Killegrew Neville, was of Cornish descent and dark-haired. When Neville was arrested, her father, Sir Henry Killegrew, was so enraged he would not permit her in his house. We do not know the upshot of this, but it is possible that a rift emerged between Neville and his wife at this time, depicted in these Sonnets. If this is not the identity of the "dark lady", then the mystery is never likely to be solved.

8. The Sonnets (135, 136, etc.) with the lines "my name is Will" and the like seem categorically different from most of the others. They are facetious, grossly vulgar, and derogatory. More importantly, they seem undisguisedly personal, whereas the intent of all or almost all of the other Sonnets is to create ambiguity about the identity of their author. My view is that Neville was deliberately making fun of Shakespeare, probably with the connivance of Southampton. The dedications of the two long poems of the 1590s to Southampton as if by Shakespeare were also written by Neville to Southampton tongue-in-cheek, as it were. They appear to have rather despised Shakespeare as a lecherous upstart, although Neville must have had a continuing working relationship with him as his producer-director in the theatre.

9. Neville almost gives the game away in Sonnet 121, with its rhyming use of "vile", "vile esteemed", "level", and "bevel", obvious puns on his name.

In contrast to Shakespeare, Neville's life and circumstances mesh in extraordinarily well with the autobiographical component of the Sonnets. This lack of congruence is also the case with the other Authorship "candidates". For example, Oxfordians frequently claim that the Sonnets were written by DeVere to Southampton. But there is no evidence of any kind that DeVere and Southampton ever met. The only time they were definitely known to have been in the same room at the same time was in 1601, when Oxford was the foreman of the jury of Peers in the House of Lords that condemned Southampton to death for treason in the Essex rebellion (he was then reprieved). They had no more of a demonstrable association than Shakespeare had with Southampton.

To read more on the Social Affairs Unit Web Review by Prof. Rubinstein on Sir Henry Neville and William Shakespeare, see Is Sir Henry Neville the true author of Shakespeare's plays? and William Shakespeare and Sir Henry Neville: A conspiracy or an agreement?. To read a critical review of Prof. Rubinstein's thesis, see Lincoln Allison's The Play's the Thing, remember - Lincoln Allison unmasks the true author of Shakespeare's plays, William Shakespeare.

Brenda James' and William D. Rubinstein's The Truth Will Out (Longman, London, 2005) recently appeared in paperback in Britain and in an American edition, published by HarperCollins. William D. Rubinstein is also the author of the Social Affairs Unit's new book, Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution.

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interesting article witha good amount of research having been done... the argument made, however, is not conclusive and the information utilized to demonstrate that Neville wrote the sonnets has been taken out of context and does not substantiate any of the claims made by the author. Overall an interesting read with a clearly expressed opinion that may or may not be correct, but which must be considered with much scrutiny until more research and more solidly founded links between Neville and the sonnets can be exposed

Posted by: F. Vandame at February 12, 2008 02:49 PM

Lincoln Allison askes why Sir Henry Neville, "was prepared to suppress any desire for literary fame which might have driven his (considerable) efforts" for political office.

Rubinstein makes a strong case that Neville could not be identified with several of the sonnets, particularly Sonnet 107.

Posted by: Michael Spangler at July 22, 2008 07:43 AM

Sorry but you are wrong. Mr W H is walter ralegh notice altar rail
there is no such person as Anne Hathaway - her name was Anne Whatley. i would like to know who changed it? I can answer Shakespeare's riddle My life hath is this line some interest - can anybody else??? The work is filled with riddles and the Rosicruisians were right so were the Trinitarians - they never went far enough even Shakespeare pleaded with us to have constancy - isn't it delicious that John Donne's daughter was called Constance - wake up!

Posted by: kim Core at March 24, 2009 08:09 AM
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