Was this the ‘fair youth’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets?
Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, was a young and wealthy nobleman courted by writers who needed a rich and influential patron in early modern England. Wriothesley was a great patron of the arts and also, it seems, was interested in playing and playgoing. Rowland White wrote about him to Sir Robert Sidney in a letter dated 11 October 1599:
My Lord Southampton and Lord Rutland come not to the court: the one doth but very seldom. They pass away the time in London merely in going to plays every day.
William Shakespeare, newly arrived in London in the early 1590s, was among those courting his patronage. Shakespeare dedicated two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, to Wriothesley in 1593 and 1594. Venus and Adonis was so popular it was printed twice in its first year and established Shakespeare as one of the most prominent young poets in London. He wrote to his new patron, ‘Right Honourable Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and Baron of Tichfield’:
I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden. Only, if your honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour. But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a god-father, and never after ear so barren a land, for fear it yield me still so bad a harvest. I leave it to your honourable survey, and your honour to your heart’s content: which I wish may always answer your wish, and the world’s hopeful expectation. Your honour’s in all duty, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.
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