Sonnet 126: Shakespeare’s Farewell to his “lovely Boy”


The following essay attempts to explore the meaning of Sonnet 126, and, at the same time, to offer some opinions about the Sonnets as a whole. Much of what is said may be found in one or other of the innumerable commentaries, but it is unnecessary to identify the sources—and also very cumbersome. It is to be hoped that there are some original and useful suggestions.

My thanks are due to all those who have loved and written
about the Sonnets, even those with whom I disagree.

Sonnet 126

There is scarcely a statement that can be—or has been or will be—made about Shakespeare’s Sonnets that is not subject to challenge, denial, refutation, ridicule or, on the contrary, defense, support, and acclaim.

The facts concerning the Sonnets are few and simple. In 1609 a book entitled SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS Never before Imprinted appeared, published by T. T. (universally agreed to stand for Thomas Thorpe), printed by G. Eld, having been registered at Stationers’ Hall on 20 May 1609. On 19 June 1609, it is recorded in the accounts of Edward Alleyn that he purchased for 5d. (that is, five pence) “a book Shaksper sonnettes”. It has been alleged, by a few, that this entry in “Howshowld stuff” is a forgery. Possibly.

Anything further tends to be speculative rather than factual and, in the absence of any new evidence, may be expected to remain so.

The purpose of this essay is to suggest an interpretation of Sonnet 126 (with implications for other Sonnets) but it needs to be placed in the context of the author’s understanding, an understanding which should be made known to the reader. Thus, there follows a Preamble which is neither contentious nor intended to be provocative; it merely reports the general frame of reference within which the author has thought and written. The extent to which the interpretation of Sonnet 126 depends upon this framework is unclear and must remain so. Opinions will vary.


The Sonnets number 154 and they may be divided into three main groups. The first group consists of Sonnets 1 through 126; the second group of Sonnets 127 through 152; and the third group of the last two Sonnets 153-4.

The poems of the first group are all taken to be addressed to a young man and to be printed in the order in which they were written. The second group, all addressed to the so-called Dark Lady, are also printed in order of writing, but were composed during the writing of the first group as will be explicated later. The third group (a pair of sonnets) will be explained below.

The young man to whom the first group of sonnets is addressed is taken to be William Herbert, the son of the 2nd Earl of Pembroke (Henry Herbert) and his wife the former Lady Mary Sidney. He was born on 8 April 1580. His mother was born on 27 October 1561, so she was not nineteen when she gave birth to him. She had been married to Henry Herbert (as his third wife) in 1577 when he was forty-three, having been born in 1534.

[The publisher’s dedication to “the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets. . . Mr. W.H.” identifies, for those who can read, William Herbert. The title of “Mr.”, while respectful, is not accurate, for at the time of publication W.H. was the 3rd Earl of Pembroke but it would have been dangerous to have been that explicit; prosecution was possible given the content of the Sonnets. The publisher, not too unscrupulous by Elizabethan standards, wants it to be clear who the Sonnets were written to without actually naming him. His sales would increase if this could be titillatingly insinuated. As it was, it appears that the whole press run must have been suppressed (by the influence of Shakespeare and/or the Earl of Pembroke) soon after publication since only thirteen copies of the 1609 Sonnets (Q) are extant; there are more than 200 extant copies of the 1623 First Folio.]

The problem for Henry Herbert was that he had no heir. Given the great importance of continuing the family name and the preservation of its (extensive) property, having an heir was of supreme concern to Henry Herbert, his new (and hopefully fertile) wife, and the whole extended Herbert family. Without a male heir the name, property and political significance of the Herberts would disappear.

The birth of William Herbert was a great relief, and it was soon followed by a second son, Philip Herbert, born on 16 October 1584. The impending catastrophe was averted.

However, the health of Henry Herbert, the Earl, was the cause of much concern, especially after 1590, and so, to ensure the continuance of the dynasty, it was necessary to arrange a marriage for William Herbert (or Lord Herbert as he was, by courtesy, called) to produce the expected and needed offspring. By 1595 he was fifteen years old and quite old enough, by Elizabethan aristocratic standards, to be betrothed and married. If this could be effected, the Herberts could rest more easily.

William Herbert

In 1595, attempts were made to arrange the marriage of William Herbert to Elizabeth Carey, but this was broken off by late November; in 1597 an attempt was made to marry William to Lord Burghley’s grand-daughter Bridget but this too was broken off; a third attempt was made to marry William to Elizabeth Vere in late 1597 but this, too, came to nought; in 1598 there was talk of a marriage with Elizabeth Gawdy Hatton but it turned out to be just talk; in 1599 an attempt was made to marry William to the niece of the Lord Admiral Howard but by August 1600 the match was broken off.

Thus for five years the Herbert family worked at ensuring an heir for the Earl, Henry Herbert, who was very sick in 1599, but they were frustrated at every turn and all their arrangements and negotiations were useless and for one simple reason. In every case, William Herbert refused to get married and, indeed, in the Howard match a negotiator reported that he could not “find any disposition in this gallant young lord to marry.”

The obdurate refusal of William Herbert to marry was clearly related to his known character. Although a most desirable match (being the heir to one of the richest families in the kingdom), he himself preferred to indulge in “pleasures of all kinds, almost in all excesses” and was always “immoderately given up to women”. These were the opinions of Lord Clarendon. In June 1600, he seduced Mary Fitton, one of the Queen’s maids of honor, (or he was seduced by her), and in February 1601 her pregnancy was known, and she gave birth to a son the following month. William Herbert admitted paternity but refused to marry Mary Fitton. Both were banished from Court. The baby soon died.

Another, and more pleasant, side to his character, was that he was fond of books, patronized writers and artists, and spent much time reading in his study. It must be added that he was addicted to tobacco and smoked a great deal because it relieved the severe headaches from which he suffered (caused, it is said, by syphilis).

It appears that the Countess of Pembroke, the Earl’s wife, in her efforts to get her son, William, married and productive of an heir, hit on the strategy of using his love of poetry to help persuade him to take a bride. She needed a poet, and it so happened that Shakespeare had become well-known for his two long poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece (published in 1593 and 1594, respectively) and for his several plays. She decided to commission Shakespeare to write poems for her son, persuading him to marry, and, as a preliminary, asked him to give some examples of his ability to write sonnets. Or possibly he thought it prudent to proffer them to re-assure the Countess. In any case, he wrote the two sonnets that comprise the third group mentioned above, namely, Sonnets 153 and 154. Apparently they were satisfactory, for he soon began with

From fairest creatures we desire increase
That thereby beauties Rose might never die … . . .

The commission of the Countess must have been given some time during the protracted and futile marriage negotiations, probably in 1595, when William Herbert was fifteen.

How and when William Shakespeare met William Herbert is not known. It is not likely that they met before the writing of the Sonnets began, although they almost certainly knew of each other—Shakespeare would have known of Herbert because he was a well-known aristocratic personality (who first came to Court in the summer of 1598) and a patron of the arts; Herbert would have known of Shakespeare as the most fashionable and successful poet and playwright of the day.

Whenever it was that Shakespeare began the carrying out of his commission, his sonnets had to be delivered to the reluctant William Herbert. How that was done we do not know, but sooner or later they must have met, and thus began a relationship which produced one of the great and immortal beauties of the world.

The Sonnets—restricted here to Nos. 1 through 126—are not a sequence, if by that is meant a number of poems that are connected logically or thematically, there is no consistent development toward anything that could be called a summation or conclusion. They are not unified by any intelligible principle. The best that could be said is that, if we choose to regard the Sonnets as a sequence, then we must understand that the sequence is first and foremost a temporal sequence which is determined by the ever-changing character of the relationship between Shakespeare and Herbert (and the effects of external events). From Shakespeare’s point of view, there is only one change (as will be suggested below) but Herbert, with all the aristocratic arrogance of his kind and his own personal willfulness and lusts, varies from day to day, or, rather from sonnet to sonnet. Since Herbert’s character is not stable, neither are the Sonnets.

In 1598, Francis Meres, after mentioning Shakespeare’s “sugred sonnets among his private friends”, called him “the most passionate among us to bewaile and bemoane the perplexities of Love.” This is only partially true, for Shakespeare also rejoices and exults in his love. Even if Meres is referring only to the ‘Dark Lady’ Sonnets (which seems highly probable), the case seems to be that in his relationship with Herbert, Shakespeare experiences and records in his Sonnets all the feelings that are humanly possible, not in logical order, but as they were evidenced in himself as circumstances (such as separations) and Herbert’s conduct altered, while he himself remained constant. But although this is particular, or made up of particulars, Shakespeare’s heart, through its constancy, is universal. Thus the Sonnets are about the universal, love, but not philosophically, not in abstract terms, but as it is manifest in actual human experience.  Or, if you wish, poetically.

Wordsworth was right, in referring to sonnets generally, that “with this key Shakespeare unlocked his heart.”  But it was not the whole truth, for Shakespeare’s heart was, in fact, the human heart. And Browning was wrong in saying that if so, “the less Shakespeare he” for he assumed that love and sex were inevitably connected, that love and a physical relationship went together between Shakespeare and William Herbert. There is no hint of it or evidence for it in the Sonnets and, in fact, Sonnet 20 explicitly denies it.

The Sonnets start out fulfilling the Countess of Pembroke’s commission, using many devices to appeal to some aspect of William Herbert’s mind or character: flattery, immortality, fear of extinction, bountiful generosity, concern for others, indebtedness to Nature and family, imitation of his own father, beauty, and the defeat of time. But Shakespeare’s motivation in writing (namely, to discharge his obligation to the Countess) begins to change and he becomes aware of Herbert’s beauty on his own account and the whole question of marriage and offspring first recedes, and then disappears, beginning with Sonnet 15:

And all in war with Time for love of you
As he takes from you, I ingraft you new

thus taking on the role of producing an heir, albeit in a totally new sense. In Sonnet 17 he writes:

But were same childe of yours alive that time,
You should live twice in it, and in my rime.

In Sonnet 18, Shakespeare compares Herbert to a summer’s day, to the disparagement of the latter, but claims that immortality originates in him:

So long as men can breath or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

And in Sonnet 19, the same claim continues:

Yet do thy worst old Time dispight thy wrong,
Thy love shall in my verse ever live young.

Here it is Herbert’s love (or, more probably, the love of and for Herbert) that will endure.

By about Sonnet 17, Shakespeare has fallen in love with the young man and writes henceforth for himself and not for the Countess of Pembroke; all speech and thoughts of marriage and heirs are simply abandoned.

It is not necessary to give an account of the whole relationship as seen from Shakespeare’s side, as it were, and we have little evidence of how Herbert regarded it. It would appear that he prized both it and Shakespeare but not to the exclusion of “other loves”. Certainly Shakespeare thinks that he is loved but seems well aware that it is not exclusively. Sonnet 33 indicates what Sonnets 34 through 36 confirm: Herbert has betrayed Shakespeare by seducing the woman, his mistress, whom he loves, although the meaning of “love” is undoubtedly different and certainly includes sex.

Presumably, the second group of Sonnets, Nos. 127 through 152, (‘the Dark Lady’ sonnets) were written about this time, Nos. 127 and 128 before Herbert’s seduction and the rest after it. If it were assumed (unlikely though it is) that for every sonnet to Herbert another sonnet was written to Shakespeare’s mistress, then Sonnets 57 and 58 would correspond to Sonnet 152. These two sonnets have hints that Herbert and the Dark Lady are still making love with one another:

So true a fool is love, that in your Will.
(Though you do any thing) he thinks no ill. (Sonnet 57)


I am to wait, though waiting to be hell,
Not blame your pleasure be it ill or well.  (Sonnet 58)

And later (Sonnet 61):

For thee watch I, whilst thou dost wake elsewhere,
From me farre off, with others all too near.

It is not to the purpose of this essay to explore the possibilities in these suggestions, but it must be acknowledged that the meaning of the events taking place is somewhat obscure. What is not obscure is the anguish of Shakespeare’s heart. It was certainly known to him, and must have been apparent to Herbert although his callousness, his heartlessness, is obvious.

The first group of Sonnets, 1 through 126, were not made public, were never intended to be made public, and could only be understood by Herbert to whom they were all addressed. The second group, the ‘Dark Lady’ sonnets were public, at least some of them were, and two of them, Nos. 138 and 144, were printed in The Passionate Pilgrim in 1599; in 1598 Francis Meres had stated that some of “the sugred sonnets” had circulated “among his private friends.” To repeat, the first group, Sonnets 1 through 126, were immediately intelligible only to the person addressed, namely, Herbert, and they had always been intended for his eye alone.

However, if the series began with an exhortation to marry, if it continued with the profession and expression of Shakespeare’s love for Herbert, it seems that, whatever phases or stages that love went through, the Sonnets to him were terminated with No. 126. There is a certain sadness, a wistfulness, and yet a resignation in the final Sonnets, say from No. 120 onwards. The question then arises as to the meaning of the ending. Do the Sonnets tell us anything about Shakespeare’s heart, his thoughts and feelings, as his love relationship (but not necessarily his love) came to an end?

After such a long preamble, which needs no defense—if any were needed it could be found somewhere in the multitudinous editions and accounts of the Sonnets—it is time to turn to the last Herbert Sonnet, No.126.

[One final note. If, as contended here, the edition of Q was suppressed as soon as its contents became known, then clearly it had never been published with the knowledge and consent of Shakespeare. How did Thomas Thorpe obtain the text? We do not know the immediate source, but the ultimate source must be Shakespeare himself. Nobody but Shakespeare would have had copies of the three groups of Sonnets: Herbert could have had Sonnets 1 through 126, the ‘Dark Lady’ could have had Sonnets 127 through 152 (although some of them were circulated according to Meres), and only the Countess of Pembroke could have had Nos. 153 and 154. It is inconceivable that they collaborated or that they were induced by an “editor” or “publisher” to divulge the poems they had. The only place where all the sonnets, addressed to each and every one of the three, were together must have been in Shakespeare’s private possessions or records.

But, if they were only together (in the way they were printed) in some folder or similar receptacle in Shakespeare’s personal possession, and if he had no intention of making them public, how did Thomas Thorpe get hold of them?

The answer, of course, is that they were stolen by some one who knew of their existence and who also knew their cash value to a publisher like Thorpe. It would seem probable that the thief borrowed Shakespeare’s original and made copies as quickly and as surreptitiously as he could. Thorpe could not have been given the originals (they might well be missed by their owner) and so he paid for a fair copy of them.

This copying could have been done most conveniently when Shakespeare was away from his lodgings in London. (He was probably living, not in London itself, but across the Thames, in the Liberty of the Clink in Southwark not far from the Globe Theatre.) It happens that in 1609 there was a severe outbreak of the plague (with more than 4000 deaths) which entailed the closing of the theaters and the dispersal of the acting companies in tours of the provinces. A ripe moment for the textual thief.

We may deplore such an action, but must also remember that without the thief’s nefarious work we probably would never have known the Sonnets.
If the Sonnets were copied, as suggested above, it was the copier who numbered them consecutively. Shakespeare would have had no need to number them. Incidentally, the original numbering of Q used Arabic numerals; it is aggravating and misleading for the numbering to be in Roman numerals, as has been the practice of some editors.]

Sonnet 126

O Thou, my lovely Boy, who in thy power,
Dost hold times fickle glass, his sickle hour:
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
Thy lovers withering, as thy sweet self grow’st.
If Nature (sovereign mistress over wrack)
As thou goest onwards still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace, and wretched minute kill.
Yet fear her O thou minion of her pleasure,
She may detain, but not still keep her treasure!
Her Audite (though delayed) answer’d must be,
And her Quietus is to render thee.
(                )
(                )

[Spelling gently modernized, original punctuation mainly kept.]

Many of the commentators call this an “envoy” or “envoi” and the poem certainly contains the last words we have from Shakespeare to William Herbert, words sending him on his way, a farewell. Most of them also point out that the poem has only twelve lines and that it is made up of couplets. But, as Aristotle said, knowing the fact is different from knowing the reason for the fact.

Before exploring the reasons for this obvious fact, it is worth considering the meaning of each couplet, in isolation, as a preliminary to considering the poem as a whole. It must be borne in mind, however, that the words were not meant for us—indeed, for anyone but William Herbert—so that while we can interpret what they mean publicly, as it were, to us (a situation never intended), we must remember that in the language, privately developed and shared, of Shakespeare and Herbert there is additional private meanings, allusions and references that we can, at best, only infer.

Couplet 1.
O Thou, my lovely Boy, who in thy power,
Dost hold times fickle glass, his sickle hour:

It is strange for Shakespeare to address Herbert (who is now the Earl of Pembroke and probably between 20 and 25 years old) as “my lovely Boy”, but the poem, in retrospect, as it were, addresses him as he has been and as he has been seen for the period of the preceding 125 sonnets. By giving him the title, Shakespeare is saying goodbye to him, to the him that warranted that title. He has ceased to be “my lovely Boy”, but is reminded of what he was. The change could not have pleased him.
The “Boy” has power over “times fickle glass” which is, by apposition, “his sickle hour”. The latter is easier to understand for “the sickle hour” is when “time” becomes the reaper, that is, cuts him down with his “sickle” (or, more usually, his “scythe”). The “Boy” has power over death—but (as Herbert would understand) the only reality of such power is within “times fickle glass” which is taken to mean both an hour-glass and a looking glass or mirror. As an hour-glass, the “Boy” has power within the running out of the sands of time; and as a mirror he has the power to reproduce the beauty he sees when he looks into it. But the mirror-glass is fickle in that what it reflects is changeable, depending on age, light, position, posture, and so forth.
In other words, just as the address of “my lovely Boy” takes Herbert back to the beginning of their relationship, so Shakespeare states again his power to beget an heir, as he exhorted him in the first seventeen Sonnets. That is the “power” the “lovely Boy” holds. But it is significant that Shakespeare no longer refers to the immortality that he, as poet, can bestow. That has been accomplished, and cannot be extended.

Couplet 2
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
Thy lovers withering, as thy sweet self grow’st.

The “Boy” has become less (“by waning”) and, at the same time has become more by growing (“grown”). Clearly, there is no need to appeal to Aristotle’s Law of Non-Contradiction to recognize that the respect in which he has “waned” will be different from the respect in which he has “grown”. The respect in which he has grown, must obviously refer to his age and, subsidiarily, to his responsibility and status. Basically, he is older—but he has also, with the death of his father in 1601, become the 3rd Earl of Pembroke and he is about to take on a new responsibility, as we shall see. The “Boy” has grown less by losing, with age, some of his boyish or youthful beauty. He has also lost time, the past being unrecoverable. As a result, his “lovers’” wither, which must be taken in two senses. The number of “lovers” withers or diminishes (and Herbert’s promiscuity has already been noted), and at the same time those “lovers” have “withered”, that is, are losing their beauty. And all this is taking place as Herbert himself grows older. It must be observed that Shakespeare himself is one of the “lovers”. And there is the premonition that Herbert has lost Shakespeare’s love.

Couplet 3
If Nature (sovereign mistress over wrack)
As thou goest onwards still will pluck thee back

“Nature” is personified, and she rules (through the ‘natural’ course of events, through the principles and processes on which our world is based) over “wrack”, that is over wrecking, over destruction. As Herbert “goest onwards”, that is, as he gets older, even if Nature retards the natural decline from age, . . .

Couplet 4
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace, and wretched minute kill.

. . . her ultimate purpose, her end, is nevertheless maintained—delayed not abandoned—and (if she does retard it) it is only to show the limits of time’s power and by so doing to emphasize how “disgraceful”—how lacking in grace—time’s degrading action is; time supplants beauty with ugliness. But, at least for the minutes of the delay, Nature can “kill” or nullify the effects of time.

Couplet 5
Yet fear her O thou minion of her pleasure,
She may detain, but not still keep her treasure!

Yet she, Nature, must be feared, even if you are the “minion”—the darling, the preferred one, the dependent—“of her pleasure”. Ultimately, all Nature can do is to “detain”—hold off for a while—the effects of time, the aging, the corruption of your beauty. She cannot “keep” it even though you are precious to her.

Couplet 6
Her Audite (though delayed) answer’d must be,
And her Quietus is to render thee.

Eventually, no matter if “delayed”, Nature’s audit must be made. This is complicated. First, as spelled in Q, audite is the imperative of the Latin verb, audio, I hear. Herbert must hear, must understand, that death awaits him and he must respond to that fact. Taking audite to mean our audit, the question arises whether Nature (the “her” referred to) conducts the audit or is subject to it. In fact, of course, it is Herbert himself who is being audited—he must answer for himself and although it plainly means to surrender his life, there is also the suggestion that he must give an account of the kind of life he has led and will be giving up. There is no direct reference to the Last Judgment but in a Christian society it would be hard to escape some uncomfortable, if remote, suggestion of it.
Herbert must, sooner or later, answer Nature’s audit—and its result is already known. He must die, but in doing so he might be concerned with the reputation he leaves behind, a kind of immortality not without value in an aristocratic world. The references to him in the Sonnets—promising immortality conferred by the poet—are, apparently, completed: Shakespeare promises no more. The Quietus is the abbreviated form of quietus est, the formulaic phrase written on accounts, meaning “He is quit”, that is, he owes nothing more. It might correspond to the modern “paid in full”; he is paid up. But Nature, in place of such a written formula, renders—or surrenders—Herbert himself; she gives him up to death. And he is “rendered” in the sense of “melting away” or of “dissolving”—“O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, /Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!” Human “rendering” is to return to dust.

(Couplet 7)
(                    )
(                    )

In Q, there are two empty lines—indicated as belonging to the poem by the provision of brackets. It is highly probable that they existed in the Shakespearean manuscript that was copied for Thorpe and that they were present in the original that was sent to William Herbert. By their wordless presence they indicate that something is missing and Herbert must have understood that and knew to what it referred. How is this to be understood?
Before answering this question, it is worth re-iterating that there are three obvious features of 126 that almost immediately meet the eye.  One is that there are only twelve lines instead of the usual and expected fourteen; another is that the couplets rhyme instead of the usual three quatrains with cross-rhyming, followed by a couplet; and the third is the emphasis of the non-existent last two lines, whose non-existent existence is asserted by the use of brackets. It will be suggested that these three apparently formal features are an essential part of the material or substantive meaning of what Shakespeare, in his envoi, sent to William Herbert. One thing is clear, and that is that there has been a change, things are not as they had been, the living sequence of the Sonnets has ended.

Attention is drawn to the couplets, to the couples, to the pairings. But while the rhyming couplets are apparent, it emerges that they hint at what has been changed namely, the quatrains—as if to emphasize the change. The first two couplets, if regarded as a pseudo-quatrain, are united in a common theme: the effects of “times fickle glass” on “my lovely Boy”. The next two couplets are similarly united in theme: Nature may limit time, but maintains her purpose. The final pair of couplets, together, asserts that even if Nature may delay, she has her audit, death. It must also be noted that the basic metaphor of these last two couplets, of this final pseudo-quatrain, is from accounting—that there is a debt to be paid. The relevant terms are “treasure”, “audit”, “answered”, “quietus”, and “render”

These are, as it were, shadow quatrains, which, by their shadowy quality, bring to attention their real absence. They also, in the same shadowy way, lead to an expectation of the regular sonnet’s usual concluding couplet—which, lo and behold!—is conspicuous by its absence. But, as Samuel Butler observed, “Lines 11 and 12 have every appearance of being a full close.” It appears that Sonnet 126 (which is not a sonnet in the technical sense) both is and is not complete, both is and is not a sonnet.

Katherine Duncan-Jones comments
“. . . since these brackets enclose an expected couplet, they may image a failure to ‘couple’. The poet had warned in 8.14 that “Thou single wilt prove none”: unless he ‘couples’ himself in marriage, he will fail to preserve his beauty for prosperity. Even the poet’s black lines (63.13) are finally missing. The poet’s verse is incomplete, and so is the youth’s life.”


There have been many attempts to date the Sonnets, some more noted for their ingenuity than their sense. Perhaps the most sober judgment is that of J.B. Leishman who says that they were begun before 1599 and concluded after 1603. Perhaps 1598 to 1604.

I take it that Sonnet 107 and its “mortal moon” refers to the death of Queen Elizabeth on 24 March 1603. One consequence of this “eclipse” was that Herbert’s banishment from Court (because of the Fitton affair) ended, and he could return to the welcoming and favorable Court of King James I. The disgraceful affair with Mary Fitton, dating from the middle of 1600 to its revelation in February 1601, may be reflected in Sonnets 93 through 96; the separation of Shakespeare from his love, Herbert, due to his imprisonment in the Fleet, may have inspired Sonnet 97 (“How like a winter hath my absence been . . .” and Sonnet 98 (“From you have I been absent in the spring . . .”). It appears that Herbert was imprisoned for only a month (February-March 1601), after which he was confined to his estate at Wilton, but that place (80 or so miles from London) was not readily accessible to Shakespeare with his theater duties. And Herbert was later, at the end of 1602, given permission to go abroad which entailed a more distant separation.

However all this may be, it is certain that in the private and intimate Sonnets of Shakespeare, while the subject is always his love for Herbert and all its attendant emotions, external events impinge on his relationship and sometimes get reflected in what he writes. Some possible examples are contained in the last paragraph, to which may be added Sonnet 104 of 1601, the so-called ‘birthday sonnet’, Herbert being born on 8 April; the Sonnet also indicates that their relationship had begun three years earlier, that is, in April 1598.

Shakespeare seems to have been singularly non-judgmental about the Fitton affair, and Sonnet 96 (“Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness . . .”) ends:

. . . I love thee in such sort
As, thou being mine, mine is thy good report.

But this only replicates his response to the seduction of the Dark Lady, referred to in Sonnets 35 and 36, a matter which touched him much more nearly. The two episodes invite comparison because the concluding couplets of Sonnets 36 and 96 are identical.

Forgiving of (or possibly indifferent to) Herbert’s latest sexual exploits, Shakespeare maintains that his love is not idolatry (Sonnet 105):

Kind is my love today, tomorrow kind,
Still constant in a wondrous excellence;
Therefore my verse, to constancy confined,
One thing expressing, leaves out difference.

But although “constant” in his love, Shakespeare is not precluded from rebuking, reproving, and even chastising Herbert for what he has done, or what he has become. He is blunt in the extreme, regardless of Herbert’s aristocratic status:

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds:
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds. (Sonnet 94)

He even urges him in the same Sonnet to self-control:

They that have pow’r to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow; . . .

and had urged it earlier in relation to Shakespeare himself (Sonnet 41):

Ay me, but yet thou mightst my seat forbear,
And chide thy beauty and thy straying youth,
Who lead thee in their riot even there
Where thou art forced to break a twofold truth:
Hers, by thy beauty tempting her to thee,
Thine, by thy beauty being false to me.

But to no avail. There is no “better nature” to appeal to.

For bluntness, the concluding couplet of Sonnet 69 has no equal:

But why thy odor matcheth not thy show,
The soil is this, that thou dost common grow

Although the “soil” must mean the grounds for the “churls their thoughts”, it also indicates that Herbert is dirty—as well as common.

An external event, external, that is, to Shakespeare’s relation to Herbert, would obviously have been the death on 19 January 1601 of his father, Henry Herbert, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke, and the elevation of William Herbert to be the 3rd Earl. This occurred two weeks before the disclosure of Mary Fitton’s pregnancy, so that, assuming the dating suggested above, some mention of Herbert’s response might be sought in Sonnets 90 to 95 but it will be sought in vain. The best that can be said is that Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 91:

Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their body’s force,
Some in their garments, though new-fangled ill,
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse:

But these make no difference to his love:

Thy love is better than high birth to me.

Herbert may have just been elevated to the status of Earl, but it does not affect Shakespeare and the nature and manner of his love. There is a hint or suggestion, perhaps, that Herbert’s new exalted status had made him more conceited or condescending.

Indeed, William Herbert seems to have experienced no grief at the death of his father. Tresham Lever in his The Herberts of Wilton writes (p.63):

But though the father had shown justice and consideration, the
son (it must be admitted) had evinced a somewhat cold, detached
attitude during his father’s illness. The loyal Rowland Whyte
cannot help demonstrating in his letters that Sir Robert Sidney
appeared much more concerned at Lord Pembroke’s failing health
than did his son and heir; and on the very day of his father’s death
the son had written anxiously to Queen Elizabeth and to Sir Robert
Cecil about his prospects. ‘I am now at last fallen into your hands
against my will. In the midst of my sorrows, I have taken the
boldness to write unto her Majesty, who if it please not to
deal very graciously with me, I shall prove a poorer Earl than I
was before a Lord.’  In fact, his father had left him a large fortune,
so his plea of poverty was complete rubbish; but, even if it had
been justified, his appeal for bounty would have come better, we
feel, not on the very night of his father’s death but at the earliest
after the funeral.

In Sonnet 108 a change seems to be coming over Shakespeare. As Katherine Duncan-Jones says:

Reaching 108 . . . the poet takes stock of his achievement. He can find no new way of representing either himself or the youth in words, but is compelled to reiterate what he has often said before; in so doing he continually rediscovers his first love and the young man’s first beauty, revivified in language though vanished in nature.

One could go further and say that, at this time, the poet is taking stock not only of his achievement but also of his relationship to Herbert, and not only of his relationship to Herbert, but also of the character of Herbert himself. Initially, Shakespeare was struck with the beauty—mainly the physical beauty—of Herbert, but now after three years or more he sees that while the physical beauty has remained, only slightly deteriorated, the spiritual beauty, whatever beauty of soul Herbert had possessed, has been vitiated by increasing ugliness.

The absence of Shakespeare—seemingly voluntarily (Sonnets 109/110)—has given him the occasion to consider and re-consider his relationship to Herbert, and the Sonnets from 108 onwards seem, in part, to constitute a kind of meditation on it and a resolution of its meaning. Part of that meaning is the re-affirmation of the power and nature of the love that he had felt and still felt. That was—and always will be—real:

To me, dear friend, you never can be old . . .

But while the love is eternal, its object is not. There are, it seems, three Herberts for Shakespeare. There is his original Herbert (1) as he was “when first your eye I eyed”: or “my sweet boy”. There is the current Herbert (2) who, although slightly aged, has what “seems your beauty still”, abstracted from all else (“the differences”), getting its life from (1). And then there is Herbert (3), the actual, total living man with all the beauties and uglinesses that he currently exhibits.

Shakespeare was and always will be in love with Herbert (1). And his “numbers”, his Sonnets, are eternal because his love was and is the same.  The image of Herbert (1) contained in, or giving life and reality to, Herbert (2) prompts the loving and commendatory remarks in such Sonnets as 106 through 112, but Shakespeare is increasingly aware of Herbert’s blemished character and is increasingly intrigued by his relationship to his own poetry and to time, and even claims that he himself (not Herbert) will “live in this poor rhyme”. He is separating in his soul the three Herberts and allocating to each one its proper place; it is weak and inadequate to say that he remembers Herbert (1), for his beauty became a part of Shakespeare’s soul, a part of his very being. When seeing Herbert (2), or just thinking of him, he is reminded of Herbert (1); he cannot forget the original, but Herbert (2) is only the recall of what once was. The major problem was how to deal with Herbert (3) who, in so many ways, such as in the Fitton affair and the death of his father, had shown himself to be anything but beautiful.

Herbert (1) no longer existed, except in eternity and Shakespeare’s soul. Herbert (2) was unreal in that his being depended upon Herbert (1) who no longer had human existence. There remained Herbert (3), and it became clear to Shakespeare that he neither had nor wanted a relationship with him. But his former love and loyalty compelled him to tell Herbert (3) that their relationship was over and to explicate its demise. He also needed to clear or cleanse his own soul by telling it.

This was accomplished by Sonnet 126.

The occasion was the marriage (or the announcement of the marriage) of the same William Herbert who had renounced marriage, to Mary Talbot, the daughter of the 7th Earl of Shrewsbury—‘the most vindictive and acrimonious of men’. The ceremony took place on 4 November 1604.

When Sonnet 126 was written we do not know, nor do we know when Herbert received it, or whether he read and understood it, totally or in part. But its general meaning must have been clear to him when he considered it in the context of the whole sequence of Sonnets 116 through 126.

Somewhat surprisingly, Sonnet 116 begins abruptly with:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; . . .

If, at this time, Shakespeare had just learned of Herbert’s intended marriage the Sonnet says two important things, the first, that marriage is to be understood as “of true minds”, and the second, that Shakespeare would not “admit impediments”, that is, sees or has no objections. There is no cause for jealousy. It would not be inappropriate to tell Herbert (by making a direct yet independent statement) that marriage is of minds (or souls) not bodies, and that marriage—his marriage, at least—should be based on love, as Shakespeare’s relation to him undoubtedly was:

If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Sonnet 117 claims that Shakespeare may have been absent from Herbert only to prove the “constancy and virtue of your love”. But Sonnet 118 asserts that:

But thence I learn, and find the lesson true,
Drugs poison him that so fell sick of you.

The next, Sonnet 119, indicates that the poet, after confusion about the relationship, is recovering and is strengthened in love. Whatever Shakespeare’s faults (real or imagined by Herbert), the poet has suffered and has profited by the fact that Herbert “were once unkind”—presumably referring to Herbert’s seduction of the Dark Lady. Sonnet 121, by referring to “false” reputation implies that Herbert had been offended by misrepresentations of Shakespeare’s actions.

Sonnet 122 acknowledges a gift from Herbert but one which Shakespeare has not kept—but which he does not need to keep since he well remembers Herbert, but, more importantly, by accepting and keeping it he would have implicitly acknowledged a relationship that he no longer had. Sonnet 123 is an apostrophe addressed to “Time” and has nothing personal connected to Herbert, and is continued in 124 with the denial of the power of politics to affect love; but again the references are general and in no way related to Herbert personally and directly. But they are indirectly.

Whatever the cause, these Sonnets indicate (but only from Shakespeare’s point of view) a disturbance in the relationship. Herbert’s response was ultimately conciliatory (by his gift of 122) but Shakespeare essentially refuses it by giving it away. He accepts it and yet does not accept it. An outright rejection of the gift would have been offensively provocative, and an outright acceptance would have indicated a relationship with Herbert that Shakespeare did not feel, and also would have implied that his love was not unconditional, but needed external “flatterings”. Sonnets 123 and 124 distance him even further by speaking of the abstractions of Time and politics.

Sonnet 125 has Shakespeare telling Herbert that it made no difference that he “bore the canopy” (perhaps at Herbert’s wedding or at his installation as Earl) or that he had honored him by attendance at such a ceremony. He rejects the value of “form and favor”, asserting that those who depend upon it often “lose all”. Rather than that:

No, let me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation, poor but free,
Which is not mixed with seconds, knows no art,
But mutual render, only me for thee.
Hence, thou suborned informer, a true soul
When most impeached, stands least in thy control.

It is highly doubtful that any belted Earl was spoken to so candidly and so proudly. Shakespeare tells Herbert that he should hold him as “obsequious”, that is, to see him as respectful, but yet to accept his “oblation”, his offering, namely himself, as “poor but free”, without any admixture of “seconds” or inferior elements as gifts and without any “art” or the manipulation of flattery. The exchange of love is mutual, “only me for thee”. The identity of “thou suborned informer” is highly ambiguous—it refers simultaneously to those who had lied to Herbert about Shakespeare, to Time itself which “boasts” that the poet had changed, and to Herbert himself, who is told that Shakespeare “stands least in thy control”.

It is upon this declaration of freedom and equality that Shakespeare sends Herbert on his way, says farewell to him, writes him his “envoi”, gives him his quietus. It appears that Herbert’s marriage provides the occasion and the vehicle for Shakespeare’s final words.

On reading Sonnet 126, Herbert, like all of us, must have been struck by the structuring of couplets. They mimicked his promiscuous couplings, notably with Mary Fitton, and finally referred to his marriage, in which he was ‘coupled’ with Mary Talbot, a coupling that was empty and had no content (either because it had not yet taken place, or because it had not been consummated, or because it was sterile, or because it was without love—even without lust or desire: or any or all of these). But if the poem was using his marriage more or less as a metaphor, what was it saying about it? It could—and probably should—be read literally first.  In “O thou my lovely Boy” Herbert recognizes himself, at least as he was and was thought of throughout his relationship with Shakespeare. This must have been mixed with recognition that the salutation was scarcely appropriate any longer; he had aged, was no longer Shakespeare’s beloved; perhaps he felt some anger to be addressed in such a manner, and to recognize the irony of it. The vacant couplet tells him that the relationship is now empty, devoid of Shakespeare’s love.

The first pseudo-quatrain reminds him of his own power, and more especially of its limits and the inevitability of death. The second tells him that even if his aging is gradual it will still result in death. And the third that he should be fearful since he is subject to Nature’s audit.     These terse and somewhat ominous words could only recall what was said in so many ways in the first seventeen Sonnets;

And nothing ‘gainst Times scythe can make defense
Save breed to brave him, when he takes thee hence.

But the beauty of those Sonnets is now absent, mainly because Shakespeare no longer writes from dawning love. And, whatever Shakespeare’s personal motive or intent at that time, the public purpose was to satisfy the family need for an heir—a male child born in wedlock. Although this was a requirement for the family name and power to continue, it was not totally ignoble—and certainly required William Herbert to submit his own selfish desires to something greater. This he would not do.

The blank last couplet, hemmed in by brackets that resemble the shape of an hour-glass, tells Herbert that he must ‘couple’, that is, his bride awaits him. And that begins to translate the metaphor in Herbert’s mind.

It is true that his bride awaits him, but not as the “marriage of true minds” for the accounting vocabulary of the last four lines confronts Herbert with what everybody knew, namely, that Mary Talbot was one of the richest heiresses available, the daughter of the (venomous) 7th Earl of Shrewsbury. That was his reason for marrying her. Prior to 1601, Herbert had refused marriage, “renounced” it in fact, using the pretext of “not liking” any potential bride, and presumably wanting to be at liberty to explore and exploit any available woman. But in 1604 he marries for money, having spent much of his father’s considerable fortune in an irresponsible and prodigal way. He needed to re-stock his coffers; marriage was the means.

Shakespeare was not squeamish or overly-nice about such matters, but that the “sweet boy” should so crassly marry for money was, perhaps, the final revelatory fact that told him that his relationship with Herbert had to end, or rather, that it had ended, for the object of his love, Herbert (1), no longer existed. The present soul or character of Herbert could not merit or sustain his love; its one-time beauty had been supplanted, overlaid, or destroyed by so many acts of ugliness, culminating in a loveless mercenary marriage. The inability of the poet (stated in Sonnet 108) to find new ways of expressing his love is due to the fact that Herbert is no longer lovable. The lack is in Herbert, not in the poet.

This message to Herbert, although unstated explicitly, was clear, but there was a final meaning to the last blank couplet. The poem was incomplete and so was Mary Talbot.  She was a dwarf.

In Sonnet 126, Herbert is told, without words, that his life, like his wife and his marriage, is deformed, lacking integrity, unity or completeness, and, therefore, is without beauty.


One could imagine a lesser man than Shakespeare writing a farewell letter to Herbert:

“After so many lascivious couplings and conquests, Your Grace has finally committed himself to the lawful relationship of marriage, with all its domestic and financial advantages. No mention need be made of the latter since the Earl of Shrewsbury’s ‘dwarfish and unattractive’ daughter is well-known for her economic assets, which, I am sure, Your Grace will enjoy to the full.
         Domestically, it would, perhaps, be better if physically she were as well endowed as she is financially, but no doubt the prospect of a legitimate heir will counteract any repugnance Your Grace might have to the act of coupling with a diminutive, not to say deformed or half-formed partner. If the act were devoid of desire, if lust were lost, Your Grace could recall the while the triumphs of  your fast-receding youth and relish them. Of course, any fruit of such connection would be subject to all the hazards attendant upon breeding with inferior stock, but o doubt Your Grace’s desire for an heir would overcome any such concern and your own virility, so often and clearly displayed, would more than compensate for any defect in the mother. Apart from such domestic and intimate affairs (which will undoubtedly be watched closely by the Earl of Shrewsbury, hopefully with less than his customary asperity), Your Grace ill enjoy, whenever you happen, from time to time, to be at home, the companionship of a woman not yet old whose modest appearance will only enhance the mental and spiritual qualities that no doubt her father, vitriolic though he is, has inculcated in her. More than that, of course, Your Grace will be proud to present her at Court as a fitting adjunct to your own beauty and magnificence which, by contrast, will be enhanced.  The address of “my lovely Boy” may seem presumptuous but it will no doubt call to Your Grace’s mind those seemingly
far-distant days when your youthful beauty inspired others, especially your poet friend. His love of what you were then continues brightly, even though its object, your own precious self, as become tarnished with the passage of time. It is to be hoped that Your Grace’s character will so manage the various financial and domestic voids in life to your satisfaction and advantage, and that you will find all the affectionate comfort that may be expected from such a well-contrived coupling. Henceforth you will enjoy assets not sonnets.”

Of course, it is unthinkable that Shakespeare could have written such a heavy-handed and acrimonious envoi. The least important reason is that it could well have subjected him to legal and political repercussions of a most unwelcome kind. More significant is the fact that it is completely out of the character of the Shakespeare we know from the Sonnets and elsewhere. He is well able to speak clearly and bluntly, as we have seen, but always in a descriptive, non-judgmental way; there is never an edge to his comments, an edge that, in itself, would cause pain to Herbert. There is irony perhaps, but never sarcasm or spite. And there is no sense of retribution or revenge, no petty unpleasantness, no name-calling. He maintains “a good report.”

Shakespeare’s love enables him—compels him—to stand above all such things and to speak truthfully, but to do it in such a way that Herbert is invited to reflect on his own character and actions; it is an invitation that he may or may not have accepted, but that is his business not Shakespeare’s. If, on occasion, he did accept it and reflect on it, what he saw of himself might well have caused him pain but the pain would, at least, have been caused by the deformity within himself, not by its being pointed out. There was the chance that Herbert could have judged himself and thereby learned; love has no greater gift to bestow, and Shakespeare invites him to learn. Of course, he could have been pained because his ugly deformity (which is only a lack of love, a proper love of himself) had been drawn to his attention by someone else, by Shakespeare. It is doubtful that he ignored what the poet wrote. But we do not know, and perhaps must accept the fact—as apparently Shakespeare did—that by his marriage to Mary Talbot he confirmed his inability to have the beauty of soul that the beauty of his body once had promised.

The imagined and impossible farewell letter above does not prevent us from making some declarative statement about the meaning Sonnet 126 had for Herbert. Amongst other things it could be read as saying:

1. You are no longer “my lovely Boy”, as you once were.
2. You have coupled freely with several partners.
3. You care nothing for your family name and heritage.
4. You couple now for money.
5. You do not couple for love or beauty.
6. Your marriage and your life are empty.
7. You may beget an heir, but not in love.
8. The Sonnets are ended.

All this and more could have been understood by Herbert, even though Sonnet 126 says it without ever saying it. Of course, through lack of intelligence or through excessive self-love or for some other reason, Herbert might not have understood what he was being told. Except for the fact that it was final. There would be no more Sonnets. That was unmistakable.

[Incidentally, as far as we know, Herbert never wrote anything to Shakespeare (even though he was reported to compose the occasional sonnet himself), and Shakespeare wrote only sonnets to Herbert—not letters. If this is so, as it appears, it is worth considering how such restrictions—of one-sided communication by sonnet alone—affected or helped to define the relationship and its love. It certainly prevented the love from being argumentative, subject to protestation, the outcome of negotiation, or dialectical.]

There is no evidence as to how Herbert regarded his more than three year relationship with Shakespeare. He must have thought of it highly enough for it to continue for as long as it did; and he must have thought highly enough of Shakespeare’s love not to end it, but not so highly that it prevented him from acts of betrayal, of unfriendliness. If it was known abroad, as it undoubtedly must have been, Herbert might have enjoyed the cachet of being loved by the fashionable poet and playwright. All this is speculation and all we can be sure of is that the relationship began, continued for more than three years, and ended. All with no word—known to us—from Herbert. It does appear further that there were no repercussions to Shakespeare’s termination; he tells Herbert that their relationship is over (without ever saying so), but we have no evidence that Herbert sought any kind of reprisal or inflicted any kind of penalty on the poet. If this is so, it gives at least some glimmer of decency and gratitude to a character sorely in need of both.


To return to Herbert’s marriage: it took place on 4 November 1604, and was celebrated at Wilton with festivities that included a great tournament. We know little about the ceremony and little about the quality of the relationship between the newly married couple. The opinion of most probably echoed that of Clarendon who wrote that Herbert “paid much too dear for his wife’s fortune by taking her person into the bargain”. This did not augur well for marital happiness.

Rowland Whyte, the servant of Robert Sidney, Herbert’s uncle, wrote encouragingly to the bride’s father, the Earl of Shrewsbury, but as might be expected he painted as rosy a picture as was possible. Four months after the wedding, he wrote:

My Lord Pembroke is well, and surely is as honourable
a kind husband as any is in Great Britain. My Lady much
joys in it. And gives him every day more and more cause to
increase it; God bless them both with children and long life.
My Lady is much honoured by all his friends, and all strive
who shall love her best.

A few weeks later, Whyte wrote:

Let me assure your Honour that my Lady Pembroke is very
much respected by all her Lord’s friends, she worthily deserving it.

But all was not well—at least in the rumor and gossip that pervaded the Court—for he continues:

It may be the indiscretion of some that love tatling may buz
out the contrary, which occasions this protestation of mine to your
honour; and I doubt not but that her Ladyship doth live, and shall
ever live, as well contented as any lady in England, if others suffer
her to see and enjoy this happiness.

In 1616 Herbert and his wife had a son, James, who died at birth. The only other notice of any child born to them was recorded in 1620, at which time both Herbert and his wife were 40, and they had been married for 16 years. A letter says of the Countess, “that great-bellied lady is now going to lie down at Wilton”, and two months later a boy, Henry, was born. The child was so weak that the parents did not trouble to invite the King to the christening. He did not survive, dying in 1621, and nothing more is heard of him. Certain it is that Herbert begat no surviving heir, for when he died in 1630 he was succeeded as Earl of Pembroke by his brother Philip. It almost seems as if Herbert never wanted an heir.

Herbert may have had no surviving heir, but he did beget other children, with his cousin, Lady Mary Sidney, who was niece to the dowager Countess of Pembroke, the former Mary Sidney, and daughter of Robert Sidney, the brother of Philip Sidney.

Lady Mary Sidney was born on 18 October 1587 and grew up in the midst of a family distinguished for its literary accomplishments. Since her father, Robert Sidney, was a soldier-diplomat and the governor of Flushing in the Netherlands, he was abroad for long periods of time, so Lady Mary spent much of her childhood at Wilton, at Penshurst Place, and Baynard’s Castle in London. These—especially Penshurst—were known as literary and cultural centers; Ben Jonson, a frequent guest, wrote a poem To Penshurst. Lady Mary had a formal education, under tutors guided by her mother, a most unusual circumstance at the time. She danced before the Queen at Penshurst and again at Court in 1602.

At the command of the King, Lady Mary Sidney was married to Sir Robert Wroth of Loughton Hall, Essex in 1604. The King was a staunch hunting companion of Sir Robert. The marriage was not a happy one, for the husband was a drunkard and wastrel, and Ben Jonson wrote that “my Lady Wroth is unworthily married on a jealous husband”. Lady Mary was known for her literary activities and her dance performance in several masques. After ten years of marriage, she gave birth, in February 1614, to a son, James, but her husband died a month later of gangrene. Her son died two year’s later and thus the whole Wroth estate passed to her late husband’s closest relative, leaving the Lady Mary with little money and enormous debts.

It is not known when, but Lady Mary had entered into a close relationship with her cousin, William Herbert, the 3rd Earl of Pembroke; they had known each other since childhood and shared many literary interests. They had at least two children, a daughter, Catherine, and a son, William. It may be charitably assumed that their intimacy occurred after the death of Lady Mary’s husband in 1614, there being no evidence to the contrary. Their children were certainly born later, one of them, apparently, early in 1620. The Sidney family records have no mention of this liaison and its outcome (the papers probably deliberately destroyed), but the Herbert papers record that Catherine married a “Mr. Lovel neare Oxford”; it seems that he was tutor in the house of Robert Sidney (Mary Wroth’s brother) and it has been suggested that their daughter was the woman who was later known as Aphra Behn. William, the son, was helped by William, 4th Earl of Pembroke, to “a brave living in Ireland” where he served as a soldier and died, unmarried.

[In 1604 there is a curious estrangement between Herbert and his mother, the Countess of Pembroke, who, in a letter, describes “a monster as hath divided myne owne from me, he that was held deerest part of me.” There are no specifics of the “monster” but it is certainly suggested that it is a person who has come between her and her son. For ten years Herbert refused to have anything to do with his mother, and deliberately avoided her. From the wording of the Countess’s letter, it would appear that Herbert was the one who was offended and who distanced himself. It seems unlikely that the Countess had done anything to provoke her son (although it has been suggested that it was some sexual act of hers that was the cause; possible but unlikely, and with no evidence). If it was not an act, then it must have been what she said to Herbert, and, if it was, it must have involved a third party. The obvious candidates were Lady Mary Talbot and Lady Mary Wroth. It is totally speculative, but perhaps the Countess either reprimanded her son on his forthcoming marriage to the Earl of Shrewsbury’s daughter (and one can imagine what she might have said about that mercenary event), or she chastised him on his relation to his cousin and her niece, Lady Mary Sidney (about to be married to Wroth). What probably offended Herbert was an unwanted judgmental interference in his sexual activities, which were clearly important to him and about which he was singularly sensitive. The fact of the separation from his mother is established; the reasons for it are not.]

In 1621, Lady Mary published a book, Urania, the first original fiction by an English woman. After a brief period of notoriety, the book was withdrawn, seemingly because it depicted with too much realism the social and sexual activities in the Court of King James. This was scandalous and the nobility were deeply offended, Lady Mary being called a “hermaphrodite in sense, in Art a monster”—but the real problem was that many of the book’s characters and their activities were readily recognizable as contemporaries and their ancestors. After publication and under pressure, Lady Mary withdrew and finally left Court in 1622 and was abandoned by William Herbert. She died about 1652.

We do not know if Herbert’s wife, the former Mary Talbot then Countess of Pembroke, knew of all this and, if she did, what her response was. It is curious to note that between his marriage in 1604 (when presumably it was consummated) and acts resulting in a still-birth in 1616 and the birth of a weakly son in 1620, the only known sexual activity of William Herbert was with Lady Mary Wroth, probably between 1614 and 1620. How we are to understand this is a mystery.

The later lives of William Herbert and his wife are not relevant to this essay, but it is well-known that William Herbert was a favorite of King James (and also, it should be added, of his wife, Queen Anne) and later of King Charles. He and his brother Philip were very influential at Court and William was made Lord Chamberlain in 1616. They were “the incomparable pair of brethren”, both dedicatees of the Shakespeare First Folio of 1623. William died in 1630 and was succeeded by his brother Philip who, in turn, died on 23 January 1650, leaving six children.

The mother of William and Philip Herbert, the Dowager Countess of Pembroke, the former Lady Mary Sidney, died on 25 September 1621. She could be claimed as the real “begetter of these insuing Sonnets” although Thomas Thorpe would never have known it.

William Herbert’s wife, the former Lady Mary Talbot, either went insane or was so declared (for the financial benefit of the Herberts) and died in 1649 as the Dowager Countess of Pembroke. Her father, the 7th Earl of Shrewsbury, had died in May 1616, two weeks after Shakespeare.


As far as we know, Sonnet 126 was the last communication that Shakespeare sent to Herbert, the last one Herbert received from Shakespeare. How the termination of the relationship affected each of them can only be imagined. Nor can the residue of the relationship, its lasting effects upon them, be decided with any certainty.

Herbert, the lesser man, is perhaps more easy to understand. That within his own capacity he loved Shakespeare cannot be doubted, but the limits of that capacity, while restricted, are difficult to determine. He seems to have been of a selfish and self-regarding character, somewhat callous and indifferent, unfeeling towards others; his use of women was notorious and was morally abusive if not physically so. But he took no responsibility for his affairs. All this suggests an insecurity, a sense of personal inadequacy that compelled him to seek re-assurance of his personal worth.

Shakespeare’s love for him was unquestionable because it was unquestioning. It was unconditional, and Herbert must have known that, not because of his own acuity, but because of Shakespeare’s direct honesty and faithfulness and his ability to see what Herbert did and was and yet still give him his “good report”. Although Herbert had power, wealth and influence, it does not appear that Shakespeare ever asked or expected him to use it for his personal or professional advantage; he made no demand on Herbert except, of course, the most difficult and greatest possible demand, namely, to love and be loved, equally, “me for thee”.

To Herbert’s character, thus understood, must be added his social and political status which gave him superiority and a sense of superiority over everyone in the kingdom except the monarch. The Sonnets show no indication that Herbert was condescending and treated Shakespeare as anything but an equal—no indication that is, until Sonnet 91 when he inherited his father’s position as Earl of Pembroke. Even then Shakespeare can gently but firmly point out:

Thy love is better than high birth to me . . .

with the expectation that Herbert would understand and reciprocate.

Leaving on one side his sexual proclivities and activities, it appears that, under both King James I and his son Charles I, Herbert later became a somewhat different man. Of course, his self-worth was bolstered by his return to Court after Elizabeth’s ban, the favor of the King, and his installation as a Knight of the Garter, and many honors and appointments. The following account of his character is given by Tresham Lever in The Herberts of Wilton:

We are told both by Clarendon in a famous passage of his History of the Rebellion and by Aubrey in his Brief Lives that Pembroke wasthe most universally loved and esteemed young man of his age. He was well-bred, well-educated, a graceful speaker, a ready wit, mild-mannered, affable and charming. He was long at Court, yet so disinterested that he was greeted with regard and affection by his fellow courtiers, most of whom were continually clamouring for place. But it must be admitted that this disinterestedness was that of a wealthy, unambitious man with nothing to gain for himself. He liked an easy life; anything, or almost anything, for peace was his motto. He preferred to swim with the tide rather than strike out manfully upstream against the flow of measures of which he did not approve. ‘For his person,’ said Bacon, ‘he was not effectual.’ ‘He easily passed from hot opposition to the tamest submission,’ as Gardiner well puts it. ‘With an intelligence greater than his power of will, he was the Hamlet of Charles’ Court’.

To what extent this not-unadmirable character was due to the influence of Shakespeare we cannot know, but it is striking that Herbert’s character here is totally lacking in ambition, totally lacking in that arrogant assertiveness that would have separated him from Shakespeare. If the epithet always attached to Shakespeare’s name was ‘gentle’, in its own way, it could also be attributed to Herbert after 1604.

Aubrey calls Herbert “the greatest Maecenas of his time’. One striking example of his generosity is recorded: when Sir Gervase Elwes was hung in 1615 for complicity in a murder, the King granted Herbert his estates, worth more than £1000 a year; Herbert bestowed them on the widow and her children. This is quite remarkable and suggests a character very different from the one that had rejected Mary Fitton. Perhaps his relationship with Shakespeare had changed him.

In 1625, the Countess of Bedford wrote of Herbert that he was the “only honest hearted man imployed [at Court] that I know now left to God and his countrie”, and Lord Clarendon said of him that he had “fame and reputation with all men, being the most universally beloved and esteemed of any of that age, and despite having a great office in the Court, he made the Court itself better esteemed, and more reverenced in the country.” Clarendon, however, continues by referring to Herbert’s vice—asserting that it was to “women” that he “sacrificed himself, his precious time, and much of his fortune.”

But what of ‘gentle’ Shakespeare? Even if, within the limits of his capacities and circumstances, Herbert loved Shakespeare, that love had not the intensity, the devotion, the loyalty, the patience, the acceptance of suffering, the generosity of spirit, the forgiveness, the selflessness—in short, the purity of Shakespeare’s love. In the circumstances, Herbert’s love might have been remarkable, but Shakespeare’s love would have been remarkable in any circumstances.

Without dwelling on the development of Shakespeare’s love, it is possible to consider it as expressed in different Sonnets. It is doubtful that it is correct to speak of development at all since love, as Shakespeare saw it and knew it, arose quite suddenly:

Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might:
‘Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?’

Shakespeare’s account is that he fell in love with beauty, the beauty inherent in Herbert. Those who speak or write of homosexuality and homoeroticism are sadly mistaken and only exhibit the limitations of earth-bound souls. Shakespeare did not fall in love with Herbert, nor with the “homo” in Herbert, nor with his sex and sexuality; he fell in love with his beauty, the beauty that gave him a special eminence in Shakespeare’s eyes.

Although we may speak of Herbert’s beauty, the manner of speaking misleads us for the beauty did not belong to Herbert, it was not one of his possessions. Rather it was that Herbert belonged to—or was dependent on, or was steward of, or derived his being from—beauty. It may well be true that Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare, but Shakespeare was no geometer. He was a poet and playwright who created living people in his poems and plays because he understood the transcendental principles that made them what they were. More simply, perhaps, their nature. It might be said that the geometer deals with diagrams, with bare skeletons; Shakespeare deals with human beings, fully fleshed and fully clothed.

But, in fact, the Euclidean geometer does NOT deal with diagrams. He certainly uses diagrams, but his reasonings and conclusions are not about the diagrams but about ideal figures that the diagrams only represent. In Platonic terms, the ideal figures are intelligible not sensible; the diagrams are, at best, reminders. We may need them as we learn, but they are not what we are learning. Similarly, it might be said that Herbert—and all the characters in all of the plays—are like the geometer’s diagrams, sensible embodiments, but in Shakespeare’s case embodiments of the fundamental principles of the human, moral order and nature. For him, it seems, the ultimate principle is beauty, and the ultimate human response to it is love.

Shakespeare did not know any of the Platonic writings directly, as far as we know, but he was certainly acquainted with the understandings (and misunderstandings) of Plato as interpreted through the Neoplatonic writings and teachings of Marsilio Ficino and others. These, often in an attenuated form, passed into the general culture, as it were, of the learned and cultivated thinkers and writers of the “Renaissance”. A favorite theme was love, and the influence of the Symposium and the Phaidrus may often be detected in the writings of both the poets and philosophers, one of whom, Edmund Spenser, certainly influenced Shakespeare.

Even if Shakespeare had a full acquaintance with what passed as Plato’s view of love, it would be absurd to suppose that his own experience and understanding of love was made to conform to it. Rather, insofar as Plato’s view was consonant with or recognizable in human experience, it provides, for us, a useful way of trying to understand Shakespeare’s relationship with William Herbert.

To begin with, Shakespeare must have seen the physical or sensible beauty of his “sweet youth”. There are many specific references to some particular beauties of Herbert, mainly in the later Sonnets, and mainly visual. The beauties, whatever they were, were seen, through the eye. This sounds like the first stage of the Symposium’s “divided line of love”, the recognition of “fair bodies”. But to simply note or observe “beauties” does not entail being affected by them, by which is meant here that they do not call forth any response in the observer. They are noted. That is all.

Although there are a few hints, perhaps, in earlier Sonnets, it is in Sonnet 18 that love—unannounced, unlooked for—has arrived: “But thy eternal summer shall not fade” and “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” And in Sonnet 19, it is said “My love shall in my verse ever live young” which seems to carry both the meaning of “he whom I love” and also “the love I bear him”. And in Sonnet 20, Herbert is named “the master mistress of my passion”, and in Sonnet 21 Shakespeare says “O let me true in love but truly write . . .”

It seems that Shakespeare is somewhat perplexed by what is happening to him for in Sonnet 46 he writes:

Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war,
How to divide the conquest of thy sight:

but settles the “mortal war” by concluding:

As thus, mine eyes’ due is thy outward part,
And my heart’s right, thy inward love of heart.

This allocation of “spheres of influence” is confirmed in the next Sonnet 47:

Betwixt mine eye and heart a league is took,
And each doth good turns now unto the other;

The war between eye and heart is ended and they have reached an agreement to cooperate in keeping the young man “present still with me”.

The use of ‘eye’ is literal here, and stands for the organ of sight through which the beauty of Herbert is seen by Shakespeare. The use of ‘heart’, however, is not literal (even if William Harvey was beginning his work) but obviously metaphorical. The reality of sight can be shared by others—if Herbert’s hair is golden to Shakespeare, then it will be golden to any other observer—but the reality of love is not of the same order. It is undoubtedly real to the lover—it is a power in him, and affects him—and it can be named to another, but there is nothing to be pointed to that would make it a shared experience. We might see the distraught lover but it makes us neither distraught ourselves nor a lover. The effects of the reality of love may be seen and known by others, but not the reality of the love itself. That belongs privately to the lover and, it seems, often (but not always) to the beloved.

Needless to say, this makes any discussion of it more than difficult—almost impossible. Plato handles it by resorting to myth in the Phaidros and to religious insight through Diotima in the Symposium.  Shakespeare, however, is not trying to give a philosophical account of love, but rather to express—or to expose or declare—to his beloved the love that he has for him. It is contended above that Shakespeare did not write his Sonnets for anyone but Herbert to read; they were never intended for publication. The love Shakespeare had was sacred and private, belonging only to himself and his beloved, and it was not separable from the Sonnets themselves for they are both the expressions of the love and the love itself, insofar as it can be written.

In the Symposium, Socrates defines love as ‘the art of begetting on the beautiful’ and whether Shakespeare knew this or not, he and Herbert as ‘begetter of these insuing sonnets’, seem to exemplify and confirm it.

Being together could be a joy that intensified the love, and presence and absence is a continuing theme of the Sonnets. But ultimately, Shakespeare, his love, his poems, his beloved, their togetherness and sharing, are all one, all infused by the beauty, and as effects of the beauty, and although we may separate them analytically and treat them in isolation, as effects, in so doing we negate or destroy part of their being; the being of all of them is one and the same. It is a totality. The study of the Sonnets requires reverence for this fact.

Shakespeare does not evince any anxiety because of the difficulties that we feel; they did not concern him. He simply accepted the existence of love, of his love, and was content to find its origins in beauty. It seems that this was to him a first principle behind which it was impossible to go, or behind which there was no need to go. To that extent it was not dissimilar to a Platonic idea—a pure existence, which is always what it is, with no admixture of anything else; it is not an image (which is not what it is), but an idea.

A Platonic idea is ‘pure’, unchanging, eternal, and so is suggestive of Shakespeare’s declared love, but for Plato love is a god—a divine power, a kind of madness, equally changeless and eternal, but not to be understood by the intellect. It may be recognized and accepted. That is what Shakespeare did, what he does.

Love is not intelligible, although it clearly affects the intellect since it affects the whole being of the lover, making him more aware of beauty (especially in his beloved) and desirous of ‘begetting’.

Taking Sonnets 1 to 126 as a given, it would be worth tracing the thoughts and feelings of Shakespeare, Sonnet by Sonnet, in order to construct a history of the loving soul. This would entail what has often been done, namely, paraphrasing or interpreting the meaning of the words of each Sonnet; but this is not sufficient, and the meaning of the words must be used to describe the meaning in the soul. It is the effect of forces, no matter how slight, upon the ever-constant loving soul that is important. For example, the effect of the beloved’s physical presence or absence upon the lover’s soul is highly significant—the cause of the presence or absence may be quite insignificant.

If the history of Shakespeare’s loving soul were written, it could be the basis for what is truly important, namely, the understanding and appreciation of human love. But the history, if told, would gradually transmute into philosophy, by which is meant that it would re-create the love itself and the beauty that aroused it. The Sonnets were not written to instruct us or anyone else, not to impress, not to amuse, but simply to declare to Herbert alone the love that Shakespeare bore him. By chance and good fortune, we are privileged to share those declarations and to witness what love can beget on the beautiful, namely, more beauty.

We do not know what lasting effect Shakespeare’s love had upon him, but it must have had some. After he had said farewell to his ‘lovely boy’, the love that he had remained, no longer attached to anyone in time, but immortal as he had claimed, inherent in his soul. It was not just a memory, but an ever-living principle.

Shakespeare’s eye sees the outward, but, he claims, his heart sees the inward part. How are we to understand ‘heart’? It is clearly not what Plato meant when he attributed the grasping of ideas to the intellect. If the realm of the senses was the visible world, that of the intellect was the intelligible world, the world of ideas. To a certain extent these might be correlated respectively with the outward and the inward parts, but although there is an Idea of Beauty in Plato, it is knowable and can be known to the intellect. There is nothing to correspond with Shakespeare’s ‘heart’, which is beyond both sense and intellect, which transcends them, just as in Plato the idea of the Good transcends both being and knowing.

The Sonnets cannot be understood unless we can grasp the meaning of ‘heart’. And yet the Sonnets themselves are the greatest help in our attempts at grasping it. Thus they are simultaneously both the object of our search and the means or way of searching. It is this circularity that guarantees their enduring value: they are both the evidence and what is evidenced.