The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0483  Friday, 30 November 2012


From:        Ian Steere <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         November 30, 2012 1:50:27 PM EST

Subject:     The Venus & Adonis Dedication


Last year I invited comments from Shaksperians on my article, The Biography in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. I received some helpful responses (mainly in private), but with distractions elsewhere it has taken me until now to take account of these in a somewhat revised piece.


As part of the process I have elaborated my analysis of the Venus & Adonis dedication. I think - as I did before – that the language of the dedication sheds new light on Shakespeare’s history, irrespective of any connection with the Sonnets. I suspect, however, that this proposition may have been obscured by the form of its presentation within the wider thesis. Consequently, I set out below the newly expanded argument (suitably isolated by way of extract) and would welcome any constructive criticism.







The dedication attached to the poem, Venus & Adonis, runs as follows:


To the Right Honourable Henry Wriothesley,

Earl of Southampton, and Baron of Titchfield.

Right Honourable,


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 godfather: and never after ear [cultivate] 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 own wish, and the world’s hopeful expectation.


Your Honour’s in all duty,

William Shakespeare.


An initial reading likely arouses no sense of disaffection or disinformation. The address looks like the conventional interpretation of it – a grovelling supplication to a superior who has perhaps not even met the author. On deeper analysis, some oddities emerge. For example, the expression, “I leave ... your Honour to your heart’s content” appears over-familiar in tone (as may be more readily seen by imagining the cessation of the address at this point). Its qualification, “which I wish may always answer your own wish”, is clumsily expressed by comparison to the “I wish [you] long life still lengthened with all happiness” of the later Lucrece dedication. Nor does it really remove the sense of impropriety. It is the final, ambiguous phrase (“and the world’s hopeful expectation”) which helps to smooth.


However, the author is Shakespeare, grandmaster of punning and the English language. The key to his verbal sleights lies in the middle of the address, where “the first heir of my invention” evokes the first, or primary, dedicatee of any of Shakespeare’s art, ie the addressee, Wriothesley. With this key a parallel presentation of insult and resentment is unlocked! Here is an open rendition of the disguised theme:


I know not how you will discern insult in this dedication of my unpolished lines to your Lordship. Nor do I know how the world will censure me for choosing what is relatively so substantial a work to honour such a lightweight.


If my only reward is your Honour's apparent pleasure I will, nevertheless, be flattered and promise to work as hard as I can to provide you with something more serious in theme.


On the other hand, if the first dedicatee of my art proves to be debased from what he was, I shall be sorry, as the man who originally encouraged my poetry was such a noble patron: and I will never again devote my efforts to such an undiscerning ingrate for fear of the same poor return.


I leave it for your honourable scrutiny and I leave your honour to the one who currently contents you. I hope he will be the constant slave of your whims in that manner which all look forward to behold.


The body of Shakespeare’s original address contains some 130 words. Analysts generally agree that its tones are ones of respect, supplication and self-deprecation, as would be normal for a dedication of this kind. What then are the odds that such a passage will contain, by chance, a parallel theme of insult and reproach such as the one above? We may gain a good insight into the answer by imagining an experiment which mimics the position of the Shakespeare of orthodoxy.


In our imagined experiment, proficient writers are approached individually – ostensibly to obtain the composition of a dedication. The writers are to remain ignorant of the underlying aims of the exercise. Instead, each is primed to the predicament of a poverty-stricken, unknown author, trying to get a first book published. The book is fiction, but its hero is a flattering projection of Charles, the current Prince of Wales. For some plausible reason (perhaps illness), the author needs help with its dedication to Charles. Each shadow-writer is hired to produce a version whose body comprises around 130 words, is designed to be pleasing to the Prince and expresses hopes for his endorsement of the book and a possible sequel. The writer is given an incentive for success (for example, the promise of a bonus if the dedication is used). When the various offerings have been submitted, they are analyzed to identify and count those which contain a pervasive, fully coherent parallel theme of insult and reproach.

I suggest that such an exercise would produce not one hit in a thousand dedications. However, whatever one's projected hit-rate, this must, if rational, be very low – given the polarity of the themes under consideration. A correspondingly high probability manifests: that the counter-messages in Shakespeare's address of Wriothesley arose other than by chance. By way of quantified illustrations, even an implausibly high hit-rate of one in twenty five ascribed to our model above will point to a probability of around 96% that the parallel theme was constructed deliberately. My suggested hit-rate (of less than one in a thousand) points to a probability of around 99.9%*. 


With these considerations, the existence and content of the parallel theme provide several pieces of information. They show (at the high levels of probability indicated above) that Shakespeare had an unusually intimate and stormy relationship with the Earl – which must have started, at the least, several months before April 1593. They affirm that Southampton had originally been a champion of the poet and his works. However, Shakespeare was now badly upset by a change of attitude and the threat of losing that sponsorship. He was sufficiently moved to vent his feelings by raising a silent finger to the Earl in what was designed to look like a respectful supplication. There are strong and bitter hints that Wriothesley’s affections were now focused elsewhere.


Even if the Sonnets are set to one side, these discoveries expand the histories of Shakespeare and Southampton. It is a fact, however, that the related information accords perfectly with the unique story underlying Sonnets 56-85, as summarized . . .  [in The Biography in Shakespeare's Sonnets].


* 100(1-1/25) = 96. 100(1-1/1000) = 99.9. These derivations assume a large sample size for our model - not an issue given that this is only an intellectual exercise.


[Extract ends] 

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