This unusual short story was written by Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), the witty Anglo-Irish playwright. It circles around the obsession with finding the identity of ‘Mr W. H.’ – the mysterious man mentioned in the printer’s dedication to Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609).
What is ‘The Portrait of Mr W. H.’ about?
Wilde was intrigued by the theory – first expressed by Thomas Tyrwhitt in 1766 – that ‘Mr. W. H.’ was a beautiful ‘boy-actor’ named Will Hughes, in the same company as Shakespeare. In this story, Wilde’s characters attempt to prove this theory, suggesting that Shakespeare puns on the name Hughes in Sonnet 20: ‘a man in hew [or appearance], all Hews in his controwling’.
At the same time, the story comments, playfully, on the strange allure of such ‘theories about the Sonnets’ (p. 3). It encourages us to question the lengths people go to prove their ideas.
The narrator describes how his friend Erskine showed him a portrait of a beautiful 16th-century man with his hand resting on the dedication to ‘Mr. W. H.’ (p. 2). It transpires that the portrait is a fake, commissioned by Cyril Graham (p.3), who was desperate to convince others that ‘Mr. W. H.’ was Willie Hughes (p. 7). When his forgery was revealed, Cyril ‘shot himself with a revolver’ (p. 10) and the narrator took on the challenge of proving his theory true. But in expressing his passion for Willie Hughes, he exhausted the ‘passion itself’ and came to see Hughes as a ‘mere myth’ (pp. 18–19).
How was the story published and received?
The story caused a stir when it first appeared in this edition of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in July 1889. At this time, male homosexuality was criminalised and it was controversial to describe one man’s passion for another, especially in relation to Shakespeare and his ‘fair youth’.
Nevertheless, Wilde later expanded the story to make it more explicitly erotic. The longer version was due to be printed by Elkin Mathews in 1893, but the publisher changed his mind. The manuscript was lost for some years, and only resurfaced in America in 1921, when it was finally printed.
Many of these ideas concerning male beauty, sexuality and the power of painting were explored in Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, first published in 1890.
- Article by:
- Aviva Dautch
- Shakespeare’s life and world, Poetry, Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage
Aviva Dautch traces how Shakespeare's Sonnets have been read and interpreted through the lens of biography, identity, gender and sexuality.