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William Herbert

It is probable that William Herbert was the beautiful boy rhapsodized over by Shakespeare in the sonnets commissioned around 1597.

William Herbert's mother Mary was one of the most important patrons of literature in the sixteenth-century, and herself a poet. Her home, Wilton House in Wiltshire, became a hotbed of creativity. As a patron of poets and actors it is extremely likely that she commissioned Shakespeare – a writer with stage success to his name – at about the time of her son's seventeenth birthday in 1597 to write sonnets to the boy, encouraging him to put away youthful pursuits and get married.

Commissioned sonnets like this were intended to suck up to their subjects, but at face value Shakespeare seems to have had a genuinely deep and passionate crush on Herbert. It is as likely that Shakespeare, still mourning his own son Hamnet, may have been projecting the life his son never had onto William.

William Herbert, by all accounts, was an well-educated, attractive and charismatic young man. He would later become Earl of Pembroke and throughout his life was a generous patron of the theatre and learning in general. He also wrote poetry – some downright pornographic - in which he alludes to a dark mistress, possibly Emilia Lanier with whom both he and Shakespeare entered into an affair. What a tangled web we weave.

Herbert seems to have enjoyed the company of many women throughout his life, attracted the most to those with character and a brain as much as looks. His connections with Shakespeare and his company continue to the end, and after Shakespeare's death, the Folio of collected works published by the poet's friends thanks Herbert and his brother for the "many favors" granted to their author.

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