The Fascinating, Captivating Willie Hughes: Wilde’s The Portrait of Mr W.H.

Revision and the Creation of the Motif of Harmful Sensation

©2006 Ross E. Lockhart

How I wish that I could still believe in the mysterious Willie Hughes. Yes, Willie Hughes, the Elizabethan actor “whose hair was like spun gold, and whose face the meeting place for the ‘lily’s white’ and the ‘deep vermillion in the rose;’ being himself ‘fair’ and ‘red’ and ‘white and red’ and of beautiful aspect” (Wilde, Portrait 10). Willie Hughes, the specialist in female roles who had, “such as our age has never, or but rarely, seen, a beauty that seemed to combine the charm of both sexes, and to have wedded, as the Sonnets tell us, the grace of Adonis and the loveliness of Helen” (49). Willie Hughes, the actor from whose “finely curved lips […] had come the passionate cry of Juliet, and the bright laughter of Beatrice, Perdita’s flower-like words, and Ophelia’s wandering songs” (49). Willie Hughes, Shakespeare’s muse, is the utterly believable ruse that lives at the heart of Oscar Wilde’s literary meditation on Shakespeare, art forgery, and sensation, The Portrait of Mr W.H. Although entirely fictional, Willie Hughes remains one of the most shocking, yet compelling, possible answers ever posed to the question that has troubled Shakespearean scholars for nearly four hundred years. According to Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, “after generations of feverish research, no one has been able to offer more than guesses, careful or wild, which are immediately countered (often with accompanying snorts of derision) by other guesses” (232). Who was the mysterious Mr. W.H. to whom Shakespeare dedicated his Sonnets?

Willie Hughes, according to Peter Ackroyd, “was conceived among wraiths of cigarette smoke and the sweeter scents of wine and brandy” (vii) by Oscar Wilde and art historian Robert Ross, and he was introduced to the world when Wilde’s short story “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” was published in the July 1889 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine. Needless to say, the “tale of the pretty boy-actor memorialized in the dedication of Shakespeare’s Sonnets” (vii) almost immediately created a great degree of controversy and reaction through its suggestion that, as Rupert Croft-Cooke’s biography The Unrecorded Life of Oscar Wilde puts it, “England’s greatest poet was a bugger” (112). This shocking revelation has lost much of its power over the generations, and today’s Shakespearean criticism tends to accept the idea that the Bard was very likely homosexual or bisexual. In fact, the idea has become almost commonplace, though one cannot help but wonder if that is due to the effect of the meme of Willie Hughes; however, Crofte-Cooke is quick to remind us that “to make a delightful spree of Shakespeare’s homosexuality was unforgivable in the 1880s” (112).

Wilde, true to form, was encouraged rather than dismayed by the sensation he had created, and, as he would later do with The Picture of Dorian Gray, set to the task of expanding the short story “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” for publication as its own volume. Wilde developed the short story into a novelette of five chapters, drastically splitting apart and repositioning sections of the original second chapter and adding to them myriad historical and aesthetic details, including a nearly all-new fourth chapter which ruminated on the identity of the so-called “Dark Woman” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Although Wilde’s publishers, John Lane and Elkin Matthews, announced in 1893 that this new edition of The Portrait of Mr W.H. was shortly forthcoming, the book’s release was ultimately cancelled, perhaps due to the brewing controversy surrounding Wilde’s life and work. Following that, the extended The Portrait of Mr W.H. languished in obscurity for decades after disappearing while Wilde was imprisoned in Reading Gaol, eventually resurfacing in the United States in 1921, where it was finally published. Although the original, shorter Blackwood’s Magazine version of “The Portrait of Mr W.H.” remains an easily accessible and frequently anthologized work, finding the novelette has, over the years, been a bit more challenging. Fortunately, in 2003 Hesperus Press reprinted the 1921 version, finally making The Portrait of Mr W.H. available as a trade paperback.

In the expanded The Portrait of Mr W.H., Wilde elegantly blends together haunting visual details with hints of the destructive outcome of obsession, creating prose of dark, convulsive beauty. “Even the scarlet flowers of passion seem to grow in the same meadow as the poppies of oblivion,” notes our narrator. “We reject the burden of their memory, and have anodynes against them. But the little things, the things of no moment, remain with us. In some tiny ivory cell the brain stores the most delicate, and the most fleeting impressions” (Wilde, Portrait 22). It is likewise through fleeting impressions, heaped one upon another, that Wilde reinforces and makes so compelling the very idea of Willie Hughes. By suggesting, through deft interaction with the Sonnets themselves, that Cyril Graham’s theory is simultaneously believable and yet unprovable, Wilde finds credence in the narrator’s (and thereby the reader’s) willingness to buy into the theory’s audacious claims. After all, when the narrator makes the realization that the Sonnets “were no longer isolated from the great aesthetic energies of Shakespeare’s life, but were an essential part of his dramatic activity, and revealed to us something of the secret of his method,” the reader is right there with him, compelled to believe that a “revolution in criticism” (24) has been unearthed.

Wilde also employs confident literary sleight-of-hand throughout The Portrait of Mr W.H., and the text often seems to offer one interpretation while through misdirection it implies another. Regarding Willie Hughes’s relationship with Shakespeare, the narrator claims that he “did not care to pry into the mystery of his sin or the sin, if such it was, of the great poet who had so dearly loved him” (34), motivating the reader to “care to pry” into the nature of the affection shared by the two men, while suggesting through the line “sin, if such it was” that such a relationship, although considered sinful and immoral by society at large, was one of pure, moral, and aesthetic intent.

The artifice of art, fiction, and the theatre is a constant theme throughout The Portrait of Mr W.H.. It is expressed in the titular painting, which is at first implied to be the “very ‘painted banquet’ on which [Shakespeare] invited his eye to feast; the actual picture that awoke his heart ‘to heart’s and eye’s delight'” (17), but is later revealed as a mere forgery. The theme also surfaces in the descriptions of Willie Hughes’s “actor’s power” and ability “to deceive others by his wonderful power to ‘…blush at speeches rank, to weep at woes, or to turn white and swoon at tragic shows” (38). Indeed, the lines that separate one artistic discipline from another are broken down by the forceful cataract of sensation that flows through the text. When Wilde’s narrator exclaims that “the love that Shakespeare bore” for Willie Hughes “was as the love of a musician to some delicate instrument on which he delights to play, as a sculptor’s love for some rare and exquisite material that suggests a new form of plastic beauty, a new mode of plastic expression” (40), he questions the very materials of art and artifice, whether stagecraft or prose, and elevates the motives of artistic temperament and quest for beauty to the highest orders.

It is within the third and fourth chapters of The Portrait of Mr W.H. that Wilde makes his artifice concrete, historically grounding the theory of Willie Hughes in, respectively, a labored list of the “many marvelous lads to whom our English Renaissance owed something of the secret of its joy” (49) and an investigation into “the dark woman who, like a shadow or an evil omen, came across Shakespeare’s great romance and for a season stood between him and Willie Hughes” (60). The first, the list of England’s great boy-actors, which Wilde’s narrator sensually inscribes into a suitably aesthetic “little book with fine vellum leaves and damask silk cover” (49), excavates the “scanty record of their lives” (50). It unfurls and recites the forgotten names and histories, invoking them and rescuing from obscurity Robin Armin, “the goldsmith’s lad who was lured by Tarlton to go on the stage,” Sanford, Cooke, Nat. Field, Gil. Carie, “who, attired as a mountain nymph, sang in the same lovely masque Echo’s song mourning for Narcissus,” Parsons, Will. Ostler, George Vernon, Alick Gough, Barrett, Dickie Robinson, “known for his exquisite taste in costume, as well as for his love of woman’s apparel,” Salathiel Pavy, Arthur Savile, Stephen Hammerton, Hart, and Kynaston. To these sixteen names, the reader feels encouraged to add Willie Hughes. After all, with so many documented examples of actors who “affect the manners and passions of the female sex” (51), what is the addition of one more name but a tiny leap of faith? That leap, which assumes that because something is plausible, that it must be true, leads to the narrator’s conclusion that “it is because Shakespeare was writing for Willie Hughes that Rosalind dons doublet and hose, and calls herself Ganymede; that Viola and Julia put on pages’ dress; that Imogen steals away in male attire” (52).

To the dark woman, however, Wilde’s narrator is far less kind. Whereas his depiction of Willie Hughes flatters and fawns over the young actor’s charms and talents, the subject of Sonnets 127-152 fares less well. No muse or object of affection, the dark woman is instead “a real woman, black-haired, and married, and of evil repute.” She was “much older than the poet, and the fascination that she exercised over him was at first purely intellectual.” In fact, Wilde’s narrator is quick to speculate that Shakespeare “did not even think her beautiful” (61) and that she was “probably the profligate wife of some old and wealthy citizen” (66). Certainly, if one is to read The Portrait of Mr W.H. as if it were an extended metaphor for a homosexual affair, the narrator’s attraction to Willie Hughes coupled with his revulsion for the dark woman would be key components in forming such an interpretation. Negative though his impressions of the dark woman may be, Wilde’s narrator finds that he is able to, through deft rearrangement, complete his “whole scheme of the Sonnets” (70) and discover the “triumph of Beauty over Time, and of Death over Beauty” (71) that forms the core of the relationship between Shakespeare and Willie Hughes.

What is perhaps most striking about the revisions Oscar Wilde made to The Portrait of Mr W.H. is the way in which he revels in the story’s sensory details, layering on sensation after sensation, and turning what might have been, in a lesser writer’s hands, either “serious and rather boring literary theory” or “quaint antiquarian theorizing” (Croft-Cooke 112) into an elaborate document of profound and complex beauty. Indeed, sensation itself is the core of The Portrait of Mr W.H., and it is not only the engine which drives Wilde’s unnamed narrator’s obsessive investigation into the enigma of Willie Hughes, but may also be the destructive force culpable in the deaths of Cyril Graham and Erskine.

Wilde never allows this motif of harmful sensation to come to full fruition within The Portrait of Mr W.H.; instead, he treats it as an elaborate game within the detail-saturated story, suggesting the utterly horrific, yet backing away once the suggestion has been made, as he does after he allows the reader to believe, for a moment, that Erskine’s death was a suicide brought on by a desire to prove, for once and for all, the validity of the theory of Willie Hughes. Later, Wilde will revisit this motif in the “poisonous book” of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the book in which “one hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some mediæval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner” (Wilde, Picture 92). Perhaps Wilde, enraptured in his own real-life cycle of destructive sensation-seeking, was unaware of the themes he embedded within his pages, but the influence of such details can be felt in subsequent works of supernatural and horrific fiction.

In fact, a direct line might be drawn from Wilde to Robert W. Chambers’s 1895 collection of linked short stories The King in Yellow, each of which features prominently a cursed play that drives its readers insane. One of Chambers’s stories, “The Repairer of Reputations,” includes among its characters a young woman named Constance and a horribly mutated Mr. Wilde, who is ultimately dispatched by a cat that he constantly torments. Perhaps Chambers intended the antagonism between his fictional Mr. Wilde and the cat to stand as a metaphor for the real-life animosity between Wilde and the Marquess of Queensberry, which had recently resulted in Wilde’s imprisonment.

This line of ascent continues into the pulp fiction of the 1920s and 1930s, with the malevolent arcane grimoires and scrying stones of “weird fiction” progenitors H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, and on to the obsessive Zahir of the blind Argentinean librarian Jorge Luis Borges. Even today, motifs of harmful sensation can be found in books by authors ranging from Japan’s Koji Suzuki (Ringu, upon which was based the film The Ring), British “new weird” fantasist China Mí¬≠eville (Perdido Street Station and the faux medical encyclopedia entry “Buscard’s Murrain“), and the American satirical novelist Chuck Palahniuk (Lullaby and Diary).

Of Wilde’s literary progeny, it is perhaps Borges that best understood the ambiguous game afoot in The Portrait of Mr W.H. In a 1946 essay entitled “On Oscar Wilde,” Borges writes of the “dandy who was also a poet”: “To speak Wilde’s name is to […] evoke the image of a gentleman dedicated to the meager proposition of shocking by means of cravats and metaphors. It is also to evoke the notion of art as an elite or occult game […] and the poet as a laborious ‘monstrorum artifex'” (314). A maker of monsters, as Borges so elegantly paraphrases Pliny, could not have chosen one more shocking, yet appealing than the idea of Willie Hughes. No, Willie Hughes himself is not a monster; instead, it is the mere idea of Willie Hughes, the meme of Willie Hughes, that insinuates itself into a reader’s consciousness, influences his perceptions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and refuses to let go. As readers, we want Willie Hughes to exist, simply because Wilde’s presentation of him is so entertaining, so delighting. As Wilde’s narrator elaborates, once he has shaken his own belief in Willie Hughes, “Influence is simply a transference of personality, a mode of giving away what is most precious to one’s self, and its exercise produces a sense – and, it may be – a reality of loss. Every disciple takes something away from his master” (Wilde, Portrait 79).

Borges’s 1983 short story “Shakespeare’s Memory” imagines a Shakespearean scholar given a priceless, fantastic gift, “Shakespeare’s memory, from his youngest boyhood days to early April, 1616” (510). At first he is fascinated by the possibilities offered in this mystic transference. “I would possess Shakespeare,” Borges writes, “and possess him as no one had ever possessed anyone before-not in love, or friendship, or even hatred. I, in some way, would be Shakespeare” (511). This line echoes a sentiment that Borges repeats frequently throughout his work, and that appears to be present in Wilde’s Portrait of Mr W.H. Take, for example, the immortal question poised in Borges’s 1944-47 essay “A New Refutation of Time:” “Are the enthusiasts who devote themselves to a line of Shakespeare not literally Shakespeare?” (323) Or the line from 1978’s “Immortality,” which postulates that “each time we repeat a line by Dante or Shakespeare, we are, in some way, that instant when Dante or Shakespeare created that line” (490).

Soon, however, Borges’s narrator tires of this gift. “Throughout the first stage of this adventure I felt the joy of being Shakespeare; throughout the last, terror and oppression. […] I noted with some nervousness that I was gradually forgetting the language of my parents. Since personal identity is based on memory, I feared for my sanity” (Shakespeare’s Memory 514). Convinced that he is losing his grip on the modern world, and fearing that he might become lost in “a welter of great shapes forged in iron, wood, and glass” (514), Borges’s narrator dials a telephone number at random and passes the accursed gift on to the man who answers. Unfortunately, the experience of curating Shakespeare’s memory has marked the narrator for life, and the story ends with his lamentation, “I sometimes know that the person dreaming is that other man. Every so often in the evening I am unsettled by small, fleeting memories that are perhaps authentic” (515). Like the man in “Shakespeare’s Memory,” the narrator of Wilde’s The Portrait of Mr W.H. ultimately laments his loss of faith in Willie Hughes:

I had gone through every phase of this great romance. I had lived with it, and it had become part of my nature. How was it that it had left me? Had I touched upon some secret that my soul desired to conceal? Or was there no permanence in personality? Did things come and go through the brain, silently, swiftly, and without footprints, like shadows through a mirror? Were we at the mercy of such impressions as art or life chose to give us? It seemed to me to be so. (Wilde, Portrait 80)

Wilde’s narrator is correct. We are at the mercy of those impressions given to us by art, and by life. Through the artifice of stagecraft, of deft prose, of even our own imaginations, we are constantly influenced, our memories are continually shaped and re-shaped, and our perceptions of the world around us change with each fleeting byte of new information. Wilde realized this, incorporating it whole grain into The Portrait of Mr W.H., and though the novelette can be read superficially as a pæan to the aesthete temperament of homosexual love, there is more at stake in Wilde’s literary game than mere titillation. As Borges says of Oscar Wilde in his 1977 lecture “Blindness,” he “was a profound man who tried to seem frivolous. He […] wanted us to consider him as Plato considered poetry, as ‘that winged, fickle, sacred thing.’ Well, that winged, fickle, sacred thing called Oscar Wilde said that Antiquity had deliberately represented Homer as blind” (479).

I wish that I could still believe in the mysterious Willie Hughes, but having now explained him, I find myself incapable of actually believing in him. After all, there is no evidence that Willie Hughes ever lived; he is a mere hypothesis, a fictional construction created by Oscar Wilde. Still, I want to believe, and I know that my future readings of Shakespeare’s Sonnets will be colored by the fact that I, like Wilde’s narrator, have been “influenced by the beauty of the forget portrait, charmed by that Shelley-like face into faith and credence” (Wilde, Portrait 80), and that, so influenced, I will never recover, now that I have looked upon The Portrait of Mr W.H..

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