"The Portrait of Mr. W.H." is a short story by the Irish author Oscar Wilde. It was first published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1889. It was not included in the first edition of Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories, a collection of Wilde's short fiction that was first published in 1891, although it has appeared in some editions of the anthology which have been published since 1900. Oscar Wilde also wrote an expanded version of the story that did not appear in print during his lifetime. The longer version of the story was first published in a limited edition in New York in 1921, some twenty-one years after Wilde's death. It was not until 1958 that the expanded text was first published in the United Kingdom.
The title refers to the dedication from the first printed edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, which reads, "To the onlie begetter of these insuing Sonnets Mr. W.H." The true identity of Mr. W.H. is unknown. Several different suggestions as to who he was have been put forward over the years. The story deals with a theory that the Sonnets are dedicated to a boy actor named Willie Hughes. The man who first comes up with the theory, Cyril Graham, wholeheartedly believes it but is unable to find any proof that Willie Hughes ever existed. In order to convince others, Cyril Graham resorts to forgery.
It is unknown whether or not Oscar Wilde genuinely believed that an actor named Willie Hughes was the person to whom the Sonnets were dedicated. However, André Gide, the Nobel Prize-winning French writer, is said to have been thoroughly convinced that that was the case on the basis of the arguments set out in Wilde's story.
At the start of the story, the unnamed narrator is at the London home of his friend Erskine. Their conversation turns to literary forgeries. The narrator does not see anything wrong with authors trying to pass off their writings as the works of others, considering all art to be a form of pretense and understanding that writers attempt to have their works presented in the best possible way. Erskine asks him, "What would you say about a young man who had a strange theory about a certain work of art, believed in his theory, and committed a forgery in order to prove it?" He shows the narrator a portrait of a young Elizabethan man who, if it were not for his clothes, could easily be mistaken for a young woman. The young man's hand is resting on an open book, on which the words "To the onlie begetter of these insuing Sonnets Mr. W.H." can faintly be read. Erskine explains that the portrait depicts the Mr. W.H. to whom Shakespeare's Sonnets are dedicated.
Erskine goes on to tell the narrator about his friend Cyril Graham, a great admirer of Shakespeare who would have become an actor if his aristocratic uncle and guardian had not prevented it. One day, Cyril Graham excitedly announced to Erskine that he had discovered the true identity of Mr. W.H. Following careful reading of the Sonnets, Cyril determined that they were dedicated to a young man who was not of noble birth, whose father had died, who resembled his mother, whom Shakespeare had already known for three years before the Sonnets were written in 1598 and who had formed part of Shakespeare's troupe of actors but left to join a rival company. It also appeared clear to Cyril that the Sonnets were dedicated to someone who had inspired Shakespeare significantly in the writing of his plays and for whom the female leads in Twelfth Night, Cymbeline, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Antony and Cleopatra and Much Ado About Nothing had been written. On the basis of puns on the words "will", "hews", "use" and "usury" in the Sonnets, Cyril concluded that they were dedicated to a boy actor named Willie Hughes. Erskine was almost convinced by Cyril's theory but saw a significant problem in that there was no proof that Willie Hughes ever existed. The two men searched public records for any reference to the actor Willie Hughes but could not find one.
Some time later, Cyril Graham returned from a vacation in Warwickshire with what he claimed to be conclusive proof of Willie Hughes' existence, the portrait which Erskine later showed to the narrator. Cyril claimed that he bought an old wooden chest with the letters W.H. on it. Inside the chest, he found the portrait, covered in dirt and mold. Cyril said that after he had the painting cleaned, he saw the dedication page of Shakespeare's Sonnets in the portrait and the words "Master Will. Hews" on the frame. Cyril and Erskine agreed that they should publish a new edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets and include a reproduction of the portrait in the book.
Three months later, Erskine saw some paintings which he admired very much in a print shop. He found out that they were by a painter named Edward Merton and went to visit the artist. Edward Merton showed Erskine his portfolio, which included a drawing almost identical to the portrait of Mr. W.H. Edward Merton did not want to talk about the drawing but his wife revealed that he had done it for Mr. Cyril Graham. Erskine went to Cyril's house and angrily confronted him about having commissioned the forged painting. Cyril continued to protest that, in spite of the fake portrait, the theory was still true but Erskine would not listen. The following day, Cyril killed himself. He bequeathed the portrait of Mr. W.H. to Erskine.
The narrator is deeply moved by the tale of Cyril Graham's death and, in spite of Erskine's protests that it has no sound basis, is thoroughly convinced by the Willie Hughes theory. He spends the next three weeks doing little but reading Shakespeare's Sonnets and continues to see more evidence of the truth of Cyril's theory. The narrator also looks for outside evidence of Willie Hughes' existence but cannot find any. He finds a reference to a musician called Will Hews but it is from 1576, too early for it to refer to the boy actor from Shakespeare's troupe. Knowing that the first English actress was called Margaret Hews, the narrator speculates that she, the musician Will Hews and the actor Willie Hughes may have all belonged to the same family of entertainers. Wondering about how Willie Hughes ended his days, the narrator speculates that he may have been one of the English actors who went to Germany, performed Hamlet and King Lear in 1613, were murdered and whose bodies were buried in a vineyard.
Believing that Erskine owes it to the memory of Cyril Graham, the narrator writes a strongly worded letter to him, demanding that he have Cyril's theories published. Curiously, after he writes the letter, the narrator no longer strongly believes in the theory but suddenly feels indifferent towards it. By the time that he sees Erskine again a week later, he has become convinced that the theory cannot be true and that Willie Hughes never existed. Erskine, however, has become convinced that the theory is true and plans to spend the rest of his life proving it. The following day, he leaves the country.
Two years later, the narrator receives a letter from France. The letter is a suicide note which Erskine wrote a week earlier. He states that he tried and failed to prove the theory about Willie Hughes to be true and will sacrifice his life for it like Cyril Graham before him. Arriving in France, the narrator finds out that Erskine died not from suicide but from tuberculosis. Erskine's mother gives the narrator something which her dying son said that he wanted him to have, the portrait of Mr. W.H. The narrator keeps the portrait in his library. His friends often speculate about who might have painted it but the narrator never talks of its origins.
- "The Canterville Ghost"
- "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime"
- "The Model Millionaire
- "The Sphinx Without a Secret"
- ↑ The entire theory rests on the idea that Mr. W.H. is the same person as the young man to whom several of the Sonnets are addressed, which is far from certain.
- ↑ There were no professional actresses in England in Shakespeare's time. All of the female roles in Shakespeare's plays were originally played by men or boys.