Henry Willobie

Henry Willobie

Henry Willobie (or Willoughby) (1575? – 1596?) is the supposed author of a 1594 poem called "Willobie his Avisa" (in modern spelling, "Willoughby's Avisa"), whose main claim to fame is a possible connection with William Shakespeare's personal life.

Life and work

Henry Willoughby was the second son of a Wiltshire gentleman of the same name, and matriculated from St John's College, Oxford in December 1591 at the age of sixteen. He is probably the same Henry Willoughby who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Exeter College, Oxford early in 1595. He published "Willobie his Avisa" in 1594.

Willobie may have died before 30 June, 1596, when a new edition of "Willobie his Avisa" was published with the addition of an "Apologie" by Hadrian Dorrell, a friend of the author, which describes him as "now of late gone to God." Dorrell alleges that he found the manuscript of "Willobie his Avisa" among his friend's papers, which were left in his charge when Willoughby departed from Oxford on Her Majesty's service. There is no trace of any Hadrian Dorrell in the historical record, and the name may be a pseudonym, perhaps even for Willobie himself.

"Willobie his Avisa" proved extremely popular, and passed through numerous editions. In 1596, Peter Colse produced an imitation named "Penelope's Complaint".

Modern sources usually give the date of Henry Willobie's death as 1597x1605.

Connection with Shakespeare

"Willobie his Avisa" was licensed for the press by printer John Windet on September 3, 1594. In the printed text, the poem is preceded by two commendatory poems, the second of which, signed "Contraria Contrariis; Vigilantius; Dormitanus," contains a reference to Shakespeare's poem "The Rape of Lucrece", published four months previously:

:"Yet Tarquyne pluckt his glistering grape,:And Shake-speare paints poore Lucrece rape."

This is the earliest known printed allusion to Shakespeare by name (aside from the title pages of "Venus and Adonis" and "Lucrece").

The poem itself concerns a female character, Avisa (whose name is explained in Dorrell's "Epistle to the Reader" as an acronym for "Amans Uxor Inviolata Semper Amanda"). Avisa tells a story alternately with her suitors, one of whom is introduced to the reader in a prose interlude signed by the author as "Henrico Willobego Italo Hispalensis". This passage contains a reference which may refer to Shakespeare. It runs as follows ('H.W.' refers to Willobie, and 'A' to Avisa):

:"H. W. being suddenly infected with the contagion of a fantastical fit, at the first sight of A, ... bewrayeth the secresy of his disease unto his familiar frend W. S., who not long before had tried the courtesy of the like passion, and was now newly recovered ... he determined to see whether it would sort to a happier end for this new actor, than it did for the old player." (spelling modernized)

Then follows a dialogue between H. W. and W. S., in which the latter gives somewhat commonplace advice to the disconsolate wooer.

The use of the word "actor" and "player" in connection with the initials 'W.S.' is suggestive that the latter may refer to Shakespare. If so, and if the poem is autobiographical, it implies that Willobie was in love with a woman who had been previously involved with Shakespeare. However, neither of these assumptions can be proven.


* "Shakspere Allusion-Books", part i., ed. C. M. Ingleby (New Shakspere Society, 1874); AB Grosart's "Introduction" to his reprint of "Willobie his Avisa" (1880).

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