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Is this the face that tormented a young man and inspired a fervent sonnet to "the master-mistress of my passion?"

William Shakespeare had a patron, and the patron had a way with young men that has inevitably led to some speculation about the exact nature of the relationship between the playwright and Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton.

A portrait long in the possession of an Anglo-Irish family has recently had a new identity attributed to its sitter, and the work's owner, Alec Cobbe, believes it shows the earl.

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The subject has long hair, an earring and suspiciously rosy lips and cheeks. This is the earl's face just at the time that Shakespeare was dedicating his narrative poems to him and writing of "a man in hue, all hues in his controlling/ Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth."

About 200 years ago, the portrait was misidentified by one of Mr. Cobbe's ancestors who labelled it "Lady Norton, daughter of the Bishop of Winton" -- deceived, apparently, by the sitter's mane of auburn hair and cupid's bow of a mouth. But a decade ago, Alastair Laing, an adviser on art with Britain's National Trust, examined the portrait and advised Mr. Cobbe that his Lady Norton was, in fact, a fellow. Still, he believed it to be a mediocre portrait of an ancestor.

But when Mr. Cobbe, a painter and restorer, was recently sorting out his family collection in preparation for an exhibition, his eye was caught by the picture. He noticed a resemblance to Southampton, of whom a handful of original portraits survive, and he decided to clean the picture.

The resemblance was solid, so Mr. Cobbe threw himself into several months of intense work to establish the painting's provenance. He found a solid connection between his family and the Wriothesleys.

To summarize a tangle of noble inheritances, it seems the earl's great-granddaughter's property went to a cousin who married into the Cobbe family.

The portrait is by an unknown artist and is undated, but its sitter wears an elaborate Venetian lace collar by which art historians date the picture to 1590-93, when Southampton was in his late teens.

In that period, Shakespeare wrote two great narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Both are dedicated to Southampton, in quite emotional language -- "the love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end," one begins.

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There was nothing unusual about a flowery dedication in the late Elizabethan period, but because scholars have pieced together quite a credible picture of the Earl's louche lifestyle, it raises speculation about the exact nature of his relationship with Shakespeare.

When the poet and the earl were acquainted, Southampton was young, flamboyant and reckless, tearing through his inheritance at a great rate. He appears to have been amenable to supporting an up-and-coming young poet, and Shakespeare needed a patron.

But for more than a century, scholars have also speculated on a romantic, if not sexual, relationship between them. Although the earl impregnated a young woman at court and married her hastily in 1599, he also seems to have enjoyed same-sex amours.

In one contemporary account of his relationship with another nobleman, it was said that the earl "would clip and hug him in his arms and play wantonly with him." And he was known to make "rewards and preferments" to his male favourites.

Many scholars have suggested that Southampton was the "fair youth" of Shakespeare's sonnets. While there are few hard facts about Shakespeare's life, it is certain that he left his wife Anne Hathaway behind in Stratford when he began his theatrical career in London in his late 20s, and some Shakespeareans also believe he went to live with Southampton when the plague closed London's playhouses.

The earl was something of a fashion victim, the first noble of his time to wear his hair long, and was fond of brocade pantaloons. But experts on Elizabethan England caution that while a modern audience may see the sitter in Mr. Cobbe's portrait as a man in drag, at the time he was painted, he looked perfectly appropriate.

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"Long hair, earring, even the makeup. So what?" said Alexander Leggatt, a Shakespeare scholar at the University of Toronto. He explained that the sitter likely intended to send no message by his apparel.

If the portrait does show Southhampton, Mr. Leggatt added, nothing about it could show anything definite about the earl's own life or his relationship to Shakespeare.

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