Monday, November 23, 2009

THE SONNETS by William Shakespeare

I began this re-reading of Shakespeare's sonnets with the idea that contemporary readings of Shakespeare tend to overcompensate for centuries of puritanical commentary by overemphasizing the same-sex elements. Every generation creates its own Shakespeare, and our Shakespeare is perhaps too gay... Well, having just finished a sustained, single-sitting reading of all 154 sonnets, I am now of the opposite opinion. The 'Shakespeare' imagined/implied by contemporary criticism is not nearly gay or bisexual enough. When read the only way they should be read, in sequence and in totality, the sonnets reveal themselves as a brilliant, complex, sublime narrative of the agonies and exaltations of bisexual love. And while the poem's eroticism is clearly bisexual, it is also just as obviously overwhelmingly homosexual. Roughly two-thirds of the work narrates a relationship between men; the historically overemphasized "dark lady" narrative doesn't begin until sonnet 127, and the element in this relationship that most puts the poet-speaker on the erotic rack is the fact that it's a triangular relationship in which the lady is also the poet's rival for the "man right fair." So even the 'straight' sonnets are also crucially gay. (I'm leaving aside for the length of this post the problematic question of projecting modern sexual categories into the past. For the nonce I'm more Boswellian than Foucaultian. Pun intended.) It's probably not possible to overemphasize the gayness of this particular Shakespearean work, and that's a fact too important to remain hidden in the hortus conclusus of academe. The word needs to get out that these very famous poems are very famous gay poems. Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day"), for example, is read by every American teenager in junior high or high school, but how often is it taught as a love poem 'spoken' by a man to a man? In my own public school encounters with the poem (during the 1980s), it was carefully decontextualized, ripped out of the sequence and presented as an ostensibly independent work, the better to mask its object's gender. Decontextualization and selective emphasis were the usual strategies for 'straightening the canon' at My Horrible High School (and probably at yours too). The unwritten rules went something like this: Read Chaucer, but pay no attention to that gay Pardoner behind the curtain; read a few of Shakespeare's sonnets, but don't mention the gender of the beloved; read some Marlowe, but certainly not Edward II; read Paradise Lost but not Lycidas; read Idylls of the King but not In Memoriam; spend far too much time reading Jonathan Edwards; ignore Swinburne; for god's sake, don't even mention Oscar Wilde; pretend Hemingway's Garden of Eden doesn't exist; and the most important rule of all: end the class ca.1940 so as to avoid any openly gay contemporary writers. Thus was the canon sanitized for the protection of Reagan's America, and in most of the country the situation is probably the same today.

Returning to the text, corrupt and typo-ridden though it is in my edition of the Complete Works, I note on this reading that while the narrative through-line is stronger than I've noticed before, the amount of connection between contiguous sonnets can vary greatly. This variance can mask the larger narrative unity. Sonnets 15, 16 and 17, for example, lock into a tight rhetorical sequence of statement, counter-statement and synthesis, which then issues in Sonnet 18, an example of the speaker's deathless, death-haunted verse. Sonnet 19 beautifully varies and restates some of 18, but then comes the appropriately jarring Sonnet 20, which has little rhetorical relationship to the immediately preceding verses. This disjunction works because in narrative terms Sonnet 20 constitutes a reversal; it tosses a phallic spanner into the erotic works. The editor of my edition cites Sonnet 20 as evidence that the speaker's homosexual love is unconsummated. I beg to differ. Sonnet 20 describes a moment of frustration in the narrative, but it is a moment definitively overcome in Sonnet 33, which I read as a homosexual aubade describing a hasty and troubled consummation ("...he was but one hour mine").

Another point of contention comes at the very end of the sequence. The last two sonnets are generally considered bathetically insipid, a disappointing whimper of an ending after so many big bangs. But I would argue that this may be exactly Shakespeare's intention. The two mythological sonnets exemplify exactly what they narrate: a failed retreat into pastoral. They thus constitute a final turn of the sequence's screw. By the end of the sequence, the erotically tormented poet is stretched out on the rack of his desires, and Shakespeare leaves him there. There can be no arcadian relief, no magical mythological cure. Even the thought of his beloved young man, which once (in the sublime Sonnet 29) brought him spiritual ecstasy in a world of pain, can now only redouble his torment. And the last two sonnets close off his final escape route. There is no exit.


edwinlarson said...

Hi Brian
I am impressed by your reviews and would especially be interested in your take on Honest Sonnets in RollingLogBlog

David said...

Hi Brian,
I've just found your blog and I'm really impressed by its quality. However I don't quite agree with your reading of Shakespeare's sonnets. I don't regard literature as encoded autobiography. Of course, the genius of the sonnets lies in their power to generate readings but, honestly, I think that these sonnets were written for a specific purpose: patronage.
However I know that I might be wrong.

BRIAN OARD said...


I don't think we can draw any conclusions about Shakespeare's biography from the sonnets, and that kind of reading doesn't interest me either. I guess my word choices in the post should've been clearer. When I use the word 'poet' I'm speaking of the 'speaker' of the sonnets, a character created by Shakespeare who clearly differs from the historical Will of Stratford (he seems to be older than WS, for one) although he too is a poet and shares the same first name...And I suppose that when I (or anyone else) speaks of 'Shakespeare' I'm not speaking so much of the playwright/entrepreneur of early Jacobean London as of the author implied by the works, a character every generation of readers creates anew and more or less in its own image.

Thanks for giving me a chance to clear this up.

David said...

I totally agree with you. The use of autobiographical facts to explain the work of a certain author bores me to death.
Thanks for your answer.

portalu said...

This reminds me:
"-- All these questions are purely academic, Russell oracled out of his shadow. I mean, whether Hamlet is Shakespeare or James I or Essex. Clergymen's discussions of the historicity of Jesus. Art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences. The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring. The painting of Gustave Moreau is the painting of ideas. The deepest poetry of Shelley, the words of Hamlet bring our mind into contact with the eternal wisdom, Plato's world of ideas. All the rest is the speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys."