Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Apart from dull legal cases involving unpaid taxes and actual references (albeit lacking) from his contemporaries, there is practically nothing about Shakespeare’s life that is publicly known. Hence, his works are the remaining things which could shed light regarding the mystery shrouding the life of England’s and the world’s most celebrated poet. Because of their fictionality, Shakespeare’s plays, histories and poems may not entirely satisfy in terms of revealing details about this cryptic life; notwithstanding, his sonnets—by virtue of having been written in the first person—invite autobiographical readings that include one of a queer vein.
To begin with, Shakespeare’s sonnets were dedicated to an unknown Mr. W. H—a man, instead of a woman, something that went against the heteronormative grain of the poet’s Renaissance milieu. This speculation on the poet’s sodomitic tendency (his time’s reference to homosexuality) increases with the undeniable fact that most of the sonnets also have a man for an addressee—from the first 17 procreation sonnets up to sonnets 18 to 126, which declare the poet’s love for the male addressee. On the one hand, his tamer sonnets refer to a male whose “living flowers” “many maiden gardens yet unset/with virtuous wish would bear” (Sonnet 16) and whose “fair flower” had been bestowed “the rank smell of weeds,” and “dost common grow” (Sonnet 69). However, in Sonnet 20, wherein the “passion” for the male “Master Mistress” seems solely platonic, the notoriety reaches a titillating degree: the addressee may be for the “use” of women only, but the term “pricked...out” has phallic overtures about it in such a manner that the rhetorical reference to sexual pleasure is realized through a suggestively sodomitic language. It may already be that their allusions are toward a man, but Shakespeare’s sonnets’ erotic details are such that they would appear to decrease their rhetorical weight had they been directed toward the opposite sex. In addition, the gender crossing evident in many of these sonnets may be interpreted queerly, from the womanly reference to the addressee to that of the speaker himself. In Sonnet 20, the addressee has a female’s face, heart and eye, and in Sonnets 53 and 93 he is compared to Helen and Eve, respectively. The speaker, meanwhile, is compared to an unwed mother in Sonnet 35, to a widowed mother in Sonnet 97, to Philomela in Sonnet 102, and to a housewife in Sonnet 143. Ultimately, the speaker’s “mistress” in these sonnets is actually and even concurrently a “master,” someone bestowed with beauty and passion.
If the sonnets ascribed to Shakespeare were really by a poetess in disguise or if the sonnets were addressed to a woman, there would have been no queer arguments flying all over. However, this was not the case, opening up a controversial reading of most of Shakespeare’s sonnets as an indication that they comprise a world literary superstar’s queer autobiography.