The website No Sweat Shakespeare singles these out as Shakespeare’s “famous sonnets”. They are no doubt famous. Most of them we had to read at school or college. And six out of these eight sonnets are addressed to a “fair youth”, a young man.
The so-called Swinging Sixties and, for that matter, the subsequent decade or two were not quite as permissive as now. I remember the stir caused when EM Forster’s novel Maurice was published posthumously in 1971.
Shakespeare’s sonnets were the first love poems I read addressed not to the opposite sex but to a member of the writer’s own sex.
That made them unusual, to say the least.
Our teachers, however, did not spend too much time on that. Yes, they noted that the poems were addressed to a young man, but they expatiated on the beauty of the poems, the artistry and imagery.
As Matthew Arnold declared in Shakespeare, another poem we had to read:
Others abide our question. Thou art free
We ask and ask—Thou smilest and art still
Out-topping knowledge. For the loftiest hill,
Who to the stars uncrowns his majesty,
Shakespeare was Shakespeare. Students were quizzed on his literary merits, not anything else.
Anthony Burgess on the sonnets
While reading the sonnets, I looked up Anthony Burgess’ biography, simply called Shakespeare.
I looked up Burgess’ Shakespeare because he not only wrote about the life of the poet but was inspired by one of the sonnets to write a novel about Shakespeare’s love life called Nothing Like The Sun. (It takes its title from the first line of Sonnet 130 – “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” – one of the rare ones addressed to a woman, not a man.)
As Burgess writes in his biography, Shakespeare produced 154 sonnets between 1593 and 1600 – Sonnets 1-126 addressed to a young man, and Sonnets 127-154 to a Dark Lady.
All the sonnets were published together in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe, probably against the poet’s wishes. There was in those days no law of copyright; there was nothing to prevent an enterprising printer from putting out whatever he could get hold of, with neither apology nor recompense to the author, says Burgess.
Thorpe did not even mention the poet’s name in his dedication, expressing his gratitude instead to a “Mr W.H.”, describing the latter as “the onlie begetter of those insuing sonnets”.
Scholars argue over the identity of “Mr W.H” was. Some say the young man addressed in the sonnets was William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, others believe the young man was Wriothesley, Henry, Earl of Southampton. There have been other contenders too. Burgess in his biography argues the young man was most probably Southampton.
Burgess writes about the love expressed in the sonnets:
There is a measure of convention in the sonnets — admiration pushed to extravagant adoration in the courtly tradition, pain exaggerated to cosmic disaster — but the characters are real people and the emotions unfeigned. The earliest of the sonnets, when copied out and passed from hand to hand, must have struck their readers with a delicious surprise. There were amorous phrases like “thy sweet self” and “unthrifty loveliness” and “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” but these were addressed not to a woman but to a young man. Did this mean a pederastic fixation? Not necessarily; perhaps just the desire to impart an aesthetic shock through the language of heterosexual love in the service of friendship and admiration. A man of twenty-nine may admire a youth’s beauty; if he is a poet he will find the right words, and only to the naive will the right words suggest a wrong relationship. And the passion expressed in the early Sonnets has in it no desire of physical possession. Rather the opposite: the elder man encourages the younger to marry, so that his great beauty may be transmitted to posterity.
Burgess goes on:
If Southampton would not marry, it might have been not only because he wished to enjoy bachelor freedom, but because he had a distaste for women — temporary only, perhaps a pose assumed by others of his circle. To have catamites or kiss and clip the male friends of one’s own age would be accounted a kind of chic Platonism…
Will would not be shocked by evidence of homosexuality: he may have been inclined to it himself: he was, after all, a member of the theatrical profession The sexual orientation of Elizabethan actors may have been influenced by the fact of boys taking women’s parts and taking them well.
But this is merely speculation.
Was Shakespeare gay?
The question was discussed in a podcast by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
There, as Jennifer Reid, the narrator in the podcast, said:
Well, quite simply, we don’t know. What do we know about his sexuality and his relationships? Well, we only know that he was married once, to a woman named Anne, and that they stayed married for the rest of their lives. They had three children together from two births, so their marriage must have been consummated at least twice, but that’s pretty much it.
As an article on the Aeon website says:
So many arguments are given against Shakespeare being gay – yet his sonnets contain their own message, that love is love
Over now to the sonnets themselves – the eight “famous sonnets”, according to No Sweat Shakespeare.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.
Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I ey’d,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold,
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn’d,
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn’d,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah! yet doth beauty like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceiv’d;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceiv’d:
For fear of which, hear this thou age unbred:
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.
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