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literature

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Shakespeare, William (1564-1616)  
 
page: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  

The graphically physical love making in these poems is playfully encoded in puns, many of which are sustained throughout the entire sequence: "have" (52.14, 87.13, 110.9-12, 129.6), "use" (2.9, 4.7, 6.5, 20.14, 40.6, 48.3, 78.3, 134.10), "will" for male and female sexual organs as well as for sexual desire in general (57.13, 112.3, 134.2, 135, 136, 143.13, 154.9), "pride" for penis (64.2, 52.12, 151.9-11), and "all" (sounds like "awl") for penis (looks like an awl) (26.8, 75.9-14, 109.13-14). Several times the young man is cryptically referred to as the speaker's "rose" (1.2, 54.11-13, 67.8, 95.2-3, 98.10-11, 109.13-14).

The difficulty that modern readers have had with the sexuality of Shakespeare's sonnets has been less a problem with decoding these puns than with assuming that the speaker cannot be erotically involved with a man and a woman at the same time. Either he is homosexual, or he is heterosexual--or so modern ideas about sexuality would insist.

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In the sonnets, as in the comedies, it is both/and, not either/or, that makes better sense of the textual evidence. By accepting that the speaker is erotically involved both with the young man and with the mistress, we find ourselves in a position to see how the two relationships are like each other and how they are different.

It is the differences that are the more remarkable. The sonnets to the young man communicate idealistic expectations that stand in the sharpest possible contrast to the sexual cynicism of the sonnets to the mistress. Gender in Shakespeare's sonnets has more to do with the speaker's feelings than it does with his lovers' bodies.

Shakespeare speaks about homoerotic desire in a variety of modes: across the broad expanse of public theater, among the coterie readership of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, within the circle of friends who read his sonnets in manuscript. Despite the absence of any truly private documents from the hand of Shakespeare, these three angles of vision converge to give us an extraordinarily rounded view of sexual experience at the very beginning of the modern era.

Homosexuality as an it may not have existed in early modern England, Shakespeare as a he may remain elusive, but the they set in place by Shakespeare's works constitute a major body of evidence in the history of sexuality.

We (Actors, Audiences, Readers, and Cultural Pundits)

One index of how quickly and decisively the history of sexuality was changing is the second printed edition of the sonnets, published in 1640, twenty-four years after Shakespeare's death. John Benson, the publisher of Poems written by Wil. Shakespeare Gent., went to extraordinary lengths to disguise the homoeroticism of the original poems.

He rearranged the order so as to obliterate any suggestion of a plot line, he combined individual sonnets into longer wholes so as to play up formal artifice at the expense of personal reference, he even supplied titles that specify the object of the poets' desires to have been exclusively female, not male as well as female.

That thirty-one years had elapsed without a second edition of the sonnets (by 1640, Venus and Adonis had gone through no fewer than sixteen editions) may indicate that Shakespeare's sonnets were thought to be strange, idiosyncratic poems even in 1609, but Benson's edition of 1640 sets the wave of the future.

By the end of the seventeenth century "sodomy," once a catch-all category for deviant behavior of all sorts, had solidified in the public mind into a distinct sexual act. The sodomite had emerged as a recognizable social type. During the same years, Shakespeare's sonnets had ceased to be read.

This great category-shift is the culmination of a series of events: separation of sodomy from witchcraft in the Elizabethan sodomy law, open comment on the homosexuality of James I, the temporary hegemony of Puritan ideology during the interregnum, the counterreaction of libertine French culture with the restoration of Charles II, the rise of middle-class propriety, the first solid evidence of a homosexual subculture in London.

All these changes in social context made for changes in the way Shakespeare's plays and poems were read by individuals, acted in the theater, and codified by culture makers.

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