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

When George Granville adapted The Merchant of Venice for a production in 1701, he supplied a prologue in which the ghost of Shakespeare, talking with the ghost of the Restoration playwright John Dryden, makes a point of disowning any suspicion of homosexuality.

First the ghost of Dryden berates modern audiences who prefer "French Grimace, Buffoons, and Mimics" to British drama:

     'Thro Perspectives revers'd they Nature view,
Which gives the Passions Images, not true.
Strephon for Strephon sighs; and Sapho dies,
Shot to the Soul by brighter Sapho's Eyes....

The ghost of Shakespeare is horrified:

      These Crimes unknown, in our less polish'd Age,
Now seem above Correction of the Stage....

The message here hardly needs restating: Shakespeare is a British hero, and as a British hero he most certainly is not a sodomite. In the cultural language of the eighteenth century, the homoeroticism in Shakespeare's works became unreadable and unspeakable.

To this campaign of cultural imperialism, Shakespeare's sonnets proved stubbornly resistant. Benson's decorous version of 1640 kept readers of the sonnets--such readers as there
were--out of harm's way until 1766, when new editorial principles demanded an edition based on the original text of 1609. Suddenly there was some explaining to be done.

Concerning sonnet 20 ("A woman's face with nature's own hand painted / Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion") the editor George Steevens felt compelled to append this note: "It is impossible to read this fulsome panegryick, addressed to a male object, without an equal mixture of disgust and indignation."

Edmund Malone, the first great Shakespeare scholar, saved the day by explaining that "such addresses to men, however indelicate, were customary in our author's time, and neither imported criminality nor were esteemed indecorous."

The history of Shakespeare criticism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been the history of one desperate attempt after another to prove Malone right. Attempts to reclaim the sonnets in works like Oscar Wilde's "Portrait of Mr W. H." (1889) have been written off by the Guardians of Culture as anachronistic fantasies.

Unwillingness to acknowledge homoeroticism in works by the paragon of British literature persists even in the public remarks of W. H. Auden. Making a play on bed-secrets and Red-secrets, Auden told friends in the early 1960s that "it won't do just yet to admit that the top Bard was in the homintern"--and stood by that conviction when he wrote a preface to the New American Library paperback of the sonnets the same year.

Homosexual readers, he complains in this preface, have ignored the fact that the sonnets to "the dark lady" are unmistakably sexual and that Shakespeare, after all, was a married man and a father.

That we are confronted in the sonnets by a mystery rather than by an aberration is evidenced for me by the fact that men and women whose sexual tastes are perfectly normal, but who enjoy and understand poetry, have always been able to read them as expressions of what they understand by the word love, without finding the masculine pronoun an obstacle.

That may be true. "Obstacles," on the other hand, often provide the key to significant historical differences.

It is precisely the masculine pronoun in the sonnets, like all the other markers of homoerotic experience in the plays and poems, that accounts for William Shakespeare's importance in the history of sexuality. His importance in the politics of sexuality is clear enough in Auden's attempt to explain it all away.

Bruce R. Smith

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Auden, W. H. Introduction to William Shakespeare, The Sonnets. William Burto, ed. New York: New American Library, 1964.

Bergeron, David M., and Geraldo U. DeSousa. Shakespeare: A Study and Research Guide. 2nd ed. rev. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1987.

Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. London: Gay Men's Press, 1982.

Bredbeck, Gregory W. Sodomy and Interpretation: Marlowe to Milton. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1991.

de Grazia, Margreta. Shakespeare "Verbatim": The Reproduction of Authenticity and the 1790 Apparatus. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Dobson, Michael. The Making of the National Poet: Shakespeare, Adaptation and Authorship, 1660-1769. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

Dollimore, Jonathan. Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Goldberg, Jonathan. Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Green, Martin. Wriothesley's Roses in Shakespeare's Sonnets, Poems, and Plays. Baltimore: Clevedon Press, 1993.

Orgel, Stephen. Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Pequigney, Joseph. Such is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Schoenbaum, Samuel. William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, eds. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

Sinfield, Alan. Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Smith, Bruce R. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Stallybrass, Peter. "Editing as Cultural Formation: The Sexing of Shakespeare's Sonnets." Modern Language Quarterly 54.1 (1993): 91-103.

Summers, Claude J., ed. Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England: Literary Representations in Historical Context. New York: Haworth Press, 1992.

Traub, Valerie. Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Zimmerman, Susan, ed. Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.


    Citation Information
    Author: Smith, Bruce R.  
    Entry Title: Shakespeare, William  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 18, 2002  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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