Shakespeare, sexuality and the sonnets

Shakespeare, sexuality and the Sonnets

Aviva Dautch traces how Shakespeare's Sonnets have been read and interpreted through the lens of biography, identity, gender and sexuality.

The Sonnets hold a strange space in the Shakespeare canon, for they are studied as often by literary historians searching for biographical clues to who their author was and whom he loved, as they are by readers finding solace and stimulation in their poetry. However much we try and read the poems as poems – at times flirtatious, at times romantic or feverishly passionate, often cynical, sometimes bitter and frequently mournful – lurking behind our readings are 400 years of rumour and speculation about Shakespeare’s sexuality and the identity of his addressees. Perhaps that is inevitable for a collection written in the first person, as the temptation to merge the narrator’s ‘I’ with the poet’s own self is huge. But, reading them, I am constantly reminded of Jeanette Winterson’s reply to journalists who asked her whether her first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, was autobiographical. ‘Yes of course’, she answered, ‘and no, not at all’. There is a difference between emotional authenticity and literal truth, and the one does not necessarily imply the other. For these are not directly confessional poems, but full of metaphysical wit and poetic games, shifting in tone and intent as the sequence develops.

Engraving of Plato

Engraving of Plato

Plato, whose vision of love is both homosexual and heterosexual.

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Who is ‘Mr W. H.’?

The sonnets seem to have begun life circulating in manuscript form as entertainment reserved for those in Shakespeare’s inner circle. They were published in a quarto[1] edition in 1609, authorised by Thomas Thorpe, who documented his publication on 20 May in the Stationers’ Register, a record book kept by the Stationer’s Guild in which, for a fee of a few pence, a bookseller could claim his right to print a particular work – this was the equivalent of modern ‘copyright’.[2]

First edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1609

First edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1609

Dedication to Mr. W.H. signed by T.T.

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Confusingly, the title page is signed by ‘T. T.’, presumably Thomas Thorpe. This has led scholars to speculate that Thorpe published the work without Shakespeare’s permission and, following this line of thinking, both Bertrand Russell and Jonathan Bate suggest that the mysterious ‘Mr W. H.’ who is the dedicatee, is Shakespeare himself: the ‘H’ a result of a printing error mistranscribing W. S.’s or W. Sh.’s initials. However, for other scholars the dedication has proved a fertile breeding ground, many picking up on the description of ‘the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth’. Led on by the possibility that ‘forth’ could be a pun on ‘fourth’, many have identified the likeliest candidates as William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke and dedicatee of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, or Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton and dedicatee of the long poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. The dedication has been read as an encouragement to each man to father the next generation. Oscar Wilde however, as we will see later, identifies Mr W. H. as a young actor, Willie Hughes.

Portrait of William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, 1617

Portrait of William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke

William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke (1580–1630) was a favourite at King James I’s court and a prolific patron of the arts.

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Portrait of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, c. 1600

Portrait of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, c. 1600

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573–1624), was a literary patron and courtier, well-known for his flamboyant looks and showy, expensive clothes.

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Private collection; on loan to the National Portrait Gallery, London

The Fair Youth

Whether championing Herbert, Wriotheseley or Hughes, the one thing most scholars agree on is that Mr W. H. is the same person as the character in the Sonnets usually described as ‘the Fair Youth’ to whom the first 126 of the poems are addressed. The poet Don Paterson calls this a ‘sly euphemism’ (believing it desexualises and romanticises the relationship) and prefers ‘the Young Man’. The first 17 sonnets, usually referred to as the ‘procreation sonnets’, suggest that this young man, ‘in single life’ (9.2), ‘beloved of many’ (10.3) but loving no one in return, ‘’gainst time’s scythe can make defence’ (12.13) by giving birth to an heir: ‘Against this coming end you should prepare, / And your sweet semblance to some other give’ (13.4–5). Possibly a commission from the youth’s mother, these poems urge the youth to think to the future and a time when he will give birth to ‘some child of yours’ (17.13). In Sonnet 18, possibly the most famous sonnet of them all, beginning ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’, a transition takes place as the narrator seems to fall in love with his addressee. No longer persuading the youth to live on in his descendants, instead the narrator wants to immortalise him in the ‘eternal lines’ (18.12) of his poetry, somewhat immodestly (although, as it turns out, correctly!) proclaiming that ‘So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee’. And from Sonnet 19 to Sonnet 126 we have a sequence of 108 poems that traces the twists and turns of their relationship with vibrant immediacy and beguiling intimacy.

In Sonnet 20 Shakespeare makes it clear that his narrator’s sexuality is complex, his love object ‘the master-mistress of my passion’ (20.2); ‘His beauty shall in these black lines be seen’ (63.13). Not only is the youth ‘a man in hue’ (20.7) he is also attractive to (and attracted to) both men and women ‘all hues in his controlling, / which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth’. The narrator’s lines are ‘black’ because they are often filled with uncertainty about whether the constancy of his own feelings are reciprocated – ‘Thou mayst be false’ (92.14), ‘the false heart’s history / is writ in moods’ (93.7–8) – acknowledging the ‘power to hurt’ (94.1) the youth has over him, his love for him ‘a maddening fever’ (119.8). The final sonnet of the Fair Youth sequence is possibly the most tender, addressed to ‘my lovely boy’ (126.1), who some readers, in an attempt to mask the homoeroticism of the verses, have suggested is Cupid, but who, to me, seems to be very clearly the same young man that appears in the rest of the sequence. It is a strange sonnet, composed of six rhyming couplets, its 12 lines gesturing to the missing final couplet, suggesting the relationship is unfinished, ended too soon by Nature’s ‘audit’, the call of time that ‘answered must be’ (126.11). While their love has been immortalised in Shakespeare’s lines, the reality of life is that everything comes to a conclusion, and in our humanness we are at Time’s mercy. This provides a fitting book-end to the initial sonnets as the narrator has evolved from the boastful, flirtatious seducer he began as, to a vulnerable, grief-stricken and very relatable lover.

Portrait of a young man among roses by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1587

Portrait of young man among roses

This miniature portrait (c. 1587) shows a love-sick young man leaning against a tree, entwined in eglantine roses.

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Re-writing the Fair Youth

For a modern reader there may be nothing problematic in the fact that the majority of the sonnets are written in the voice of a male narrator to a male lover, but for at least one of Shakespeare’s close contemporaries the homosexual relationship proved incredibly problematic. In 1640, John Benson edited a new edition in which he changed many of the poems, perhaps to avoid provoking questions about Shakespeare’s sexuality. For example, the final couplet of Sonnet 101, ‘Then do thy office, muse; I teach thee how / To make him seem long hence as he shows now’ (101.14) becomes ‘To make her seem long hence as she shows now’; Benson replaces ‘sweet boy’ with ‘sweet love’ (108.5), and adds titles to several of the poems to suggest they are about a woman, such as ‘Selfe flattery of her beautie’ (Sonnets 113, 114 and 115) and ‘An intreatie for her acceptance’ (Sonnet 125). His changes were preserved in subsequent editions until 1780.

Shakespeare's Collected Poems, 1640

Shakespeare's Collected Poems, 1640

Although Sonnet 125 was originally addressed to a man, Benson titles it ‘An intreatie for her acceptance’.

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This deliberate mis-gendering is also a feature of 17th-century commonplace books which include Sonnet 2, by far the most popular sonnet to appear in such collections. They present the poem (out of the original context) as a conventional love poem about seducing a woman. In Margaret Bellasys’ commonplace book the poem appears with the non-gendered title, ‘Spes Altera’. In I A’s commonplace book (and in others of this period), the gender of the addressee is explicitly changed with the title, ‘To one that would die a mayd’.

Poems by Shakespeare, Donne and others in Margaret Bellasys's commonplace book, c. 1630

Poems by Shakespeare, Donne and others in I. A.'s 17th-century commonplace book

Sonnet 2, ‘Spes Altera’, in Margaret Bellasys’s commonplace book.

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Poems by Shakespeare, Donne and others in I. A.'s 17th-century commonplace book

Poems by Shakespeare, Donne and others in I. A.'s 17th-century commonplace book

Sonnet 2, retitled ‘To one that would die a mayde’, in I.A.’s commonplace book.

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In contrast, Oscar Wilde’s story ‘The Portrait of Mr W. H.’, first published in Blackwood’s Magazine in July 1889, uses a search for the dedicatee of the Sonnets, and the claim that it was an alluring young actor in Shakespeare’s company of players named Will Hughes, as a way to explore the inter-relationship of art and life. Wilde framed Shakespeare’s craving for a beautiful young man within a narrative of betrayal and suicidal feelings. While it is tempting to read Wilde’s work too, as autobiographically influenced, what is clear is that by framing his explorations of homosexual desire within a fable that masquerades as literary criticism/detective novel, Wilde was able to write about emotions that would otherwise be taboo in the Victorian period. For someone notoriously outed as gay and imprisoned as a result, it was a risky endeavour. As he quipped from his cell in Reading Jail after the artist and printer Charles Ricketts expressed doubts over publishing a full-length edition of the story: ‘Perhaps you are right ... Mr W. H. might be imprudent ... the English public would have to read Shakespeare's Sonnets’.

'The Portrait of Mr W.H.' by Oscar Wilde, 1889

The Portrait of Mr W.H.' by Oscar Wilde, 1889

First page of the 1889 edition of Wilde’s short story in Blackwood’s Magazine.

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The Trial of Oscar Wilde, printed in 1906

The Trial of Oscar Wilde, printed in 1906

Wilde referred to Shakespeare’s sonnets several times in his trial. He passionately defended the ‘love that dare not speak its name… such as was sung in the sonnets of Shakespeare’.

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The Dark Lady

The identity of the Dark Lady is shrouded in as much mystery as that of the Fair Youth. The subject of Sonnets 126–152, this ‘black beauty’ (127.3) and ‘female evil’ (144.5) has been claimed to be several different women, but the most popular candidates are Mary Fitton, Lucy Negro and Emilia Lanier. Fitton was Queen Elizabeth I’s maid of honour and mistress of William Herbert. Negro was a notorious London prostitute alluded to in the diary of Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose Theatre. Both are key figures in the landscape of Elizabethan England, but by far the most interesting of the three is Emilia Lanier, herself a poet and author of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), the first poetry collection to be published by a woman in England.

Emilia Lanier's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, 1611

Emilia Lanier's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, 1611

Title page and Contents of Lanier’s ground-breaking Salve Deus Rex Judeorum.

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Portrait of Mary Fitton, c. 1595

Portrait of Mary Fitton, c. 1595

Mary Fitton has been a longstanding contender for the title of Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’.

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Whether or not the Dark Lady is one of these three or someone entirely different, she has power and agency. Not ‘born fair’ or traditionally beautiful according to the mores of Elizabethan England, she doesn’t ‘beauty lack’ (128.11). In the notorious Sonnet 130, ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’, Shakespeare declares all the ways in which she doesn’t live up to society’s standards. The final couplet, however, turns this on its head: ‘And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare’ (130.13–14). Although this is usually read as a quirkily resonant love poem, it is part of a series that feels more misogynistic and bitter than the poems to the Fair Youth: ‘In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds’ (131.13); the narrator complains ‘thou art cruel’ (140.1), and ‘she that makes me sin awards me pain’ (141.14). Snuck into this section is, however, a milder and sweeter love poem, that seems to pun on the name of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway: ‘‘I hate’ from hate away she threw, / And saved my life’ (145.13–14).

In the 1609 quarto, following Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, is printed a long poem titled ‘A Lover’s Complaint’. At first it seems a bizarre addition to the collection, but on closer reading it seems to reveal an ars poetica. His words travel across a range of emotions as they trace so many different kinds of romantic entanglement: ‘Cold modesty, hot wrath, / Both fire from hence and chill extincture hath’. Yet we are warned that what ‘resolved my reason into tears’ is ‘lo passion, but an art of craft’. However tempting it is to read the Sonnets as a confessional exploration of Shakespeare’s sexuality, it’s important to remember that he was a craftsman of the highest degree, and that the poems transformed his real life experience into the ‘subtle matter’ of art. How can we possibly trust and read as literally true (although always emotionally true) one who ‘takes and leaves, in either’s aptness, as it best deceives’?

Footnotes

[1] The term ‘quarto’ denotes a specific size of book – and in this case indicates that it was made of sheets of paper which had each been folded twice to produce a book of a similar size to a modern paperback. Playscripts of this type were relatively cheap to buy, unlike the larger and grander folio size.

[2] The frontispiece titles the book ‘Shake-speare’s Sonnets. Never before Imprinted.’, which is not entirely true. While this is the first time they had appeared together as a full collection, early versions of a couple of sonnets (138 and 144) had been published by William Jaggard in a 1599 anthology, The Passionate Pilgrim, that also includes three poems which are not included in the Sonnets, but feature in Love’s Labour's Lost.

  • Aviva Dautch
  • Dr Aviva Dautch is a poet, literary critic and curator. As an academic, she specialises in the Renaissance and Modernist periods, with a PhD in Modern Metaphysical Poetry, and has taught English Literature and Creative Writing at the British Library since 2007. She is Poet in Residence at the Jewish Museum, London, her poems, reviews and literary essays are widely published internationally in journals and magazines, and she has recently received an award from Brandeis University to complete her first full collection of poetry, ‘We Sigh For Houses’.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.