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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: May ::
Re: A Problem Like the Sonnets
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.0869  Thursday, 8 May 2003

[1]     From:   Carol Barton <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 7 May 2003 09:21:41 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0851 How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Sonnets?

[2]     From:   Martin Steward <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 7 May 2003 15:22:04 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0851 How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Sonnets?

[3]     From:   Michael Shurgot <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 7 May 2003 09:00:09 -0700
        Subj:   RE: SHK 14.0851 How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Sonnets?

[4]     From:   Linda Englade <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 7 May 2003 21:18:11 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0851 How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Sonnets?

[5]     From:   Tue Sorensen <
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        Date:   Thursday, 8 May 2003 03:19:29 +0200
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0851 How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Sonnets?

[6]     From:   Anna Kamaralli <
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        Date:   Thursday, 08 May 2003 13:09:29 +1000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0851 How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Sonnets?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Carol Barton <
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Date:           Wednesday, 7 May 2003 09:21:41 -0400
Subject: 14.0851 How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Sonnets?
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0851 How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Sonnets?

>I'm faced with the perennial problem of teaching the sonnets. Half-way
>through #18 some one always says, "So Shakespeare was gay?" And the
>convoluted, unsatisfactory, evasive, inconclusive discussion begins, and
>never ends-distracting from the study of the texts.
>
>I'd like some input as to what we're telling students these days about
>#1 through #126. I can no longer keep a straight face (as it were)
>responding to students' questions by positing the trumped-up phenomenon
>of the 'Renaissance friendship,' in which one man declares ad nauseum
>his devotion and love for another man in a platonic context. In my
>experience, there's no such thing as a 'Renaissance friendship'; it
>seems to be a concept invented by editors and critics who seek to
>protect the great progenitor of the English canon from the taint of
>same-sex testimonial desire. My students, who are less homophobic year
>by year, and less naive readers than their parents were, overtly howl at
>the pedagogical niceties that seek to sidestep the subtext of the first
>section of the sonnets. They insist on calling a spade a spade, and
>hoist me on my own petard, since I've already told them that no
>meaningful analysis of the latent content of a text can be undertaken
>without a full understanding of its manifest content.. . .

>But my students (darn their academic curiosity!) wonder why I take such
>pains to put a perversely heteronormative spin on something that is so
>manifestly homoerotic (I'm paraphrasing). The poet is obviously
>emotionally and sexually infatuated with the Fair Friend. It is only us,
>the hoary heads of the academy, who are uncomfortable with that
>discussion, claim my young charges.
>
>Opinions and advice, please.
>
>Greg McSweeney

Greg, in response to the abridgment of your query, I think I have three
viable responses.

The first is that, by Petrarchan tradition, erotic sonnets are addressed
to an unattainable lover. There is not restriction on the *reason* for
that unattainability.

The second is that Shakespeare was not gay. He was at least bisexual (or
faking it enough to produce progeny).

The third is that, since we don't even know who he was (for certain)
discussion of his sexual orientation is purely speculative.

It is also not uncommon for an older person to "fall in love" with a
younger one, or to be able to appreciate youth and beauty in someone who
perhaps mirrors his vision of himself at that age . . . and Shakespeare
was a wily old coot who pretended lots of things for the sake of the
text . . . and left a host of others to our imaginations (is MoV
anti-Semitic, or an indictment of the "Christians" in it? Is Hamlet mad
sometimes, mad all the time, or sane and pretending madness as bait for
his Mousetrap? is Kate subservient to Petruchio at the end of _Taming_,
or has the transformation been mutual?).

I wouldn't "protest too much"---that only invites criticism. I would
point to works like Joe Pequigney's _Sonnets to My Love_, tell them to
read whatever they liked on the subject, but to recognize that
speculating about what we cannot know is a rather self-indulgent waste
of time. (Was there a murder in the "Tell-Tale Heart," or did Poe's mad
narrator fanatasize it?)

I was attending a Shakespeare course in which the instructor (who was
gay before gays came out) kept insisting on the homoeroticism. My father
had just passed away, and at 21, I felt the world had turned into the
Waste Land: I had more important things to worry about than whom
Shakespeare sought to get between the sheets. After class, the prof
asked me why I hadn't contributed much to the discussion. I looked him
straight in the eye and said, "The man has been dead for over three
centuries. Whether he was gay or female or striped and polka dotted with
horns and hooves and a three-barbed tail, or ruled the nation or swung
from the trees like a monkey, it doesn't change the fact that he wrote
what he wrote. He is still Shakespeare."

I think that would still be my answer today.

Best,
Carol Barton

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Martin Steward <
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Date:           Wednesday, 7 May 2003 15:22:04 +0100
Subject: 14.0851 How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Sonnets?
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0851 How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Sonnets?

>The poet is obviously
>emotionally and sexually infatuated with the Fair Friend.

But that infatuation does not necessarily have as its object a sexual
relationship between poet/poetic voice and the young man to whom the
sonnets are addressed. It seems much more obvious that these are simple
exhortations that the young man should engage upon sexual relations with
women in order to reproduce according to the laws of nature. Imagine the
young man to be Shakespeare's son rather than lover, and the point
starts to become a bit clearer.

m

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Michael Shurgot <
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Date:           Wednesday, 7 May 2003 09:00:09 -0700
Subject: 14.0851 How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Sonnets?
Comment:        RE: SHK 14.0851 How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Sonnets?

Dear Colleagues:

Early on in his introduction to his marvelous edition of Shakespeare's
sonnets, Stephen Booth says something like "Shakespeare was almost
certainly heterosexual, homosexual, or both." (Apologies if my sentence
is not exact, but that is the essence of Stephen's remark.)  Why can't
we all just accept that obvious fact and then just teach the POETRY?

Regards,
Michael Shurgot

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Linda Englade <
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Date:           Wednesday, 7 May 2003 21:18:11 EDT
Subject: 14.0851 How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Sonnets?
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0851 How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Sonnets?

Hello,

I have not yet had the opportunity to teach a course in Shakespeare, but
I have been on the student side of this discussion several times.  From
my (admittedly limited experience) one good way to handle the situation
is to explain that the eroticism would not have been nearly as shocking
to a Renaissance audience as it was to 19th and 20th century critics.
If your students are "less homophobic" than their parents (surely a step
forward in social equality), you can bring up the possibility of
bisexuality--given that S. was in a profession which ONLY allowed males
and at a court where special "friendships" were merely ignored.

Personally, I also found that discussions of the formation of the modern
concept of gender were very helpful in combating those students who want
to make a rigid heterosexual/homosexual distinction.

Finally, I would tell my students that whichever way they choose to read
the sonnets, ultimately the POETRY is more important than the sexuality
of the poet.

I hope this response does not sound too presumptuous coming from a
Shakespeare scholar who has not finished her degree :)

Linda Englade

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tue Sorensen <
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Date:           Thursday, 8 May 2003 03:19:29 +0200
Subject: 14.0851 How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Sonnets?
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0851 How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Sonnets?

The Sonnets, by now, are overburdened by popular myths which by their
quantity and endless repetition have acquired a significance undue to
them.  Personally I swear by the analytical sobriety of Stephen Booth
(Shakespeare's Sonnets, Yale University Press, 1977), who calls
attention to the vast possible range of signification, instead of
merrily going off (as almost all others do) on inexcusably speculative
tangents based on a very select few of the possible meanings. The thing
to do is to do a *close* reading, and avoid the usual assumptions, most
of which are just plain wrong. Follow Booth and he will open up the true
richness and depth of Shakespeare's sonnet poetry.

"William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or
heterosexual. The sonnets provide no evidence on the matter." - Booth,
p.548

- Tue Sorensen

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Anna Kamaralli <
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Date:           Thursday, 08 May 2003 13:09:29 +1000
Subject: 14.0851 How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Sonnets?
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0851 How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Sonnets?

>The poet is obviously
>emotionally and sexually infatuated with the Fair Friend.
>
>Greg McSweeney

Yes, and he was also obviously emotionally and sexually infatuated with
the dark lady. The trouble is that words like 'gay' or 'homosexual' tend
to imply an exclusive sexual/romantic interest in other men. I also
think there is a tendency to privilege the sonneteer's feelings for the
youth over those for the woman (perhaps because his adulation is less
ambivalent, perhaps because we are used to love being attached to
physical beauty, perhaps because of a memory that we've all been told at
some point that the Ancient Greeks regarded the love of a man for a
youth as superior to the love of a man for a woman - it's all
guesswork).

I am only concerned that, if we use our modern, fluid approach to
defining sexuality, we make sure it is genuinely modern and fluid, so we
don't end up entirely excluding women from this world of poetic passion.

Anna "woman who wants to think she would have been in with a chance"
Kamaralli.

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