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Early Modern Sexuality

 

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0515  Thursday, 13 December 2012

 

[1] From:        Larry Weiss < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         December 12, 2012 11:52:17 PM EST

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: EM Sexuality 

 

[2] From:        Jess Winfield < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         December 13, 2012 2:42:38 AM EST

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: EM Sexuality 

 

[3] From:        Ian Steere < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         December 13, 2012 8:53:01 AM EST

     Subject:     Early Modern Sexuality 

 

[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Larry Weiss < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         December 12, 2012 11:52:17 PM EST

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: EM Sexuality

 

>>trying to assess Shakespeare’s sexuality based on his work

>

>Why try?

 

Obviously, for the same reason we try to assess his religious sympathies, political disposition, etc. So that we can claim he was one of us. I agree it’s silly. It is self-evident that Shakespeare was a straight libertarian atheist.

 

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Jess Winfield < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         December 13, 2012 2:42:38 AM EST

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: EM Sexuality

 

I suspected my comments would be controversial, but I didn’t expect a dogpile from both ends of the New Critical/New Historical spectrum. What fun!

 

I shall attempt to answer, and succinctly. Understand that I’m not a scholar. With apologies to those who think biography is off-limits: I am a working playwright, actor, director, producer, and writer of fiction. And yes, I’ve made a decent living at all those things at some point my adult life. Shakespeare has been there with me every step of the way. I hope that will count for something. As a sometimes-avid reader of this list, I have a cursory knowledge of scholarly issues and trends. So . . . 

 

Conrad Geller asks:

 

>Isn’t the notion that you can determine aspects of an author’s life 

>from his works termed the Biographical Fallacy?
 

Well, it was. But is that not an antique, New Critical POV?  Have we not moved beyond that? Where is Greenblatt when I need him?
 

>Why would anyone make an inference about an author “from his work”?

>A writer’s work is the product of his imagination. He takes on a character

>and writes as from that character. 
 

Of course you mean “his or her” imagination. So sad that all commenters on my post thus far are male. But I digress.

 

Geller’s is a peculiarly academic misapprehension. It’s a cliché, but working writers know that you can truly only “write what you know.” You can cloak it, tweak it, mask it in a different period, replace humans with vampires or hobbits, nobles or kings and queens.  Sure, you can invent some “stuff—” gadgets, devices, worlds; but the combination of emotional resonance and verisimilitude that drives art derives SOLELY from the real world. Imagination, even in a genius, has limits. Could Shakespeare have written Jane Austen? No. Vice-versa? Perhaps. Credibly, beyond the smell-test of scholars? Doubtful. Could either write a Star Trek movie? Of course not.
 

On the other hand, could the scholars here determine, simply by reading MSND, that Shakespeare was not in fact an Athenian of the pre-Classical era, but most likely an Elizabethan Englishman? I hope so, or scholarship is doomed.
 

So: let’s agree that we can infer things about the author from his or her work. Which brings us to sexuality.

 

Harry Berger Jr. responds to my:

 

>>trying to assess Shakespeare’s sexuality based on his work
 

with:

 

>Why try?
 

Aside from the obvious “Why not?” (the essential curiosity that drives all human inquiry) . . . 

 

Shakespeare’s sexuality has relevance if for no other reason than understanding the Sonnets. To deny this is (in regard to what is quite obviously a tale of sexual triangles) is, to my mind, arbitrary and academic folly.
 

Having received today, via e-mail, a lengthy tome from another ersatz scholar with a “unified theory” of the Sonnets based on the life of a certain noble-who-shall-remain-nameless, I think it important that we here on Earth acknowledge the biographical implications of said Sonnets . . . if only to keep said $@^&@®ians from the gate.

 

Gabriel Egan has weighed in with the most thoughtful response to my iconoclasm. Whether sexual preference is closer to “hard vs. flat earth” or the slippery, self-referential slope of “consciousness” is, in fact, debatable, despite my too-bold claim that nature has won out over nurture. The debate is ongoing. But the “when did you decide to be straight?” school is in clearly in the ascendancy, at least in the US.
 

To respond to Egan’s plea for citations: Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation By Simon LeVay, New York, Oxford University Press, 2011, is, I think, the most comprehensive recent survey of the subject. From a review by Richard Lipperton, Cal State Fullerton: “LeVay takes an unabashedly biological perspective in his book, arguing that sexual orientation is likely to be strongly molded by biological factors, particularly the early (prenatal and perinatal) influence of sex hormones.” Link to said review here: 

 

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11199-011-9997-1/fulltext.html
 

Mind you, I don’t have any skin in this particular game, except for my next novel (which I hope to get reasonably right) about sexual, literary, and political triangles in the Sonnets.

 

Which I, a Writer, shall birth Athena-like from the genius of my own invention, without any recourse to the trivialities of personal biography. Really.

 

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Ian Steere < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         December 13, 2012 8:53:01 AM EST

Subject:     Early Modern Sexuality

 

Jess Winfield has received responses to the effect that one cannot reasonably make an inference about an author from his work. However, one reasonably could, if that work were found to contain (or constitute) the author’s personal correspondence to a friend. And such inferences would surely come into play (for better or for worse) if they were perceived to have a bearing on the wider thesis.

 

I offered a hypothetical scenario which included the following amplification: “[Shakespeare] is either fully hetero or thereabouts”. I might instead have said: “[Shakespeare] is carnally attracted solely to women, or, if not exclusively so, only occasionally to ingles”. I had several reasons for choosing the former presentation—but I would be interested to learn if the latter would have offended analytical sensibilities and, if so, why. I apologize in advance to any vegetarians who might have a beef.

 

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