The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.473 Tuesday, 2 December 2014
From: Hardy Cook <
Date: December 2, 2014 at 10:55:47 AM EST
Subject: Shakespearean Scholars Clash Over ‘Gay’ Bard
[Editor’s Note: The article below is from The Telegraph. For your perusal, I have also included the article and letters behind the debate. –Hardy]
Shakespearean scholars clash over 'gay' bard
Sir Brian Vickers, a visiting professor at University College London, provoked his fellow academics by raising the question of Shakespeare’s sexuality
By Keith Perry
27 Nov 2014
An argument has broken out between some of the world’s most distinguished Shakespearean scholars about whether the playwright was gay.
Sir Brian Vickers, a visiting professor at University College London, provoked his fellow academics by raising the question of Shakespeare’s sexuality, claiming that his sonnets gave no clues to his love life.
His first letter asserted that a Times Literary Supplement book review was wrong to state that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 appears in a “primarily homosexual context”.
He wrote that it was an “anachronistic assumption” because Shakespeare was using a form of rhetoric that allowed men to express love without implying sexual attraction.
He also declared that any attempt to find biographical information in the sonnets was doomed to failure because Shakespeare was a professional writing under the identity of a “poet-persona”.
Fellow scholars including Stanley Wells, chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, have accused Sir Brian of promoting “one of the great fallacies of modern Shakespeare criticism”.
The first to reply was Arthur Freeman, a scholar who described himself as a “friendly acquaintance” of Sir Brian before accusing him of introducing “presuppositions that many of us would question, if not reject out of hand”.
“I cannot think of any responsible editor ... who would dismiss the premise of homosexual, as well as heterosexual passion pervading [the sonnets],” Mr Freeman wrote.
He said that no one questioned Keats’s devotion to Fanny Brawne or Byron's “inconstant passion” for the subjects of his poetry.
“Why should Shakespeare alone be thought so committed to the ‘negative capability’ of his dramatic craft that all his most personal writings are treated as potentially artificial?
“And even if we insist on regarding the sonnets, wholly or in part, as a kind of long-term dramatic narrative ... why on earth would Shakespeare choose so often to impersonate a pathetically ageing, balding, lame and vulnerable bisexual suitor, abjectly whingeing about rejection and betrayal — unless the self-humiliation that surfaces again and again through these particulars were both genuine and cathartic?”
Professor Wells also took Sir Brian to task, noting that Shakespeare used at least one sonnet to woo Anne Hathaway. “When a poet whose name is William writes poems of anguished and unabashed sexual frankness which pun on the word ‘will’ — 13 times in [Sonnet] No 135 ... it is not unreasonable to conclude that he may be writing from the depths of his own experience.”
Sir Brian conceded that he could not stop people speculating. “Thought is free. But if you fix these codes and then say that his 126 poems are like this, then people stop reading them as poems. They read them as biographical documents, looking for imputed sexuality.”
He said there was “no bad blood” but has written a second letter that mocks Professor Wells for claiming too much insight into Shakespeare’s motives. “Such figments of the critic’s imagination not only produce quantities of waste paper but ... are inimical to the proper reading of poetry,” he wrote.
Subject: Lyrical remix
Elizabeth I and George Gascoigne; 16th-century engraving
Reproducing the English Lyric from Tottel to Shakespeare
272pp. University of Toronto Press. £46.99 (Can$65).
978 1 4426 4718 3
How sixteenth-century poetry reflects a mortal condition that makes exact reproduction both impossible and undesirable
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments”: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 asserts the possibility of perfect constancy and everlasting love, and has become a staple for reading at weddings. It may not quite count as “viral”, in the sense that we speak of a YouTube clip’s going viral, but it might be something of a “meme”, a cultural entity with an urge to reproduce itself, mutating as it does so. In this case, mutation means the removal of the calculated ironies that shadow the poem as it appears in the Sonnets. There, the climate of mistrust makes “let me not” sound like protesting too much; the speaker deliberately refuses to acknowledge the facts of change and betrayal that he knows all too well. Another form of mutation occurs during the transfer of the poem from its primarily homosexual context in the Sonnets to a heterosexual frame. But the poem was always made to circulate: it is a series of aphorisms, generalized pronouncements that can be cut loose from one situation and applied to another.
Matthew Zarnowiecki comes to Sonnet 116 at the end of a study that builds on a deep understanding of sixteenth-century textual culture to formulate a highly productive approach to the period’s printed poetry. His focus is on reproduction, as it is figured within literary texts and as it describes their transmission in printed, handwritten, spoken or sung copies. [ . . . ]
In his substantial discussion of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Zarnowiecki argues that we should read them as a miscellany rather than a sequence. Instead of trying to knock them into narrative shape by puzzling away at the relationship between fair youths and dark ladies, and between the lyric “I” and the author, we ought to take our cue from the tangled temporalities of the poems themselves, keeping in mind recent scholarly claims that the later, “dark lady” sonnets were actually written long before the earlier poems apparently addressed to the “fair youth”. Storytelling requires more or less straightforward kinds of change, but the Sonnets are absorbed by ideas of constancy, stasis and simultaneity, from which inconstancy and movement emerge only in painful and paradoxical ways.
The messy, misprint-laden text of the Sonnets as printed in 1609, and the flagrant reworking of the poems by John Benson in 1640, are revealed as entirely fitting for a sequence which is all about error, and which reflects a mortal condition that makes exact reproduction both impossible and undesirable. Not all readers will be prepared to follow Zarnowiecki so far, but his study offers a rich provocation and an incitement to rethink our approach to sixteenth-century poetry.
24 September 2014
Sir, – Jason Scott-Warren states that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 occurs in a “primarily homosexual context” (“Medium-close”, September 26), but this anachronistic assumption needs to be questioned. True, the first seventeen poems in this collection (a “miscellany” is indeed a better description than a “sequence”) are addressed to a young man urging him to marry and beget children in order to pass on his beauty to posterity, but Shakespeare derived that speech situation, and many of his arguments, from Erasmus’s “Encomium Matrimonii”, a model epistle translated in Thomas Wilson’s Arte of Rhetorique (1560). Such a concern may be an expression of friendship but it is hardly a recognized homosexual position for the time, and Thomas Thorpe’s 1609 collection includes another sonnet (numbered 20) addressed to a young man in which the poet-persona (autobiographical interpretations are fictive) defines their relationship as a male friendship but excludes sodomy, nature having added “one thing to my purpose nothing”, for “she prickt thee out for womens pleasure”.
That said, the unique feature of Shakespeare’s sonnets compared to other Renaissance collections is the absence of a named female addressee. Here is no Laura, no Stella, Hélène, Cassandre, Delia, Geraldine, or a dozen more, whose “cruelty” is a theme to be deplored in a thousand variations. And whereas those unpersuadable mistresses are mostly referred to in the third person, the other remarkable feature of Shakespeare’s collection is its person to person address. My essay collection Returning to Shakespeare (1989) includes a study of the Sonnets’ “Mutual Render” in which I counted just over a hundred instances of the third person pronoun “he” or “she”, compared to about 960 of the first person (“I”, “me”, “my”, “mine”) and 890 instances of the second person (“thou”, “thee”, “thy”, “thine”, together with fewer instances of “you” forms, often chosen for euphony – try saying “thinkst thou that they threaten”). These are, to a surely unprecedented degree, essentially “I” and “thou” poems, which are therefore gender- neutral. They map phases of relationships which any reader can pass through, including happiness, fulfilment, deception, betrayal, affirmation, consolation. This undefined, unconstrained speech situation is the reason why they are universally applicable, in a way that sonnets addressed to Laura or Stella, however poetically distinguished, can never be. In experiencing these poems, every reader is an “I” or “thou”, whatever their sex.
29 October 2014
Sir, – My friendly acquaintance Brian Vickers (Letters, October 3) makes an interesting point about the “unnamedness” of the poet’s lover(s) or friend(s) – and one might add his rival poet(s) in Sonnets nos 78–86 – and revives a well-known observation about the affinity of Sonnets 1–17 with an epistle in Erasmus’s Encomium matrimonii and its translation by Thomas Wilson (1553, not 1560, incidentally) or Richard Taverner, two decades earlier. But not for the first time in the TLS does Sir Brian casually introduce as critical or biographical données presuppositions that many of us would question, if not reject out of hand. That Sonnet 116 appears in “a primarily homosexual context” (Jason Scott-Warren, TLS, September 26) may be an overstatement, and that the “marry and breed” sequence (nos 1–17) expresses “male friendship but excludes sodomy” is at least arguable, but the sexual ambivalence of the 1609 volume is hardly a matter for debate any more – nor is the notion of bisexuality or homosexuality “anachronistic” or fanciful for Elizabethan poets and playwrights (Marlowe, Beaumont and Fletcher, et al).
Nor did the general public of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries shrug off the distinctions: as early as 1640 the editor of Shakespeare’s Poems omitted passages and altered pronouns to conceal homosexual or homoerotic implications, and the comparative neglect of the 1609 canon in its entirety for nearly 200 years cannot be unrelated to the same moralistic concerns. In 1780 the acerbic George Steevens, as deeply familiar with the literature and mores of Shakespeare’s era as anyone of his own time, wrote that he found it impossible to read Sonnet 20, at least, “without an equal measure of disgust and indignation”, and in his majestic variorum edition of 1793 he omitted them altogether. The meteoric rise in the Sonnets’ popularity during the next two centuries probably depended in part on a near-suppression of such issues.
I cannot think of any responsible editor or critic of the Sonnets in our own day – from Stephen Booth to John Kerrigan, Helen Vendler, Katherine Duncan-Jones, Stanley Wells and Colin Burrow – who would dismiss the premiss of homosexual, as well as heterosexual passion pervading the sequence (or “miscellany” as Sir Brian prefers, although some mini-sequences are obviously in place). Set aside nos 1–17 (and certainly 116) as ambiguous, but go back to 20 (“master-mistress of my passion”), 26, 40–42 (the first double betrayal), 133–6 (the second), and 144 (“Two loves have I”, perhaps the key text). Shakespeare does not seem embarrassed to lay bare, among the more straightforward effusions, his feelings towards his male comrade/patron/lover: the embarrassment or uneasiness is all ours, and one would be hard put to find anything similar in the plays or the narrative poems.
A more insidious but highly fashionable and related donnée, and to my mind one of the great fallacies of modern Shakespeare criticism, is summed up economically by Sir Brian in six words: the “poet-persona”, he declares, addresses his sonnet-subjects – man, woman, muse, present and future reader – just as if he were composing dialogue for characters in his plays, for “autobiographical interpretations [of the sonnet texts] are fictive”. We can trace this extraordinary presumption to the nineteenth-century biographical wars that Samuel Schoenbaum has chronicled, probably commencing as a response to extrapolations from dramatic passages (e.g., the lament for the death of young Prince Arthur in King John sourced in Shakespeare’s supposed grief for his son Hamnet), but as applied nowadays to a non-dramatic text it seems almost uniquely Shakespearean, and unjustifiably so. For literary context, however you slice it, cannot be ignored: sonnets are not plays, and first-person lyric poets rarely if ever adopt a deceptive “persona” in order to feign feelings they do not truly experience. Of course, much elegiac and amatory verse of the period is formulaic, but most sonnets and personally circulated lyrics are usually, and reasonably, regarded as the last refuge of sincerity. We do not question Petrarch’s infatuation with his “Laura”, or Sidney’s with his “Stella”, any more than we distrust Keats’s devotion to Fanny Brawne or Byron’s inconstant passion for a string of inamoratas: why should Shakespeare alone be thought so committed to the “negative capability” of his dramatic craft that all his most personal writings are treated as potentially artificial? And even if we insist on regarding the Sonnets, wholly or in part, as a kind of long-term dramatic narrative, replete with a cast of complex characters and a ragged, unpredictable plotline, why on earth would Shakespeare choose so often to impersonate a pathetically ageing, balding, lame and vulnerable bisexual suitor, abjectly whingeing about rejection and betrayal – unless the self-humiliation that surfaces again and again through these particulars were both genuine and cathartic?
12 November 2014
Sir, – In my letter of October 3, I pointed out the unique feature of Shakespeare’s Sonnets as a collection, that they do not concern a named object of desire. They use, to an extent that has never been recognized, the first-person pronouns (890 instances) and the second person, mostly “thou” (960 instances). The poems act out phases in one or more relationships that are not limited to either gender, and readers of any sexual identity can integrate them into their lives, unlike poems to Stella or Laura.
Arthur Freeman objects to my parenthetical remark that “autobiographical interpretations [of the sonnet texts] are fictive” (Letters, October 31). I could have added that they are also a waste of time, since nothing can be established about “Mr. W. H.”, the Dark Lady, “The Rival Poet”, or any of the other phantoms that have wasted so many thousands of pages. Everyone should consult the magnificent two-volume edition by Hyder Rollins (1944) – when will this be reprinted? – for his dry wit documenting the extent of human folly. I could also have said that such interpretations are damaging since they are inimical to poetry; indeed, Mr Freeman conveniently demonstrates this. He concludes with a psychosexual rhetorical question: “Why on earth would Shakespeare choose so often to impersonate a pathetically ageing, balding, lame and vulnerable bisexual suitor, abjectly whingeing about rejection and betrayal”, unless the “self-humiliation” were not “cathartic” – that is, Shakespeare wrote and circulated these poems in order to purge himself of feelings of guilt and shame over his bisexuality or homosexuality. Mr Freeman backs up this interpretation with a general, apodictic statement, that “firstperson lyric poets rarely if ever adopt a deceptive ‘persona’ in order to feign feelings they do not truly experience”. But many would object that they do so all the time!
The key words in that profession de foi are “deceptive” and “feign”, with their rather touching assumption that poetic utterances are either truth statements or lies. This would be to deny the whole provinces of imagination and invention, where “the truest poetry is the most feigning”. Shakespeare may have truly experienced many things, but he was capable of imagining many more, and the “unnamedness” of the Sonnets allowed him to create interpersonal exchanges where the “I” figure can adopt many postures, some of which are known to us all. These include self-deprecation, like describing yourself as old, hoping to get the response “To me, fair friend, you never can be old” (104), or comparing yourself unfavourably with someone else. When the poet-persona describes himself in 62 as “Beaten and chopped with tann’d antiquity”, no doubt some literal-minded readers suppose that Shakespeare must have been a sailor in the South Seas, or had a skin problem. As Edmond Malone commented on those who deduced from 37 and 89 “that Shakespeare was literally lame . . . we must then suppose that our admired poet was also poor and despised, for neither of which suppositions there is the smallest ground”.
Mr Freeman supposes that the “meteoric rise in the Sonnets’ popularity” since George Steevens attacked them in 1780, “probably, depended in part on the near suppression of such issues” as their sexual indecency. Steevens was offended by the reference to “the master-mistress of my passion” in 20, and found it “impossible to read this fulsome panegyrick, addressed to a male object, without an equal mixture of disgust and indignation”, adding that Shakespeare had used the appropriate term in Troilus and Cressida, “male varlet”. Other contemporaries felt that criticizing the poems’ “licentiousness” would be an “overstrained piece of prudery”, and in fact the main objection to the Sonnets, as I showed in Shakespeare: The critical heritage, vol 6, 1774–1801 (1981), was to the poetic form itself, “the most difficult and insipid metrical structure ever invented”, “the contrivance of some literary Procrustes”. Arthur Freeman argues that “the comparative neglect” of the Sonnets for nearly 200 years must have been related to “the same moralistic concerns” as those expressed by Steevens, but the form hardly outlived the Renaissance, with Milton its last great exponent. This was the reason for their neglect, not the peculiarly modern cycle Mr Freeman constructs of shame, guilt, suppression and scandal.
12 November 2014
Sir, – Brian Vickers, like most writers on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, underestimates the diversity of the poems in the 1609 collection (Letters, November 14). His remark that “autobiographical interpretations are fictive” and “a waste of time” because they cannot hope to identify persons to whom some of the poems are addressed, ignores the fact that such interpretations may tell us something about the poems’ author. Not all the poems are deeply personal. There are two paraphrases (153 and 154) of Greek epigrams that may properly be regarded as literary exercises, and a number of straightforwardly lyrical love poems which may be thought of as “professional” poems in the sense that they might have appeared in poetical miscellanies of the period. More personally, though not especially privately, the volume includes a religious sonnet (146), and one (145) that is generally agreed to be an early wooing poem punning on the name “Hathaway”. But it also includes cryptic poems, some of which form mini-sequences, that would have held no meaning for uninitiated readers of the time, that have perplexed readers ever since, and that can only be understood as autobiographical in origin – poems that Shakespeare wrote primarily for himself, to help him to clarify his mind and emotions about personal dilemmas and rivalries in love, and that he may not have wished to appear in print. When a poet whose name is William writes poems of anguished and unabashed sexual frankness which pun on the word “will” – thirteen times in No 135 – and which include one (136) which ends with the words “my name is Will”, it is not unreasonable to conclude that he may be writing from the depths of his own experience.
Vickers’s bizarre remark that the sonnet form “hardly outlived the Renaissance, with Milton as its last great exponent”, suggests that he has never heard of Wordsworth, Keats, Christina Rossetti, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thom Gunn, and all the other poets who since Milton’s time have used the form to express deeply personal and, often, clearly autobiographical concerns.
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon.