The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.0851  Wednesday, 7 May 2003

From:           Greg McSweeney <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Saturday, 3 May 2003 12:12:03 -0400
Subject:        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.

I've explained to them that until the mid- to late-nineteenth century
there was no such thing as a sexual orientation per se, especially
regarding ontology-there were only discrete (if not always discreet)
acts of same-sex desire, before and after which a man was the
patriarchal head of a household and an exemplary father by virtue of his
patriarchal status and his reproductive function. And so questions of
sexual identity regarding Shakespeare are anachronistic by definition.

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
Dawson College

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