Exploring Shakespeare’s Portrayal of Sexuality in his Sonnets
The term “sexuality” and its sub-terms “homo” and “heterosexuality” belong to the language of the 19th century (Knowles 675) Michel Foucault argues that this was the time when a sexual selfhood was first created, based on the distinction between “a category of forbidden acts” named “sodomy” and the personage of the homosexual with “a past, a ca history (…) a morphology (…) and possibly a mysterious physiology”: “The sodomite [of ancient codes] had been a temporary aberration; the [19th-century] homosexual was now a species” (43). Indeed, some critics think that “the institution of sexual difference as ‘identities’ creates the modern subject” (Knowles 675).
Shakespeare’s sonnets are a treasure trove of poetic expressions that delve into the complexities of human emotions, including desire, love, and sexuality. In this article, we will examine how Shakespeare approached the concept of sexuality in his sonnets, shedding light on the prevailing attitudes and societal norms of his time. By delving into the linguistic nuances and interpretative possibilities, we can gain a deeper understanding of the themes and messages conveyed by the Bard in his exploration of sexuality.
The Evolving Language of Sexuality:
The term “sexuality” and its associated sub-terms, such as “homo” and “heterosexuality,” were not commonly used in Shakespeare’s era. As James Knowles highlights, these terms belong to the language of the 19th century (Knowles 675). However, Michel Foucault argues that during the 19th century, a distinct notion of sexual identity began to emerge, marked by the categorization of certain acts as “sodomy” and the identification of individuals as “homosexuals” with their own histories, characteristics, and possibly unique physiological traits (Foucault 43).
Challenging Sexual Boundaries in the Early Modern Period:
In the early modern period, the analysis and discourse surrounding male sexual behavior were not as developed as they are today (Knowles 682). Homosocial bonds were prevalent in society, and close friendships between men were often intimate and affectionate without being considered indecent (Knowles 680). Male sexuality was expressed across a broader spectrum of sensualities, blurring the boundaries between what we would now label as “gayness” and “heterosexuality” (Simons 1997). Shakespeare’s sonnets reflect this fluidity and encompass a range of emotional connections between men that transcend traditional notions of friendship.
Exploring Ambiguity and Homosexuality in Sonnet 20:
Sonnet 20 stands out as a prime example of the ambiguity surrounding Shakespeare’s portrayal of sexuality. In this sonnet, the speaker expresses a deep affection for a young man, blurring the lines between friendship and desire. The use of language in the sonnet introduces a bawdy ambiguity, suggesting the potential for a sexual dimension in the relationship. For instance, the word “prick” carries a dual meaning of both “select” and “penis” (Edmondson/Wells 75). The concluding lines, “Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure,” can be interpreted in various ways, including a homosexual reading that emphasizes the poet’s claim to the young man’s love and intimacy (Pointer 108).
The Heterosexual Argument in the Procreation Sonnets:
The sequence of procreation sonnets, numbers 1 to 17, seems to support a more heterosexual interpretation. These sonnets highlight the poet’s desire for the young man to engage in sexual relationships with women for the purpose of procreation. The language used in these sonnets emphasizes the importance of continuing one’s lineage and preserving one’s name through offspring. However, it is crucial to note that the poet’s infatuation with women in the sonnets dedicated to the dark lady portrays a more complex and often melancholic picture of heterosexual relationships (Fineman 54).
The Complexity of Shakespeare’s Portrayal:
In examining Shakespeare’s sonnets, it becomes clear that while traces of homosexual relationships can be discerned, they do not necessarily need to be interpreted as fully-fledged homoerotic affairs (Klein 22). It is also essential to differentiate between Shakespeare as the author and the speaker within the sonnets. Shakespeare’s exploration of sexuality through his poetic works does not necessarily imply his personal sexual orientation. Instead, the sonnets depict a strong emotional bond between the speaker and the young man, emphasizing their profound connection (sonnet 26, 1/13).
The Emotional Landscape and Authenticity:
Throughout the sonnets, the speaker’s emotions fluctuate between moments of illusion and disillusionment. The profound affection for the young man leads to expressions of love and lamentation, which reflect the molding of emotional and, perhaps, sexual consciousness. The speaker grapples with experiences that defy clear interpretation, resulting in an authentic self characterized by confusion and introspection. The exploration of the self and the understanding of the ever-changing nature of human experiences align with Aristotle’s concept of phronesis, where particular cases and predicaments defy categorization (Taylor 125).
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Sexuality, as depicted by Shakespeare in his sonnets, is a subject that requires careful interpretation and analysis. The language and societal norms of Shakespeare’s time present unique challenges in understanding his exploration of sexuality. While the term “sexuality” and its associated categories did not exist in the same way as they do today, Shakespeare’s sonnets provide insights into the complexities of human desire, attraction, and relationships.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of sexuality in his sonnets goes beyond traditional binary notions of homo- and heterosexuality. The prevailing attitudes towards male-male relationships in the early modern period were different from contemporary perspectives. Homosocial bonds between men were highly valued and celebrated, allowing for emotional closeness and intimacy without necessarily being considered sexual (Knowles 680). This fluidity is reflected in Shakespeare’s language and imagery, where expressions of love and desire between men blur the lines between friendship and romantic affection.
Sonnet 20 serves as an example of the intricate layers of interpretation when it comes to Shakespeare’s treatment of sexuality. The sonnet addresses a young man and highlights the speaker’s deep admiration and affection. The use of ambiguous language and double entendre adds to the complexity. For instance, the word “prick” can be understood both as “select” and as a reference to the male genitalia (Edmondson/Wells 75). This wordplay hints at the potential for a homoerotic dimension within the relationship.
It is important to note that Shakespeare’s sonnets encompass a range of emotions and relationships. The procreation sonnets, in particular, emphasize the poet’s desire for the young man to engage in heterosexual relationships for the purpose of procreation (Fineman 54). However, these sonnets do not necessarily negate the possibility of a deeper emotional bond between the speaker and the young man. The exploration of relationships with women in the sonnets dedicated to the dark lady portrays a more complex and often troubled view of heterosexual love.
The complexity of Shakespeare’s portrayal of sexuality lies in the interplay between societal expectations, emotional connections, and the fluidity of desire. It is important to approach the sonnets with an understanding of the historical context and the nuances of Elizabethan language. Shakespeare’s exploration of sexuality challenges rigid categorizations and invites readers to question and examine their own assumptions.
Shakespeare’s sonnets provide a glimpse into the complex and multifaceted nature of human sexuality. While the language and understanding of sexuality in Shakespeare’s time differ from our contemporary notions, his exploration of desire, love, and relationships remains relevant. The sonnets challenge societal norms, blur the boundaries between friendships and desires, and offer a rich tapestry of emotions that resonate with readers across time. By examining the nuances and possibilities within the sonnets, we can appreciate Shakespeare’s insightful portrayal of sexuality and its profound impact on human connections and self-discovery.