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‘If everyone is queer, then no one is – and while this is exactly the point queer theorists want to make, reducing the term’s pejorative sting by universalizing the meaning of queer also depletes its explanatory power’ (Marcus, 196). Critically evaluate the use of the terms ‘queer’ or ‘queerness’ in literary study with reference to at least one literary text.
Queer, by definition, “is an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities who are not heterosexual or cisgender. Originally meaning “strange” or “peculiar”, queer came to be used pejoratively against those with same-sex desires or relationships in the late 19th century.” (“Queer”)
Shakespeare, in his lifetime, wrote and published 154 sonnets. Although Shakespeare’s many sonnets can be divided into many groups, the main way is to separate them into Sonnets 1-126, which are interpreted to be written about a relationship with a younger man, and Sonnets 127-154 which seem to be about a relationship with a woman, often referred to as his mistress. Over his Sonnets Shakespeare explores all forms of human emotion, they go from flirtatious, romantic and passionate to cynical, bitter and melancholic. In this essay I will look more closely at the queer reading within Sonnets 1-126, as they seem to be about a male to male relationship. In Sonnets 1-17, often referred to as ‘procreation sonnets’, it is suggested that “the Young Man” is involved in many one-sided relationships, we never see him loving anyone, “gainst time’s sieth can make defence” (Sonnet 12) but he is always “beloved of many” (Sonnet 10). In Sonnet 18, arguably Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet, there is a change in which the narrator moves from admiring his addressee to being in love with him. The narrator believes his subject worthy of immortalising in the “eternal lines” (Sonnet 18) of his sonnets, proclaiming famously that “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee” (Sonnet 18). Sonnet 19-126 then follow along with this relationship, their ups and downs, they follow their every move. The narrator’s preference for the “young man” over the “dark lady” is made more visible in Sonnet 20:
A womans face with natures owne hand painted,
Haste thou the Master Mistris of my passion,
A womans gentle hart but not acquainted
With shifting change as is false womens fashion. (Sonnet 20)
The narrator, in this instance, is applying the more obvious forms of beauty, which are more often seen in women, to this “young man”. This “Master Mistris” (Sonnet 20) would have most likely been one of the many younger ‘boy’ actors that were part of Shakespeare’s company, meaning he would have possessed the gentle beauty of many young women. This “young man” possesses many of the beauties of a woman but not the ego and personality that a woman would, describing “An eye more bright than theirs, lesse false in rowling” (Sonnet 20). We begin to see just how complex the speaker’s sexuality really is, referring to “the master mistris of my passion” (Sonnet 20), he speaks of “a woman’s gentle hart” (Sonnet 20) and “a man in hue” (Sonnet 20), seemingly speaking of an effeminate man, most likely a younger man, this young man is shown to attract and be attracted to both men and women, “which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth” (Sonnet 20). This contrasts with the final sonnet addressed to the young man, the most tender and gentle of sonnets, written to “my lovely Boy” (Sonnet 126). This sonnet is comprised of six rhyming couplets, typically indicative of love, but missing it’s final two lines which seems to suggest that their love story is unfinished. Their legendary romantic entanglement has been eternalised in Shakespeare’s own words, through 126 Sonnets, but as all good things, this too must end.
Shakespeare’s homoerotic sonnets were problematic during the strict Elizabethan era. Displays of male affection were common but there was a deeply blurred line as to whether this affection was from a very close friendship or that of a ‘queer’ nature. To add to the displeasure from the masses, there were harsh religious constraints regarding gay relationships. From 1533 “An Acte for the punysshement of the vice of Buggerie” (LGBT Archive) was put in place, stating that sodomy and homosexuality leads to the punishment of hanging. This changed the tone of all published literature around this time, suggesting exactly why Shakespeare was often coy with his wording and rarely stated in obvious terms that his sonnets were about a male to male relationship, juxtaposed by the apparent over sharing in the sonnets transpiring events with the “dark lady”.
In many more modern republishing’s of these sonnets “thee” has been assumed to mean “she”, changing the meaning and removing the often-problematic homosexual relationship. To deliberately mis-gender the receiver of these first section of sonnets is to turn a blind eye to anything ‘queer’ and ‘other’. The choice made by well renowned writers seemingly boxes Shakespeare into the structured role of a strong and dominant male, a model of the best that England has to offer. These republishing’s blatantly ignore the wave of homosexuality that was frequently seen within the theatre environment of the time, which was to be expected in such a close community, with many of the groups males dressing as the female characters in plays.
Many of Shakespeare’s sexually explicit sonnets, all of which are written about relations with a woman and are in the second section of his sonnets, have a strong sense of tension and psychological strain in the male narrator, forcing him to confront his assumed heterosexuality but he is clearly uncomfortable with his situation. An obvious example of this is Sonnet 147:
My love is as a fever, longing still,
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
Th’uncertain sicklie appetite to please. (Sonnet 147)
None of the first 126 Sonnets are as sexually explicit as that seen in the “dark lady” sonnets, instead they are more romantic and celebratory of their love. They express an intense love with no limits, they capture the essence of how a human truly loves, with no boundaries. In Sonnet 52 the narrator uses phallic imagery to highlight this sexual desire:
So am I as the rich whose blessed key,
Can bring him to his sweet up-locked treasure,
The which he will not ev’ry hower survay,
For blunting the fine point of seldome pleasure. (Sonnet 52)
The metaphor if the key and lock is the most obvious of imagery, this concept would have been seen as outrageously extreme in Elizabethan England. The concept of a man writing such forward things to another man would have been overtly shocking and lead to many people ignoring the recipient and just assuming this to be a heterosexual relationship as was the ‘norm’. This sonnet solidifies that these transactions are definitely transpiring between two men, it could no longer be argued that this could just be a ‘hetero-social friendship’.
Shakespeare’s male dominated sonnets are most closely viewed in contemporary literature through Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Mr. W.H. This is one of the first pieces of literature that openly explores gay themes, a coming-out story of a sorts. This story follows a protagonist coming to terms with his sexuality with the help of Shakespeare’s sonnets, giving a very contemporary reading to these classic texts. The idea that the queer language within these texts can be used to help this character to understand such a large aspect of his life has given further appreciation to the writing and the subject matter.
The related theme within these sonnets related directly to the “young man”, the narrator expresses his desire of admiring the man’s beauty, and that he wishes the man to sire a male heir, perhaps so he may pass on his beauty to future generations. This is clearly stated in Sonnet 3:
Looke in thy glasse and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should forme an other;
Whose fresh repaire if now thou not renewest,
Thou doo’st beguile the world, unblesse some mother. (Sonnet 3)
The way in which the narrator wishes to capture the “young man’s” beauty by having a child contrasts with the narrators idea’s that the “young man’s” beauty is being wasted as time goes on. The internal conflict can be seen within these sonnets in the way that the narrator explores conventional beauty and compares that which he sees in the “young man” and the “dark lady”. The poet personifies the notions of time and love in his sonnets, with negative and positive connotations. The concept of time is connected to the “young man”, through a parallel to beauty, there is an anxiety in the “young man’s” fading beauty that time will soon decay. Natural imagery is often used to mirror the “young man’s” beauty as nature too is only beautiful for a short period before time takes its toll, “Now is the time that face should forme an other” (Sonnet 3). Natural imagery is used in the form of beauty in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:
Shall I compare thee to a summer‟s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer‟s lease have too short a date. (Sonnet 18)
Our poet describes the “young man” and his beauty as if he were a part of nature, the narrator portrays his fear of the idea of the “young man’s” beauty may be fading over time. As the summer fades into autumn the “young man’s” beauty seems to fade with it, “and often is his gold complexion dimm’d” (Sonnet 18). Shakespeare satirizes beauty in a seemingly romantic poem, in a way that firstly complements the “young man” and then also belittles a woman’s desires, suggesting that she may only desire if it will lead to her mothering a child.
Natural imagery is also used in Sonnet 130, however this time it is used to contrast with something less beautiful, “My mistres eyes are nothing like the Sunne” (Sonnet 130). This natural concept is in juxtaposition to the “dark lady’s” appearance, on the contrary the “young man” is firmly validated as beautiful because of nature. Similarly, the “dark lady” has a colourless and dull face, “I have seene Roses damaskt, red and white,/But no such Roses see I in her cheekes” (Sonnet 130), which contrasts with the “young man’s” “gold complexion” (Sonnet 18); the narrator’s plain imagery shows their little desire for women compared to the joy they feel when looking at the “young man”. The monochrome imagery of snow and the woman herself diminishes her potentially bright and vibrant life and replaces it with dull and boring colours, highly insinuating that the narrator really has no desire, passion or love for the “dark lady”. To end Sonnet 130 the narrator seems to reconcile with “And yet by heaven I thinke my love as rare,/As any she beli’d with false compare” (Sonnet 130), however this could easily be interpreted with ‘queer theory’ as the narrator actually returning to admire the “young man”, not the “dark lady”.
In Shakespeare’s collection of Sonnets there is an exploration of passion and desire that unveil a homosexual relationship between the poet and the “young man”. Through examining these sonnets and the on running subject of homoeroticism there is a clear anchor to ‘queer theory’. Within the sonnets I found validation of this relationship that is often refuted as simply being a ‘close friendship’, this validation is most obvious when contrasted with the “dark lady” and the narrators comparison of the two subjects. The poet clearly holds the “young man” in a much higher and virtuous position than the “dark lady”, he uses the woman’s negatives to prove the man’s positives, consistently connecting notions of beauty with time and nature, the “dark lady’s” lacking of beauty is juxtaposed with the “young man’s” youth. The controversy that surrounds these Sonnets focuses on the argument of whether this is a ‘hetero-social friendship’ or homosexual relationship, the recent breakthrough of ‘queer theory’ has strongly validated these Sonnets.
- “Queer”. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queer. Accessed 6 January 2019.
- Shakespeare, William. Sonnets, http://triggs.djvu.org/djvu-editions.com/SHAKESPEARE/SONNETS/Download.pdf
- “Timeline of UK LGBT Legislation”. LGBT Archive, http://lgbthistoryuk.org/wiki/Timeline_of_UK_LGBT_Legislation. Accessed 6 January 2019.
- Wilde, Oscar. The Portrait of Mr. W. H. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wilde/oscar/portrait-of-mr-w-h/
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