William Shakespeare was unquestionably the most influential author and playwright of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Dramatized novels, poetry, and sonnets are among his most popular and inventive works. One hundred and fifty-four sonnets are credited to William Shakespeare. Between 1929 and 1959, there was an epidemic of the plague, which resulted in the partial closing of London theatres, effectively stopping the dramatization of plays in the theatres. This essay would examine hypotheses regarding Shakespeare’s friendship with a young man and the sexuality depicted in sonnets 1–126. A sonnet is a fourteen-line form of a lyrical poem with a specific rhyme scheme. Sonnets lyrical poetry boasts of the expression of an in depth feelings of the author or the persona. Sonnets contrast other poetic works in that Sonnets mainly tell a story or present a worded-artistic but clever view of a situation. Most sonnets composed during the time of Shakespeare were disposed to the theme of love or related to love and praise of the persona or author. During the period between 1529 and 1594, Shakespeare wrote a series of one hundred and twenty-six sonnets which immortalized a young man whom his identity is still yet unknown. The sonnet is in praise of the young man’s physical features, intellectual ability and propensities. However, a sonnet can also stand alone and be considered as a poem. Sonnets are mainly a writer’s opportunity to compose striking lines that would demonstrate the supremacy of ingenious word construct which will stand the test of time and remain memorable (Robert, 3).
Shakespeare did not title his sonnets but instead identified then in numerals. In the sonnets 1 to 126, the speaker takes an approach to which he praises an unidentified young man who is expressively described with superb physical and attractive qualities. There is also an expression of the speaker’s personal emotion towards the young man as the persona. In this context of expression, there is a clear notation of intent to make a noticeable gesture of adoration and admiration towards the young man by the speaker. It is a persistent description that wholly personifies the young man as an ‘object of obsession’ to which the certainty of the intentions for the expression is not clearly clarified. Instead if you consider the arrangement and the numbering of the entire sequel of the sonnet, the 1st sonnet to the 17th selectively devotes attention to the young man marrying and passing on his superior qualities for the future generations to enjoy these qualities when the young child becomes a man. However, in sonnet 18, the speaker expresses that the sonnet may be all that is necessary to immortalize the young man and his qualities (Robert, 13).
Generations of critics have attempted to define and describe the relationship of the speaker to the young man. Many theories speculate different forms of relationships between Shakespeare and the young man. The most vocal theory interprets that this sonnet was Shakespeare’s expression of homosexual love. The evidence of this theory is however circumstantial as there are no existing supporting proof of heterosexuality in Shakespeare’s life considering his marriage, his friends and his social life. The author of ‘The Friendly Shakespeare’ believes that Shakespeare articulates homosexual love in his sonnets. She has disapproved the resistance to acknowledge Shakespeare, as an icon of Western poetic civilization being openly profiled as gay (Hugh, 140). Teachers familiarise Shakespeare’s Sonnets as adoring love lyrics all the while getting around mentioning the fact they were written to a man. This allows for what is referred to as the “Renaissance cult of male friendship,” in which many of Shakespeare’s poems are quite passionate towards love which is further sketched to be homosexual love.
Despite the homosexual love theory, there is an act in one of Shakespeare’s plays ‘Troilus and Cressida–condemns’ where there is the only mention of homosexuality in Shakespeare’s works. According to reference of act V, scene I, there is an abhorrent condemning of homosexuality in very strong discourteous terms. The speaker in this play is Thersites, a Greek with a slanderous tongue. Here, he addresses Patroclus, who was the male paramour of Achilles (the greatest warrior in the Trojan War).
It is clear in the Shakespeare’s play-write that the speaker had an opinion about homosexuality in which he vehemently and gruesomely slandered the act of homosexuality with very horrid words in the play. The state of his sexuality can therefore be argued by his works if the centre of judgement about Shakespeare’s sexuality is measured from the sonnet about the young man. Shakespeare’s opinion is strong and definitely outweighs the theorem that the sonnet was an expression of homosexual love as the sonnet does not define the relationship with the young man. (David, 130)
In The Riverside Shakespeare writing by Hallet Smith, there is a firm rejection of the view that the Shakespeare’s sonnets express homosexual desire. An argument about the attitude of the poet toward a friend described as (a handsome young man) is purely of brotherly love, admiration and respect and, not sexual passion. The 20th sonnet clarifies the difference distinct between platonic love between men which was more habitually expressed in the 16th century than the more defined 20th centuries, thus optimises the existing definition of any kind of homosexual affection” (Hugh, 230).
G.B. Harrison as a Shakespeare scholar discerns that “It was a common belief in Shakespeare’s time that the love of a man for his friend, especially his ‘sworn brother’, was stronger and nobler than the love of man for woman”.(Hugh, 120). Supporting this are Shakespeare’s plays. They contain several passages that quote with dotting language an expression of heterosexual love to a fellow man which is strictly plutonic. From the play ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’ (Act I, Scene II, Line 1), Arcite is quoted addressing his male friend this way: “Dear Palamon, dearer in love than blood”. Likewise, In the play ‘Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ (Act III, Scene II, Line 348), Rosencrantz is quoted saying to Hamlet who is a man, “My Lord, you once did love me.” Hamlet replies, “So do I still…” This kind of love does in the time expressed by a man to a fellow man does not brand such emotional expressions as homosexual love between men. Times have otherwise changed considering such utterances of expressions existed with such emotional depths were used to merely hold meaning of a plutonic relationship between men rather than sexual. As such, critics of the 20thand 21st century seem to incline their understanding based on the evolved times where language has evolved to anchor a completely different understanding. (Hugh, 78)
In my personal view, the homosexual theory has been the most over-popularised as true. The time and effort that Shakespeare had to put for the majority of the sonnets in dedication to the young man could have been spent more productively addressing a more urgent societal problem like of the plague at the time. Shakespeare’s major concern stemming from the plague that swept through London was the closure of the theatres that led to the halting of his play writing. Shakespeare at the time channelled all his energy to a distraction from the norm where he may have taken to self-reflection upon himself and his life. Furthermore, the plague claimed so many lives and it is common sense that the uncertainty of Shakespeare at the time to fall victim of the plague was alive.
If a different perspective approach is considered that the young man as the persona in the sonnet was actually Shakespeare himself writing in the third person perspective, then, the mystery behind the unknown young man is solved. The speaker may be writing from a past experience that did not work as he hoped it would. Shakespeare is in conflict with the younger self and objectively expresses the desire for the young man to marry in his first sonnet. Prioritizing marriage in the first sonnets can be considered as Shakespeare’s main intent during his younger days where his greatest dilemma was to marry and pass on his qualities to the future generation. Considering the highlighted contexts, it can be ruled out that the homosexual theory depicts the sonnet as an expression of homosexual love to the young man. It was expression of love to his younger self. Immediately in the 18th sonnet, the speaker recognises that the only way to immortalise the young man (‘himself’) is through the sonnets. In reality, one can never turn back time and be young again so he immortalized himself through the sonnets.
The dark lady mentioned in the sonnet may have been the woman the speaker was in love with decisively by the way she is described. Regretfully the speaker describes the mistakes the young man (‘himself’) made in wooing the dark lady. The speaker further recognises a caution to the young man not to woe the dark lady because he has desire for the dark lady. It can be viewed as a clear contradiction of himself as a young man who cannot exist again as a young man but still is the same man who desires the dark lady and wishes to pass his disagreeable qualities as a young man and intellect as the man he was at the time. it can never be argued that the speaker, was very intellectual.
In conclusion, the theories put forward about Shakespeare expression of homosexual love are null and void. The theme of the sonnet was marriage and love that at the time period expressed by a fellow man to another was deep but commonly plutonic. The heterosexual and homosexual awareness at that time period was either clearly defined or not defined at all. In case the homosexual nature of a relationship was defined, it was vehemently condemned and punishable by death at time. Although assumptions have been made, there is strong case that the reality about Shakespeare’s personal life that he was not a homosexual.
Matz, Robert. The World of Shakespeare’s Sonnets: An Introduction. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co, 2008. Internet resource.
Ellis, David. The Truth About William Shakespeare: Fact, Fiction and Modern Biographies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012. Print.
Stevens, Hugh. The Cambridge Companion to Gay and Lesbian Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Internet resource.