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Monday, April 29, 2013

Shakespeare’s Sonnets (I)–The Real Shakespeare?

I have been immersed in Shakespeare for the last three years, and in that time I have read and re-read all the plays at least twice.  I have seen all the BBC archived film productions of the plays, and have seen as many live productions as possible.  I felt I was making some progress in understanding the playwright – his recurrent themes, his familiar characterizations of men and women, his worldview and perspective on history and human nature.

I, like most readers, was astounded at the range and depth of the author.  While there are similarities within the Histories, Comedies, and Tragedies, no play is alike; and each surprises with its particular ingenuity and inventiveness, characterization, and poetry.

I came to my own conclusions about the plays.  I was convinced that Shakespeare had no particular moral convictions and felt that history played itself out in endless, repeating cycles.  There were no surprises in the palace coups, the jockeying for favor, the duplicity, scurrility, and naked aggression all in the pursuit of power and the defiant preservation of it at all costs.  Human nature was at the root of this venality, materialism, and unholy desire to survive, extend, and prevail.

I was convinced that Shakespeare was no fan of love; and that marriage was never more than a contractual agreement made between powerful men and ambitious women.  I was equally persuaded that Shakespeare always favored the women who more often than not ran rings around the men.  Antony was no match for Cleopatra, nor Orlando for Rosalind or Benedick for Beatrice.  I felt, as many critics do, that after the conclusive, celebratory last scene of all the Comedies, divorce would soon follow.  There is no way, even after the happy hijinks, cross-dressing, lighthearted plots, and wicked deceptions, the couples can stay together.  After what Portia has to say about men, can she really settle for Bassanio? 

In some plays there is a glimmer of affection between the couples.  The Macbeths really do like each other, as do Julius Caesar and Calpurnia and Mark Antony and Portia.  Margaret, Hamlet’s mother apparently likes sex with her new husband, the usurping, murdering Claudius; and Pericles is very romantically attached to his wife Thaisa; but in only one is there true, unalloyed, uncomplicated, devoted love – Romeo and Juliet which, when looked at through the perspective of all 37 plays, must be an anomaly. 

In all the plays, despite their virtuosity – or perhaps because of it – the playwright is distant.  Shakespeare is reminding us of the folly and absurdity of love; the silliness of men and the canniness of women in their unequal struggle for equality; the murderous sexual jealousy of men and the parental jealous of both parents.  Duke Frederick in As You Like It cannot bear the thought that his niece, Rosalind, is preferred by all to his own daughter.  Dionyza plots to murder Marina, the daughter of Pericles for the same reason.  In all of these tours de force Shakespeare is the observer.  Life is simply this way, he tells us – an endless revolving circle of the same human foibles, weaknesses, and desires that have characterized us since our beginnings.  He shows no remorse for the death of the boy Arthur in King John or for the young princes in Richard III or Rutland in Henry VI.  They are casualties of war and the pursuit of power.

Men are jealous because of the right of succession, and jealousy was a normal and legitimate reaction to threat to it; and they are murderously so because of their innate insecurity, mistrust and misunderstanding of women.

In short, we see the turbulent course of history, human events, and relationships through the dispassionate eyes of the playwright; and we come away from the plays with greater insight into both history and human nature.  Shakespeare is a brilliant playwright, poet, philosopher, political philosopher, and psychologist; but what does he feel?  Where does he stand?

Critics have wondered why in an age where the Church was threatened by Martin Luther and Protestantism, Shakespeare took no sides.  No one can conclusively say that he was of one religion or the other.  He was certainly a monarchist and aristocrat.  His dismissal of the mob in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus attest to that; but he is also dismissive of the court and courtly life in As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale. He writes eloquently about the pastoral life, but seems to show an affinity for the powerful dramas of the palace.

All the love scenes between the men and women of the plays are mannered and theatrical.  They are either the overblown soliloquies of pining male lovers in love with love rather than the object of their affection; love at first site where men and women are smitten for no good reason; or devious tricks to playfully deceive lovers to determine their love and fidelity.  In no play do we sense a true love in the modern sense where a man loves a woman for what she is, desires her physically, is excited by her temperament, and stimulated by her mind.

A few weeks ago I began reading the Sonnets and was overwhelmed.  Gone was the dispassionate, disinterested observer of love and human engagement.  In its place was a passionate, emotional, desperate lover who longed for his love, despaired at his dereliction, and wanted only a fully consecrated and consummated relationship. All the stops were pulled out.  There was no more intellectual reserve or philosophical indifference. Here was a man in love, desperate for love, and as perplexed as any with the complexities and vicissitudes of emotional involvement.

Was this the real Shakespeare?  A man of passion, emotion, and all-consuming love?  Were all the playwright’s summations of the ordinariness and predictability of human actions meaningless?

I have entitled this blog Shakespeare’s Sonnets I because I have only read thirty-five of the one-hundred-fifty four; but there is enough in this fifth to make me want to reassess all that I have read before. 

Not only is Shakespeare writing about his love (very different from writing about love), but he is presenting new themes. For example, nowhere in his work does he so insistently talk of the importance of leaving offspring.  This reference is so insistent that the first 17 are called ‘The Procreation Sonnets’. Having offspring is not just a natural event; but an obligation and a duty to assure that beauty will always brighten the world.  He does not mention the children of the cretins and lowlifes that populate his plays.  While he might look favorably on the likes of Touchstone, the witty clown of As You Like It, procreating; but not the rabble of Julius Caesar, Coriolanus or the likes of John Cade (Henry VI).  Shakespeare wants beauty to be propagated.

Shakespeare’s love and his feelings about procreation come together in the much-debated Sonnet 20 where the poet expresses his love and longing for his male friend:

A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

Or, paraphrased: “You were created by Nature as a woman but more beautiful than any woman, for you do not have their faults. But Nature changed her mind as she made you, and turned you into a man, for she herself adored you, and, perhaps desiring congress, gave you male parts. Therefore I cannot love you with the fullness that I would love a woman. But let me have your real love, while women enjoy the physical manifestation of it, which I know to be merely a superficies'.” (www.shakespeares-sonnets.com).

Whether or not Shakespeare was admitting to or desirous of a homosexual relationship with his lover; or whether he was simply expressing his Platonic love for a man has never been decided. Most critics hedge their bets, and suggest that he wishes the young man could have been born a woman so that he could fully consummate his love; but is content in knowing that a more profound, almost spiritual love is possible.  Nowhere in the Sonnet does the poet suggest that he wants the youth as a male lover. 

Whether Shakespeare had a homosexual longing for the youth, a homoerotic one, or simply a profound and asexual love is an a way beside the point.  The poet – Shakespeare – had a deep, transformative love for the young man of the Sonnets, regardless of its character;and this love goes counter to what is the playwright’s conception of love in his 37 plays.

It is hard not to look back at the plays and see them in the context of the sexual complexity of Sonnet 20.  Should we say, after reading it, “Ah….So that was what all the cross-dressing and gender-bending was all about”? Perhaps, because Sonnet 20 is never explicit and always subtle.  What does the line Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion, for example, mean? Some critics have suggested that the youth is figuratively a hermaphrodite – he is both male and female; and many of the lines of the poem state clearly that the poet loves the youth for his maleness (not fickle, changeable, and flighty) and for his sensitive, female side. Others have said that the term only refers to the many-sided aspect of the youth and the poet’s relationship to him:

The phrase “the master mistress” – was probably intended to be enigmatic, implying that the young man evokes the adoration and devotion which would be due to a mistress, but that he is also masterly in controlling his devotees. It could conceivably suggest that the young man was an androgynous type, having the sexual characteristics of male and female. Some therefore interpret it as meaning 'you, the object of my homosexual desire'. However the word passion does not usually in Shakespeare have the meaning of sexual desire or infatuation. Its more frequent use is that derived from Christ's passion on the cross, and it means suffering, or affliction. It can also mean mental derangement, or an attack of frenzy as a result of such. It was also used at the time to describe a heartfelt speech, and could be extended to cover the production of a series of sonnets, such as these. One could therefore paraphrase it as 'You, whose face was created by nature herself, inspire in me these deeply felt verses. You master my soul, but you also make me adore you as I would a mistress'.

Whatever interpretation one might choose, it is legitimate to return to the plays for another look, for there is too much sexual role-reversal to be incidental or simply humorous.  In Twelfth Night the Duke is clearly enamored of the boy Viola plays.  The love scenes between Rosalind disguised as a boy and Orlando in As You Like It are very sexually dubious.  They are playing a game – Rosalind wants to both chide Orlando and hear his expressions of love – but it turns serious. Everyone in the play, it seems, is in love with someone of the same sex. .

ROSALIND
I care not if I have: it is my study
To seem despiteful and ungentle to you:
You are there followed by a faithful shepherd;
Look upon him, love him; he worships you.

PHEBE
Good shepherd, tell this youth what 'tis to love.

SILVIUS
It is to be all made of sighs and tears;
And so am I for Phebe.


PHEBE
And I for Ganymede.

ORLANDO
And I for Rosalind.

ROSALIND
And I for no woman.

SILVIUS
It is to be all made of faith and service;
And so am I for Phebe.

PHEBE
And I for Ganymede.

ORLANDO
And I for Rosalind.

ROSALIND
And I for no woman.

SILVIUS
It is to be all made of fantasy,
All made of passion and all made of wishes,
All adoration, duty, and observance,
All humbleness, all patience and impatience,
All purity, all trial, all observance;
And so am I for Phebe.

PHEBE
And so am I for Ganymede.

ORLANDO

And so am I for Rosalind.


ROSALIND
And so am I for no woman.

The female characters in Shakespeare are often the most memorable and clearly drawn – Margaret, Constance, Lady Macbeth, Goneril and Regan, Dionyza, Tamora, Volumnia, Beatrice, Rosalind, Cleopatra, are just a few. Did Shakespeare understand women because he identified with them?  Perhaps, but Tennessee Williams a a proud and affirming gay man said he was insulted when critics suggested this.  I am a perceptive artist, he contended.  My job is to understand both men and women and how they interact and relate.  To assume that I have an inside track on women does a disservice to my art and my intelligence.

Edward Albee is also gay, and there is no reason to try  to understand Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) in any other way than as a brilliant, ambitious, hungry, desperate, combative, and needy person.

In any case, I am excited by the Sonnets.  They are complex – even more so than the plays because all is compressed within 14 lines – and filled with historical, classical, and Biblical references.  The metaphors are never contrived but often nearly indecipherable; but when solved, even more rewarding.  Shakespeare wrote them from 1593-1609 the period during which he did the bulk of his playwriting.  He neither wrote them before his mature period when he was exploring gender roles, nor after his playwriting was over.  That is, what is written was neither early speculation or a final reconsideration of his convictions.  The Sonnets are Shakespeare as much as his plays; and because they are so intimate, personal, and passionate, perhaps they reflect the real playwright.

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