"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Sexual Identity–Shakespeare, Sonnet 20, And The Gender Complexity Of Today

The Fifties were an uncomplicated time compared to today, one without sexual puzzles or conundrums.  Girls wore long hair, dresses, and jewelry; and boys roughhoused, got into fights, and disrupted the classroom.  There was never any confusion.  No questions over gender identity, sexual orientation, or sexual preference.

Fifties girl_thumb

God created us all, Father Brophy intoned from the pulpit on Sundays, and there was no questioning His reason.  Father Brophy made allusions to ‘otherness’, but he was far too indirect and subtle to make his point to a very traditional adult audience and to restless, pre-sexual children. Father Mullins on the other hand was a lot more straightforward.  Men and women were put on this earth to procreate, he said, and there were no ifs, ands, or buts about it. His favorite sermon always began with, “Go forth, God said.  Be fruitful and multiply”.

Image result for images bible be fruitful and multiply

In this small, post-war New England town, most people took Father Mullins to heart. The more educated, professional families were more temperate in their reproduction than the Polish families on Broad Street, but still had at least two children and usually three.  There were few outliers – older single women and bachelors – but in the main, families did what God had commanded.

While no one came from particularly religious families, few needed Father Mullins for instruction. One  could simply observe God’s law. Males and females of all species seemed to be put on earth for one purpose and one purpose only – reproduction.  In one science class in the local high school, Mr. Williams brought in two frogs and placed them on a mossy surface on his desk.  One frog hopped on the back of the other, made a few twitching motions, and hopped off.  “God’s law”, declared Mr. Williams.

Frogs copulating_thumb

Shakespeare’s first 17 sonnets are called ‘The Procreation Sonnets’ for good reason.  He believed that not only was sexual reproduction the essential feature of God’s plan, but that procreation was a duty, particularly for the beautiful, attractive, and superior. 
FROM fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed'st thy light'st flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee. (Sonnet 1)
In the famous Sonnet 20, the poet tries to justify his love for a man who was originally made a woman, but Nature changed her mind so that she – Nature – could love the man she created and gave him male features.
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.
In other words, Shakespeare, while fully appreciating the complexities of sexuality, never denied the biological imperative of creation.  Men and women’s principal role was to reproduce; and if it took some iambic pentameter gymnastics to justify sexual complexity with natural increase, so be it.

My friends and I who grew up in the sexually simpler and more innocent age of the Fifties identify with Shakespeare because of his priorities.  He understood that God’s purpose for creating two sexes was to assure procreation and the survival of the species; and that procreation is a human imperative and duty; but based on his own personal infatuation with a young man, he could appreciate that there were many twists and turns in the world of the Divine.  Classical male-female attraction would always be the rule, and procreation would always have primacy in the human order, but sexual variation was as much a part of God’s plan as the norm.

Julia Baird wrote in the New York Times (4.7.14) about what she called ‘sexual sorting’.  She noted that Australia’s High Court finally caught up with the times and recognized that no one should be forced to check M or F on official documents:
Australia’s highest court found that the 1995 Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act (New South Wales) recognized that a person’s sex might be ambiguous and “does not require that people who, having undergone a sex affirmation procedure, remain of indeterminate sex — that is, neither male nor female — must be registered, inaccurately, as one or the other. The Act itself recognizes that a person may be other than male or female and therefore may be taken to permit the registration sought, as ‘nonspecific.’ ”
This is rather tame compared to Facebook’s coming to grips with a changing social environment.  The company now includes over 50 different self-descriptive categories which beyond male, female, bisexual, and transgender but are still quite conservative (binary and two-spirit). Less tame are the street categories of sexual difference noted by Dana Beyer of Huffpost Gay Voices – sandwich, otter, diesel dyke, stone butch, lipstick hasbian, drag king, and gayelle are just a few.

Today the New York Times, Atlantic, New  Republic, and the Guardian as well as most regional and local papers report on  sexual diversity and LGBT issues; yet few journalists discuss gender within the sophisticated and complex perspective of Shakespeare.  The poet sorted out his own sexuality by fitting his unusual passion within the context of male-female reproduction.  His conjured a complex but rational justification of the apparent twist in God’s law and his own place within it.  Gay marriage in Shakespeare’s day was at best a strange aberration and at worst an anathema and a perversion; yet the poet willingly admitted homoerotic feelings for his ‘Fair Youth’ but never once denied the primacy of heterosexuality.
Image result for images shakespeare sonnets fair youth
        Henry Wriotheseley www.en.wikipedia.org

While Mr. Williams in his lectures on animal behavior averred that on occasion male frogs jump on each other, he noted that they quickly hop off to copulate with a female. In the animal kingdom, he said, ‘unisexual behavior’ (a delicately expressive word, but for the Fifties, Mr. Williams was still way ahead of his time) was not uncommon; but it existed in a procreative world.  Unisexual behavior, he went on, should always be looked at within the context of heterosexual behavior. One should not demand singularity and distinction for what in statistical terms is anomalous behavior. 

The homoerotic poet in Shakespeare’s Sonnets waved no sexual flags, nor demanded identity, respect, and recognition.  Shakespeare understood sexual complexity more profoundly than any social critic today.  He treated the theme in a lighthearted way in his cross-dressing Comedies, got serious about ‘unisexual’ love in the Sonnets, but chose to live conventionally within the dynamics of a straight, reproducing, procreating, heir-producing society.

The battles of kings and princes for supremacy, the vicious ploys and manipulations of queens and courtesans for position and power, the ineluctable power of a very self-interested human nature were the subjects of his Histories and Tragedies.  His was a mature observation of the complex world of human behavior, and sexuality was only one small part.

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