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Was Shakespeare Gay?

All the Sonnets of Shakespeare

Edited by Paul Edmondson & Stanley Wells (Cambridge: 2020)

Shakespeare’s sonnets have long been taken as evidence that the poet was gay, or at least that he liked men. That some of them are admiring poems addressed to men is beyond question; we recently printed six of them. But readers’ ability to appreciate the poems as an œuvre has long been hindered by our reliance on the 1609 edition of Shake-speares Sonnets: Never before Imprinted, which does not include all of the poet’s work in sonnet form and which obscures the order in which the poems were written.

Now Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, noted scholars with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, have edited a new edition of All the Sonnets of Shakespeare that sets out to remedy these defects. This edition includes the 1609 corpus, plus poems in sonnet form from Shakespeare’s plays and a handful included in a 1599 multi-author collection titled The Passionate Pilgrim. Poems are ordered chronologically, as best as the authors could determine. There is also a helpful introduction, which includes a table of the “direction” of each sonnet (“addressed to a male,” “addressed to a female,” ambiguous, etc.). Each sonnet is accompanied by explanatory footnotes, and an appendix contains prose paraphrases in modern English. Taken together, this apparatus makes it much easier for the nonspecialist to appreciate Shakespeare’s language.

To take an example, sonnet #54 from the 1609 edition compares a “beauteous and lovely youth” to a scented rose:

O! how much more doth beauty beauteous seem
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give.
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour, which doth in it live.
The canker blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses.
Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly
When summer’s breath their masked buds discloses:
But, for their virtue only is their show,
They live unwoo’d, and unrespected fade;
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so;
Of their sweet deaths, are sweetest odours made:
    And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
    When that shall fade, by verse distills your truth.

Edmondson and Wells summarize this poem: “Your faithfulness makes you like a scented rose and, when your beauty fades, my poetry, like perfume, distils your true essence.” Key to understanding this poem is the phrase “canker blooms,” helpfully glossed as “dog roses (unscented).” Thanks to his fidelity (“truth”), the “beauteous and lovely youth” will live on after death in the poet’s verse, just as a scented rose lives on in perfume (“odour”). The only virtue of an unscented rose, by contrast, is its “show,” so it does not survive death.

In the introduction, Edmondson and Wells reflect on the famous dedication to the 1609 edition: “To the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets, Mr. W.H… [signed] T.T.” Much ink has been spilled trying to identify W.H. and determine whether he was the male addressee of the sonnets—whether he was, in essence, Shakespeare’s boyfriend. Thankfully, Edmondson and Wells have chosen not to add to this literature. They do, however, observe that it is “curious that the printer’s initials, ‘T.T.’ (Thomas Thorpe), rather than those of the author, should appear below the dedication” and speculate that W.H. may be been the person who procured the (possibly unauthorized) manuscript for Thorpe. Furthermore, not all the men addressed in the sonnets are necessarily the same man; so even if the dedication was written by Shakespeare, W.H. wasn’t necessarily the object of the affection described in the poems.

The table of directions confirms that Shakespeare addressed some sonnets to males (fourteen of them) and others to females (seven); a much larger number are ambiguously addressed. Building on Marjorie Garber’s 1995 work Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life, the authors assert that the sonnets are “the seminal bisexual text of literature in English.” But the idea of bisexuality is anachronistic for Shakespeare’s time: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term didn’t enter the English langauge until the mid-nineteenth century, when it meant hermaphroditic; the first use in the modern sense dates from 1892.

Edmondson and Wells capture the sonnets’ essense better when they write, “Presented alongside Shakespeare’s dramatic sonnets from the plays, the gender, sex, and indeed sexuality of the poetic voice in Shakespeare’s Sonnets seems to become much more open, playful, unstable”—like the nature of sexuality itself, and of the rest of Shakespeare’s work. All in all, an indispensable edition of the sonnets, which will help gay and straight readers better understand and appreciate what they are reading.

Text of sonnet #54 is from the 1883 edition of the sonnets, edited by Samual Rolfe · Illustration: John Faed, “Shakespeare and His Friends,” 1859-1860 (Library of Congress)

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