Shakespeare’s Sonnets of Love

Shakespeare’s sonnets speak eloquently of his loves—masculine, feminine, and ambiguous

That William Shakespeare (1564–1616) wrote passionate love poetry to men as well as women has long been known. Although he was married to Anne Hathaway and had three children, few other details about his personal life are known, and some have speculated that he was in fact gay.

In a forthcoming edition of his sonnets, two English scholars make the perhaps unsurprising argument that he was bisexual. “It’s become fashionable since the mid-1980s to think of Shakespeare as gay,” Paul Edmondson told The Telegraph. “To reclaim the term bisexual seems to be quite an original thing to be doing.”

All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells of Birmingham University and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, will be published by Cambridge University Press in the U.S. on September 30th. We will post a review of the book when it is available. In the meantime, here are six sonnets that speak of Shakespeare’s loves—masculine, feminine, and ambiguous:

20. The Master-Mistress

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.

42.

That thou hast her it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I loved her dearly;
That she hath thee is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.
Loving offenders thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her, because thou know’st I love her;
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me,
Suffering my friend for my sake to approve her.
If I lose thee, my loss is my love’s gain,
And losing her, my friend hath found that loss;
Both find each other, and I lose both twain,
And both for my sake lay on me this cross:
  But here’s the joy; my friend and I are one;
  Sweet flattery! then she loves but me alone.

53.

What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one, hath every one, one shade,
And you, but one, can every shadow lend.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen’s cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new:
Speak of the spring, and foison of the year,
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear;
And you in every blessed shape we know.
  In all external grace you have some part,
  But you like none, none you, for constant heart.

In Greek mythology, Adonis was the most beautiful man in the world, a favorite of Aphrodite. Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world, whose abduction or elopement to Troy started the Trojan War, forming the background for Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles.

106.

When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rime,
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,
Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have express’d
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring;
And for they looked but with divining eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing:
  For we, which now behold these present days,
  Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.

116.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixèd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
  If this be error and upon me proved,
  I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

144. The Two Loves

Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil,
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turn’d fiend,
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell:
  Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt,
  Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells (ed’s): All the Sonnets of Shakespeare (Cambridge University Press, 2020) · Texts presented here are from the 1883 edition of the sonnets, edited by Samual Rolfe · Illustration cropped from portrait of Shakespeare by Dante Gabriele Rossetti, ca. 1865, Folger Shakespeare Library/CC BY-SA 4.0

1 thought on “Shakespeare’s Sonnets of Love”

  1. It seems as though in the instances where Shakespeare refers to a closeness to men he is describing his feelings as a heterosexual who in one case is attracted to a man the same way Cary Grant was viewed – as a man’s man. It’s an expression of admiration. In the instance where the man loses his wife in his best friend he describes the man not as a lover but as someone who is so much like him that his wife is still in love with him although she doesn’t realize it.

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