The London Review of Books, 24:15 (8 August 2002)
Glossing over it: homoeroticism in Shakespeare’s sonnets
Shakespeare’s lyrical poetry has long been considered marginal to his plays -- is it because he addressed his poems to a man? In the latest exclusive online essay from the London Review of Books, Stephen Orgel examines how scholars over the centuries have dealt with Shakespeare’s erotic sonnets.
Complete Sonnets and Poems by William Shakespeare, edited by Colin Burrow. Oxford, 750 pp., £65, 14 February, 0 19 818431 x
In his own time, Shakespeare was much better known to the reading public as a poet than as a playwright. Venus and Adonis went through 10 editions before his death in 1616, and another six before 1640. His other long narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece, was less popular, but it, too, circulated far more widely than any of the plays, appearing in six editions during his life, and in two more by 1640. The most popular of the plays were Richard III and Richard II, each of which went through five editions before 1616. Romeo and Juliet went through four; Hamlet appeared in three.
For readers since the 18th century, the narrative poems have been at best marginal to the Shakespeare canon. The sonnets, on the other hand, which were the least known of his non-dramatic poems until the end of the 18th century, had by the 20th century become essential to the construction of the canonical Shakespeare. This transformation, to be sure, involved a good deal of revision, emendation, and especially elucidation, for which the 18th-century editor Edmond Malone, who did more to define what we mean by ‘Shakespeare’ than anyone since the editors of the First Folio, is chiefly responsible. Malone’s versions of the most problematic of these poems vary significantly from the original texts, but they have essentially replaced them.
Since the publication of the First Folio in 1623, the canonical Shakespeare has been Shakespeare the playwright; which makes one wonder how Shakespeare would appear to us had his poems been included in the Folio -- had the Folio been a volume of Complete Works, rather than Complete Plays. We are always told that the model for the First Folio was the first folio of Ben Jonson’s Works, published in 1616. But this is, in a crucial way, incorrect: Jonson’s folio comprised not only plays but poems, masques, entertainments and a good deal of prose commentary. Indeed, it was his epigrams that Jonson designated "the ripest of my studies", and he endured a certain amount of scorn for presuming to include the plays at all, for claiming the status of Works for scripts from the popular theatre. The Shakespeare Folio is evidence enough that by 1623 Jonson had made his point, and in that sense Jonson’s Works were indeed an enabling precedent. Still, Jonson is for literary history as much a poet as a playwright, and his involvement in the world of aristocratic patronage and connoisseurship, amply revealed in his poems and masques, is an essential element in our sense of his career. Had Shakespeare’s poems been, from the outset, part of the canon, we might at the very least take seriously his involvement in that same social world of patronage, erudite readers and aristocratic admirers. The dedications to his two long narrative poems, and the care with which they were prepared for and seen through the press, make clear that his ambitions extended beyond the stage.
Why weren’t they included in the First Folio? Probably for practical reasons. The volume was put together by the King’s Men, the acting company of which Shakespeare had been a principal shareholder, playwright and performer, as a memorial to their most admired colleague. What they owned the rights to -- and what chiefly concerned them -- was the plays. Since the narrative poems were still selling well in 1623, to have acquired the rights to reprint them would have been difficult, if not impossible. As for the sonnets, who knows? The quarto volume published in 1609 was the only edition in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and it seems to have generated little interest: so little that a second edition, published in 1640, was able to imply that the poems had never been printed before. Perhaps the sonnets were simply not considered worth including.
The editorial history of Shakespeare’s poems is an index to how complex and conflicted our sense of Shakespeare the poet has been. The first quartos of Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) were well printed, elegant little books. They addressed an audience of readers who knew the classics, both Latin and English; they recalled, in both their physical presentation and versification, recent editions of Ovid, Spenser and Sidney. Both poems include fulsome dedications to the Earl of Southampton, a glamorous young aristocrat (he was 19 when Venus and Adonis appeared) who was also the ward of William Cecil, Lord Burghley. This is the way ambitious Elizabethan poets got on in the world: they found a generous aristocratic patron, whose taste, praised in a lavish dedication, in turn constituted a marketable endorsement. That this worked for Shakespeare, at least initially, is indicated by the fact that the Lucrece dedication is significantly warmer than the dedication for Venus and Adonis; conversely, the fact that there are no further dedications to Southampton implies that it ultimately failed to pay off. Southampton was liberally endowed with taste and charm, but when at the age of 21 he came into his inheritance, it turned out to consist of debts: artistic patronage does not live by taste alone.
Venus and Adonis was witty, inventive and stylish; it was also daring, erotically explicit, even amoral. Though it seems to us sexually more comic than pornographic, its immense popularity was cited frequently in Shakespeare’s own time as an index of the decline of morals among the young, or the literate classes, or -- extraordinarily -- the Roman Catholic church. Thomas Robinson, a lapsed friar, in a pamphlet published in 1622 called The Anatomy of the English Nunnery at Lisbon, described the comfortable life of a father confessor to the nuns there: "Then after supper it is usual for him to read a little of Venus and Adonis, the jests of George Peele, or some such scurrilous book: for there are few idle pamphlets printed in England which he hath not in the house." The Rape of Lucrece is less obviously licentious -- and certainly much less fun -- but for all its moralising, there is a good deal here to feed the Renaissance erotic, and sadistic, imagination. Moreover, the elements that we find tiresome in the two poems -- their formality, dilation, extensive description and digression; in short, the sheer undramatic quality of these narratives by our greatest dramatist -- would have been a good part of what contemporary readers admired: these were the things that put Shakespeare, as a poet, in the league of Spenser and Marlowe. At the same time, their focus on the political implications of rape, on the one hand, and the sexual power of women, on the other, have a striking relevance to our own social and political history. Jonathan Crewe, in the recent, excellent Pelican Shakespeare Narrative Poems (1999), is particularly good on the sexual politics of these works, and the new and complex critical life they have taken on.
The sonnets are, editorially and bibliographically, another matter entirely. They were, to begin with, not a book. At least some of them circulated initially in manuscript -- the miscellaneous writer Francis Meres in 1598 praises Shakespeare’s "sugared sonnets among his private friends", and while it is difficult to imagine ‘sugared’ applying to such poems as "They that have power to hurt and will do none" or "Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame", the adjective certainly describes many of the sonnets written to the beloved young man. There was nothing secretive about this mode of publication; manuscript circulation was a normal form of transmission for much lyric poetry in the period. Even Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Marlowe’s Hero and Leander and Donne’s Songs and Sonnets, all of them monuments of Elizabethan verse, were initially conceived as coterie literature: the poet was writing for an audience he knew. Donne refused to allow his lyric poetry to be published in his lifetime because he would then have no control over who read it. The Shakespeare who wrote the ‘sugared sonnets’ is the Shakespeare of the social world implied by the dedications to Venus and Adonis and Lucrece. As for those tougher nuts, the obscure courtly allegory The Phoenix and the Turtle and the Spenserian lament A Lover’s Complaint, they have seemed bafflingly unlike the Shakespeare of the plays, and it is only in the past few decades that A Lover’s Complaint has been accepted as Shakespeare’s at all; but if we look at them in the context of Shakespeare’s other poetry, we will see that they are entirely consistent with its literary ideals and intellectual milieu.
How the sonnets got into print is unclear, but there is no reason to believe that there was anything surreptitious about the 1609 quarto. Thomas Thorpe, the publisher, had printed play quartos, including Jonson’s Volpone and Sejanus, and Shakespeare might well have given him a manuscript of sonnets to publish. The manuscript was not, however, prepared with the care evident in the texts of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and it seems more likely that Thorpe had some source other than the author for his copy, which would not necessarily even have been in Shakespeare’s hand. Whether Shakespeare approved of the publication or not is unknowable, but the issue would not have been a significant one: intellectual property is largely a modern concept, and the rights to the poems would have belonged to whoever owned the manuscript. Though there are occasional muddles in the book, Thorpe’s copy must have been clear enough, because the text is on the whole satisfactory. Its editorial problems are undeniable, but they are not, for the most part, the fault of the printer.
Why, given the continuing success of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, the sonnets were not popular in 1609 is difficult to say, but it should make us take with a grain of salt the claim that Shakespeare’s name on a title page was enough to guarantee a publisher’s profit. The tantalising evidence of emotional turmoil and non-vanilla sex that makes them irresistible to us apparently was not a big selling point for Shakespeare’s contemporaries: it was in Sidney’s sonnets (which strike us as relentlessly literary) that early readers found the satisfactions of autobiography and erotic revelation. The usual explanation for the neglect of Shakespeare’s sonnets is that the vogue for sonnets was past; but in 1609 the vogue for Shakespeare certainly wasn’t. Those sonnets that were in print remained coterie literature, experimental and daring both linguistically and erotically, and seriously playful. It is clear from the number of these sonnets that reappear in commonplace books of the period that their attractiveness to that coterie audience did continue: even after publication, people continued to copy the ones they liked, circulate them, make them their own. But there was no second edition until 1640, 24 years after Shakespeare’s death.
‘That edition, however, involved wholesale revision. John Benson, the publisher, capitalising on the undiminished sales of Venus and Adonis, produced a volume of what looked to be not old-fashioned sonnets but new Shakespeare love poems. The transformation involved both format and erotics: many of the sonnets are run together, making them 28-line poems, and all are given titles, such as True Admiration, Self-Flattery of Her Beauty, An Entreaty for Her Acceptance -- as the latter two indicate, most of the love poems addressed to the young man are now addressed to a woman. To effect this, it was necessary only to change three masculine pronouns in the poems to feminine ones and supply a few gendered titles, but since the sonnets to the young man form a fairly consistent narrative, that was sufficient to change the story. The motive for this was probably not any nervousness about Shakespeare’s sexuality; Benson simply wanted to bring the poems up to date, and in so doing transformed the book from an Elizabethan sonnet sequence to a volume of Cavalier love lyrics.
Even this edition was not a great success, and there wasn’t another until 1710, when a supplementary volume to Nicholas Rowe’s edition of Shakespeare’s plays reprinted Benson’s text. Benson’s revision remained the standard text until late in the 18th century; and indeed, these versions of the poems were still being reprinted in the 19th century. The return to the 1609 quarto was the work of Edmond Malone, who in 1780 produced an edition that finally brought the editing of the poems into line with the editing of the plays by taking the original texts into account. It rationalised Thorpe’s text, certainly, but its clarifications have on the whole stood the test of time. In a few critical instances, however, Malone undertook wholesale rewriting to produce the kind of sense the 18th-century Shakespeare seemed to demand. The most famous of these involves a crux in Sonnet 129, "Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame". Here "lust in action" is described, in the 1609 quarto, as "A blisse in proofe and proud and very wo". The line continued to read this way, with minor adjustments to modernise spelling and punctuation, throughout the next century -- through John Benson’s 1640 edition, Nicholas Rowe’s in 1710, and the numerous popular editions of the 18th century -- until Malone’s edition, in which the line became "A bliss in proof, and prov’d, a very woe". Thereafter, with very few demurrals, this became the line: Malone was acknowledged to have restored Shakespeare’s original.
Orthographically, the quarto’s ‘proud’ could in 1609 be read as either ‘proud’ or ‘provd’ -- though for the latter, considering the compositor’s practice in the rest of the volume, ‘prou’d’ would have been the expected form -- but, as with travaill meaning both ‘travail’ and ‘travel’ in Shakespeare’s English, the reader of 1609 who saw ‘proved’ in the word would not have seen only that, and would have read it as both: ‘provd’ retained the sense of ‘proud’. It is a sense that we should certainly not edit out of the poem: "pride", the Bible says, is what "goeth before . . . a fall" (Proverbs 16.18) -- before the sonnet’s ‘very woe’, before ‘this hell’ in which the poem ends. Proud also means ‘erect’, or ‘tumescent’ (as in Sonnet 151, line ten), a usage still current in the medical term ‘proud flesh’. Therefore, whatever Shakespeare intended, the most we may reasonably argue is that both readings are possible; or to put it more strongly, that the two readings are not separable. It should be emphasised, however, that there is no evidence that anyone before 1780 ever read the word as anything but ‘proud’. Simply to eliminate one of the word’s senses, as Malone’s emendation does, is both to falsify the text and abolish its history.
But the transformation of ‘proud’ to ‘proved’ required Malone to make another revision in the line, less noticeable, though arguably even more radical: the change of the second ‘and’ to ‘a’, so that the clause reads not "and proud and very wo" but "and prov’d, a very woe". This emendation transforms the view of sex from a tripartite act -- a bliss both during action and when completed, and also true woe -- to a simple before and after contrast: bliss in action, woe afterwards. There is no room for ‘proud’ in this neatly balanced pair. If the 1609 quarto (or, for that matter, Benson’s 1640 volume) was the form in which Donne, Jonson, Herbert, Milton, Marvell, Dryden read Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Malone’s poem is not the poem they read. But of course Malone’s poem has its history, too. It is now not only our poem, but the poem of Keats, Wordsworth, Browning, Yeats, Eliot, Auden. Only Robert Graves and Laura Riding saw through it; but to return with them to the Shakespeare of Donne and Marvell is to abolish the Shakespeare of Keats and Yeats.
Malone’s edition, of course, had a more problematic consequence for Shakespeare: it had him pining once more, in the first 126 of the poems, not for a woman but for a man; and when in 1793 the editor George Steevens explained his refusal to include the poems in his Shakespeare edition by asserting that "the strongest act of Parliament that could be framed, would fail to compel readers into their service," it is unlikely that metaphoric complexity or rhyme schemes were what bothered him. Everyone remembers that Wordsworth said of the sonnets that "with this key/Shakespeare unlocked his heart", but he also declared them "abominably harsh, obscure, and worthless". For the 19th and a good part of the 20th century it was customary to deal with what looks, from the perspective of the past 30 years, like an overtly homoerotic sequence by arguing, when this fact was acknowledged at all, that the homoeroticism was purely conventional, or that the sonnets were not autobiographical -- the lovestruck poet was a persona, and the sonnets to the young man no more implied that Shakespeare was gay than Macbeth implied that he was a murderer. Of course, in an age in which it is being argued that internet pornography featuring virtual sex with computer-generated minors should be a prosecutable offence, claiming that Shakespeare was a pederast only in his imagination doesn’t help much. But in fact, recent editors have accepted the sonnets’ gayness without worrying much about Shakespeare’s, and contemporary commentary on these poems is sexually much more open than in comparable editions of the plays.
For Shakespeareans of my generation, the great edition was that of WG Ingram and Theodore Redpath, first published in 1964, which intelligently rethought the texts and offered a detailed, thoughtful and untendentious commentary -- it is an admirable edition, which may still be consulted with profit. The sex is acknowledged, though in a fashion that today seems absurdly gingerly, with terms like "membrum pudendum" and "carnal innuendo"; of the frankly obscene Sonnet 151 ("Love is too young to know what conscience is") Ingram and Redpath merely observe that "the numerous double meanings . . . are too obvious to need an explanation." (Reason not the need: Helen Vendler, in The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, glosses ‘conscience’ as ‘knowledge of cunt’.) Ingram and Redpath approach the young man in an especially gingerly fashion, suggesting that "the relationship was one of profound and at times agitated friendship, which involved a certain physical and quasi-sexual fascination emanating from the young Friend and enveloping the older poet, but did not necessarily include pederasty in any lurid sense." The discomfort expressed here seems positively quaint (rescuing the author of Titus Andronicus from the imputation of luridness is especially nice), but the notion that the way to deal with sex in Shakespeare is to assume that he wouldn’t have done anything we wouldn’t do cuts both ways, and as our society grows more sexually open, so inevitably does Shakespeare.
What might be considered the enabling document for contemporary editorial practice was Stephen Booth’s remarkable Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, published in 1969. This articulated, brilliantly, a poetics of indeterminacy as a way of reading the sonnets, arguing that the poems are essentially open, and that their interpretation is a function of the process of reading, a process that will, inevitably, vary from reader to reader and age to age. Booth’s commentary, it follows, is a world of alternatives and possibilities, and the essay, when it appeared, was genuinely exciting. Indeterminacy stopped, however, at the texts: no questions were asked of Malone’s modernisations. Eight years later Booth paid his debt to bibliography with a monumental edition, including facsimiles of the 1609 texts, new modernisations en face and an exhaustive commentary. I confess to finding the commentary exhausting as well as exhaustive: Booth worries every possible ambiguity at great length; but in the end, the book is curiously conservative -- it almost invariably decides that the standard reading is after all the right one, and Malone’s texts are the ones we should stick with.
Two more recent editions seem to me especially notable. Helen Vendler’s The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1997) offers long, energetic readings, poem by poem. Vendler is one of the great readers of poetry writing today; her essays on contemporary verse are critical classics -- she has a genius for selection, and writes about the most complex and arcane poets with clarity and without condescension. She clearly loves the sonnets, and treats them as contemporary poems. Though her interests are not historical, she does prefix to her commentary a facsimile of each poem with a modernisation that is for the most part Malone’s. Nevertheless, she occasionally acknowledges that the facsimile and the modernisation are different works, observing of her reading of Sonnet 144, for example, that "the following remarks are equally true if one uses the quarto spelling." I find her readings far more coherent than Booth’s, though there is a sense of the poems being kept under control, almost disciplined: they are supplied with key words (sometimes defective key words) and ‘couplet ties’, and there are occasional terrifying diagrams. Vendler is not the most comfortable guide to the sonnets, but she is an intense, exciting and observant one.
John Kerrigan’s Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint’ (1986) is very much concerned with history. His readings are learned, his glosses wide-ranging and exceptionally informative, and his sense of the poems often genuinely unsettling. He argues that we cannot properly appreciate the sequence unless we see A Lover’s Complaint as part of it, and understand the sonnets’ relation to earlier poetry by Daniel, Marlowe, Spenser and the overtly homoerotic Richard Barnfield. The critical tone is tough and often confrontational. Of "Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments" he writes: "this sonnet has been misread so often and so mawkishly that it is necessary to say at once, if brutally, that Shakespeare is writing about what cannot be obtained." His introduction is a model of intelligent contextualisation, and includes the best treatment I know of both homosexuality and autobiography in the sequence.
Colin Burrow, editor of the Oxford Complete Sonnets and Poems, is in Kerrigan’s league as a scholar and an editor: both are erudite, critically and philosophically sophisticated, and treat textual issues with the seriousness they require. But Burrow works on a larger canvas: it was a brilliant idea to produce the narrative poems and sonnets as a single edition, and the result is that he has been able to offer, in his book-length introduction, the best study there is of Shakespeare as a poet. Burrow writes wonderfully about the interplay between the various poems and genres, and is especially good on the implications of the sonnets’ original mode of circulation, in manuscript among Shakespeare’s ‘private friends’, where both the mystification and the playfulness that have so frustrated later readers were entirely appropriate. He briskly and amusingly disposes of Mr WH, observing that all the proposed candidates are nonsensical, and offers instead ‘Who He?’ This seems to me probably correct: the great bibliographer Arthur Freeman has suggested to me that the initials stand for ‘Whoever He (may be)’, and has found a parallel in a contemporary pamphlet. A major theme throughout the edition is what the original readers of these volumes would have expected of them and assumed about them, and therefore a number of poems ascribed to Shakespeare in his lifetime are included, as an indication of the kind of poet his contemporaries considered him. (Like Crewe in the New Pelican, Burrow does not include the notorious Funeral Elegy for William Peter, now ignominiously demoted to a poem by John Ford: Burrow never believed in it, nor did I.) As for the sonnets’ place in Shakespeare’s poetic career, Burrow writes that they are "best viewed not as Shakespeare’s final triumphant assertion of poetic mastery, but as poems which develop the methods of the earlier narrative poems to their utmost point -- a point at which one is not quite sure who is male and who is female, who is addressed and why, or what their respective social roles are".
I would not want to be without Crewe, Booth, Vendler or Kerrigan, but if the bookshelf had room for only one edition of Shakespeare’s poems, Burrow’s would be the one.