Though Shakespeare is most famous for his plays, his collection of sonnets have proved to be a goldmine for literary critics. For contemporary readers, many of the poems may seem a bit kitschy or clichéd. In the context which they were written, however, the poems serve as not only a critique of conventional poetic conceits of the era, but also challenge preconceptions of love and gender/sex whilst also weighing in on the contrasts between the intellectual or spiritual realm and the corporeal. Though many of Shakespeare’s observations might seem orthodox today, they certainly were not so in their time, and even if cliched, few have managed to write cliches as beautifully as did Shakespeare. Despite their age, though, some of the sonnet remain current, and his views, in some cases, prove to be innovative still today, especially in the context of conversations on marriage equality and gender.
One of the most interesting poems from a contemporary perspective is ‘Sonnet 116’. Though its claim that marriage should be between two minds, rather than two bodies, is perhaps sentimentally kitsch and redundantly romantic, when seen in the context of the debate for marriage equality, the poem takes on new meaning. The poem itself invokes the idea of marriage, not only mentioning it, but noting that the marriage of true minds should not admit impediments, calling on the tradition that asks those in attendance if they should know any reason why the two candidates for marital bliss should not be married. If written by a contemporary poet, such phrasing would almost certainly be read as an overt challenge to conservatives who seek to exclude same-sex couples from the institution of marriage. The fact that Shakespeare wrote this poem to another man only makes Queer Theory reading more appropriate. Shakespeare seems to be writing with more of concern toward aging and the loss of beauty to old age, whilst simultaneously promoting the importance of intellectual compatibility over physical chemistry, but in placing the corporal below the intellectual, the poem also makes room for an argument that supports marriage equality, since the corporeal being is secondary to the intellectual and spiritual.
‘Sonnet 20’ likewise has a potential Queer Theory reading. It certainly challenges gender roles and concepts of sex, but it is also chauvinistic is some respects, if not misogynistic. Shakespeare notes that his subject has a woman’s face painted by Nature, which is important in a Queer Theory reading because what Shakespeare describes is amatorist affection for his subject, and not to a personal choice. It is nature who has defeated the poetic narrator, not personal choice. He calls his subject a ‘master-mistress’, amalgamating both the masculine and feminine together in one and projecting his subject as a metaphorical hermaphrodite of sorts, conflating gender boundaries in the process. This begs the question as to where femininity, if femininity can be defined, is located. Is it in a feminine face? Or a feminine reproductive organ? The poem is problematic in its overt chauvinism and misogyny though. Shakespeare notes that his subject’s eyes are “less false” than a woman’s, situating women as deceitful. The poem also says the eyes of Shakespeare’s beloved are “more bright”, perhaps being literally brighter, but likely employing the word for its double meaning and suggesting that his beloved is ‘brighter’, as in more intelligent, than women.
For all his mansplaining about valuing the intellectual over the corporeal, ‘Sonnet 151’ does seem to undo some of those sentiments. The poem is addressed to the ‘Dark Lady’, and speaks of his love, or perhaps lust, in corporeal terms. His nobler self becomes subservient to the needs of the flesh, and erection references are peppered throughout. He notes that his flesh starts ‘rising’ when he hears her name, and then says that he ‘stands’ at her affairs before concluding with that she is the reason that her rises. Though this does see Shakespeare submit to the corporeal, this is also important in terms of a Queer Theory reading. In the poem, socially constructed concepts of ‘nobility’ battle with his innate urges. A contemporary reader would of course recognizes abstinence as a prudish and Puritan approach to sexuality that is unnatural. This, then, could be applied to other socially prescribed notions on physical intimacy, same-sex relations for example, and promotes the idea that the socially prescribed notions of sexuality do not always work in concert with nature.
Though Shakespeare seems to embrace the common poetic conceits that littered the Petrarchan tradition in the era with poems such as ‘Sonnet 18’ (which does, in Shakespeare’s defense, alter the tradition in some ways), he overtly satirizes such conceits in ‘Sonnet 130’, which reads as a polarization of his famous metaphoric introductory line: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”. Instead of comparing his beloved to the summer sun, he instead suggests that her “eyes are nothing like the sun”. Extravagant metaphors and similes would project unrealistic ideals onto women, but where others might suggest that their lovers lips are as red as roses, Shakespeare notes that “Coral is far more red” that his lover’s lips. Where other poets might boast that their beloved’s skin is as white as Grecian stone, Shakespeare confesses that next to snow his beloved’s “breasts are dun”. Instead of finely threaded gold for hair, “black wires grow on her head”. Music sounds better than her voice, and she even has bad breathe (though some suggest the word “reeks” did not have a negative connotation at the time). The volta of the poem notes that his love, though she does not warrant such comparisons, is still as rare a love as any beloved who is “belied with false compare”. This suggests, not that his mistress is not beautiful, but rather that the decadent metaphors employed by other ‘poets’ are lies. His expression is sincere and does not rely on inflated metaphors to express his genuine affection. In short, Shakespeare is keeping it real.
Both ‘Sonnet 18’ and ‘Sonnet 130’ are examples of Shakespeare’s proclivity contextualize notions of love with ecological metaphors. In ‘Sonnet 18’, the beauty of the summer is used to define the beauty of Shakespeare’s beloved. ‘Sonnet 130’ debunks many ‘false’ comparisons with nature, but does employ nature as the measuring stick for beauty. ‘Sonnet 151’ notes how nature trumps socially prescribed notions of love. ‘Sonnet 63’ describes the passage of time in the context of the stages of a given day, or year, describing his beloved’s youth as the ‘morn’ or ‘spring’, and drawing on ecological metaphors to make his ideas clear. ‘Sonnet 154’, the last sonnet in the series, defines love as a warming fire, linking it with a nurturing aspect of nature. Such language is strung throughout many of the sonnets, demonstrating how integral nature is to understanding the world around us, most especially intangible elements such as love, and also illustrating how dependent the human voice and language is on nature to provide clarity.
Shakespeare’s writing is not the most digestible literature in the cannon. Many struggle with it, but even if Shakespeare’s plays are difficult to read, I do recommend reading the sonnets. Love is a very personal thing, but for many there are social constructions that we feel our love must reflect in order to be authentic. Shakespeare challenges such notions. ‘Sonnet 130’ demonstrates how foolish such constructs are, whilst ‘Sonnet 151’ demonstrates how socially prescribe values often work against nature. And he tempers this with poems like ‘Sonnet 116’, encouraging a love that is based, not solely in the corporeal realm, but one that is rooted in the mind. Whether it is issues such as marriage equality, marriages where there is a mixing of perceived races, ethnicities or religions, or any other unconventional form of love, Shakespeare’s sonnet provide a voice for personal love in the face of prescribed notions of love. That said, I do not mean to suggest that Shakespeare was promoting NAMBLA’s agenda, though he may very well have had such in mind given the history of the children’s acting troupes that sometimes performed his works. There are patriarchal biases in the poems, but if you play the part of gold prospector and place each sonnet in your literary rocker box, you will find, after some shaking, that there are valuable pieces to be found and cherished.