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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Queering the Scandal in Shakespeare’s Sonnets

by Ryan Tracy

Photo: Lucie Jansch

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend

Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
—William Shakespeare, Sonnet 4
Shakespeare’s sonnets have occasioned at least two “scandals.” The first has to do with the purported realization that two thirds of the sonnets are thought to be addressed to a young man. The second scandal appears to lie in the sheer raunchiness and adulterous innuendo of the sonnets that are attributed to a female subject, often referred to as “The Dark Lady.” Much scholarship has added scandals to these two (the scandal of the latter poems’ unabashed misogyny being an important one). While some scholars have succeeded in broadening our contemporary view of the sonnets and their scandalous past, there remain many open questions about the genders represented by and addressed in the sonnets, as well as the erotic relations that exist between speaker and his or her subjects of adoration.

One of the things at stake in debates about the gender and sexuality represented in the sonnets is the availability (or unavailability) of certain literary interpretations which consequently affect the stories we can tell with them today. Too many of the scandalous narratives surrounding the sonnets aim to reduce them to a single, anodyne Man-Loves-Woman narrative. That may sound like an age-old story, but deeper inquiry into the history of sexuality shows us that the erotic narratives told by Shakespeare and enjoyed by Elizabethans were complex, various, and triggered by different sets of values not easily translated to contemporary notions of heroic heterosexual romance.

Queer literary theory has been largely successful within the scholarship of early modern literature in opening up staid and tendentious readings of the sonnets and their scandals to more complex and nuanced interpretations. Queer readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets do more than simply (if ever) offer a red herring diagnosis that Shakespeare was gay. Queer readings of the sonnets can complicate facile hetero/homo dualisms and resist dominant cultural narratives in which gender, sex, sexuality, and representation line up neatly onstage and across time. A queer reading of the sonnets allows for maximum interpretive possibility while sticking to a rigorous analysis of the historical text.

 Sonnet 10
For shame deny that thou bear'st love to any,
Who for thy self art so unprovident.
Grant, if thou wilt, thou art beloved of many,
But that thou none lov'st is most evident:
For thou art so possessed with murderous hate,
That 'gainst thy self thou stick'st not to conspire,
Seeking that beauteous roof to ruinate
Which to repair should be thy chief desire.
O! change thy thought, that I may change my mind:
Shall hate be fairer lodged than gentle love?
Be, as thy presence is, gracious and kind,
Or to thyself at least kind-hearted prove:
Make thee another self for love of me,
That beauty still may live in thine or thee.

Robert Wilson and Rufus Wainwright’s musical staging of carefully selected Shakespeare sonnets offers a queer reading on multiple levels. The production, by the Berliner Ensemble (founded by Bertolt Brecht), utilizes cross-gender casting in order to draw a rich tableau vivant where characters such as Cupid, Queen Elizabeth, the noble youth, “The Dark Lady,” and The Bard himself give the sonnets a polymorphous flair. By voicing the sonnets across a ribald coterie of characters, and thus, scrambling the possibilities for potential targets of their amorous desires, new constellations of attraction, longing, and loss are charted and memorialized. With its field of open play, these sonnets tell whole worlds of new stories that resist being claimed by any one theory of sexuality.

Elusive assumptions remain. There is near consensus (even among queer scholars of Shakespeare) that the early sonnets to the youth lack the vulgarity so obviously present in those addressing the female subject. In the first dozen or so poems, the poet begs the young man to procreate so that there may be another “copy” of his beauty to survive the aging process; insults alluding to usury, unthriftiness, and self-interest are launched at the poems’ subjects. These terms—from the language of the early modern capitalist markets that stirred anxieties about class, gender, and sex in Elizabethan London—related to the literary figure, Narcissus, and by extension masturbation, and by the late 17th century would be termed onanism.

Georgios Tsivanoglou, Jürgen Holtz.
Photo by Lesley Leslie-Spinks

These poems may refer to the practice of masturbation, but decoding these accusations from an older poet to a younger man might be read as both heartfelt and erotic—a way in which masturbation might vex the aims of social intercourse (and lead to social death; i.e. in Sonnet 9 Shakespeare refers to it as a “murd’rous shame”—preventing procreation, but also self-murder) and catalyzed relations between men through the shaming of self-pleasure. Reading the autoerotic element in the early sonnets might open them up to new insights that even the most diligent scholars haven't discovered.

Robert Wilson and Rufus Wainwright stage Sonnet 10 as a solo, sung by a single cast member. “For shame deny that thou bear’st love to any,” begins the lament against the self-involved subject. The performer’s flat hand clenches into a fist, then opens, revealing the impressions made by cutting fingernails. At the final lines, “Make thee another self for love of me, That beauty may still live in thine and thee,” we begin to see the devastating way in which love of the other and self-pleasure are intertwined, and possibly inseparable. What’s queer about our desire for others might just be the way it compels us—in pleasure and pain—to prick ourselves. And that is another scandal worth telling.

Ryan Tracy has written about performance for The American Review, Performa Magazine, and The Gay and Lesbian Review. He is a PhD student in English Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan, and his music, theater, and opera has been performed at venues throughout New York. He will appear onstage at BAM in Ivy Baldwin’s Oxbow during the 2014 Next Wave Festival.


Dubrow, Heather. “‘Incertainties now Crown Themselves Assur’d’: The Politics of Plotting Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 291-305.

Hecht, Anthony. 1996. Introduction to The Sonnets. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Laqueur, Thomas. 2003. Solitary Sex: A Cultural History. New York: Zone Books.

Matz, Robert. “The Scandals of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” ELH, Volume 77, Number 2, Summer 2010, pp. 477-508.

Oya, Reiko. “‘Talk to Him’: Wilde, his Friends, and Shakespeare’s Sonnet.” Critical Survey, Volume 21, Number 3, 2009, pp.22-40.

Shakespeare, William. 1996. The Sonnets. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Varholy, Cristine M. “‘Rich Like A Lady’: Cross-Class Dressing in the Brothels and Theaters of Early Modern England.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Spring - Summer, 2008).

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