I’m sure you have an opinion, or lots of opinions, about Shakespeare. It’s kind of impossible to avoid the guy: you’ve probably studied him in school, or seen a play of his, or read one, or seen a film of one, or all of those lots of times over; you’ll have heard of him as the Greatest Writer in the English Language and the World’s Pre-Eminent Dramatist (as Wikipedia, source of all knowledge, calls him) pretty much no matter your background or what languages you speak. This idea of Shakespeare the matchless genius, ‘not of an age but for all time’, has spread all across the world and is believed in by an unimaginably vast number of people, who would probably continue to believe in it even if he was actually a terrible writer (of course he wasn’t, but how many people could tell if he was, and what would it even matter? Shakespeare’s language is foreign even to obsessed losers like me who write about him).
The ultimate canon status of Shakespeare makes his plays and his poems uniquely open to all sorts of fun (and queer) manipulations and reinterpretations – like the brilliant Mac Beth earlier this semester – but it also means that myths of these works have built up around them over the centuries, which people base their understandings of them on, and therefore that people get all sorts of weird fucked-up ideas. I have discovered that when Shakespeare comes up in conversation a greater than one amount of perfectly respectable and really-quite-highly-educated adults (trying to form some point of connection with this weirdo teen in front of them) will tell you almost unprompted absolutely confidently some unprovable Fun Fact about him and look proud of themselves in an almost endearing way – before saying something extremely transphobic. For example: Did you know that the Dark Lady of the Sonnets was actually the proto-feminist poet Emilia Lanier and that she was also the origin for the character Emilia and the 'song of willow' in Othello? (Emilia Lanier was actually very cool, the first woman in England to declare herself a professional poet, but I think the reason she was brought up in this context stemmed from a bullshit bioessentialist desire to suggest that Shakespeare could not have pushed back against patriarchal ideas of gender or written the proto-feminist character of Emilia without a rebellious proto-feminist woman to tell him how, which is not so cool).
What’s going on here with the Sonnets though? Who’s this ‘Dark Lady’? I was told this theory at quite a stressful time for me and it stuck in my head: I ran away from home shortly after (Shakespeare was not actually the main reason). So I developed a grudge and read the Sonnets lots of times – as you should all also do because they’re amazing – and did a fair amount of research. I discovered that almost everything that people have said and thought about Shakespeare’s Sonnets for the past 200 years has been within the same single critical and popular narrative, and also that this narrative is total bullshit – which a few slightly more respectable people than me also think, but maybe phrase slightly more respectably.
By the Sonnets I mean the 1609 quarto publication of 154 sonnets, Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Never before Imprinted. All sorts of quirky funny things happened to these poems for a while, but influential critic Edmond Malone reproduced the 1609 text in 1780 and that became the dominant version. Malone’s ideas about the poems would also become the dominant interpretation, repeated with absolute confidence by Wikipedia today: ‘the first 126 are addressed to a young man; the last 28 are either addressed to, or refer to, a woman’. This young man and this woman are generally assumed to be individual, consistent characters – they’ve even got their own names, the ‘Fair Youth’ and the ‘Dark Lady’ – and an enormous amount of very respectable people over the centuries have dedicated huge amounts of their time to finding real people who they could say these characters are based on. This sort of biographical appropriation of literature has actually been incredibly unfashionable (like, deeply uncool) since the 80s, so critics say that they might not have been real people, but carry on with the same ideas. And sometimes critics feel bad about writing ‘Fair Youth’ and ‘Dark Lady’ and say something actually from the text like ‘friend’ and ‘mistress’ instead. But the Sonnets call both male and female characters ‘friend’ – so why don’t people say the ‘friend’ and the ‘friend’?
Most of the sonnets assigned to the ‘Fair Youth’ seem pretty romantic, but don’t worry! Whereas Shakespeare’s love for the ‘Dark Lady’ is a romantic, sexual love, the emotions expressed towards the ‘Fair Youth’ are simply of an affectionate, mentor-like friendship (doesn’t stop people reading those poems out at weddings though) – which is why he calls the ‘Fair Youth’ ‘Master Mistress of my passion’ (Sonnet 20) and ‘Lord of my love’ (26). There are sonnets written from a friendly-advice sort of perspective though – the first 17, which very enthusiastically encourage a young man to have heterosexual sex and make babies, extravagantly praising his beauty but in a platonic kind of way.
Hang on – this doesn’t seem quite right. Sonnet 17 goes hard on the hetero-sex, saying that the young man’s beauty can only live on through having children, and then there’s a sudden tonal shift and Sonnet 18 is one of the most famous love poems ever written, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’, concluding that its subject’s beauty will live eternally through the poem. The first 17 sonnets actually make the largest sequence of thematically connected sonnets in the entire collection – there are quite a few pairs and triplets of sonnets, but there isn’t any overall through-line or sense of unity. The last 28 sonnets, supposedly all directed at the ‘Dark Lady’, are especially strange and disconnected-feeling. Sonnets 129 and 146 aren’t love poems at all – they’re pretty dark meditations on lust and mortality respectively – and Sonnets 135 and 136 are weird incredibly horny jokey poems, punning endlessly on ‘Will’. Sonnet 145 is in tetrameter for some reason (it’s theorised that it was written when Shakespeare was about 18, so it’s good for reading and feeling inadequate about your own writing), and the final two sonnets, 153 and 154, are actually translations of a popular Greek epigram, with 153 probably the later and more refined version – even knowing this people love trying to find ways in which these form the capstone to a whole thought-out thematically connected ‘Dark Lady’ sequence, but without much success.
So how about we put our academic hats on, forget about the ‘Fair Youth’ and the ‘Dark Lady’, and look at these poems from something like first values? Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson’s 2021 book All the Sonnets of Shakespeare tries to do that, using studies of Shakespeare’s writing style over the years to set every sonnet Shakespeare wrote in chronological order as best we can guess, and categorising them by who their addressees could be. 33 of the sonnets aren't directed at anyone; 14 clearly have a male subject and 13 likely do; 7 clearly have a female subject and 3 likely do; in 84 the gender of the subject is ambiguous. They explain that the Sonnets published in 1609 were probably written over at least 9 years, most of them during the fashion for sonnet sequences between 1591 and 1597 – sonnets were a little bit like Justin Bieber or reasonable waiting times for NHS gender clinics in the early 2010s, and they just weren’t cool anymore in 1609, so Shakespeare’s Sonnets flopped. The last 28 sonnets – the ‘Dark Lady’ ones, were probably written first, mostly between 1590 and 1595; the first 60 between 1595 and 1597, 61-103 a few years after and sonnets 104-126 probably after 1600.
So Shakespeare’s Sonnets aren’t like your conventional planned, thematically unified sonnet sequence, and not just because they unflinchingly explore explicitly non-heterosexual ways of loving. A better way of looking at them is as something like an anthology of all the sonnets written by Shakespeare that the publisher Thomas Thorpe could get hold of – we don’t know whether he had Shakespeare’s permission. The Sonnets clearly weren’t written for publication, since they weren’t published until 1609. They feel intensely private and personal, and real, like Shakespeare’s raw emotions and experiences transferred to writing. But they are also in a strict, highly formalised and artificial sonnet form. How real can they be?
Sonnet 77 seems to have been sent to someone along with the present of a book, and Sonnets 46 and 47 are about receiving a miniature of a lover as a present, while Sonnet 122 is an excuse for giving away another present from a lover, some writing tablets. Perhaps Shakespeare sent sonnets to lovers, as love poems. It’s also easy to imagine the first 17 sonnets being written as a private job for a patron, to encourage some rich young man to settle down and have kids – or maybe the patron was the rich young man, and Shakespeare himself wanted him to settle down. About half of the last 28 sonnets use a sort of ‘fair vs foul’ or ‘fair vs black’ dichotomy, with the message being that the speaker cannot help loving the addressee despite ‘foul’ looks and ‘foul’ actions (there is so much cheating going on in the Sonnets it’s unreal) because love is blind and so on. These could have been written for or about a real lover or lovers, but they can be pretty un-nice so I’d feel bad for whoever it was – I personally secretly believe that these poems especially were a way for Shakespeare to explore writing about love outside the conventional idealised love that sonnets normally showed, progressing from just loving someone not conventionally beautiful to still loving someone you know is cheating on you. But there are no actual provable conclusions we can make about the origin or intention of any of these poems. There are no names for the addressees anywhere, not even pseudonyms, and every detail that could connect to Shakespeare’s life is, perhaps intentionally, left out or left ambiguous.
Shakespeare was very experimental, pushing societal boundaries of different ways of loving and what he could write about in a sonnet – with several moving meditations on ageing and death and inadequacy and human weakness as well as with all the sex stuff – and let’s talk about six fun and distinctive sonnets which I call the ‘throuple sonnets’. The most famous is Sonnet 144, ‘Two loves I have, of comfort and despair’. It goes for an angel on shoulder/devil on other shoulder type theme, one ‘a man right fair’ and the other ‘a woman coloured ill’ and ends ‘I guess one angel in another’s hell’, which – as I’m sure you all understand – is a shocking innuendo. In the paired Sonnets 133 and 134, Shakespeare explores the idea of love as a prison, trapping both the speaker and their boyfriend who has fallen in love with the speaker’s other lover, whose gender is actually ambiguous. It’s very easy, especially if you’re reading literally any easily available commentary on the Sonnets to help you understand them, to link these three sonnets and the characters in them together and think something like – Oh look! A ‘fair’ man and ‘a woman coloured ill’! One of each. That ‘hell’ innuendo is very hetero-sexy, and this is just Shakespeare and his pure, virginal ‘friend’ falling in love with the same woman and not with one other – and it’s also very easy to apply this ‘fair’ guy to the presumably male subjects of the first 126 sonnets, except that these poems were probably written before any of those. But 144 talks about ‘two loves’, and in 134 the male lover is the speaker’s ‘other mine’ and their ‘comfort’ and, though there’s little to suggest that the characters aren’t the same between 144 and the pair of 133 and 134, there’s absolutely nothing to suggest they are.
The other throuple sonnets are a mini-sequence from those first 126, Sonnets 40, 41, and 42, and they re-explore the concept of a male loved one falling in love with a female loved one. Here though love is portrayed as joyful, and the conflict is that the idea of a throuple was not really a thing in Renaissance England, so both figures are portrayed as ‘steal[ing]’ the other from the poet. These are some of my favourite sonnets, the first quatrain of 40 especially:
‘Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all:
What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call–
All mine was thine before thou hadst this more.’
So there’s ‘true love’ between the speaker and the male subject of the sequence, and both of them also ‘love’ the woman. Shakespeare doesn’t put a name or a label on this relationship or almost any other relationship in the Sonnets – this was a long time before anyone thought up words like bisexual or polyamorous – which actually means you can interpret these poems and the relationships in them to be however you want and fit into whatever you want.
The majority of the Sonnets make no statements of gender, like Sonnet 40 if you look at it on its own. They can sort of be universally applicable love poems, though they do make quite a few references to real or invented contexts so if you want to use all of them it would help to get into the character of a poet regularly writing sonnets to a lover who has cheated on you, and on whom you have also cheated. But there isn’t any solid meaning to poems; you can make them into anything – 40 is especially open to interpretation, and would work just as well if your lover stole your favourite trans pride earrings (this is a purely theoretical statement I have them right here next to me and will never let them go) as if they stole your girlfriend. There are a few really fun funkily androgynous descriptions in here (using binary gender stereotypes but come on, these are over 400 years old), such as Sonnet 53, which calls the subject more beautiful than either Helen or Adonis, or 96, which compares its subject to a ‘thronèd queen’ and then to a male ‘stern wolf’. And there’s also fun toying with traditionally masculine and feminine roles in relationships, especially in the sonnets with explicitly male subjects, like Sonnet 41 with ‘Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assailed’ (it’s implied to be a woman doing the assailing) and the ‘Master Mistress’ Sonnet 20, which has a whole lot going on in it but especially the line ‘But since she [Nature] pricked thee out for women’s pleasure’, which could either be saying the addressee should have sex with women, or something entirely different.
Academically it’s a terrible crime to assume that the speaker in the Sonnets is Shakespeare, or that they actually reflect any real relationship, but it’s very very tempting and I’ve half-slipped into doing it several times writing this. They feel so personal and genuine, almost confessional, and I can’t help but wonder if there was actually one specific ‘lovely youth’ Shakespeare was in love with and one specific woman they had a three-way relationship with, and a whole lot of cheating on every side. To atone I wrote this sentence in a dogeza pose, which was actually pretty difficult, so forgive me. I can’t help but wonder, but I don’t believe. It’s a testament to Shakespeare’s genius that people, and every widely accessible public-friendly source on the internet, can only think the Sonnets tell a single true narrative. But there is no one narrative to be found in them. These are works of poetry, constructed deliberately in a highly structured form, and it’s thanks to the skill they were written with that they seem so real. Each sonnet is a story compressed into 16 (or 14 that one time) strictly rhyming, metered lines, feeling unbelievably full of life and depth and always hinting at more. Many may have been highly informed by Shakespeare’s own life, but they are written to be ambiguous and it is impossible to tell how far they are fictionalised or how much the inspirations for them could connect. The Sonnets are immensely powerful and unflinching explorations of the very personal emotion of love, but they cannot be private or have a single absolute meaning – reading them, you place yourself within them, as an empathetic onlooker or as a participant, and you make them yours.
So make them yours! It’s just reductive as well as wrong to say that most were written about a single man, and some about a single woman. These poems that everyone knows about are brilliantly versatile, and they can be about anyone or anything you want. Marvel at their ingenuity and experimentation, their innovations and their insight – these poems are over 400 years old! But feel how you can use or understand them for yourself, and make them fit into your experiences and ideas. I think that these Sonnets are the most diverse and enduringly powerful, profound and human and, because of their flexibility now and as well their refusal to conform to traditionally heterosexual ways of loving or being back then, the most essentially queer poems ever written.
other erin (she/her)