In Which Emily Disagrees With Very Clever People on NPR

I was trying to fall asleep while listening to the NPR Books podcast, which this past week featured an item on Shakespeare’s sonnets. Morning Edition interviews Clinton Heylin, the author of a new book about the publication of the sonnets who posits that Shakespeare never meant for the sonnets to be published, which I was willing to believe, since I know very little about Shakespeare, and most academic Shakespeare-speculation goes over my head. But then Heylin went on to suggest that the reason Shakespeare didn’t want the sonnets to be published is because the poet expresses love for a “fair youth” in many of the sonnets, and that would have been, he said, a “criminal offense” in Elizabethan England.

Well. I don’t know about that, and I was so skeptical I actually got out of bed at 3am to write this. I say this with the heavy disclaimer that I’ve read only some of the sonnets, that I don’t know a whole lot about Shakespeare and his time, and that, well, I’m a college student with not a whole lot of knowledge about anything. I’m not equipped to take on the Shakespeare speculators. But this suggestion struck me as dubious because homosexuality didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time. The idea of sexual acts called “sodomy” or something similar that may have been criminalized at the time (I don’t know for sure what laws were on the books under the Tudors or the first half of the Stuarts, but I’m betting there were laws against non-procreative sex) would likely have existed in a completely separate dimension from the idea of a close male friendship in terms of the Shakespeare-era social world. Mind you, I’m talking out of my ass, but I think that even if same-sex sexual relationships were going on covertly, I’m not sure that it would have occurred to the Elizabethans as a culture to make the leap to “criminal offenses” from the expressions of love/affection/desire/etc. in the sonnets and therefore to condemn Shakespeare for having written them—and thus, it isn’t entirely accurate for Heylin to say that Shakespeare’s love for the youth in question would have been a criminal offense, if it did exist.

I say this because I’m thinking about much later writers, like Whitman, whose expressions of same-sex desire went over the heads of many people, such as the contemporary censors who criticized expressions of heterosexual lust but were much less critical of the Calamus poems. Indeed, if I recall correctly, it wasn’t until some time after their publication that the Calamus poems got buried—and I’m fuzzy on my dates, but that might have been after the trial of Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s trial equated “the love that dare not speak its name” with the term “sodomite,” and neatly coincided with the turn-of-the-century beginnings of the psychological understanding of homosexuality that the German sexologists were getting up to. After Wilde’s trial (or so the folklore has it), young men stopped walking arm and arm on the street, as was previously the fashion. Wilde’s trial, to the best of my knowledge, was what made same-sex affection actually seem “homosexual,” and therefore, according to the standards of the day, immoral.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how far it’s possible to go in labeling Writer X “homosexual” or “gay” or saying that Writer Y’s work addresses queer themes or things like that. I’m sure that quite a lot of very important people have written on this issue, and maybe one day I’ll read what they’ve written and figure it out. But I do know that I have an inclination to place writers like Whitman in a historical narrative tracing literary expressions of same-sex desire, and maybe it’s legitimate to do that when his poetry was embraced as a cultural rallying point of some early queer movements, and when legitimately gay literary figures such as Ginsberg cited it as inspiration. But then cases like Shakespeare, which made me sit bolt upright in bed at 3 in the morning to go, “Hey, you can’t make the leap from same-sex affection to implying homosexuality; that didn’t exist in the 16th century!” remind me that I need to resist the tendency to assume that as many figures as possible were gay or bisexual or queer or what have you.

They also remind me of a key tenet of “doing history,” which will probably be very important to remember as I go on to do a degree in said discipline: you can’t impose the cultural frameworks of the present upon the past. Maybe Heylin was just trying to render the context of Shakespeare’s poetry more understandable to the modern NPR listener, and actually maybe I’ve just got all my facts wrong and Heylin’s explanation really does make sense. He’s certainly far more qualified to pronounce upon the subject than I am. But hey: to me, in this case “doing history” means recognizing that putting sexual acts and affection/desire together into a modern sexual-object-choice model of homosexuality or bisexuality or queerness is a distinctly modern phenomenon, and one that doesn’t work retroactively.

And I also have to wonder why we can’t just appreciate what Shakespeare had to say without wondering what his personal stake in things was. His words wouldn’t have captured Western civilization for the last 400-some years if they didn’t have a certain universality outside of his personal experience.

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