Making Shakespeare’s Sonnets – part 4

In September 2014, Jason Scott-Warren reviewed a book, Matthew Zarnowiecki’s Fair Copies: Reproducing English Lyric from Tottel to Shakespeare for the Times Literary Supplement. The review was brief – some 439 words – but positive, commending Zanowiecki’s ‘fresh perspective’ and praising the book as ‘a rich provocation and an incitement to rethink our approach to sixteenth-century poetry’. At first glance it doesn’t seem an especially controversial item. But by the 27th November of that year, Scott-Warren’s review and Matthew Zarnowiecki’s book had somehow come to generate this headline in the Daily Mail:

So: from 439 words about a book – a book which studies ‘a diverse range of cultural productions and reproductions – from key poetic texts by Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, Gascoigne, and Tottel to legal breviaries, visual representations of song, midwives’ manuals, and commonplace books’ – to the Daily Mail speculating about Shakespeare’s sexuality, via a ‘row […] between experts’. What on earth had these damn experts been getting up to during October 2014?

Here’s how Scott-Warren’s review begins:

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 asserts the possibility of perfect constancy and everlasting love, and has become a staple for reading at weddings. It may not quite count as “viral”, in the sense that we speak of a YouTube clip’s going viral, but it might be something of a “meme”, a cultural entity with an urge to reproduce itself, mutating as it does so. In this case, mutation means the removal of the calculated ironies that shadow the poem as it appears in the Sonnets. […] Another form of mutation occurs during the transfer of the poem from its primarily homosexual context in the Sonnets to a heterosexual frame. But the poem was always made to circulate: it is a series of aphorisms, generalized pronouncements that can be cut loose from one situation and applied to another.

Jason Scott Warren, ‘Medium-close’, review of Matthew Zarnowiecki’s Fair Copies: Reproducing the English Lyric from Tottel to Shakespeare (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014) in Times Literary Supplement, 26th September 2014

The very next issue included a letter from Sir Brian Vickers, editor of the 6-volume Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage and author of such books as The Artistry of Shakespeare’s Prose, Shakespeare’s Hypocrites, Returning to Shakespeare, Appropriating Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Co-author, and Counterfeiting Shakespeare. Vickers took particular issue with Scott-Warren’s reference to Sonnet 116’s ‘primarily homosexual context’:

this anachronistic assumption needs to be questioned. True, the first seventeen poems in this collection (a “miscellany” is indeed a better description than a “sequence”) are addressed to a young man urging him to marry and beget children in order to pass on his beauty to posterity, but Shakespeare derived that speech situation, and many of his arguments, from Erasmus’s “Encomium Matrimonii” […] Such a concern may be an expression of friendship but it is hardly a recognized homosexual position for the time, and Thomas Thorpe’s 1609 collection includes another sonnet (numbered 20) addressed to a young man in which the poet-persona (autobiographical interpretations are fictive) defines their relationship as a male friendship but excludes sodomy, nature having added “one thing to my purpose nothing”, for “she prickt thee out for womens pleasure”.

Brian Vickers, 3 October 2014, letter to the editor, Times Literary Supplement

In the weeks that followed, the TLS letter pages published rebuttals and rebuttals to the rebuttals and rebuttals to the rebuttals of the rebuttals. This, from Arthur Freeman’s reply to Vickers, is an indicative example of some of the counter-arguments that were presented to him:

That Sonnet 116 appears in “a primarily homosexual context” (Jason Scott-Warren, TLS, September 26) may be an overstatement, […] but the sexual ambivalence of the 1609 volume is hardly a matter for debate any more – nor is the notion of bisexuality or homosexuality “anachronistic” or fanciful for Elizabethan poets and playwrights (Marlowe, Beaumont and Fletcher, et al).

Arthur Freeman, 31st October 2014, letter to the editor, Times Literary Supplement

So the argument seemed chiefly to do with Scott-Warren’s terminology, with these various men of letters bickering about what a ‘primarily homosexual context’ might have constituted for Shakespeare’s readers. The ‘notion of bisexuality or homosexuality’ as we would recognise it today would have been current enough in the early modern period, Freeman suggests, that it’s perfectly reasonable to read sonnet 116’s content in the light of a homosexual relationship which is described and engaged with by the sonnet’s near neighbours in ‘the 1609 volume’.

So in part this was a quarrel about semantics: wondering what it means to talk about an early modern poem’s ‘primarily homosexual context’ with reference to a society and a period which, it has been argued,

lacked the idea of a distinct homosexual minority, although homosexuality was nonetheless regarded with a readily expressed horror. In principle it was a crime which anyone was capable of, like murder or blasphemy. […] the Elizabethan “sodomy” differed from our contemporary idea of “homosexuality” in a number of other ways also. It covered more hazily a whole range of sexual acts, of which sexual acts between people of the same sex was only a part. It was closer, rather, to an idea like debauchery.

Alan Bray, ‘Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England’, in Queering the Renaissance ed. Jonathan Goldberg (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1994) pp. 40-61, pp. 40-1

It may seem that these arguments completely forgot Matthew Zarnowiecki’s book about ‘cultural productions and reproductions’ – but I’d argue that each one of these positions on how to read sonnet 116 and the sexuality of its speaker were each carefully rooted in an argument (or perhaps, sometimes, an assumption) about how Shake-speares Sonnets came to be produced in print. The TLS letter-pages soon began to flutter around Vickers’ reference to ‘the poet-persona’ in his letter of the 3rd October; Freeman and others beginning to argue that Shake-speares Sonnets was the published format of a fairly direct experience which Shakespeare himself wanted to convey. Stanley Wells, yet another eminent Shakespeare scholar and another knight of the realm, joined the fray, asserting that ‘When a poet whose name is William writes poems of anguished and unabashed sexual frankness which pun on the word ‘will’ — 13 times in No 135 […] it is not unreasonable to conclude that he may be writing from the depths of his own experience.’ Freeman concurred, asking ‘why on earth would Shakespeare choose so often to impersonate a pathetically ageing, balding, lame and vulnerable bisexual suitor, abjectly whingeing about rejection and betrayal – unless the self-humiliation that surfaces again and again through these particulars were both genuine and cathartic?’

In contrast, we might note how Vickers touches the production of Shake-speares Sonnets with a note of suspicion. He refers in his letter to ‘the first seventeen poems in this collection’, adding a curious parenthesis: ‘(a “miscellany” is indeed a better description than a “sequence”)’. Unlike Wells, who sketches out a fairly direct route from ‘the depths’ of Shakespeare’s ‘own experience’ to our reading of the text, Vickers casts doubt on the very make-up of the text that’s under consideration when we try to interpret the relationship situations that it describes. As I mentioned in last week’s instalment, it’s not unusual that a critic or editor operating today might distrust the particulars of an early modern printed text. The poem that so animated the TLS letters page in that angry October of 2014, sonnet 116, looked like this when readers first encountered it in print in 1609:

I’ve highlighted a couple of features that would now be fairly uncontroversially chalked up to a compositor’s hurry: sitting between sonnets 115 and 117, it would appear the ‘6’ was turned upside down in the process of its being set; ‘Lou’ in line 9 is normally taken to be a truncated ‘Loue’ (i.e. ‘Love’); in line 8, ‘higth’ is either an unusual or mistaken spelling of ‘highth’ or ‘heighth’ – seemingly archaic in Shakespeare’s time – or our more familiar ‘height’ (they all mean the same, in any case). But, broadly speaking, there’s nothing here in the localised presentation of the poem that suggests the activities of Eld’s compositors have affected the ongoing discussion which was framed by the Daily Mail in characteristically nuanced, thoughtful tones: Was Shakespeare Gay?

In the ongoing editorial conspiracy to turn Shakespeare gay (or the ongoing editorial conspiracy to turn Shakespeare straight), one of the abiding persons of interest is mentioned, in abbreviated form, on the title page of Shake-speares Sonnets. ‘T. T.’: Thomas Thorpe, the bookseller who seems (by some means or other) to have acquired the rights to the poems which were put into print by George Eld and his men. Questions are often asked of those men of Eld’s, and the work they did translating Shakespeare’s poems in print: to what extent do those printed poems resemble the poems that Shakespeare wrote? But the question of Shakespeare’s own sexuality has often attached itself to questions about Shake-speares Sonnets in its entirety: to what extent were these poems meant to be published like this (in this order, as a sequence, telling, seemingly, a story; telling, perhaps, something of a true story); to what extent were these poems meant to be published at all? This is the thread that connects Vickers misgivings about applying the notion of a ‘primarily homosexual context’ to Shakespeare’s sonnets, and his recommendation that we term them a ‘collection’ or a ‘miscellany’ rather than a ‘sequence’.

Next week’s instalment will tug at that thread a little, teasing out how Thomas Thorpe has been characterised in several different attempts to tell the story of Shake-speares Sonnets. We might not get any closer to giving the Daily Mail their answer – was Shakespeare gay???? – but we’ll examine a little more the ways in which the sonnets’ wanderings in time and in criticism have either accentuated or changed their fundamental shape and fundamental meanings. In that book review of September 2014, Jason Scott-Warren mused on sonnet 116 and the ways in which a poem ‘might be something of a “meme”, a cultural entity with an urge to reproduce itself’ – but he also reflected that ‘the poem was always made to circulate‘ (my emphases). Viewed one way, the poems always knew that they might change form in the hands of their many beholders; according to such a view, they were designed to play on the likelihood of their being redesigned. Viewed another way, these poems have been made to circulate in some sense against their will – wrenched into different shapes as their different readers have insisted that they ought to look one way or another, in keeping with a prevalent view of what Shakespeare must have meant, must have done, or must have been.

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