Was Shakespeare gay? Sonnet 20 and the politics of pedagogy

Charles, Casey

A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted Hast thou, the master mistress of my passionA woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion; An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling, Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth; A man in hue all hues in his controlling, Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth. And for a woman wert thou first created, Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting, And by addition me of thee defeated By adding one thing to my purpose nothing. But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure, Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure. (Shakespeare 1977, Sonnet 20)

Was Shakespeare gay?” students sometimes ask after reading this poem. How teachers respond to this controversial question will probably reveal not only their views about the current debate over sexual identity but also how those views are in many ways reflected in their pedagogical methods. Because this query broaches a number of critical issues that are presently facing the literary academy-issues concerning the place of queer studies in the classroom, the application of current concepts of sexual identity to historical texts, and the social consequences of associating the most canonical author in history with the historically controversial behavior of homosexuality, teachers, in approaching this student’s question, must decide not only what answer will be given-what “truth” imparted-but also how that truth will be communicated, if it be a truth at all. Studying the ways we study Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20 will illustrate both how sexual politics pervades the accepted “truths” of literary criticism and how methods of pedagogy themselves are implicated in the dissemination of those truths.

In the discourse of the university or academy, according to an authority like Lacan, knowledge is the agency through which a teacher imparts truth to students, a truth that produces a speaking subject-a student versed in the complexities of the symbolic order.1 Unfortunately, this product-the educated student-is also a barred subject, a subject whose relationship to knowledge may have fostered specialization but has also produced alienation from the processes through which authority arrogates and even determines knowledge. The ready dissemination and assimilation of knowledge as truth often fail to teach the student how knowledge structures the subject by instilling an ideology, defined broadly by one theorist as “a doctrine, a composite of ideas, beliefs, concepts and so on, destined to convince us of its `truth,’ yet actually serving some unavowed power interest” (Zizek 1994, 10). The student rarely discovers how the discourse of the university sets up a fictional formula for happiness, perpetuating an assumption that there is a subject-supposed-toknow, a master teacher, who can, through knowledge and language, inspire students with understanding, intelligence, and the will to become masters or mistresses themselves some day if they only assimilate a certain doctrine. Because the structure of the university perpetuates this cycle, many teachers find themselves searching for strategies of intervention, ways of giving students a glimpse into the agendas that unavoidably accompany positions of power.2

Professorial authority faces a particularly revealing test, therefore, when confronted with a yes-or-no question about a subject as socially, culturally, and historically controversial and complex as one concerning the sexual orientation of Shakespeare. The application of the current notion of homosexuality as a fixed identity to a Renaissance author also raises theoretical problems in fields as distinct as historicism, gender studies, and psychoanalysis, to name a few. Moreover, this question seeks a conclusive answer concerning a topic which by almost any historical standard is notoriously intractable-sexual passion (Rose 1982, 47; Copjec 1994, 204). Yet behind what we might call, from our position as scholars, the naivete of this student’s inquiry, lies a desire to understand a text within a cultural framework of “gayness” that has been largely ignored or dismissed by the academy until recently (Sedgwick 1990, 52). Thus, a professor’s reply-whether an emphatic “no,” a complex “maybe,” or a simple “why not”-discloses not only the instructor’s own relationship to ideology and its dissemination but also his or her pedagogical politics. Initially, I will seek to show how pedagogical method is itself implicated in the controversy over the interpretation of Sonnet 20 by focusing on two possible approaches to answering the question of Shakespeare’s sexual orientation. Neither of the following caricatures is exclusive of the other, but the two are often at cross purposes and thereby delineate the primary dilemma facing the teacher as purveyor of truth through knowledge, or in Lacanian terms, as subject-supposed-to-know.

On the one hand, a teacher can uncritically assume the professorial position of power, straighten a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, and in the best of Oxford stutters begin by saying: “Well, I-I-I th-th-think we need to be a bit careful before attempting to answer this rather moot but important question.” First of all, some Renaissance scholars argue that the sociological concept “gay” did not exist in this pre-psychoanalytic period, if by the term “gay” you mean an identity that one assumes as a result of a certain sexual attraction to members of the same sex (Bray 1982, 25, 67; Foucault 1980, 3). Men and women of course probably engaged in sexual practices surrounding same sex attraction in sixteenth-century England, but they did not define or identify themselves as a distinct group because of these sexual practices. Although Renaissance discourse does use the terms “catamites,” “ganymedes,” “ingles,” and “sodomites” to delineate the practitioners of such behaviors, we must remember that these practices were universally condemned by draconian sodomy laws and moral treatises, even though surprisingly few prosecutions and convictions took place (Bray 1982, 71; Cady 1992, 9-40).

In Renaissance literary discourse, however, issues of what we might call homoerotic attraction were quite common in the prose, poetry, and drama of England. By using the term homoerotic, we can discuss a certain type of representation in the Renaissance that straddles a fine line between genital sexual behavior and platonic friendship, a line which these literary works often consciously blur, perhaps as a means of discussing the “unmentionable vice”-“the crime that dare not speak its name” as this behavior came to be designated. Thus Renaissance scholars are faced with works as openly homoerotic as Barnfield’s sonnets and Marlowe’s Edward II as well as those more ambiguous relationships found in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night between Antonio and Sebastian or in Sidney’s New Arcadia between Musidorus and Pyrocles. Add to these representations the debate over cross-dressing on the Elizabethan stage, which Stephen Gosson and others condemned as promoting sodomitical behavior, and we can see that the issue of homoeroticism was a controversy of some note in Elizabethan England (Levine 1982, 121-43; Howard 1988, 418-40; Rackin 1987, 29-41; Jardin 1983; Traub 1992; Goldberg 1992). Remember that young men played the parts of women in Shakespeare’s plays, which is particularly interesting in light of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, about a young man who looks like a woman. We can, with some assurance, conclude that Renaissance discourse was wont to blur the guarded demarcations between homo- and heterosexuality that twentieth-century American culture emphatically strives to maintain.

“But was Shakespeare gay?” you ask. We must first of all question whether the Elizabethan would ever equate being with sexual preference. We then must ask, “What is Shakespeare?” For we can never determine, however ahistorically, that Shakespeare was gay or not gay, as you put it, without seriously considering what we mean by this proper noun, this designation of the writer of a set of plays and poems that we treasure as the very cornerstone of English literature. Are you asking this question about Shakespeare the married man, the father, the burgher, the greatest English author, the figure for whose life documentary evidence is slim at best? Or are you asking it about the author of the very works the English-speaking world has been turning to for almost four centuries for knowledge, guidance, instruction, entertainment, and, yes, truth? This question you ask is a ponderous one; it contains within it a serious charge, calling for an inquiry of some consequence. To ask whether or not Shakespeare was gay is to shake the very globe, nay the sphere, of the canon and question the values of humanistic education upon which the discourse of the university is based.

But this might not be what you are asking. You may be asking whether the fiction that this shadowy author produced has within its parameters certain representational patterns of what we have called homoeroticism. You might be asking whether the dramatis personae of Sonnet 20, the speaker of this lyric before us today, shows some signs of sexual attraction to the same sex. This is an altogether different and more appropriate question-one which might be further illuminated by reference to a number of recent works on this issue.

At this point the teacher rises from the table, and with the wrinkled back of a tweed coat facing the students, scribbles the names of a few key critics whose books he has put on reserve: Gregory Bredbeck (1991), Bruce Smith (1991), Jonathan Goldberg (1994).

This is one way to respond to the question. Its approach demonstrably arises out of a comfortable position that academic authority assumes in relation to the dissemination of truth through knowledge, even though the message itself carefully avoids a categorical answer to the query. As this professor admirably educates students about the nuances of homoerotic representation, the assumption, perhaps ingenuous, is that students are faithfully taking copious notes and eagerly anticipating the chance to read further in this area. This Renaissance scholar is pleased, moreover, that the record has been set straight on this rather sticky matter. Now the class can get back to the poem; now the students have the necessary information to discuss this problem intelligently. Unfortunately, there are only ten minutes left in the class period-hardly enough time for a discussion of the sonnet and the mini-lecture our professor had hoped to deliver on Renaissance attitudes towards cosmetics.

On the other side of the pedagogical spectrum, another teacher, in response to the question about Shakespeare’s sexual orientation, might look up at the student, eyes blinking a couple of times, smile, and say, “Good question. What makes you think he was?” This teacher thinks s/he is Socrates or Diotima, Socrates’s teacher. The toga is gone, but the sandals are still thereBirkenstocks, wire-rim Benjamin glasses-the only ties worn are tie-dye tshirts. Many have played hide the football with this Earth Mother before and quite frankly, it can be exasperating. Finally, one student volunteers an answer to the question: “Well, I don’t know; he’s trying to turn this guy into a girl so he can love him.” “What’s the writer saying that leads you to think he’s trying to turn a man into a woman?” our teacher asks. “Well, he says he has a woman’s face and woman’s gentle heart. He calls him the master-mistress of his passion.” “How do we even know the poem is addressed to a man?” someone else asks. “If you read the other sonnets, it’s obvious,” a know-it-all in the front row chimes in. “Why would he be gay if he wanted the guy to be a girl?” someone else asks. The professor at this point tilts the chair back, smiles, and thinks, “Chaos is come again.” These students are good-too good. Usually I am the one who has to ask the question if Shakespeare was gay just to wake them up. Should I interrupt to let them know that Hollywood’s own C.S. Lewis (1954, 303-05) thought Shakespeare’s language was “too lover like” to connote “ordinary male friendship” but his sonnets were still not the poetry of “full-blown pederasty”; that John Dover Wilson (1967, 93), no less, in the hay-day of the New Criticism, argued that Sonnet 20 was written explicitly to “make unmistakably clear that Shakespeare was not a conscious pederast”; that Coleridge (1993, 91-103) himself claimed that Sonnet 20 was intentionally written by Shakespeare to obscure his heterosexuality? Or should I shut up and let them argue?

Finally the teacher speaks: “Let’s go back and look at the poem closely to see if we can answer these questions.” The class gets quiet; order returns; students clam up, waiting for a set of leading questions about what exactly it means to “gild” an object that you gaze upon, to control all “hues” in your own “hue.” These are hard questions and the students know that Professor Inscrutable is not about to give them answers. Yes, s/he has theories about transference love, about the poet narcissistically gilding himself as he expresses his praise for the young man, but s/he’s not about to put these cards on the table. By the end of the class, of course, the question of whether Shakespeare was gay or not will no doubt be undecided and undecidable.

The dichotomy I am drawing between these two types of teaching is not solely based on the well-known distinction between the process of deduction-the movement from general principles to particulars-and inductionthe establishment of general principles by examination of particulars. The line I am drawing is a little bit more subtle and blurred than this pedagogical commonplace. There is a difference between a professor who believes the job is done once these general principles are elicited and one who wishes to complicate and question the acquisition of those principles even as s/he elicits them. The deducer imparts those principles as clearly and quickly as possible wishing there were more time, while the inducer is more concerned with the means through which the principles are reached and therefore presumably less invested in having those principles clearly and unquestioningly assimilated.

While both teachers are undoubtedly interested in promulgating some truth about Sonnet 20 and homoeroticism, the first has accepted the discourse of the university as a suitable structure for the dissemination of that view while the second takes a more ironic approach to the role of subject supposed to know. Arguably, that irony is to some extent warranted by the sexual subject matter of Sonnet 20 since for many theorists sexuality is the vanishing point of meaning, a place of nonsense (Bersani 1987, 215-22). The intractable subject matter of Sonnet 20 allows the inductive teacher to show how the extrapolation of definitive generalities from particulars is rarely just a matter of uncontested logic and in fact usually involves a third term, namely, the attitude and beliefs of the interpreter-whether student or teacher, historicist or feminist. For example the end of the poem is commonly read as a lament by the poet that his heterosexual “purpose” has been “defeated” by the existence of the young man’s “thing” and that he must settle for a platonic “love.” But this interpretation, while plausible, is based on an assumption that the speaker’s purpose is only heterosexual intercourse. The lament could just as well be a homosexual one, establishing the speaker as a subject realizing that his “passion,” in particular his passion for intercourse, is directed at a man with whom he is in love. Sexual politics plays a crucial role in the determination of both these meanings, and Sonnet 20, because of its combination of lyric suggestiveness and controversial subject matter, provides an exemplary case study in how readers inevitably take that ideological step and how, in taking it, they render the inconsistencies of sexuality intelligible or, in Renaissance terms, make passion reasonable.

While most teachers act out both the parts of pundit and talk-show host at various moments in the classroom and most harbor strong views about the current trend toward queer readings, many are less aware, I would hazard to guess, of the ways their methodologies can reflect their views. Methodologies contain messages that have demonstrable consequences for teacher and student alike. The historical lecture functions as a means of control, an act of othering, of framing, of distance; it moves homosexuality into the studied world of sodomitical practices and homoerotic overtones. The discussion format is cruder and more confrontational; it asks if Sonnet 20 is a gay poem with decidedly less regard for the different sense of what “gayness” was in the Renaissance. The first teacher, arguably a historicist, believes that Sonnet 20 cannot be understood without some “knowledge” of the teachings of Bray and Foucault, that sexuality in the Renaissance was not yet a matter of institutional oversight and therefore less categorically determined. The second teacher, in so far as s/he de-emphasizes these authorities in favor of a more open-ended approach, necessarily devalues the importance of this “knowledge,” sacrificing nuance and the authority of Renaissance scholarship and broaching the issue of homosexuality as an undecided question, a matter not of sufficient knowledge of the pamphlets of Prynne or the epistles of Erasmus, but of how authority and its determinations operate within the often irrational texts of desire. By asking questions like, “How can Sonnet 20 provide a clue to the nature of the poet’s ‘purpose’?” and “What, after all, does Shakespeare want?,” the second approach can foreground a subversion of the discourse of the university that an inquiry into the subject of sexuality potentially raises. This inductive approach begins from a position of non-knowledge which, if maintained, provides a framework for demonstrating how the authority of interpretation abhors a vacuum, especially one as ideologically-charged as the question of Shakespeare’s sexual orientation. This point is not purely pedagogical; the irrationality of desire and its representations are conditions that are sometimes overlooked in the historicist quest for answers in the contexts of the past (Copjec 1994, 6-10).

If the Socratic method lays a foundation for an inquiry into the dilemma of sexual interpretation, it cannot fully dismantle the complex positions of power that are embedded within the relations of both teacher/student and reader/text. Even if our hypothetical Diotima professes to abdicate, the structure of power set up by the discourse of the university is not automatically defused, just as the authority of Lacanian structuralism, even if it functions as a critique of authority, maintains a privileged place in this essay. When a teacher attempts to disappear, students will assuredly step in to save Shakespeare from the ignominy of the taint of homoeroticism, promoting their own ideological agendas. Reading the couplet as the final word, the young man, they argue, is endowed with a “thing” to service women’s “treasures” and is therefore straight. Even though this interpretation is complicated by a history of the metaphor of usury and the sometimes palinodic structure of the couplet in the Shakespearean sonnet, this student’s rush to judgment is indicative of a penchant on the part of scholars to master the mystery of this passionate poem and lay the matter of Shakespeare’s sexual orientation to rest, so to speak.

The complex task of the teacher thus entails showing students how the authority of interpretation functions not only through a process of presenting textual evidence but also through the often unselfconscious presentation of one’s own and other’s political and social viewpoints. Showing is more effective than telling in this instance because a lecture on the homophobic literary history of this sonnet allows students to dismiss that historical lesson as passe, disengaging them from recognizing how all readers’ attitudes, including their teacher’s and their own, are embedded in their interpretations. My aim here is not merely to pit the subjectivity of the more-pedagogically-friendly readerresponse promoters like Holland and Fish against the objectivity of historicism even in its new and improved version. I am suggesting, rather, that there is something “de-authorizing” about the texts of sexual desire, and Sonnet 20 in particular, that presents an opportunity for instructors to question the accepted practices of disseminating knowledge in the university whether that knowledge be feminist, historicist, or psychoanalytic. Many of those pedagogical practices train students to want to put an author like Shakespeare into an identifiable package. But are we really meant to reconstruct an integrated psychological profile from this poem-fourteen lines that describe a passion for a man who is more than a woman but whose penis creates complications-or do the inconsistencies of this lyric suggest that the search for sexual orientation has made us forget that the author is dead? (Bredbeck 1991, 167-68). Whether or not these inquiries lead to a conclusion that Shakespeare was gay if you want him to be or that Sonnet 20 may have overtones of Renaissance homoeroticism, Shakespeare’s poem has the uncanny ability to both elude conclusive interpretation and as a result produce it in an attempt to overcome that elusiveness. Teaching Sonnet 20 can demonstrate how the discourse of the university depends to a large extent on the erasure of the non-knowledge behind that elusiveness.

The recognition of the difficulty in deciphering the nature of the sexuality in Sonnet 20 is neither anti-historical nor dependent on the disclosure of one’s identity theme. Students need to know about the history of the reception of Shakespeare’s sonnets, including the changing of the male pronouns to female in the eighteenth century and the disapproving reception given the first full gay reading of the poems in 1985 (Pequigney 1985). Yet the integration of historical information must facilitate rather than stifle inquiry-a procedure that is not always easy to master. Renaissance contexts and the reception history of Sonnet 20 detail an ongoing record of textual engagement with a work readers have desired to understand, pin down, and have intercourse with since its publication. Nor does the poem’s intractability render it purely a test of one’s psychological attitude toward queers. Our Earth Mother may announce that she is an untenured lesbian earning $ 1500 for teaching 30 students Shakespeare for a semester; our tweedy faculty member may be a closeted Provost. The class may consist of young Christians who have received scholarships based on their pledge not to drink, smoke, or have sex until graduation, many of whom harbor hidden and overt attitudes toward homosexuality. The study of Sonnet 20 will no doubt elicit confessions and disclosures, if only to ourselves. By some critical accounts, all of these factors are relevant to an investigation of this work, but equally germane is the way in which the discourse of knowledge, what Foucault calls scientia sexualis, proliferates around a text such as this because of its sexual subject matter (Foucault 1980, 53). Sonnet 20 functions as a field for the promotion and failure of definitive meanings, none of which is wholly victorious because the poem at some point stops making sense.

In spite of its intractability, this love poem continues to attract students, providing them with an opportunity to become critical readers of both the work of a major author and the workings of authority. In assaying this point, I, as writer and teacher, am admittedly implicated in the process I seek to undo. I cannot not have an attitude. While this supplementary contradiction can new er wholly be resolved, the inductive method-under the rubric at least of an inquiry into an open question-supplies a procedure that is consistent with a critique of the power in interpretation. This is not to say that inquisitional cross-examiners cannot under certain pedagogical circumstances be as autocratic as dogmatic pontificators, or that gestures of so-called empowerment by professors are not often based on oversimplified emancipatory models of power that overlook how critiques of regimes of truth within institutions can often act to sustain those institutions (Lather 1992, 120-35). By allowing students to read others who have read Sonnet 20, many will come to read themselves as readers, to recognize how easily as subjects of a heterosexist society readers decide that Nature’s “pricking” has made the master-mistress of the poet’s passion unavailable sexually, rather than deciding that the young man’s prick is for the poet’s purposes as a good as a vagina, that the syntax of line nine is obscure enough to harbor but not validate both these readings.

The teacher of Renaissance literature faces the challenge of exposing students to the authority they need to establish a historical understanding of Sonnet 20 without allowing that presentation to dilute the relevant contemporary issue of sexuality that a reading of the poem raises. The need to supply students with what we perceive to be the right answer or context or even set of questions on the one hand and the need to reap the benefits that the chaos of conversation might confer on the other presents a predicament in no venue more acutely felt than in the heavily annotated and learned context of the Renaissance sonnet by Shakespeare, that canonical form taken up by the most canonical of authors writing in one of the most canonical of periods. The Renaissance-the name itself dauntingly suggests tradition and innovation, old forms and new complexities. How are we to present this material to the students, to the undergraduate more interested in Morrison, Silko, and Tony Kushner than Spenser, Sidney, and Wyatt?

Should we go the New Critical route, presenting the poem to our students in a vacuum on a single page, unhampered by the Variorum commentaries of eighteenth-century scholars who react to this “filthy” poem with “disgust and indignation” or twentieth-century editors like Kenneth Muir, who laments the “unnecessary embarrassment” (1979, 54) the sonnet has caused or Stephen Booth, who frowns upon the “careless citation of this work as evidence of its author’s homosexuality” (1977, 163)? Are not these the very conclusions we want our students to draw or dismiss based on their own close reading of the text, interesting though these commentaries might be in their own right as examples of the proliferation of discourse around sexuality that Stallybrass refers to as “cultural hysteria” (1993, 96)? Yet how can this poem be thoroughly scrutinized without the knowledge that Watson, another Elizabethan sonneteer, called his sonnets “passions” or that the word “hues” is capitalized in the quarto manuscript and considered by many to be a clue to the identity of the mysterious W.H., to whom the sonnets are presumably dedicated (Booth 1977, 164)? Can this sonnet be critically engaged without knowing that “thing” and “nothing” are Elizabethan slang terms for penis and no penis or vagina, that “use” refers to “usury”-charging interest on money, a practice frowned upon by Christians in the sixteenth century who had started doing it anyway? Usury, associated with sodomites in Dante’s Inferno, in this sonnet is linked to heterosexuality, suggesting that the young man provide the proscribed interest on his love to women while retaining the capital for the poet. Into the New Critical vacuum inevitably creeps knowledge, and what else is there to provide it but the learned but often heavy hand of the professor.

Even if it were possible to study Sonnet 20 as an “organic unity”-a well wrought urn self-contained by its own ambivalence and paradoxes, such a method carries its own political consequences. As Terry Eagleton suggests, “to call for close reading, in fact, is to do more than insist on due attentiveness to the text. It inescapably suggests an attention to this rather than something else: to the `words on the page’ rather than to the contexts which produced and surround them” (1983, 44). Most New Critics who have engaged the sonnets have denied evidence of homoeroticism in the poems, though some, like Northrop Frye, couch their morality in circumlocutions like “pederastic infatuations with beautiful and stupid boys are probably very bad for practicing dramatists” (Frye 1962, 28). Not until Joseph Pequigney writes his scandalous Such is My Love in 1985 do these poems come out of the close reading closet.

If close reading can often be more closeted than illuminating, the other end of the hermeneutical spectrum is fraught with its own set of difficulties. Providing context for a reading of a Shakespearean sonnet is a daunting task, one that requires teachers to confront the economic dilemma that contributes to the pedagogical ambivalence at issue. How much students know about prosody, the sonnet tradition, the rest of Shakespeare’s work, and queer theory inevitably affects how they read Sonnet 20, yet the quantity of information alone can never supply the skills or the opportunity to assay the ideologies behind its dissemination. For example, Sonnet 20 is one of only two sonnets in the sequence that employ feminine rhyme throughout: its lines are hendecasyllabic and the final syllable of each line is unstressed. A common feature of the romance language sonnet, its employment in English by Shakespeare in the context of the subject matter of this poem is noteworthy. Yet having told students as much, I have told them enough, for in the interstices between the deductive and the inductive methods, between demanding the rigorous knowledge and application of the tools of prosody as a means of being able to recognize feminine rhyme on the one hand and on the other giving students the freedom to form their own conclusions about the implications of this rhyme scheme for Sonnet 20-between these two poles of dogma and deference, discipline and restraint-lies the Zen of teaching.

Contextual matters as simple as the proposed date of the sonnets disclose how the charged issue of sexual politics informs literary history and criticism. Although the poems were privately circulated before their reported publication in 1609, scholars have dated the composition at various times between 1593 and 1603. Whether the Sonnets are attributed to the “folly” of Shakespeare’s undeveloped early period or to the maturity of his middle period has cultural implications for the literary value of 126 love poems written from one male to another. Whether the sonnets as a whole present a mimetic narrative is also a polemic. Stephen Booth calls them “an obvious and insistent” narrative sequence; others disagree, disparaging the critical penchant toward psychologizing and narratizing these lyrical fragments, toward finding in them some intimate truth about an author’s sexual preference (Booth 1977, 546; Bredbeck 1991, 167-68). Sonnet 20 comes on the heels of the so-called breeding sonnets, in which the poet urges the young man in the first 17 poems to procreate, to make a copy of himself for posterity. This strategy unsuccessful, the poet himself falls in love with the young man (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day/ Thou art more lovely” (Shakespeare 1977, Sonnet 18) and decides to immortalize him through his own verse, if he does say so himself (“Not marble nor the gilded monuments/ Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme” (Sonnet 55). His so-called infatuation continues through 126 sonnets before the sequence ends with the famous twenty-eight Dark Lady sonnets, which are written about the young man and the poet’s female lover.

The aptness of queer theory to the current context of Sonnet 20 even further implicates questions of pedagogical economy in the quixotic quest to determine Shakespeare’s sexual orientation. Arguably, students cannot fully understand why this Renaissance sonnet invokes questions about the current debate over constructions of gender and sexuality without some familiarity with Butler’s Gender Trouble or Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet. For Judith Butler the biological state of being female or male (what she calls sex) has little or nothing to do with gender-the cultural meanings that a sexed body assumes by virtue of, among other things, judicial and linguistic systems of power (1990, 25). Butler argues that the meanings we attach to masculinity or femininity are not inherent or “natural” but wholly constructed by social and political conventions. The constructedness of the so-called “truth” about women and men is best revealed and undermined by “the parodic proliferation and subversive play of gendered meaning” that can take place when different sexes perform different aspects of masculinity and femininity to show their interchangeability and disattachment from sex (33).

Butler’s ideas open up Sonnet 20 to a new venue of interpretation. When the poet compares the young man to a woman, is he reinforcing gender stereotypes or showing their capacity to be ascribed to either sex? The androgynous “master-mistress” of the poet’s “passion” appears to embody the traits of both genders, having a woman’s “face,” “gentle” heart, and “bright eye,” yet retaining the countenance or “hue” of a man, though this hue ironically controls all “hues” in his. The beloved is first created “for” or “as” a woman (though the pun here on “for” meaning “for the purpose of’ is equally apt), but then as a result of Nature’s erotic attraction s/he is furnished with an additional “thing.” Is the beloved a new and improved version of a woman or a man made more erotic by virtue of his ability to assume the stereotypes attached to women? Butler’s work provides a foundation for exploring either the subversive or reifying implications of ascribing constructions of gender to either sex.

Eve Sedgwick is also a major theorist of homoeroticism. Although she prefers not to use the terminology of essentialism and constructivism, her work acknowledges that the debate about sexual orientation has unfortunately fallen into a bifurcated struggle between one set of scholars who view sexual orientation as a biological, transhistorical predisposition that establishes one’s identity as homosexual (the essentialists) and the social contructivists, who see sexuality as a set of practices and potentialities that are configured in different ways among different subjects throughout history (1990, 30, 88). By asking whether Sonnet 20 presents an essentialist or social constructivist view of sexuality, the student confronts the issue of the poet’s attempt to avoid his homoerotic attraction by constructing a female out of a male object of passion.

Ironically, Nature, the personified version of essentialism in the poem, reacts to the existence of a biological predisposition in her creation with an altogether constructivist attitude. The first suggestion in the sonnet that Nature is not some originary, immutable, and organic figure comes in the opening line, when she is said to “paint” the face of a woman on to the beloved young man, employing cosmetic practices frowned upon, ironically, as unnatural, artificial, and constructed in Renaissance England. Nature re-appears in the sestet, under taking a set of practices even more unnatural. Somewhat like the poet himself, she homoerotically falls in love with one of her female creations, but then, in an attempt to subject her desire to what Butler calls “compulsory heterosexuality,” Nature adds one thing to her beloved creation, pricking “her” out for women’s pleasure. As Nature herself whimsically and unnaturally constructs gender and sex, this sonnet not only throws the idea of essentialism into question but also undermines the legitimacy of current categories like “gay” and “straight” as adequate delineations of erotic attraction.

Given the demands of prosody, history, and theory, how then are we as students and teachers to balance the demands of text and context, the demands of thorough reading and acquisition of theoretical information with the demands of what I will call no-text, the demands of conversation, enjoyment, dialogue, and debate, unimpeded by the acceptance of authority? One cannot appreciate the bawdy depths of Sonnet 20 without contemplating exactly how the poet-lover is “defeated” by Mother Nature’s belated “addition” of a “thing” to this young girl she homoerotically dotes over. Nor can we fully understand the subtleties of the poem’s delicate indelicacies without thinking long and hard about exactly what the poet’s purpose is when he says “to my purpose nothing.” Contextual and theoretical scholarship can supplement that thinking but never replace it.

As I myself vacillate between the poles of these professorial positions, between Diotima and don, I am struck by a tension between the elaborations of scholarship and the postures of Socratic ignorance. Can a teacher critique the authority of knowledge while at the same time insisting on a studied approach to the discipline of literary analysis, or is erudition at odds with a pedagogical practice that seeks to interrogate a model of learning that emphasizes the acquisition of information? While the insistence upon familiarity with the context and critical history of Sonnet 20 need not be an endorsement of that information as truth, the economics of education require that time also be devoted to probing the assumptions behind the authority of representation. The ambiguities and androgvnies of Sonnet 20, its homophobic literary history, and its suitability for the application of queer theory ideally should facilitate this combination of assimilation and critique. Students, for example, might be asked to read and criticize an assertion from the introduction of the Penguin edition: “in the last analysis, what one finds registered in the sonnets is a profound homosexual attachment of a scarcely sensual almost unrealized kind” (Kerrigan 1986, 51). This statement, they soon discover, squirms with the uneasiness that marks almost every critical encounter with Shakespeare’s sonnets to the young man. The homosexual attachment this editor finds registered in the sonnets is “profound” but not “sensual.” Sexual but not sensual? This homosexual attachment is “almost unrealized.” How can sexuality be “almost unrealized”? But few critical conundrums are as easily recognizable as the latter; usually, students must face the more daunting task of understanding the main points of Gender Trouble or Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye before evaluating them in conjunction with Sonnet 20. Instructors, on the other hand, must determine when relevance gives way to saturation or difficulty, acknowledging how that determination is itself infused with a sometimes condescending point of view. Do students need to know that the troubadours sometimes referred to their beloved as their master, that “queynte” and “treasure” are also slang terms for vagina; that Thomas Lacquer has suggested that the uncrossable line between masculinity and femininity that our culture draws was in the sixteenth century blurred by the medical belief that woman, biologically, were men with inverted genitalia (1990, S10)? These sound bites of information are important to lodge in the student’s mind, but how and to what degree are they vital questions? Dogma about sexuality is often ideology in disguise.

In interrogating whether or not this poem endorses homoerotics, students should also have the opportunity to read Sonnet 20 as expansive enough to sustain both Wilson’s reliance upon it as proof of Shakespeare’s “heterosexuality” and Pequigney’s reading of it as a statement of “homosexual” attraction. Such expansiveness or evasion may provide clues to how desire both produces and escapes the designation of signifiers, about how love functions as a narcissistic phenomenon that always demands something more than possession of the object/cause of desire (Fineman 1986; Lacan 1981). Students also need the opportunity to theorize that this poem is not about sexual orientation at all, that whether Shakespeare was gay or straight may be less important than how the poet is using the tropes of gender to evidence the irrationality of his desire in the face of the blindness of his love. Such conclusions do not necessarily preclude an understanding of the political implications of the question of Shakespeare’s sexual orientation. The resistance to even entertaining the possibility of Shakespeare’s homoerotic attraction in literary history coupled with its vehement denial by prominent critics teaches us how “knowledge” and “truth”-like “gender”-are frequently constructed by social and historical circumstance and prejudice. The study of Sonnet 20 can throw the fixities of the category of knowledge as well as gender into useful turmoil.

That turmoil is currently taking place within a field of cultural debate where the claim to knowledge of the author’s identity is viewed by many as an important victory. The ideological misapprehension that an author’s sexual orientation might be established solely by reference to one of his 154 sonnets provides a lesson in the intentional fallacy that works from text back to author rather than in the more common reverse mode. The lessons learned from asking the wrong question lead further to a broader inquiry into what it means to be a gay author and ultimately what it means to be gay. Discovery of the assumption embedded in the question presented-that an author’s sexuality will necessarily be positively reflected in that writer’s work-leads to recognition of the mistakes we make in thinking identity as a stable indicator of consciousness and more radically as a determinable entity at all (Butler 1990, 24-25). The critique of identity that the question of Shakespeare’s gayness can provoke demonstrates how the university’s desire to designate sexual orientation functions as a compelling way to occlude the intractable particularities of the subject. This realization, moreover, is embedded in the problematic identities of the poem itself-the ambiguous master-mistress and the ambivalent poet-lover.

This necessary deconstruction of the ideology of identity, which the study of Sonnet 20 can invoke, also extends to the identity of the reader, whether an undergraduate or Helen Vendler. When and if I announce to the class that I am queer, I want students to realize that such a disclosure may or may not mean I will read Sonnet 20 homoerotically. Sexual preference does not automatically dictate a reader’s approach to a work; in fact a teacher’s homosexual orientation could quite conceivably produce a homophobic reading of the poem, as it probably has in literary history. A teacher’s job is to complicate the simplistic equation of sexual politics and interpretation, and, having done that, to show how that complication gives students the opportunity to confront their assumptions about their own attitudes and recognize how those attitudes influence the paths they take in the critical process. Such awareness facilitates hermeneutical skills that uncover the assumptions behind more authoritative readings. Once students understand that the meaning of a poem is neither an unquestioned certainty nor a hopeless indeterminacy, but rather a field of contested determinacies, many of which are punctuated by ideological positions, they can approach criticism as a more accessible playing field. Students discover that this field is open to those with creativity, close reading skills, and the ability to research; they realize that often those with the least entrenchment in the paradigms of literary history are capable of the most innovative readings.

Unfortunately, the discourse of the university often has a chilling effect on such creativity in part because of its institutional structure as a producer of knowledge, in part because of its status as a podium for professors to promote their viewpoints. Although there can never be an interpretive vacuum free of dogma, the acknowledgment of such can help to make literary study more approachable and less hermetic. Professors can facilitate such creativity by seeking to interject into the discourse of the university an element of what Lacan describes as the discourse of the hysteric. Within this structural register, which Lacan championed, the place of authority is not occupied by the subject supposed to know (the knower that does not know itself) but by the barred subject, one who is aware of our inevitably alienated position from mastery. If a barred subject attempts to assume the place of professorial authority, that subject-even as teacher-can produce students who take pleasure not in accepting authority and repeating it, but in interrogating the master text. The hysteric position begins not by determining what knowledge about Sonnet 20 students should receive, but by asking what kind of power this text holds, what kind of questions Sonnet 20 can answer. Students question Shakespeare the Master’s sonnet as a verbal icon, to use Wimsatt’s phrase, that is worshipped for historical, cultural, and aesthetic reasons. What makes Sonnet 20 the focus of a cultural debate over homoerotics in the Renaissance, and why is that focus important for the late twentieth-century reader? By approaching the sonnet as a discursive center of power in need of investigation, students produce their own versions of the cultural heritage and meaning of the poem. Under this paradigm, they eventually emerge as the subjects supposed to know. While this outcome is not without its drawbacks in terms of self-awareness, the movement from reverence to scrutiny, from acceptance to re-evaluation, allows readers to engage the sonnet as a discursive fabric out of which they can weave their own versions of knowledge. Those versions can prove, for example, that even the most essential and foundational of archetypes-Mother Nature herself-is incapable in this poem of maintaining her supposedly immutable gender binary, allowing us to question the capacity of both the Master and Mistress Signifier.

The lack of our ability to answer the question of Shakespeare’s sexual orientation, at least through reading Sonnet 20, is not a position worth relinquishing, however unsatisfying this aporia may at times be. Actually, there is more to learn from exploring this inability than in any attempt to explain it away.


Detailed in an untranslated 1969-70 seminar called “Z:`enters de la psychanalyse” (SXVIII), Lacan’s four discourses seek to situate psychoanalysis within the tradition of the philosophy of science generally and Aristotle’s four causes in particular. Using the model of a square with four positions, Lacan first establishes the interrelated qualities of each of the positions, based loosely on a Marxist analysis of labor. The position of authority or owner occupies the upper left, the position of production or use value the upper right, the position of the product or market value the lower right, and then finally in the lower left the place of resistance. In each of the four discourses (master, university, hysteric, and analyst), four stable relations of the subject to language take up different positions on the fixed square (master, production etc.) Those relations include the master signifier (S1), the subject supposed to know or the knowledge that does not know itself (S2), the divided subjected (S), and the object of desire (a). In the discourse of the university, the subject supposed to know is in the position of authority, knowledge is the ultimate object of desire, and the product is the alienated subject, unaware of the master who is in control of this technocracy of knowledge. In the discourse of the hysteric, the divided subject occupies the position of power, production consists of a constant questioning of the master, and the product is a subject supposed to know as a result of that constant questioning. What is missing or repressed is that the truth is something the subject can derive pleasure from, but the hysteric is primarily interested in overturning that truth.

The other two discourses are the discourse of the master and that of the psychoanalyst. Lacan discusses the discourse of the university in the Preface to Lemaire (1970,

vii-xv). Jacqueline Rose provides a synopsis of the discourses in her “Introduction II” (1982, 60-61). I am also indebted to the work of Professors Savignant, Copjec, and Adams for their discussions of the four discourses.

2 For a feminist approach to the problems of pedagogy and authority, see Gore (1992, 54-73).


Bersani, Leo. 1987. Is the rectum a grave? October 43: 215-22. Booth, Stephen, ed. 1977. Shakespeare’s sonnets. New Haven: Yale University Press. Bray, Alan. 1982. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. London: Gay Men’s Press. Bredbeck, Gregory W. 1991. Sodomy and interpretation: Marlowe to Milton. Ithaca Cornell University Press.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Cady, Joseph. 1992. “Masculine love,” Renaissance writing, and the “new invention” of homosexuality. In Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England: Literary representations in historical context. Ed. Claude Summer. Binghamton: Haworth Park.

Coleridge, Samuel Tylor. 1993. Quoted in Peter Stallybrass, Editing as cultural formation: The sexing of Shakespeare’s sonnets (Modern Language Quarterly 54): 91103.

Copjec, Joan. 1994. Read my desire: Lacan against the historicists. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Eagleton, Terry. 1983. Literary theory: An introduction. St Paul: University of Minnesota Press.

Fineman, Joel. 1986. Shakespeare’s perjured eye: The invention of poetic subjectivity in the sonnets. Berkeley: University of California Press. Foster, Donald W. 1987. Master W.H., R.I.P. PMLA 102: 42-54. Foucault, Michel.1980. The history of sexuality: Volume 1: Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random House.

Frye, Northrop. 1962. How true a Twain. In The riddle of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Ed. Edward Hubler. New York: Basic Books.

Goldberg, Jonathan. 1992. Sodometries: Renaissance texts, modern sexualities. Stan

ford: Stanford University Press.

_, ed. 1994. Queering the Renaissance. Durham: Duke University Press. Gore, Jennifer. 1992. What we can do for you! What can “we” do for “you?”: Struggling over empowerment in critical and feminist pedagogy. In Feminisms and critical pedagogy. Ed. Carmen Luke and Jennifer Gore. New York: Routledge. Howard, Jean. 1988. Cross-dressing, the theatre, and gender struggle in early modern England. Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 418-40. Jardine, Lisa. 1983. Still harping on daughters: Women and drama in the age of Shakespeare. Brighton: Harvester.

Kerrigan, John. 1986. Introduction to William Shakespeare: The sonnets and a lover’s complaint. London: Penguin.

Lacan, Jacques. 1981. Four fundamental concepts of psycho-analysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton.

Lacquer, Thomas.1990. Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lather, Patti. 1992. Post-critical pedagogies: A feminist reading. In Feminisms and critical pedagogy. Ed. Carmen Luke and Jennifer Gore. New York: Routledge. Lemaire, Anika. 1970. Jacques Lacan. Trans. David Macey. New York: Routledge. Levine, Laura. 1982. Men in women’s clothing: Anti-theatricality and effeminization

from 1579-1642. Criticism: A quarterly for literature and the arts 28: 121-43. Lewis, Clive Staples. 1954. English literature in the sixteenth century. London: Clarendon.

Muir, Kenneth, ed. 1979. Shakespeare’s sonnets. London: George Allen and Unwin. Pequigney, Joseph. 1985. Such is my love: A study of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Chicago:

University of Chicago Press.

Rackin, Phyliss. 1987. Androgyny, mimesis, and the marriage of the boy heroine on the English Renaissance stage. PMLA 102: 2941.

Rose, Jacqueline. 1982. Introduction II in Feminine sexuality:Jacques Lacan and the ecole freudienne. Ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose. New York: Norton. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1990. Epistemology of the closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Shakespeare, William. 1977. Shakespeare’s sonnets. Ed. Stephen Booth. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Smith, Bruce R. 1991. Homosexual desire in Shakespeare’s England: A cultural poetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stallybrass, Peter.1993 Editing as cultural formation: The sexing of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Modern Language Quarterly 54: 91-103.

Traub, Valerie. 1992. Desire and anxiety: Circulations of sexuality in Shakespearean drama. New York: Routledge.

Wilson, John Dover, ed. 1967. The sonnets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Zizek, Slavoj. 1994. The spectre of ideology. In Mapping ideology. Ed. Slavoj Zizek. New York: Verso.

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