Problematic sexuality in Shakespeare’s sonnets
“Speculation on the identity of the main characters in the sonnets is often linked with questions about Shakespeare’s own sexuality, with some assuming that the love professed for the ‘beautiful youth’ indicates Shakespeare’s own romantic feeling…”
Dr Pablo Muslera
University of South Australia
This fictocritical work explores a long-standing literary mystery, regarding the inspiration for Shakespeare’s (1609) sonnet sequence, most recently addressed on screen in Branagh’s (2018) Shakespeare biopic All is True, and earlier in McKay’s (2005) A waste of shame. Speculation on the identity of the main characters in the sonnets is often linked with questions about Shakespeare’s own sexuality, with some assuming that the love professed for the “beautiful youth” indicates Shakespeare’s own romantic feelings for one of his young male patrons. Through a trio of sonnets written in iambic pentameter, I link the two characters to which the majority of Shakespeare’s 1609 sonnets are dedicated (the beautiful youth and the dark lady), by speculating that they are one and the same person. I address discussion on Shakespeare’s possible sexuality using biographical details to suggest an alternative muse for his sonnets. This touches on ideas of sexual ambiguity in Early Modern England, as well as our modern tendency to conflate an author’s life with their works. A creative mosaic, comprising a sonnet sequence and fictional prose memoir, ‘solves’ the mystery through a creative reimagining which underscores the sexual ambiguity within the sonnets. The contextualising critical discussion explores the boundary of biography and historical fiction, so pivotal to Michael’s own work, and how a scholarly investigation of previously suppressed historical voices may be enriched through creative intervention informed by research.
Shakespeare; textual intervention; fictocriticism; sexuality; biography
Having met Michael in a long-running reading group for PhD students, I present the following paper as a testament to the generosity of his feedback on my PhD’s creative artefact, and as an homage to a fellow historical fiction enthusiast. There are parallels between the following paper and the way Michael set about solving a historical riddle through creative means in his novel Nicholas Culpeper and the mystery of the philosopher’s stone (Noble 2019). Problematising the presentation of gender, and highlighting the fluidity of male sexuality in Shakespeare’s time, are themes from the paper which speak to Michael’s calls for greater understanding of the breadth of human sexuality, and acceptance of an individual’s right to define their own gender and identity. In Michael’s words, “labels are not the sum total of who I am: they are only facets of a multidimensional being that is me” (Noble 2010). Having succeeded in defining himself as a respected scholar and creative writer, in addition to a generous collaborator and activist (and other roles too numerous to mention), Michael left a legacy which will live long in a wide range of circles. As fellow scholars and writers who benefited from his unique insight and perspective, we are all of us fortunate to contribute to his memorial issue of WFB.
Introduction and contextualising statement
There is no evidence that Shakespeare composed his sonnets as a coherent sequence, or that he intended them for publication (Schoenbaum 1975, 217-218; Ellrodt, in Wells [ed.] 1986, 38; Chute 1977, 339-340). Magnusson states that Sonnets 1-126 are primarily dedicated to a beautiful youth; 127-154 to a dark lady (in Wells & Orlin [eds] 2003, 296). My creative thesis however, is that the sonnets are published in sequence and do reveal clues to Shakespeare’s muse, and to support my claim I composed three sonnets that link the original sonnets 126 and 127 (CXXVII, CXXVIII and CXXVIX in the artefact below). The theme and structure of Shakespeare’s original pair of sonnets are disparate: sonnet 126 (assuming the published copy was a complete version) abandons the fourteen-line structure of the rest of the sonnets, as well as substituting an aabb rhyme structure for the customary one of abab. Eighteenth-century Shakespeare scholar Edmond Malone remarked that “this sonnet differs from all the others in the present collection, not being written in alternate rhymes” (in Staunton [ed.] 1979, 2325). Thematically, there is a departure from the “lovely boy” of sonnet 126 to the “mistress with eyes of raven black” of sonnet 127. My trio of sonnets is designed to bridge this gap in both structure and subject, and so provide creative evidence for my candidate for the dark lady / beautiful youth. My methodology can be seen as a variant of fictocriticism; a narrative mode that interrupts the “putatively neutral and objective modes of scholarly writing to re-theatricalise writing” (Schlunke & Brewster 2005, 394). In doing so, I problematise the already problematic nature of the sonnets as a possible reflection of Shakespeare’s sexuality, and highlight the ambiguity surrounding shows of public male affection in Renaissance England. This ambiguity continues in modern creative portrayals of the sonnets’ inspiration, taken as evidence for Shakespeare’s romantic feelings for Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton (Holderness 2011, 111; Branagh 2018), William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (McKay 2005), and neither, or both, at different times (Greenblatt 2004, 232). The following artefact in two parts (sonnet trio and prose piece) adds its own creative solution to the sonnets’ muse/s, and is followed by an exegesis which contextualises each section.
ARTEFACT: ‘Horseboys and master-mistresses’
Compiler’s note, 28 January 2019:
The following poems are the so-called ‘Lost Shakespeare sonnet trio’, recently discovered by workmen doing repairs on a residence in Shoreditch, London. They appear to provide a link between Shakespeare’s sonnets 126 and 127. The first discovered sonnet follows the unusual rhyme structure of Shakespeare’s original sonnet 126: aabb (not found in any of his other sonnets) while the second and third follow the more conventional form of abab, also providing a thematic link from the “golden youth” to the “dark lady” of the original sonnet 127. There has been vigorous speculation as to the three poems’ provenance, with some academics comparing them to the Shakespeare hoax perpetrated by William Henry Ireland in 1796. Allusions in the new sonnet 126 to Shakespeare’s possible relationship with one of his “horseboys” have been interpreted by conservatives as an attack on English culture, through its most lauded playwright. Fox hunting groups denounce this sonnet as an obvious fabrication—speculating that they are an attempt by radical animal rights activists to discredit horseback sports in general. Equality advocates have called for the permanent inclusion of queer studies in the English school curriculum, and for Shakespeare to be recognised as a legitimate queer author. Heteronormative advocacy groups have taken the poems as proof that Shakespeare was heterosexual, arguing “the concluding lines of the second poem clearly state the Bard’s sexual preference—for all time”. Queer groups have countered that the signature immediately following the final sonnet, “For my dearest Jo-n [third letter obscured], all that I do is in your name” proves that it was dedicated to one of Shakespeare’s male lovers. Further forensic analyses and idiolectical comparisons are currently being undertaken to determine the sonnets’ authenticity.
Transcript of sonnets discovered 23 April 2018 at 52 Hart Place, Shoreditch, London:
O thou my Equus, boy with fillied eyes
Who keeps his mane: a coil of jet, a prize—
Modestly, beneath a cloth o’sack
And suffers no lost beauty at the lack
Of jealous eyes, or hands to pluck thy grace
What streak of silver doth caress thy face?
Fix’d, the seal of love on caramel’d cheek?
Phantom kisses in thy breath bespeak
Passions hidden, far from mortal view:
Thus preserved, they are refreshed anew.
Take this ink: unblotted, from our private page.
Take these words, this heart: unspoke on any stage.
Costumed Eve, a beautied Adam surely makes,
Doffing corset’s ribs for tunic, cap and breech:
Doffing all, for ghostly passion’s sake
Shedding modesty, in groundlings’ reach.
Lovers curtained from the eyes of players,
May at leisure so perfect their parts
They may strip their painted layers,
’Schewing prompting, when performance starts.
O, but that we could debate our cause!
Twin-souls carved from that same block of clay—
Then we’d earn our bounty of applause
In the gilded bower where we lay.
As it is, I’ll gladly trade a golden youth
For my black-haired, black-eyed mistress of the truth.
Do not take my patron’d words as test’ment
Honey bought, is naught but hire and sal’ry:
Though I pay him public ’ffections, ’tis a Lent
To the glory of your shaded dowry.
Though I faith-breach laws of God and man,
Brother Faustus will I gladly play.
Be my loving, dark, familiar, firebrand
Etch my crimes ’til they beguile the day.
For I’d fain be damn’d, than lose thy best esteem—
Thou, whose eyes make pale of ebony.
Thou whose looks make mock, my Hampton South-fog seems,
Bare my fichew’s words as errant peony.
Let me say it but once more, then peace—
Thine in truth; while his, the false and flattering-sweets.
Transcript of a letter from Richard Quiney to William Shakespeare dated 1598, discovered in Quiney’s effects upon his death
Haste to my Loving good friend and countryman Master William Shakespeare deliver these:
“Loving countryman, I am bold of you as a friend, craving your help with £30 upon Master Busshell’s and my security or Master Mytton’s with me. Master Ruswell is not come to London yet and I have especial cause. You shall friend me much in helping me out of all the debts I owe in London, I thank God, and much quiet my mind which would not be indebted. I am now towards the court in hope of answer for the dispatch of my business. You shall neither lose credit nor money by me, the Lord willing, and now but persuade yourself so as I hope and you shall not need to fear but with all hearty thankfulness I will hold my time and content your friend, and if we bargain farther you shall be the paymaster yourself. My time bids me hasten to an end and so I commit this [to] your care and hope of your help. I fear I shall not be back this night from the court. Haste. The Lord be with you and with us all. Amen.
From the Bell in Carter Lane the 25 October 1598. Yours in all kindness, Richard Quiney.”
The following account, believed to be a memoir of Richard Quiney, was discovered together with his undelivered letter requesting a loan of £30 from William Shakespeare (shown above). Although it is unsigned, it appears to refer to Shakespeare’s granting of the loan, and its provenance has been strongly argued as genuine by playwright William Davenant (thought by some to be Shakespeare’s godson, and others his biological son), and biographer Nicholas Rowe.
Section of an untitled memoir discovered in the Stratford residence of Richard Quiney, December 1601:
And I will not grudge my loving countryman his share of living as men do. Did he not my debts remit enough? Well and I recall the swift attending to my letter late October, Year our Lord 1598. So swift ’tending, that I’d barely set my mark upon the paper. In strode Will into the Bell like a prophetick Jew—and the bargain sealed within the hour. He gave me a look as schoolfellows might who’ve soak’d the Master’s inkwells in the tannery’s slops and set them dry with but three breaths to spare. It was this that gave him happy acquiescence to my quick-penn’d loan: he could see that I yet kept the proof of that first night, when Will and his boy I’d met in London. Was that ten years past, or ’leven? Had I not that quarto of The First Part of the Contention still in my grasp (for had I not the occasion mark’d with paper’d words—or what’s to say that I’d not ’magined that most comely youth)? Will had call’d him by a name that to my tongue was strange: one Bassanio, yet his speech did carry no suggestion of patrician tongue. Rather soft, melodious. No beard of even softest Autumn down, and eyes that glinted with the lustre of some rare black stone that is made to shine by Heaven’s tears. Errant locks of sim’lar hue escaped his cap and framed a face disposed to grins and laughter that erupted with the heartiness of sailor home to wife after a six-month stretch at sea.
“This Bassanio—goodly Stratford youth!—hath helped your Will to prosper straight from damnéd Lucy’s poaching suit.” So said Will by way of introduction, and the youth made half ’tween bow and curtsy. Cap had shaded eyes that first occasion: most I saw was burnished tannéd cheek the hue of caramel, and a mouth that curled to show a slice of little pointed teeth.
“Lord with you, Bassanio! Hath business with our Will?” Bassanio had chuckled then, in like with Will, as at some old joke.
“Aye, Dickon, some business—how wouldst describe it, Will?”
Right familiar with my name, for one who’d only met—but Will gave looks to show no harm was meant and so I let it pass. For were we not bravos of old? Never said that Richard Quiney would not merry make with Stratford fellows who are free th’ even, when there’s pots of ale to drink.
“Husbandry, might say—in light: the care of Equus for the Shoreditch riders. They do brave the Northern paths of London for The Theatre’s boards: I, their steeds in honest footing keep.”
This from Bassanio: “Such an honest footer: all the noble riders call to Master Shakespeare, who employs two-dozen horseboys for the purpose. Will then is our steward—thus to him I bow.”
“Aye, I recognise that bow. ’Tis a prelude to the hop that hopes for hops. Go to then, Bassanio, large ales for good Richard and me, small ale to wet thine own lips.”
Some pence dropped into Bassanio’s hand, and a flourish to accompany the bow this time. Will made free with hops that night, we three a-roaring the Merry wives well in last rounds at the Bell: a pure contralto had Bassanio—could be his stones were yet enclenched within the grate and had not dropp’d? Or sotting mem’ry makes it so.
It did not surprise me that Will to such swift enterprise had turned. Ever in our youth had he been quick of wits as much as fingers: and quick to will his Will into the will of sweet beguiling Anne: but I do not speak ill. As if he alone of all the Stratford youth had by such honey-traps ensnaréd been! And Anne had a way of turning a man to a cockerel on th’ heap with a calm green look and the barest tip of tongue that played ’round wide pursed bow of mouth. A Shottery milkmaid’s mouth, made ready to lick the cream from top o’pail. Nor was I myself immune to such inducements.
Well again, the ale, but I was certain that the lips of good Bassanio first on my cheeks and then Will’s in warmth had lingered. What of that? And what of a fraternal arm engaged ’round each our necks? ’Twas no Ganymede, but a golden smiling boy who had made merry with his steward and his loving countryman in the sweet and smoky chamber of the Bell.
When was that—1587? ’88? Could not have been much past, for Will had scarce left Stratford, soon in company with poor dead and brilliant Marley—I liked to call him such, so as to rhyme with barley, whence the prov’nance of his favourite drink. A frightful clever fellow, but a demon from the blackest pits of misery when the tumbler’s count had stretched beyond his better temper. Ne’er did I see Marley but with sotweed pipe and frothy pot and dagger whence to clean his nails. To speak of Greeks again, now sure he would have been a one to frolic better with the boy Bassanio—to my eye, anyway—but he never did. Perhaps ’twas envy at the closeness that the little horse-boy had with Will. Tho’ once there bore a strange familiarity in Kit’s looks to young Bassanio. Lightly drummed his fingertips on the boy’s cap and bent close, whispered something in his ear; other hand over his mouth in mum’ry like Barabas in conspirer’s humour. Bassanio’s mouth then in an ‘o’ and hugs his shoulders like a man who hides his tender parts once felled and kicked by drunken curs—but never did I know poor Marley as a bully of young boys. Kit picked his fights only with men, and mostly men of paths as shaded as his own. What was there ’tween man and boy as Kit reclined and slowly touched his fingers to his mouth and soft in imitation of a kiss? A quiet look from ’neath Bassanio’s cap and bare suggestion of a nod, and they resumed their silent tableau. Players. There seemed no harm in it, another one of Marley’s drunken japes.
How comes’t I harp upon poor Kit? ’Tis Will I’d fain recall to vision clear. My point? Aye, ’tis a common enough one with players. As I in principal ha’ said, I’ll not judge my countryman for living as men do. Whether Will’d tumbled a London wench or three or five I know not—but a Lord Chamberlain’s man, a tongue as quick as thought, could play the gentry and the common folk ’pon the same pipe—with naught to equal him after poor Marley’s end. What more can be said? Lusty of old he is, our Will: as like the salmon, knows his time upon this coil to be constrained, so strives the stronger for it ’gainst the temp’ral stream.
Still, ne’er did I see him darken Henslowe’s stews for hire of country matters—for Will the mercantile it would offend. I yet recall him saying that to part with coin for the expresséd purpose would dull the edge of husbandry. And he would know, young husband. One day I saw Bassanio with a pair of new-turned gloves. Well I remember our Will’s first art, and in the stitching I fancied his signature. Will had a way of making the gap ’tween thumb and forefinger into a little curlicue that doubled his initial ‘S’ into a symbol for eternity: he did not seek to hide the seams as other glovers might. “Why should the artisan retreat within his cave of art?” he’d say. “Duller blades keep better company with shadows: we the bright and silver’d foils should not sheathe ourselves in ’scuréd soot”.
So when I asked Bassanio o’er a pot—Will had bade me keep the boy a-company as he finished in a fever The First Part of the Contention—the lad brushed cheveril ’gainst my cheek and showed a little more the pointed pearls: “Aye, ’tis Will’s design, but hath commissioned ’nother glover to provide for all his errand boys”.
I knew this was not so—for I knew how long a pair of Will’s gloves would take him, and further that he never would entrust the craft to others for the sake of his familial pride. But I held my peace, as befits a countryman.
As if in answer, and belying notions sev’ral-bodied peace may in singular be held, a creak of wooden rail and perfect diction of the customary drinker ’companied sweetly acrid plume of blue:
‘But that my heart’s on future mischief set,
I would speak blasphemy ere bid you fly’.
’Twas Kit, a-course, who held a parchment out to dry with equal parts of breath and sotweed. He picked his way to table ’cross from hearth as if he knew it i’th’dark, and slouched there, one boot resting on the fireplace wall and serving as a fulcrum for to rock his seat back to and fro. Bassanio touched his cap and tucked a wisp of hair behind his ear: a sign I’d come to know meant much excitement in the lad. A whisper from him that to my ear sounded ‘fin’. Spoke he of fish? English cod or salmon or the great whale that they used for courtly scents. So Bassanio smelled, ’neath the musk of horse and straw and sweat. Mayhap perfume, a gift from grateful nobles on their steed’s return.
Marley took a long, considered draught from his e’er brimful pot and closed his eyes as if in contemplative stupor. Then came Will from upper rooms, softly-trod without a trace of railing’s creak. First and second inkéd fingers joined and pressed to lips in mirror to our Marley’s gesture of a savage kiss—I knew then what meant the boy by fin.
“Sound drum and trumpets, to London we all:
And more such days as these us to befal!”
This Will and Marley roared in concert—their meaning, that the play could be enacted in The Theatre come one month’s time—and the rest of the night a red-cheek’d haze and that boy’s whale-scent had o’ercome the smoke that wisped from Marley’s clay.
“Novels arise from the shortcomings of history”
(Novalis, in Slotkin 2005, 221)
My desire to address the identity of Shakespeare’s muses arose from the “shortcomings of history”. The sonnets are such a personal account of passion for the beautiful youth and the dark lady, yet nobody is sure whether they reflected Shakespeare’s actual romantic thoughts (though ‘Will’ is named in some of them, and one references his wife Anne Hathaway). I began with the kernel of an idea: that the beautiful youth and the dark lady in Shakespeare’s sonnets were the same person—Shakespeare’s younger sister Joan. The only historical research I had undertaken at this stage involved gleaning a few biographical details: that Joan outlived Shakespeare by thirty years (Schoenbaum 1975, 25); that an earlier Joan had died in infancy (Chute 1977, 8); that Shakespeare’s father John traded in wool and later faced financial difficulties (Weis 2007, 40; Dickson 2009, 476-478). I incorporated a story about Shakespeare working as a hostler on his arrival in London, minding horses at the theatre for noble patrons (Schoenbaum 1975, 111-112). I also conscripted the long standing tradition that Shakespeare played minor parts (including the ghost of King Hamlet) in one of his own plays (Schoenbaum 1975, 148-149). This provided both a cover for Joan’s time in London, disguised as one of Shakespeare’s “horse-boys”, as well as an opportunity for a romantic tryst between them in the back of the theatre after Will’s performance.
I cannot say how the idea of Joan as the dark lady/beautiful youth originally arose, though sensational speculation on Shakespeare’s personal life is nothing new. Weis attributes Shakespeare’s focus on betrayal by younger brothers in Hamlet, King Lear, and The Tempest to his being cuckolded by one of his own junior siblings—Edmund or Richard (2007, 311-312). Burgess assumes a similar adultery, both in an essay (1968, 159) and fictional work (2001, 91); Shakespeare refers to incest in Hamlet, The rape of Lucrece, Measure for measure, and on five separate occasions in Pericles (Crystal & Crystal 2008). I had a strong concept of the transferral of Shakespeare’s emotional longing for the original Joan (who died before he was born) to her younger namesake. Shakespeare lived at a time of high infant mortality, so I felt that every sibling would be all the more precious to him—especially one whose name recalled his late elder sister. In this way, I used biographical details to immerse myself in my story, seeing it from “the limited and contingent perspective of those who are caught up in the action” (Slotkin 2005, 225). I navigated the emotional leap from siblings to lovers by building on Joan’s early adoration of her elder brother, and using William’s distress at his father’s financial difficulties as a catalyst for Joan to comfort him—leading to their first night together. Once I had decided upon my basic plot, I discovered further biographical details that could be used to support it. Joan named her first son William, and—in addition to £20 and life tenancy at nominal rent in the Western wing of the Birthplace—Shakespeare bequeathed Joan all of his clothes (Schoenbaum 1975, 25). This recalls the cross-dressing scenes in a number of Shakespeare plays (As you like it; Twelfth night, The two gentlemen of Verona, The merchant of Venice) as well as the State-enforced transvestism on Renaissance England stages (Dickson 2009, 395). Joan disguising herself in William’s clothes thus made it possible for her to be both the dark lady and the beautiful youth: “Bassanio” from the Richard Quiney prose piece. Sonnet CXXVII introduces Joan dressed as one of Will’s “horse-boys”:
O thou my Equus, boy with fillied eyes—
Who keeps his mane: a coil of jet, a prize
I follow the unusual aabb rhyme structure and twelve line metre of the original sonnet 126 here, to provide a structural link to it. The theme of the beautiful youth being one of Shakespeare’s “horse-boys” is continued in the Richard Quiney memoir and “scholarly discussion” of the sonnet trio’s provenance. ‘O thou my Equus’ recalls the Latin for ‘horse’. The “fillied eyes” are the first clue in the linking sonnets of the horse-boy’s true gender. Filly is a term for a female horse, but also an Old Norse colloquialism for a girl or young woman (Australian pocket Oxford dictionary). Similarly, the “mane: a coil of jet” is the long hair disguised under Bassanio’s sackcloth cap: “cloth o’sack”. The “streak of silver” and “phantom kisses” are references to William and Joan’s tryst in the tiring rooms the night Will had played a spirit in one of his own plays, leaving part of his greasepaint on her cheek afterwards. The “private page” and “heart: unspoke” suggest that this trio of sonnets are intended for private consumption, as most such confessional poems at the time were.
The second of my linking sonnets is more brazen in its allusions to Bassanio’s cross-dressing, and details of Will and Joan’s night at the theatre:
Costumed Eve, a beautied Adam surely makes
Doffing corset’s ribs for tunic, cap and breech:
“Ghostly passion” again recollects Shakespeare’s performance of a spirit and his subsequent laying with his sister, while “O, but that we could debate our cause! Twin-souls carved from that same block of clay” is his argument for the emotional legitimacy of their union, though it offends their society’s moral laws. In this I take Shakespeare’s subversion of Renaissance society’s expectations to an extreme. The closing couplet expresses Shakespeare’s wish to openly embrace his sister, his “black-haired, black-eyed mistress of the truth”.
My final sonnet addresses the practice of Renaissance playwrights seeking patronage by dedicating works to wealthy nobles—recalling Shakespeare’s dedications of his long narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The rape of Lucrece, to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. Shakespeare’s sonnets, printed by Thomas Thorpe, were dedicated to a “Mr W.H.”. Even wishful thinking and a reversal of initials is doubtful evidence that “W.H.” could be Henry Wriothesley—as an Earl, he would have been addressed as “your Lordship”, never simply “Mr” (Chute 1977, 342-343; Schoenbaum 1975, 219). However, Shakespeare’s sonnets appear to have been printed independent of him, so the dedication may simply have been the printer’s own pandering to a wealthy patron. My sonnet reveals Shakespeare’s ‘true’ opinion of such grovelling: as an odious necessity:
Do not take my patron’d words as test’ment
Honey bought, is naught but hire and sal’ry:
“Hire and sal’ry” is paraphrased from Hamlet (III.iii.79) to show Shakespeare’s opinion of seeking “patron’d words” as a mercenary practice. The brief internal rhyme of “bought” and “naught” is designed to emphasise Shakespeare’s point that his “public ’ffections” are worth nothing, a “Lent” (abstinence) in preparation to the “glory” of Joan’s “shaded dowry”. This latter term is a reference to the necessarily hidden nature of Will and Joan’s relationship, and could also be taken as a vulgar neologism for Joan’s genitalia, in much the same way that “hell” was an Elizabethan euphemism for vagina (Dickson 2009, 458). Additionally, it recalls King Lear’s “She is herself a dowry” (I.i.241.1). These varying interpretations set up a deliberate antithesis between conforming to society’s rules—providing a dowry before marriage—and secretly relishing “sinful” or “unnatural” yearnings.
The next line has Shakespeare admitting to “faith-breach” (in Elizabethan times, a noun meaning treachery [Crystal & Crystal 2008], although I use it as a verb) “laws of God and man”, aspiring to emulate Marlowe’s character of Faustus, with Joan as his Mephistopheles, “loving, dark, familiar, firebrand”. Thus the “golden youth” from my first linking sonnet is transformed into a true “dark lady”, full of “damned” but inescapable passions. Joan’s “looks make mock” of the Earl of Southampton: “my Hampton South-fog” (a South-fog was a contagion brought by the south wind [Crystal & Crystal 2008]). Her penetrating gaze also sees through Shakespeare prostituting himself for patronage: his “fichew’s (a polecat, skunk, or prostitute [Crystal & Crystal 2008]) words” are errant “peony” (common usage of this word refers to a flower, but I use it as my own neologism for servitude: derived from the Spanish peon, an itinerant labourer). The final line drives home Shakespeare’s point that his public dedications to Southampton are “false and flattering-sweets” (from Romeo and Juliet II.ii.141, meaning too enticing to be real), while Joan has his true affections.
Richard Quiney memoir and scholarly discussion
Utilising intertextuality, I introduce this section of the artefact with a transcript of the only extant letter addressed to William Shakespeare, a loan request by his Stratford neighbour Richard Quiney (Weis 2007, 267-9). Although a correspondence asking for money may seem a dull starting point from which to launch a creative narrative, it can be seen that Shakespeare himself was adept at transmuting such dry fare into compelling theatre:
What Shakespeare did, of course, was to take pedestrian pieces of work and endow them with distinction … Before he reworked it Othello was insipid melodrama. In Lear’s earlier manifestation, the King was not mad and the story had a happy ending (Bryson 2007, 98-99).
As stated in my artefact, the letter requesting a loan was discovered at Quiney’s residence upon his death—and hence appears to either have not been sent, or returned to him afterwards (Bryson 2007, 121; Weis 2007, 271-2). Beginning from this genuine transcript, I utilise textual intervention (Pope 1995) by first exploring the letter’s provenance. I write that it is “hailed as genuine” by Shakespeare’s first chronicler Nicholas Rowe, and the actor William Davenant—who encouraged the rumour that his mother, Jane Davenant, had had an affair with Shakespeare—and that he was the result (Lynch 2007, 23). By linking the unquestionable authenticity of Quiney’s loan request letter with a fictional account of his time in London with Shakespeare and “Bassanio” (Shakespeare’s sister Joan in disguise) I add credence to the latter, and lay bare the process by which Shakespearean legend often becomes accepted as fact.
I utilise praxis, a combination of intellectual research and creative practice (Crocker 1983, 49-50), in order to achieve a reasonable semblance of truth. Speaking of such characterisations as Falstaff (Henry IV plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor), Nutall suggests that “the poet of glorious, licentious imagination was also the poet of reverent and attentive perception” (1983, 100). I attempt to reproduce some of this poetic attention to detail in my character of Bassanio, my version of the “beautiful youth”: “No beard of even softest Autumn down and eyes that glinted with the lustre of some rare black stone that is made to shine by Heaven’s tears”. I employ intertextuality, by naming Bassanio, the beautiful youth from The merchant of Venice who appears to have a close relationship with the older merchant: “To you, Antonio, I owe the most in money and in love” (The merchant of Venice, I.i.131); “Well again, the ale, but I was certain that the lips of good Bassanio first on my cheeks and then Will’s in warmth had lingered.”
This leads directly into my later satirical discussion on how certain lines in my “new” trio of sonnets hold clues to Shakespeare’s sexuality: “equality activists have called for Shakespeare to be recognised as a legitimate queer author”. Here I foreground context and reinforce the dialogic nature of creativity by highlighting how part of a text’s meaning depends on the environment in which it is read. As Dickson states, “male sexuality in the Renaissance was an ambiguous and sometimes flexible reality, not easy to map onto modern-day values and beliefs” (2009, 459). McEvoy points out that in Shakespeare’s time, there was “no notion of an individual whose identity was ‘homosexual’” (2006, 85).
If there was no discrete category of homosexuality in Shakespeare’s time, there would have been no “equality activists”, or “queer studies”. Hence my discussion satirises the trend to interpret Renaissance views on sexuality through a modern prism. Sinfield notes that in Shakespeare’s time, “[male] friends shared beds, they embraced and kissed … So the proper signs of friendship could be the same as those of same-sex passion” (1996, 134). Because so little is known for certain regarding the inspiration for Shakespeare’s characters, the thirst to populate the unknown space with something can lead to some interesting assertions. Conjectures can take on a tone of fanaticism, with a construct like “Shakespeare” representing so much cultural and nationalistic capital. My discussion highlights the degree to which Shakespeare “continues to be co-opted” (Lynch 2007, 275) for a variety of conflicting agendas. Dickson mentions Shakespeare’s “outing as a gay icon” (2009, 454) because of the sonnets’ focus on one man’s love for another. But as Bray (1990, 4-6) points out, this love, though it expressed emotional bonds in physical affection (including on occasion being bedfellows), was part of a complex web of Renaissance social and professional connections, in which it was in one’s interest to be seen as publicly “friended” by another man, especially one with influence. It is on this that my artefact focuses, by complicating common assumptions made about the sonnets to the beautiful youth, with an even more “forbidden” passion for the dark lady represented by Shakespeare’s own sister. By replacing one sexual “taboo” with a greater one, I offer another possible interpretation of the sonnets, and how their power to inspire modern works, and problematise human sexuality, is perpetuated.
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