William Shakespeare, one of the celebrated English writers globally, left a legacy denoted by his great poetic, playwriting, and acting works. Notably, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, an assortment of 154 poems, considered as sonnets that address various themes emerging from personal and interpersonal relationships. Evidently, Shakespeare uses the initial 128 sonnets to cover issues affecting a particular young man while the remaining 28 focus on a woman (Leishman 34). Rooted in the stylistic approach embraced by the Petrarchan love poems, Shakespeare’s sonnets unmask the themes of time, love, gender roles, politics, sexual desire, sexuality, and pornography (Schiffer 27).
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Specifically, the theme of sexuality manifests in various sonnets, thus welcoming an analysis to understand Shakespeare’s choice of addressing the issue. Interestingly, various scholars have raised concerns about the sexuality of the great writer, as some consider the probability of him being gay. The allegations arise from the biased coverage of his sonnets, where a majority of them address men. Additionally, the poet’s description of beauty, satirical approach to love, and the construction of gender roles reveal his interest in the issue of sexuality. Therefore, this paper purposes of analyzing the theme of sexuality in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
The Theme of Sexuality
In the Shakespeare Sonnets, several poems depict the aspect of human sexuality that implies a person’s sexual orientation. Particularly, in addressing love and gender roles, the poet unearths the various sexual preferences he associates with the man or boy in question. In this regard, the heterosexual and homosexual preferences or desires of the characters in question would provide a suitable approach for analyzing the theme of sexuality in Shakespeare’s great works.
The aspect of heterosexuality as a subject of sexuality gets uncovered in the initial sonnets. Evidently, the first towards the seventeenth sonnet show how Shakespeare addresses the issue of heterosexuality by advising a man to consider the relevance of maintaining his beauty and distinction to secure one’s love. In doing so, the man would be guaranteed to perpetuate their manly charms by expressing them to women who would bear him offspring in turn.
As such, an individual ought to portray their sexuality early in the years of their youth to attract greater love before they age. For instance, sonnet 11 reads, “And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestow’st, Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest. Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase” (Schiffer 71).
Further, Shakespeare underlined that men who are harsh or rude to women and those not maintaining their appearance, leading to featureless body shape, would perish barrenly. Therefore, the renowned poet underscored the importance of expressing a man’s sexual orientation or preference by showing a tender approach towards women characterized by effective communication. Thus, Shakespeare suggests that with time, a man’s loving attribute would secure his offspring (Muir 53).
In this light, since an offspring is achievable through sexual intercourse, typically between individuals of the opposite sex, the poet reveals that heterosexuality reinforces a man’s essence in society. What is more, the bounteous gift that women offer to men requires bountiful cherish by men from their youth before they wane with time.
Besides addressing the issue of love from the time perspective, Shakespeare likens marriage to a beautiful thing that provides an environment for love to blossom. In sonnet number 27, the renowned poet reveals the extent to which he saw an image of a friend at night while resting after a tiring traveling endeavor. Particularly, Shakespeare expressed the depth of his love for a friend – possibly his wife, since he could not close his eyes and sleep but think of her astonishing beauty. A few lines in the 27th sonnet reveal this “Save that my soul’s imaginary sight Presents thy shadow to my sightless view, Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night, Makes dark night beauteous and her old face new” (Sedgwick 66).
Evidently, the friend of reference in the above poem turns out to be a female friend whose face illuminates in the night once he thinks about her. In this regard, the female friend denotes his attraction to persons of the opposite sex. Given that the friend is possibly his wife, the poet reveals the intact bond created through marriage. As seen, a woman gives a man the strength required to soldier on in life as Shakespeare prepares to continue engaging his limbs at the break of dawn. Therefore, in this case, Shakespeare reveals his sexuality, as that attracted to the opposite sex, by portraying how much he missed his wife while he was away.
Further, the theme of sexuality addressed through marriage is demonstrated in sonnet 116. An illustration of this appears in Sonnet 116 where Shakespeare says, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. Love does not love, which alters when its alteration finds…” (Schiffer 121). Interestingly, up to date, people still read the poem in heterosexual wedding ceremonies, thus revealing the extent of its embracement beyond the Petrarchan poetic period. Therefore, Shakespeare advises the man not to allow impediments to alter his marriage negatively by embracing an assertive mental frame together with the wife in a bid to strengthen the bond.
Thus, Shakespeare wrote the poem to underscore that a heterosexual couple would attain more success by engaging the two brains in overcoming life hurdles, a trend seen in contemporary weddings. As such, collaborative efforts between the man and his woman seek to strengthen the marriage in a manner that enhances its longevity, pinpoints the essence of heterosexual relationships.
What is more, Shakespeare unearthed the benefits of heterosexual marriages not only to the couple but also to society in general. Notably, in the 14th Sonnet Shakespeare warns the man of the consequences of failing to marry by arguing, “Die single, and thine image dies with thee” (Shakespeare 7). Evidently, the words transcend the purpose of improving the young man’s flirtatious ramblings as it also sought to improve England’s population composition.
The time when Shakespeare wrote the sonnets witnessed significant child mortality rates in England emanating from natural causes and diseases. Therefore, Elizabethan England required men to marry in a bid to sire children who would facilitate the sustainability of the male population in society (Sedgwick 97). Prohibiting the death of single people ensured the continuation of species in a time the English Kingdom was in a crisis. In this context, Shakespeare followed suit by using his artistic influence to advocate for heterosexual marriages, a trend embraced by Petrarchan love poems.
As depicted in the above contexts, Shakespeare uncovered the theme of heterosexuality severally as an essential aspect of human life. Besides his overwhelming desire towards the young man, referred to as Mr. W. H., the speaker urges him to enhance his beauty to attract women, for the sake of procreation. Further, the poet underlines the essence of time in finding love since age leads to the weakening of a man’s charms, thereby decreasing their chances of finding love and companionship.
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Additionally, Shakespeare portrays heterosexuality as a beautiful thing, since even when he is away on a journey, he can see the image of his love, potentially a woman who gave her strength to trudge on with life. Moreover, Shakespeare associates marriage with the continuity of the human species typically replicated through sexual intercourse between heterosexual couples. In this case, he likened children to a death antidote.
Heterosexuality entails sexual desires and interests directed to a person of the same sex. Axiomatically, Shakespeare portrays signs of psychological imbalances that uncover his considerable affiliation to homosexuality, as seen in the number of sonnets vividly addressed to a man. Remarkably, a significant proportion of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which is 128, employed an explicit language to address a man or a non-gender specific addressee. Evidently, the first 17 sonnets entail the use of sexually explicit lyrics that reveal the speaker’s affection towards the beauty of the young boy (Leishman 40).
Right from sonnet 18, the poet is seen urging the boy to maintain his beauty to combat the detrimental outcomes of time in a manner that immortalizes his beauty in the poem verses (MacFaul 129). In this light, the situation in which the speaker finds pleasure in describing the beauty of the young man prompts inquiry about his sexuality since he uncovered his biased concern with an individual of the same sex.
The succeeding sonnets reveal the degree to which the speaker finds displeasure with the decision of the young man who sought love elsewhere, probably another man, or the dark woman, described in the latter sonnets. Interestingly, sonnet 40 shows Shakespeare accusing the young man of stealing his love, in this case, presumed as the dark woman (Matz 480). However, readers cannot refute the possibility of the speaker using it as a counteraction to secure the affection of the young man to its former status.
As the “affection bonds existing between the poet and his love image, considered the young man, take a course characterized by thematic and dramatic changes, similarly does the growth of Shakespeare’s assurance that the poem would immortalize the beloved’s beauty” (Leishman 116). The speaker’s rage is revealed in sonnet 65 where he says “Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, But sad mortality o’er-sways their power, How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, whose action is no stronger than a flower” (Waugaman 872).
In this case, the poet perceives the young man’s waning affection to a dying flower, denoting how he cherished the beauty of the young man. Further, the speaker underlines his affection towards the young man by expressing his affection towards him in dark ink, a way of seeking its endurance with time, even after he leaves him. As such, the profound expression of lost love openly reveals his sexual orientation, one attracted to the same sex.
In the sonnets focused on the dark woman, Shakespeare associates heterosexual love with painful emotional experiences besides the physical outcomes. Mainly, in sonnets 127-154, besides using erotic lyrics that demonstrate sexual advances and desires, the speaker also warns the danger of falling in love and allowing lust to triumph. Evidently, sonnet 129 likens lust and love with a cruel, savage, rude, and extreme life thereby denoting his dissatisfaction with heterosexuality (Sedgwick 113).
Additionally, given that the addressee of the last two sonnets is the dark woman, the speaker’s move towards likening the act of making love to detrimental consequences appears to pursue her not to give in to the sexual desires directed towards men. Similarly, the speaker seems to use it as a strategy to reclaim his lost love, the young man, by creating a picture suggesting that heterosexuality leads to painful experiences and outcomes.
One would also associate the speaker’s sexual orientation to that aroused by individuals of the same sex. Specifically, in the initial sonnets, the speaker explicitly underscores the essence of a man maintaining his beauty (Waugaman 865). Thus, one would question the reason for explicitly emphasizing on a man’s beauty instead of referencing a woman’s beauty, the usual source of a man’s sexual attraction. Additionally, after the young man shifted focus to another person, presumed the dark woman, the speaker accuses him of using his beauty to conceal his immorality, demonstrating the ravages of losing the beauty of an individual of the same sex.
Captivatingly, the speaker severally uses the sight motif to sway the reader towards embracing homosexuality. In various sonnets, the speaker repeatedly pursues the young man to use the mirror for self-admiration thus encouraging them to grow feelings towards fellow men (Waugaman 860). Similarly, Shakespeare used the sight motif to create perspectives affiliated to same-sex orientation. For example, in Sonnet 24, “the speaker likens his eyes to a paintbrush that imprints the beauty of the young man in his heart, particularly its blank page – the space usually taken by women” (Muir 49). Further, the poet uses the reader’s sight to visualize the beauty of the man, compared to the rising sun in one instance. In this regard, Shakespeare further reveals his homosexual desires by imagining a bright future with the young man.
Overall, Shakespeare’s sonnets seek to appeal homoerotic readers owing to the descriptions he uses to express sexual desires towards the beauty of the young boy. In a similar way, the approach embraced by the poet would elicit criticism from homophobic readers who find discomfort in the homoerotic poems (Matz 479). The poet expresses himself in a homoerotic manner by saying “That may express my love or my dear merit? Nothing, sweet boy; but yet like prayers divine, I must each day say o’er the very same, Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine…” (Leishman 77). In this light, the reader acknowledges the physical and spiritual association or relationship existing between the speaker and the young boy, denoting homosexuality.
Throughout Shakespeare’s sonnets, the theme of sexuality manifests itself in a manner that fosters an understanding of his perceptions towards the issue. Heterosexuality uncovers in various poems as the author emphasizes the importance of a man to maintain his beauty in a way that would guarantee its replication through procreation. Further, Shakespeare stressed that time waits for no man and thus, he ought to get married, a way of maintaining the steady growth of the Elizabethan England population due to the alarming child mortality rates by then. On the other hand, homoerotic expressions dominate the verses of the 154 sonnets suggesting that the speaker is homosexual, to a considerable extent.
Leishman, James. Themes and Variations in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Oxford: Routledge, 2013. Print.
MacFaul, Thomas. Male Friendship in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print.
Matz, Robert. “The Scandals of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” ELH 77.2 (2010): 477-508. Print.
Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Oxford: Routledge, 2013. Print.
Schiffer, James. Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Critical Essays, Oxford, UK: Routledge, 2013. Print.
Sedgwick, Eve. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Folger Shakespeare Library), New York: Washington Square Press, 2004. Print.
Waugaman, Richard. “The Bisexuality of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Implications for De Vere’s Authorship.” The Psychoanalytic Review 97.5 (2010): 857-879. Print.