Essay on Gender in William Shakespeare’s Sonnets

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Gender in Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Much has been made (by those who have chosen to notice) of the fact that in Shakespeare’s sonnets, the beloved is a young man. It is remarkable, from a historical point of view, and raises intriguing, though unanswerable, questions about the nature of Shakespeare’s relationship to the young man who inspired these sonnets. Given 16th-Century England’s censorious attitudes towards homosexuality, it might seem surprising that Will’s beloved is male. However, in terms of the conventions of the poetry of idealized, courtly love, it makes surprisingly little difference whether Will’s beloved is male or female; to put the matter more strongly, in some ways it makes more sense for the beloved to be male.

Will’s beloved is “more lovely and more temperate (18.2)” than a summer’s day; “the tenth Muse (38.9);” “‘Fair,’ ‘kind,’ and ‘true’ (105.9);” the sun that shines “with all triumphant splendor (33.10).” We’ve heard all this before. This idealization of the loved one is perhaps the most common, traditional feature of love poetry. Taken to its logical conclusion, however, idealized love has some surprising implications.

To idealize the beloved is to claim for them (or, in a sense, to endow them with) certain characteristics. The Ideal is the One–perfect, self-sufficient, unified, complete. The Ideal doesn’t need anything. The consistent, static, homogeneous Sun is ideal; the changeable, inconsistent Moon is not.

Insofar as the Ideal is the One, it is also the True. The image coincides with reality; looks do not deceive. There is, for Will, a battle between his eye and heart–“Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war / How to divide the conquest of thy sight: (46.1-2)”–but they are not disagreeing about value: “. . . mine eye’s due is thy outward part, / And my heart’s right thy inward love of heart (13-14).” Inward and outward are in harmony; the beautiful is the good.

This could create a problem, since the beloved eventually is going to grow old and ugly and then die and be food for worms. There is in the sonnets definitely a concern with the ravages of “Time’s scythe.” And Will does not say “I’ll love you when you are old and ugly.”

The body will wither and die. But the Ideal can be saved, if one prints off more images. Will exhorts his beloved to reproduce, “breed another thee (6.