Thursday, November 20, 2008

I have a question

If you have read Jack London's The Sea Wolf, you know that its narrator, Humphrey van Weyden, comes from a wealthy family and has had an extensive formal education. He's thrown into the company of the title character, Wolf Larsen, who, while very intelligent (also very violent), grew up without any education. The adult Larsen has read widely, but, as Humphrey scornfully notes, his reading has been random, rather than following a curriculum, and so Wolf doesn't appreciate the significance or importance of everything he has read.

The moment I read Humphrey's words a felt a kinship to Wolf Larsen -- I still feel it today. I, like Wolf, have read a great deal, but without a curriculum, and I felt the sting of Humphrey's criticism as surely as if it had been directed at me instead of the sea captain.

My random reading has included a few of Shakespeare's plays -- Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear (my favorite), The Merchant of Venice, and Richard III come to mind -- but not, until now, his sonnets. For this I blame a bad experience I had in high school: I went to a Catholic high school, and our study of Shakespeare's sonnets amounted to reading a single one -- I don't remember which, but it was one addressed to the Dark Lady -- and then being instructed to each write a sonnet on our own.

I don't believe most high school English teachers have any writing ability. That's the only way I can explain why it's so common for them to teach creative writing or poetry by simply telling students to "write one," as though that's all there is to it. I sat there, utterly miserable, for the allotted time, and in the end had nothing but a failing grade for the day. Maybe that's why I passed the half-century mark in my life having never read Shakespeare's sonnets. Those of you who have had Humphrey's formal education will be shaking your heads at my ignorance, but there you have it.

Then, I think sometime in late 2006, I heard a famous British actor -- it might have been O'.Too.le -- on NPR, say that he thought Shakespeare's greatest accomplishment was the sonnets, not the plays, and O'.Too.le even went on to recite one, explaining that he had memorized them all.

I was impressed. Maybe, I thought, I should read these sonnets. So (not wanting to invest a lot of cash), I bought a very beat-up copy from an online bookseller (so beat up it was missing the page that contained sonnets 16 and 17 -- I had to print them from a Web site and insert them myself), and in February, 2007, during a trip to the Napa Valley, I began to read.

It took me over a year. In my defense, I consider the only good way to read poetry to be aloud. Reading poetry without reciting it is like reading sheet music without playing it. So that limits when I can read. After all, reading love poetry out loud on buses or in the lunch room at work can be embarrassing. Also, I usually read a poem several times, to try to get the rhythm right. Also, my copy of the sonnets included essays about Shakespeare, analysis of the sonnets, criticism of the sonnets, etc., which were pretty slow going. But I finished.

So what did I think? To begin, he-who-might-have-been-O'.Too.le was not correct. The sonnets, like the plays, are uneven, and among the sonnets, like the plays, there are some that are truly amazing. But among the sonnets, like the plays, there are some real stinkers. The sonnets do not eclipse the plays in greatness.

I may post, sporadically, in the future about this sonnet or that. But for now, I have just one burning question. I have read some of Shakespeare's plays. I have learned what little we know about Shakespeare's life, such as the infamous second-best bed. Shakespeare is drummed into our heads in school. Shakespeare is talked about, speculated about, and referenced in public culture. I have been listening. I swear. So, how, oh how, I ask you, how have I gone through a half-century of life...

...without anyone telling me that Shakespeare was bi?

Of course he was. Anyone who reads these sonnets and thinks otherwise is so terrified of homosexuality as to be relieved of his or her senses. I have since learned that there were and are, in fact, those who are so voided of sense, including W. H. Auden, in an essay in my copy: Auden starts out (mostly) well, admitting that "men and women whose sexual tastes are perfectly normal [by which he means hetero], but who understand and enjoy poetry, have always been able to read [the sonnets] as expressions of what they understand by the word love, without finding the masculine pronoun an obstacle."

True enough (except for the perfectly normal slap), and what we would expect from enlightened people who are not bigots. But then as Auden goes on he seems to find the masculine pronoun more and more of an obstacle himself, as he argues that the truth is (in his opinion) that Shakespeare had a sensibility so much more highly attuned than the rest of us in the vulgate that his love for the Fair Youth transcended sex and gender. He calls it the "Vision of Eros" -- yes, he makes it a proper noun. And thus Shakespeare wasn't really bi. Oh, my dear W.H., you eventually sound desperate. Not to mention silly.

The other "Shakespeare wasn't bi" arguments -- that he was commissioned to write the sonnets to the Fair Youth for someone else, that he couldn't have loved the Fair Youth because he encouraged him to marry, and others -- are equally ridiculous, but it's a waste of time to debate people who have lost their good sense, and I'm not going to do it.

So what if Shakespeare was bi? It's not a big deal... or at least wouldn't be such a big deal, except that, on the one hand, it seems to be something no one talks about, and then, on the other hand, when someone does start talking about it, it raises such intense and shrill emotion.

So Shakespeare was bi. Is it the end of the world if the greatest literary force in the history of the English language -- a man credited (usually in exaggeration) with singlehandedly coining some percentage of the words and phrases that we use today -- was bi?

Apparently some people think it is.

Anyway! I know I'm not adding anything new to this debate. I'm just expressing my surprise that I found out this little tidbit about Shakespeare -- a man about whom we know so little that every tidbit seems to be treasured -- at this point and in this way. Oh, and one more thing:

I'm sure you know that many people believe that someone other than Shakespeare actually wrote the plays and sonnets. This is because (as they believe) Shakespeare was too provincial, ignorant, and even stupid to write them himself. So I do appreciate the cosmic irony that, on the one hand, there are those trying to drag down Shakespeare's image as a poet (and probably don't care whether he was bi), while, on the other hand, there are those who have elevated his image as a poet to such a height that they have to drag down the facts about his sexuality. Poor Shakespeare: He's either too great a genius for his own good, or not smart enough for his own good.

Oh, and if you haven't read The Sea Wolf, I recommend it. I couldn't put it down.

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