As we learned in the introduction to Shakespeare’s sonnets, there is much speculation as to who the sonnets are addressed to, and whether or not they are addressed to a male lover or a female. Where in the sonnets can you see evidence of this cause for speculation?
In one of Shakespeare’s most widely read sonnet (18), he doesn’t use any female pronouns at all and he even uses “him” and “men” in it in lines 6 and 13. So this is a good cause for speculation on whether or not it is intended for a man. And then in sonnet 55 as well, he doesn’t use feminine pronouns either. He actually uses masculine words like “princes” in line 2 and then he also talks about “Mars,” or the Roman God of war, which is a masculine figure (line 7). Also, in sonnet 35, Shakespeare talks about how his lover had sinned and how he blames himself for it, and being in love with a man during this time would definitely have been considered unclean or wrong. In that same sonnet, he does the same thing as the others and uses masculine words like in line 5 he says that “all men make faults.” In a lot of his poems he also gives cause for speculation for mainly the same reasons in the ones mentioned above.
Sonnet 55 doesn’t seem to imply a romantic relationship with the subject of the poem, more of an intense appreciation of said subject and a wish to immortalize them. Sonnet 35 also doesn’t implicate the narrator in the sinning, only in the condoning of the sin, whatever that sin may be. I’m of the personal persuasion that people often try to find homo-eroticism in Shakespeare’s work because it would make his life story just a bit more interesting if he was a gay man in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, the closest that Shakespeare ever seems to get to homoerotic is being ambiguous about the gender of his subject. It certainly makes one wish that there was more information available about his personal life. Unless new information comes to light, the question of Shakespeare’s sexuality will be up in the air as I don’t believe his writings have sufficient evidence to point towards one orientation or the other, though it is interesting to speculate.
Although Sonnets 130 and 138 are clearly about women, Shakespeare does not put his relationships with the women he writes about in a good light, describing his lover’s hair as “black wires” (Sonnet 38) or encouraging dishonesty to foster happy relationships (Sonnet 39). Looking to these two specifically and their lack of passion, one might question his feelings toward women. Sonnets 35 and 55 focus on “thou” and “you” in place of she or he, so someone interpreting the poems could choose the gender they were aimed at differently depending on their own preferences. Sonnet 35 especially raises circulation when discussing a sin the two have committed, where he writes “Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss” (Sonnet 35). He could have been referring to his relationship with a man, which would have been forbidden and considered a “sin” at the time, so it is understandable as to why certain sonnets do raise speculation.
The sonnets in which Shakespeare speaks of his lover in a truly passionate desire are the ones that have no mention of a specific female and are in fact very ambiguous about the gender at times. He uses pronouns like “thou,” “thy,” and “thee” in sonnets 18, 20, and 35 which hide the true gender of the subject. Sonnet 20 specifically identifies a man whom Shakespeare assigns girlish qualities, asking that since nature assigned him male parts, “mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure,” (14). Shakespeare feels connected to this unidentified man and admits to the struggle of his feelings for him since he is not woman. He blames nature for the missattribution and hopes that since he cannot have the man fully, he asks only for his love.
During my readings I noticed there were several sonnets that mentioned male pronouns instead of female. Sonnet 18 in line 7 “And often is his gold complexion dimmed,” line 11 ” Nor lose death brag thou wander’st in his shade,” and line 13 “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see” is one example. Another example that takes a more analytical look is Sonnet 35. The entire sonnet seems to be written by Shakespeare as a means to voice his contemplations with a relationship that would be seen as sinful. “Excusing these sins more than these sins are:/ For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense;” (lines 8-9) shows how he decides to forget about the idea that what he’s feeling is a sin because his subject is so sensually distracting.
On a slightly different topic, although Shakespeare seems to write that the women that he has had relationships with are bad, I think he still finds these women to be a special kind of beauty. As seen in Sonnet 130, Shakespeare totally describes his “love” as a bland, boring creature by comparing her to a goddess and other majestic things. However, the last two lines “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/ As any she belied with false compare.” Shakespeare claims that this bland woman is special to him because she is more real than other women.