Sordid Images: The Poetry of Masculine Desire

By S. H. Clark | Go to book overview

2

‘ALL THIS THE WORLD WELL KNOWS’

Lust in Shakespeare’s sonnets

It might appear trivial, and even impertinent, to raise the question of misogyny in relation to Shakespeare. Specialist studies of bawdry have confidently embraced this aspect of his work as indicative of its breadth and inclusiveness. Eric Partridge’s lexicon celebrates ‘the universal-spirited, the catholic-emotioned man’ Shakespeare ‘so dazzlingly, so movingly, was in life and print’ (1947:4); and this sentiment remains intact forty years later in F. R. Rubenstein’s declared intention ‘to show that Shakespeare, who we say understood and wrote of the human heart in all its facets, its frailty as well as its nobility, did exactly that’ (1989: ix). Similarly, E. A. Colman’s concern to demonstrate ‘the dramatic or thematic use of indecency’ (1974: vi) is repeated in Rubenstein’s insistence that despite the seeming ‘pointless obscenity’ of these ‘idle bawdy puns’, they perform a structural function as ‘signposts’ to ‘larger metaphors’ through which ‘meaning is enhanced’ (1989: xii, xi, x).

There is a simple historicist rejoinder: what else should be expected from a late-sixteenth-century male, whose routine sentiments on such issues (whether or not attributable to the influx of syphilis) have been memorably described as akin to those of a ‘thinking rabbit’ on myxomatosis (Rossiter 1961:138; see also Traub 1992:71-87)? More interesting, perhaps, is how such a version of heterosexual desire could have been accepted as unequivocally normative for so long. The festive comedies may perhaps be seen as combining respect for the individual with awareness of the broader necessity of social regeneration (see Barber 1959). But this kind of justification, difficult enough to transpose on to the plays of Shakespeare’s maturity, is self-evidently inappropriate for the non-dramatic verse, whether the ethereal truisms of The Phoenix and the Turtle, the curiously homely

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