The Social Masochism of Shakespeare's Sonnets

By Mcintosh, Hugh | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Social Masochism of Shakespeare's Sonnets

Mcintosh, Hugh, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900

Hugh McIntosh. The Social Masochism of Shakespeare's Sonnets

This essay argues that the little evidence we have concerning Shakespeare's sonnets in manuscript circulation suggests that many of the poems--particularly those most charged with bawdy innuendo--are more socially coded than is often thought. While scholars of early modern manuscript culture have focused on Shakespeare's "young man" sonnets, which clearly express a hierarchical patron-writer relationship, evidence suggests that the "dark lady" poems were among those written for a gentlemanly audience. Read in this context, these sonnets' use of linguistic ambiguity and imagery of feminization presents a socially innovative persona: a figure whose charm is self-abjection.


Figuring linguistic ambiguity as Shakespeare's "fatal Cleopatra," the temptation "for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it," Samuel Johnson conjures up a mixture of "dark" womanhood, implications of gratified lust, and the exoticism of cross-rank erotics--opposing a standard of verbal economy to a sense of pleasant, feminized, and useless diversion. (1) The image deals in durable categories. The modern term "wordplay," for instance, retains this distinction between the productivity of work and the waste of fun, a dividing line that, as Margreta de Grazia has argued, was not widely incorporated into English usage until Johnson's own eighteenth-century efforts at "lexical standardization." (2) Work and play, de Grazia claims, do not map so cleanly onto the language of Shakespearean texts. As an example, she follows the variations on one word ("bear") in The Winter's Tale, and shows how the capacity of a single sound to gather together multiple meanings could be a definitive source of both structure and action. (3) To disregard the "wordplay" in the play, then, may be to miss the very ways it makes sense, to lose what makes it work.

Although Johnson's distinction between productivity and waste seems worth complicating, his Cleopatra aptly suggests the vague air of eroticism that so often marks Shakespeare's use of homonyms. The puns, as everybody knows, are bawdy, particularly in the sonnets, where a dangerously alluring "dark lady" and a reluctant young man are surrounded by what has been called an "imprecise[ly] create[d] ... aura of sexuality," a suggestiveness that "abides in the half-light of wordplay, implication, and insinuation." (4) I want to question the value of reading this text as a coherent whole, but first would like to note how central the collective "aura" created by ambiguous language has been to the long and contested tradition of making sense of the sonnets. Peter Stallybrass and de Grazia have both traced the cultural anxiety that has marked these poems' reception, exemplified by the fervent denials of Shakespeare's homosexuality by critics such as Samuel Coleridge and George Chalmers. (5) More recently, Joseph Pequigney has reversed these claims, arguing in Such is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets that, if read correctly, the sonnets tell the clear story of an "amorous transaction" between Shakespeare and his male addressee. (6) In these readings, Shakespeare's bawdy ambiguities are signposts to a specific kind of biographical subtext--whether homosexual or heterosexual, they seem to confess the truths of an "interiorized" sexuality. (7)

Stephen Booth, perhaps the editor most attuned to the verbal play of the sonnets, voices a strong impatience with these biographical interpretations. "Hermaphroditic wordplay," he writes, "is not likely to confuse any readers but those who treat the poems as biographical spoor: sexual wordplay has always been anatomically eclectic--as any reader of walls knows." (8) Sexually overcharged language, Booth argues, is only natural. But here, defending the sonnets from being read as authorial confession comes at the price of universalizing a very different kind of text: the obscene graffiti "any reader" might find in a modern (men's) bathroom.

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