Exploring Sexuality with William Shakespeare

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The presence of homoerotic references in the works of William Shakespeare was a direct result of the Elizabethan attitude towards sex during the English Renaissance. Within the privacy of the sonnets, Shakespeare could effusively express a passion that the Elizabethan Era, with its social mores, stifled greatly as it frowned upon homosexuality. Given the freedom to express himself uninhibitedly, Shakespeare cast aside the homophobia of his age and inscribed love sonnets for another male, Mr. W.H. This unrestricted honesty created great tension and drama between Shakespeare and his adversary, the dark lady as well as fueling some of the greatest love poems of all time.

Over hundreds of years, it comes to no surprise that many scholars have found the sonnets effective in revealing insight into the biography of William Shakespeare. The emotional pressure contained in many of the sonnets and the fact that many, if not all, are dedicated to a man named ‘Mr. W.H.', provide important clues to Shakespeare's life. It begins with the sonnets' dedication, a passage written by Shakespeare that opens a world of controversy amongst scholars. The dedication runs as follows:

Setting. Forth.
(Shakespeare, 1490)
The initials T.T. at the conclusion of the dedication refer to Thomas Thorpe, the original publisher of the sonnets (http://andrejkoymasky.com/liv/sha/sha00.html). However, one question remains, who is Mr. W.H?

During the English Renaissance, it was customary for members of high social standings to hire established writers and poets to create masterful love sonnets and other works of literature for their entertainment. For a large portion of his adult life, Shakespeare spent his time writing sonnets for an upper class family, specifically for a young man (Rowse, 96). The beginning sonnets describe a ‘lovely youth' and it is believed that over time, Shakespeare's sonnets became more personal as the relationship between him and his patron intensified. Scholars have professed that this patron could in fact be "the only begetter of the sonnets," Mr. W.H, or William Hughes.

The majority of the sonnets were written between 1593 and 1596, however, they were not published until 1609 and then further edited in 1640, long after Shakespeare's death (Auden, 86). The randomness of their order leads scholars such as Northrop Frye to question their validity in accurately capturing real life happenings (Fleperin, 96). The publisher who replicated the sonnets in 1640 actually changed the pronouns in sonnets 15 through 126 to make it seem as if the poems were addressed to a woman. The question now at hand is; are the feelings expressed in the sonnets a celebration of homosexual love? And if so, how could such feelings emerge in a time where homosexuality had no place in social life (Taylor, 39)?

The sixteen hundreds were a time of strict values and high standards of living. At this time, embracing sexuality was not encouraged and questioning ones sexuality was not an option. During the English Renaissance it was common for men to wear their hair long and dress in silks and ruffles (Taylor, 45). World renowned professor, Edward Hubler, published his book, The Sense of Shakespeare's Sonnets, in which he points out the Elizabethan men used the term "lover" between men without embarrassment (Hubler, 17). Author C.L. Barber, in his essay on Shakespeare's Sonnets, reminds us that the suppressed roles of women in Elizabethan society kept them out of the theater,...
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