Monday, February 14, 2011

The never-ending search for the personality of W. Shakespeare continues apace; "never-ending" because there's not enough surviving evidence for us to know anything about his personal life or views - and it's apparent that there never will be - and because there'll always be people who will continue trying regardless. The latest hapless attempt is by our old friend Don Paterson, who has just published a book on Shakespeare's sonnets; a subject he was woefully ill-equipped to tackle - as this review illustrates - but which, of course, didn't stop him.

To quote Alistair Fowler's review: "[Paterson's approach] leads him to revive a Victorian idea of the Sonnets as literal autobiography. 'The Sonnets have to be read as a narrative of the progress of love.' Yes, but what kind of love? Homosexual, of course..."

or, as Paterson puts it in his precise scholarly language:

"Oh come on, people. The guy’s in love with a bloke."

This seems a case of imposing a contemporary sensibility onto the very different one prevailing four hundred years ago. After reading the review of Paterson's book. I looked up the introduction to the Oxford Complete Sonnets and Poems. The editor and Cambridge scholar Colin Burrow, had this to say:

"Twentieth century language for describing sexual behaviour (and even our tendency to prioritize sex as a leading human drive) does not fit the behaviour, or (which is all we have) the representations of behaviour of late sixteenth century males.... Does the sequence describe a homoerotic attachment which is physically consummated? Does it indicate that Shakespeare was a homosexual? ...these are the wrong questions to ask: the poems flirt with, but refuse to be fixed in settings, and they wonder about the boundaries between sexual desire, love and admiration.They are also the wrong sort of question to put to poems of this period. The 'thous' and 'yous' of the poem's address resist these fixities: they skate across time, addressing now an initimate audience of one, now the reader directly, and at other points they speak out to future ages. "Shakespeare's homosexuality" is a readerly fiction, generated by a desire to read narrative coherence into a loosely associated group of poems: the poems present a multiplicity of structural patterns and overlapping groups and semi-sequences. To fix their sexuality is to seek to lock them in, where most, perhaps, they seek to be free."


John B-R said...

Dude c'mon. Shakespeare was in love with a bloke. How much simpler could it get. I know. In a past life, I was the bloke!

Alan Baker said...

No you weren't! It was me!

John B-R said...

Cripes, maybe it was both of us!

Never did trust the guy ...

Aidan Semmens said...

Perhaps Mr Paterson should join next the ever-growing list of people who don't let insufficient competence get in the way of their desire to write about Bob Dylan. I'd love to see him wrestle with the chimerical personal pronouns of Tangled Up In Blue, for starters.