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Sonnet XX: WTF?

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Tilda_Swinton_as_Male_Orlando.jpgShakespeare's Sonnet XX confounds me.  It praises a person whose gorgeous face, heart and personality - with its absence of womanly faults - captures the narrator's passion . . . though this same person's cock checks the narrator's impulse for sexual consummation of his love.  Here's the poem:

A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

I first encountered Sonnet XX at a vulnerable moment, just before bed time, and I naturally assumed that in my exhaustion, I'd lost track of some critical explanatory phrase in the poem.  But an immediate reread suggested that the eyebrow-raising implications weren't a function of my readiness for slumberland.  Indeed, a basic Google search revealed countless others with raised eyebrows.  So provocative is Sonnet XX that Prince might have done well to set its verses to music instead of expending effort to write "Controversy."

Interestingly, more than one commentator seems to think that the poem is an admission of Shakespeare's homosexuality.  Personally, I find that theory absurd.  For starters, such speculation superimposes a patina of modern norms on Shakespeare's Elizabethan consciousness (e.g., that loving another man makes a man gay).  We barely understand how gender and sexually are socially constructed today; to project our incomplete understanding backwards 400 years is at best arrogant and at worst idiotic.

But more importantly, Sonnet XX isn't so much homosexual as it is weird.  For gay men, the love object isn't womanly; a gay male pin-up is hot because he's masculine.  Sonnet XX, on the other hand, idolizes a man with a womanly appearance - or, at a minimum, an Orlando-style androgynous appearance that appeals to men and women ("Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth"). 

Moreover, unlike a homosexual man, the narrator of Sonnet XX is decidedly against sex with his beloved: the narrator is "defeated" by his adored's prick; it brings the narrator's purpose "to nothing."  Instead, the narrator urges his beloved to make love with women, while giving his heart to the narrator. 

This model of love isn't homosexual; rather, it seems to lack a modern analogy.  Same-sex love affairs in modern society aren't typically sexless.  Nor do we usually idolize the looks of one gender when they appear on the other; quite the opposite, especially in the case of men.  From Boy George, to Michael Jackson, to Jaye Davidson (who played Dil in The Crying Game), men who look like women tend to make folks uncomfortable nowadays.

In fact, the very eagerness of modern readers to class Sonnet XX with homosexual literature reflects a variety of discomfort or insecurity with the prospect of a same-sex love relationship beyond our comprehension or experience.  But while the impulse to tame the scary, irrational potentialities of sex by naming, categorizing and analyzing is a positive one, we lose the chance to recognize, explore and appreciate the breadth of human experience if we insist on incorrect classification.

Human love is vaster, more capricious and more irrepressible than Harlequin romance.  And our capacities for loving in multi-faceted and bizarre ways is among our species' the most remarkable and admirable traits.  As G.W. Bowerstock observes in a New York Review of Books review of two books exploring Greek pederasty:

The sexual life of the ancient Greeks was as variegated and inventive as its resplendent culture. It was neither consistent nor uniform.  To this day it stubbornly resists all modern ideologies and prejudices, and yet it had its own principles of decency.  In sex, as in so much else, the ancient Greeks were unique.
Sonnet XX tantalizes with its glimpse of a variegated and inventive sexual life, one neither consistent nor uniform, one that resists modern ideologies and prejudices, for Shakespeare and his Elizabethan brethren.  We might consider to what extent their sexual openness made the Greeks and the Elizabethan not merely unique, but also great.

(Image of Tilda Swinton playing Orlando from Sally Potter's website)

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