Saturday, 23 April 2016

Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine

Four hundred years on from the Bard of Avon's untimely death at the age of 52, the debate continues about the Great Man's true nature - and the mystery of to whom he dedicated his greatest works - not least the subject of whether he was "one of us".

From Don Paterson's analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnets in The Guardian:
...the question: "was Shakespeare gay?" strikes me as so daft as to be barely worth answering. Of course he was. Arguably he was bisexual, of sorts, but his heart was never on his straight side. Now is not the time to rehearse them all, but the arguments against his homosexuality are complex and sophistical, and often take convenient and homophobic advantage of the sonnets' built-in interpretative slippage – which Shakespeare himself would have needed for what we would now call "plausible deniability", should anyone have felt inclined to cry sodomy.

The argument in favour is simple. First, falling in love with other men is often a good indication of homosexuality; and second, as much as I love some of my male friends, I'm never going to write 126 poems for them, even the dead ones. Third, read the poems, then tell me these are "pure expressions of love for a male friend" and keep a straight face. This is a crazy, all-consuming, feverish and sweaty love; love, in all its uncut, full-strength intensity; an adolescent love. The reader's thrill lies in hearing this adolescent love articulated by a hyper-literate thirty-something. Usually these kids can't speak.

The effect is extraordinary...
Indeed it is, as these three, from a collection that by Will's death amounted to 154 poems, attest.

Sonnet 108:
What’s in the brain that ink may character
Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit?
What’s new to speak, what now to register,
That may express my love or my dear merit?
Nothing, sweet boy; but yet like prayers divine
I must each day say o’er the very same,
Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,
Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name.
So that eternal love in love’s fresh case
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page,
Finding the first conceit of love there bred
Where time and outward form would show it dead.
Sonnet 20:
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.
...and one of my absolute favourites - Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
No-one knows for certain who the Young Man, the object of these sonnets, really was - but academic conjecture has focused upon one of two individuals, both Shakespeare's patrons; either Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton:

...or William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke:

Lusty fellows, both, you will agree...

Whoever the recipient of these outpourings of passion may have been, he certainly was a lucky man. I can only dream of anyone writing 126 love-poems in praise of my beauty.

Happy birthday William Shakespeare (26th April 1564 (baptised) – 23rd April 1616)


  1. fabulous gay gentlemen in their time, eh?

    1. Willy had an eye for a good cod-piece... Jx

  2. Lusty men indeed. Both lucky guys. Both would have been formidable contenders on RuPaul's Drag Race.


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