Sexuality and Race in Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare – Lola Rose
When observing the Early Modern Sonnet form, it is noticeable how much of the content is engaged with issues of diverse minority groups. Sonnets regularly consider issues such as that of race, gender, and sexuality and poets can cleverly disguise the speaker’s love object dynamic to insert non-heterosexual states of desire into their work. Much of Shakespeare’s work revolted against the capital obscurities of the Renaissance period, which is one of the defining linguistic features addressed within his 154 sonnets, of which 126 are addressed by a male speaker towards a youthful male muse. The main idea in this poem is focused on the beauty of the subject, whose looks hold such power, it infatuates the speaker. The reader can assume that this speaker is being used as a mirage to camouflage Shakespeare’s own desire for homosexuality.
This analysis focuses on the form of Sonnet 18 (Shakespeare 2005:259) and will discuss how its use of poetic features such as figurative language, imagery and structure emphasise its radical themes of identity, love and lust.
Sonnet 18s structure is laid out in typical Shakespearean Sonnet form, consisting of 14 lines of iambic pentameter, three quatrains and is closed by a two-line couplet. At first, the structure appears to be following the traditional rule-regulated form of the Sonnet. But in fact, as the reader starts to unpack these lines by applying queer theory, the rules and regulations become broken and the idea of relationships and love from this historical era start to emerge.
The sonnet opens with one of Shakespeare’s most renowned lines ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ This conceited metaphor addressed to his beloved differentiates the beauty and lucidity this young man holds from that of mother nature’s. The comparison of the beauty of man versus nature and the power of the speaker’s poem to defy time is an important theme to this sonnet and throughout. Shakespeare also uses punctuation to end-stop every single line as this stresses the point the speaker is trying to communicate with the reader and stops it from flowing onto the next thought. The comparative imagery of summer continues within the next few lines where the speaker refers to the ‘darling buds of May’ and his fair ‘gold complexion’. Summer, which is often associated with beauty and fruitfulness, is an abstract notion for the body of the beloved and is used to play with the audience’s senses.
In addition to the sonnet’s hidden homosexual concepts, there is also an underlying inversion
of the stereotypes of race at that time. It is made apparent that beauty and a pleasant summer’s day are conciliated through the aesthetic values of whiteness. The connotation of whiteness being used through imagery invokes notions of desirability as this was seen as the superior race for the standards of beauty during the Elizabethan era. The word ‘fair’ is repeated throughout the poem to correlate with the idea that if the internal being is fair it should match its external appearance. Shakespeare deploys these gender and beauty paragons to give structure to a prominent discourse of racial indifference. The idea of racial privilege can relate to many of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, including that of 130. Richard Stacey pointed out in his lecture on Early Modern Sonnets that the ‘black wires’ (Shakespeare 2005:267-268) that grow on the mistress’ head and her dark complexion are being used through imagery to show how the speaker admires his lover despite her not living up to the accepted ‘white idealised norm’ (Stacey:2021). The speaker describes the love he feels for her as being ‘rare’ because her appearance goes against the rules of so-called white excellence meaning she would not be seen as attractive compared to that of a woman who is endowed with such honourable lighter features.
Delving back into the third quatrain of Sonnet 18, Shakespeare’s relentless obsession and infatuation with the young man’s attractiveness is made apparent through his continued use of praise. A Volta is used here to signify a significant shift in tone as Shakespeare begins to explore the morality his beloved holds. ‘Thy eternal summer shall not fade’ is a comparison to his lover’s beauty compared to that of nature. The beloved’s virtue carries such potency that it will continue throughout time, compared to that of summer whose beauty will fade into the darker withering months of autumn and winter. Alliteration is used here to build emphasis of this transformation in time.
The use of the rhyming couplet at the end of the Sonnet reinforces the idea that the beauty of his subject will remain forever young. It poses the idea that as long as humans can see and appreciate beauty and virtue in men, life will continue to remain beautiful, which is what Shakespeare is trying to communicate to the reader throughout this Sonnet. This comparison between beauty in man and nature is distinctive through the two lines of the couplet sharing the same rhythm and ending rhyme which allows suspense and emphasises the effect of Shakespeare’s own ideologies of love compared to that of the standard traditions of romance in the Sonnet.
Much of Shakespeare’s work noticeably revolted against the English obscurities of the Elizabethan era which is cleverly masked within this Sonnets traditional form. The speaker’s own sexual identity is not made apparent throughout this Sonnet as a means of disguising any true queer desires or lust. This would have been as a result of lawful and religious prohibitions being opposed to sexual acts between men at that time as if you went against such legislation, you could be faced with punishment by death. None of this is to claim that Shakespeare solely devoted himself to homosexuality, but instead, has been expressed to make note of how evidently forward his work was in promoting the idea of queerness as a general concept in human relations and how the beauty of love can change nature, social experiences and identity as it is perceived today.
Shakespeare, William ‘Sonnet 18’ The Norton Anthology of Poetry, e.d Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter and Jon Stallworthy (London W.W Norton & Company LTD, 2005) p, 259
Shakespeare, William ‘Sonnet 130’ The Norton Anthology of Poetry. e.d. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter and Jon Stallworthy (London W.W Norton & Company LTD, 2005) pp, 267-268
Stacey, Richard 2021, Early Modern Sonnets- Part 2, lecture recording, English Literature 1A Poetry
& Poetics, University of Glasgow, delivered 27 September 2021
Lola Rose, December, 2021
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