Shakespeare in love – with himself?

Guardian letter 7 (April 2016)

Me, me, me
The ‘Cobbe’ portrait/painter unknown/Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/PA

The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016 occasioned a lot of media pieces about him. One newspaper article said that Shakespeare’s sonnets show his belief that art can give immortality.

That’s true – but the famous Sonnet 18 shows that in aiming for immortality, Shakespeare could be heartless and selfish – oddly so, for the writer of one of the world’s best known love poems.

Sonnet 18, digested, says: You’re more lovely than a summer’s day at the moment, but soon you’ll wither and age. However, luckily for you, my brilliant poem about you will live forever.

The poem shows his love not for the supposed beloved, but for his own poetic skill in preserving youthful beauty – like some sort of youth-fetishising bardic taxidermist.

If he loved the subject of his poem, he’d say that he’d always love them even when they got old and wrinkled – not that their skin-deep youthful beauty would be immortalised by his precious sonnet.

The language is beautiful but the message isn’t. Did Shakespeare have emotional deprivation disorder – or was he just full of it?

To be fair, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments’) does better: ‘Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle’s compass come‘.

On second thoughts, maybe my analysis is the glib political correctness of a typically emotionally immature man. Was Shakespeare perhaps just being honest? When a woman’s beauty fades, how much love, in unspoken truth, does her lover lose?

It seemed to me heartless to say, Never mind, it lives on in my poem. But perhaps that honesty pleases a woman. Perhaps it reflects her feelings about her looks.

Would it please a lover? Probably not – not the childish romantic type anyway. But perhaps it’d please an emotionally mature young woman.

I was thinking of Shakespeare as a gay misogynist, writing the sonnets to order for a patron. But what if he was he a straight ladies man, ever in love, an easy lover? Flirting and flitting from one beauty to another, as it pleased both parties.

Did he know what women want? Do women want unlimited praise seasoned with painfully honest but deep understanding? Was Shakespeare a lover selfishly offering no future, but generously claiming no title?

Yes, I know – Sonnets 1-126 are widely supposed to be addressed to a young man. Sonnets 1-17 urge the loved one to procreate, so as to preserve their beauty. Sonnet 18 is the first of a series assuring them that poetry will preserve it. Sonnet 20 is openly addressed to a beautiful youth. I was ignoring that.

Sonnets 127-154 are addressed to a ‘Dark Lady‘. I was ignoring that, too. My Shakespeare is benevolently freed from the shackles of autobiography. He walks free, a King incognito amongst his subjects, dispensing universal wisdom. Or self-obsessed crap. Whatever – but the beauty of his writing is soul-deep.


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