The vast number of Shakespeare’s sonnets alone lends itself to an array of ideas and perspectives within the collection. These differing insights can be viewed as the embracing of a spectrum of views on sexuality and gender as well as a challenge to the biblical and cultural concept of love. The string of characters within the sonnets also convey differing vantages: the poet’s speaker, a fair youth, the seductive dark lady and a second poet whose appeal to the fair youth further complicate the rest of the relationships. Within the sonnets heteronormative love is often seen as destructive and, at times, immoral whilst homo-erotic is instead admired, shown in the “fair youth” who is often compared to a “summer’s day”, defying perceived social norms of the time. However, many feminist critics have argued that whilst the women in his poetry are diverse and often celebrated for this, their political position in society remains unsteady, due to the ambiguity of a woman either as a prize or as something inherently sexual to instead fear. Both depictions could be seen as symbols of lust and ultimately objects of temptation. Shakespeare’s sonnets may be, at first glance, forward thinking and diverse, but whether this extends to the woman he depicts is dubious.
This is arguably most evident in sonnet 144, where the woman exists solely in terms of the temptation she elicits as the dark women is depicted “wooing his purity with her foul pride” as she corrupts the “fair” man. Whilst this has been read by some critics as a witty rebuttal to the Petrarchan idealization of fair unattainable women at the time, Ramona Chiributa most notably remarked on how this only “insulates the misogyny…within the sanitized precincts of literary history” assessing how whilst the former might hold merit during the Elizabethan era, from a feminist perspective it is evident the rebuttal comes at the expense of demonizing women’s sexuality. Additionally, the assignment of lust as a female trait due to a classical Christian tradition is present as referenced in Edmund Spenser’s Shepherdess Calendar (1579) in which he raises traditional precedent to argue that “paederastice is much to be preferred before gynerastice” because “unlike the love which” evoked men with lust toward woman, male homoerotic love could be purely spiritual. This may show how, although Shakespeare may appear to be accepting of a love which differs from biblical teachings, the old-fashioned disquiet provoked by homoerotic desire seems to be a post-Shakespearian phenomenon. Therefore, by demonizing women’s sexuality and celebrating men’s, Shakespeare may be complying with social norms of the time, although still presenting a view opposing the teachings of the bible.
However, Shakespeare’s presentation of the woman as half of his being shown in “my bad angel” and “my female evil”, although a negative depiction of an evil “worser spirit”, may be seen as an acknowledgement of femininity and the spectrum of gender that exists within himself, which might be viewed as a rather progressive notion. This is further shown in the end rhymes throughout this sonnet, most notably “fiend” and “friend”, the assonance further connecting the two genders together within the poet. Furthermore, the enjambment within this sonnet also supports this as the majority of the lines, separated only with commas, are still linked and flow into the next. Shakespeare may be using this method in order to express the mutable nature of his own gender or the changeable natures of others. Some historians have also suggested the ‘Dark Lady’ was a poet called Emilia Lanier who wrote about women’s sexual liberation. Sonnet 144, whilst condemning sexual freedom the ‘Dark Lady’ shown in how she “Tempteth my better angel” and “corrupt my saint”, may be instead received over a number of sonnets as a revolutionary figure, mirroring Emilia Lanier, who sought to disrupt the male dominated society by reclaiming and embracing sexuality. To reject this sonnet as vile misogyny due to the ‘dark lady’s’ presented sexual freedom would only serve the social norms of the times as Melissa E. Sanchez claims “To suppose that women want love while men want sex is to move uncomfortably close to pathologizing women’s desire for sex as sex.” This embracing is further evident in the depiction of the dark lady “Wooing his purity with her foul pride.” Shakespeare’s use of “pride”, although viewed as “foul” by the male sonnet, suggests a self-assurance and gratification from this temptation.
The ambiguity of Shakespeare’s defiance of social norms is also present within Sonnet 130, with older criticism regarding it as a playful poem where he teases the conventions of Petrarchan praise whilst more modern feminist critics have viewed it at as a humiliation of the depicted women, which has been romanticized by modern editors. However, Sonnet 130 may be seen as defying social norms due to the rejection of beauty standards shown in the opening line “my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” and yet the speaker still depicts his love as “rare”. This may be viewed by feminist critics as a brave and exciting statement about women’s beauty due to the rejection of the objectifying and unattainable beauty standards held in the Petrarchan sonnets such as Petrach’s ‘lady’ who had “golden hair spun fine as silver” and a “delicate face”. Dr. Madhumita Purkayastha suggested the reader may be instead left with the impression that she is “almost unlovable” and not deserving of the narrator’s praise which is certainly present in the humiliating language of “reeks” and “dun” breasts, but perhaps the narrator is suggesting that the words are not necessary and true love is beyond physical flaws. Furthermore, there is a refreshing absence of a woman as an otherworldly temptress, she is instead presented realistically, with the declaration of love in this final couplet “And yet by heaven I think my love as rare, as any she belied with false compare.” This may be regarded as celebrating a honest more spiritual love, disregarding the imposed beauty standards of the time. This sonnet may not be ambiguous in regards to sexuality and gender but it is a bold declaration presenting beauty standards and love as non-exclusive and therefore presenting them on a spectrum.
Shakespeare’s views on conventional sexuality is further explored in sonnet 142 which presents the battle between spiritual and physical love. The speaker seems to be a traditionalist who believed the nature of woman corrupt ‘pure’ love but also takes some blame for the corruption in “love is my sin”. This may suggest how this unrequited love may be a fault on the speaker’s behalf moreover a sinful woman. It further conveys how he loves her as the woman “lov’st those” suggesting how he is a scorned bitter lover due to her ventures with other men and delves into the reasoning behind the negative depiction of the ‘Dark Lady’s’ sexuality throughout the sonnets. Perhaps suggesting how Shakespeare’s portrayal of female sexuality instead stems from a male’s inability to control and own it. With its insistent trochaic metre on “love” and “hate” at the start of the poem creating a forceful entwinement of the two, an anger which may instead stem from rejected “love”.
In conclusion, although many of Shakespeare’s sonnets may appear to defy social norms, such as the use of the “fair youth” and the apparent rebuttal of the Petrarchan sonnets, as well as the recognition of the poet of the women being half his being, in sonnet 144, suggesting he may view his own gender as ambiguous alongside presenting a differing homosexual view on love. However, many feminist critics have noted how this often comes at the expense of demonizing women’s sexuality which is evident in every poem studied within this essay suggesting how whilst sexuality and gender is presented as ambiguous this ambiguity exists solely for the males within the sonnets. This range of sexuality and gender does not exist for the “dark lady” or the humiliated “mistress” who both comply with social norms of the times, woman as evil temptresses or existing to men in terms of their appearance alone. Whether existing within society or Shakespeare himself they are repeatedly cast as the ‘sinners’ of man’s dual nature, the devil on the shoulder and sexually corrupt, an opinion reflected in many of the societal norms of the time.