The Bard believed that love was love


“Shakespeare’s sonnets are among the most disputed works in literary history,” she trills.

“Like most sonnet cycles of the time, they follow a loose but discernible narrative about ideal love but, unlike any other known sonnet cycle, the lover and his beloved are both men. The first 126 sonnets (out of 154) are addressed to a male character known to Shakespeare scholars as the Fair Youth … ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,’ for example, was written to the Fair Youth.

“In various sonnets, Shakespeare (or his poetic counterpart) swears fidelity; stays up all night, consumed by jealousy; harps on the youth’s beauty again and again; despairs histrionically when they are briefly separated. In sonnet 20, Shakespeare … goes on to lovingly inventory the points of the Fair Youth’s androgynous beauty. He ends the sonnet bemoaning how nature slipped up at the last moment and added a penis to the youth, or, ‘pricked thee out for women’s pleasure’. It’s hard to believe the poet sees this penis as a deal-breaker, though, given the 125 other sighing poems he addressed to his ‘master mistress’.”

Newman goes on to argue that there was a kind of fluidity about Tudor sexuality that we struggle to understand and that there was little or no homophobia in Shakespeare’s society.

Somehow, for this Shakespeare tragic, the shocking news of Brunei’s barbarous intentions is given a little added piquancy by the coincidence of this Aeon re-visiting of The Bard’s sexuality. I don’t know why (columnists are under special pressure to always seem clear-headed and decisive but I am often bewildered and prone to fuzzy-edged ideas and emotions).

If Sandra Newman’s 3300-word piece has some of the qualities of a news story it is because the Shakespeare subject is eternally newsworthy. Shakespeare is a loose-knit industry, a multifarious one. New ideas (some scholarly, some daft) about Shakespeare appear all the time and then attract bubbly, newsy arguments. I sometimes think that, when I grow up (I am only a pubescent 73) I will put aside my childish obsession with the froth and bubble of political news, news of inconsequential Pauline Hanson (1954 – ) and concentrate instead on everyday breaking news of profoundly important William Shakespeare (1664-1616).

Newman may or may not be right. But Shakespeare wrote so insightfully about the ways in which being madly, throbbingly in love turns us all (irrespective of rank and sex) into fools and drongos (Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s career-ruining passion for his staffer is classically Shakespearean) that I choose to believe he, Shakespeare, had personal experience of being deranged by passions for both sexes.

There is suddenly much spirited discussion of what our attitude to Michael Jackson and his music should be now. There have been allegations in the Leaving Neverland documentary that Jackson sexually abused children. Many broadcasters have leapt to ban Jackson’s recordings and videos.

Should the accusations mean that Jackson’s recordings should no longer be publicly played? This very week I was a little disconcerted to have him warbling “Don’t stop till you get enough!” at me, as if nothing had happened, from my supermarket’s hidden, politically incorrect speakers.

For thinking, arts-appreciating folk this dilemma is as old as the hills. One is not long into discussion of it before up come the names of the anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner and of the painter Paul Gauguin, a syphilitic paedophile. Is it wrong to allow oneself to see and hear and swoon over the flawed men’s dazzling creations?

My mind is ajar on all this. But if we are to judge famous people on the totalities of their behaviours and career oeuvres what might this do to our assessments of some Australian politicians?

Honey-coloured assessments of John Howard’s long-sustained prime ministership are all the rage at the moment. His post Port Arthur gun control achievements are made poignant by the Christchurch tragedy and made newsworthy by the attempts of One Nation’s senior cabbages to make us a more gun-totin’ people.

But, in appreciating Howard’s finest works of political art, done as Dr Jekyll, are we able to forgive and forget the wickedness of his Mr Hyde, the fiend who made such shamefully artful and un-Christian exploitations of the Tampa incident, who turned the nation’s stomach by insisting we join in the USA and UK’s dumb and sinful invasion of Iraq?

Paul Keating thought that “Howard’s stubborn and unctuous denial of his responsibility in committing Australian troops to the assault in Iraq should be held in contempt by every thinking Australian”.

Today, should we switch disgraced John Howard off, banning him, whenever he pops up, talking, on our TVs and radios, nipping him in the bud in the way some radio stations are now nipping the buds of disgraced Michael Jackson?

Ian Warden is a columnist for The Canberra Times

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