Any attempt to mold Shakespeare into the image of “our own deplorable epoch” is ridiculously absurd.
There is something truly rotten in the state of Shakespeare criticism. Take, for instance, All is True, a film produced by Sony Pictures Classics, which shows Shakespeare as a homosexual. Such nonsense has its rotting roots in pride and prejudice, both of which need to be exposed so that we can clear Shakespeare’s name and so that we can clear the fogs of nonsense with which critics have smothered the goodness, truth and beauty of his work. In order to do this, it is necessary to see Shakespeare in the context of the times in which he lived so that we can see his works as he and his audience would have seen them. This was what I set out to do in my books, The Quest for Shakespeare and Through Shakespeare’s Eyes. The trouble is that most modern critics sees Shakespeare through agenda-driven eyes, subjecting the works to the spirit of their own age instead of subjecting themselves to the spirit of the age in which Shakespeare lived and worked. They subject Shakespeare to ideological fads and fashions, killing his works with Marxist, feminist and deconstructionist criticism, and also with the homosexism of so-called “queer theory” which was the agenda driving the Sony Pictures film.
The problem with so-called “queer theory” is that it is an invention of the last 50 years. It never existed prior to its invention. This is not to say that homosexual practice did not exist, of course, though it would not and could not have been called “homosexual” in Shakespeare’s time because that word is itself an invention of the late 19th century, when it was employed to signify something pathological. The word “gay,” of course, is even newer, deriving from mid-20th century homosexual underworld slang. The point is that Shakespeare would have been baffled at first and then horrified to discover that gutter-minded “academics,” employing the doubles-entendres of 20th-century adolescent toilet humor, had inverted his meaning to signify sodomy, which would probably have been the only word he would have used to describe the practice of homosexuality.
This being said, let’s humor the “queer theorists” by looking at the evidence they present. Sonnet 20 seems to be the strongest evidence that they have to offer. It does talk of “love,” though love meant love to the Elizabethans, not fornication or copulation, and still less sodomy. The word “love” was not used as a mere innuendo, nor would Lennon’s understanding of love as something self-centered and lacking in self-sacrifice have been comprehensible to an Elizabethan. Of course, a cad might feign “love” for vicious purposes but that would make him a liar, not a lover. Since “love” meant “love,” it was often employed to describe a man’s feelings towards another man. Love meant love, as in caritas, something which every Christian is commanded to feel towards every other person, male or female.
To the extent that Shakespeare employs bawdiness in the sonnet, it is absolutely clear that the poet is not interested in the one thing in which homosexuals are obsessed. The “addition” of male genitalia to the person to whom the sonnet is addressed is the “adding [of] one thing to my purpose nothing,” i.e. the poet has no purpose for the additional appendage, which signifies that “Nature [had] prick’d thee out for women's pleasure.” Shakespeare’s meaning is clear enough. Men are not interested in something that Nature has designed for women’s pleasure. If Sonnet 20 is the best that “queer theorists” can do, it is remarkable that allegedly respectable critics are convinced by it.
As for other sonnets, we see in Sonnet 23 a coded reference to the Mass as “the perfect ceremony of love’s rite;” Sonnet 73 laments the destruction of England’s monasteries (the ”bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang”); and Sonnet 129 is an unequivocal condemnation of “lust in action” as the “expense of spirit in a waste of shame”. This last sonnet should serve as Shakespeare’s own riposte to those “theorists” who are seeking to paint him in their own deplorable image.
We don’t need to believe that Shakespeare was a saint, but the evidence suggests that he was a good and God-fearing man. Take, for instance, the character portrait of the Poet given by William Beeston, who as the son of Christopher Beeston, an actor in Shakespeare’s company and no doubt his personal friend, is one of the most reliable sources of the real Shakespeare that we have. Beeston told the antiquary, John Aubrey, that Shakespeare was “the more to be admired, he was not a company keeper. [He] … wouldn’t be debauched, and if invited to, writ [i.e. wrote] he was in pain.”
This might make uncomfortable reading for the modern critic, but the fact is that the Elizabethans were very “politically incorrect” by today’s standards, and Shakespeare, as a religiously traditionalist Catholic (as has been proven beyond reasonable doubt), was more “politically incorrect” than most of his contemporaries. Any attempt to mold Shakespeare into the image of what Evelyn Waugh called “our own deplorable epoch” is ridiculously absurd and those seeking to do so should not be taken seriously as scholars or critics. If these critics were able to empathize with the past, even if they could not bring themselves to sympathize with it, they would see and understand the works of Shakespeare as Shakespeare himself saw them. They would see them as they truly are, as the inspired work of a Catholic genius. Were they able to see the works in this way, they would see, and understand, that the eroticism of the sonnets has more in common with the erotic symbolism of the Song of Songs than with any modern understanding of the erotic, and they would begin to see that the sonnets have more to do with the psalmody of David than with the sodomy of Gomorrah.
This essay was first published in Crisis Magazine and is reprinted with permission.