From the eighteenth century until about 1950, speculation about possible autobiographical elements in Shakespeare's sonnets was the dominant feature of commentary on these poems. There were heated debates about what the sonnets may imply about Shakespeare's morals and his sexuality. But over the past forty years, critics have increasingly avoided such conjecture, asserting that there is no basis for reading the poems as personal allegory. These scholars have emphasized the paradoxical, even enigmatic, nature of the sonnets and the multiple perspectives on human experience embedded in the sequence.
Many recent commentators have examined the effect of the contradictions and uncertainties that are implicit in Shakespeare's sonnets. A number of critics have pointed out that these poems—individually and as a sequence—are unusually resistant to general conclusions. Gerald Hammond (1981), for example, has argued that a majority of the sonnets present simultaneous oppositions, which produce unexpected meanings but also create improbabilities that baffle a reader or critic trying to assess the mood of the poem. Similarly, Gregory W. Bredbeck (1991) has contended that in many of the sonnets there is virtually an infinite number of meanings that yield contradictory, not merely different, readings and thus frustrate interpretation.
In the judgment of numerous critics over the past two decades, these lyrics formulate paradoxes but leave them unresolved. It is therefore impossible, they claim, to make definitive statements about the poems or establish a single perspective on the sequence. Richard A. Lanham (1976) has linked the paradoxical nature of these lyrics to Shakespeare's unusual combination of fanciful and serious modes; he asserts that the logical uncertainties, even absurdities, of the sonnets make us doubt our initial responses and ultimately call into question the validity of any effort to generalize about them. Carol Thomas Neely (1977) has contended that throughout the sequence, every attempt to resolve contradiction or determine a fixed perspective is inevitably thwarted as an individual poem shifts to a different point of view or is succeeded by other poems which shatter that perspective. In her study of the indeterminacy of the sonnets, Heather Dubrow (1996) has argued that the poems simultaneously encourage and undermine a reader's search for unity or consistency in narrative, characterization, or values. She further remarks that because many of the poems are not explicit with regard to the gender of the person being addressed, the notion of a sustained plot line throughout the sequence is highly questionable.
The ambiguous eroticism of the sonnets is presently a major critical issue, as many scholars who have written about Shakespeare's sonnets have noted that in only a few of these poems is it clear whether the addressee is a male or a female. Rosalie Colie (1974) has contended that Shakespeare's inversion of the Petrarchan convention of addressing love poems to a young woman represents only one aspect of his unique approach to the traditional sonnet. Yet, she asserts, the poet maintains the conventional role of an unselfish, detached admirer of an idealized youth, never suggesting that he harbors a carnal desire for the young man. Lanham has similarly regarded the substitution of an ideal male as part of Shakespeare's attempt to reinvigorate the worn-out clichés of the Petrarchan sonnet; the critic further points out that the youth is not individualized either in feature or in character. This last point was amplified by Bredbeck, who has maintained that the sonnets do not particularize expressions of desire but rather set out to frustrate a reader's ability to determine erotic significance. He asserts that there is nothing in Sonnet 1 or Sonnet 20, for example, that imparts a single meaning or dictates a single gender.
Several commentators have examined the issues of gender identity and sexuality in the sonnets in...
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