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The Scandal of Shakespeare's Sonnets

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Margareta de Grazia, University of Pennsylvania

Of all the many defences against the scandal of Shakespeare's Sonnets—Platonism, for example, or the Renaissance ideal of friendship—John Benson's is undoubtedly the most radical. In order to cover up the fact that the first 126 of the Sonnets were written to a male, Benson in his 1640 Poems: Written by Wil Shakespeare. Gent. changed masculine pronouns to feminine and introduced titles which directed sonnets to the young man to a mistress. By these simple editorial interventions, he succeeded in converting a shameful homosexual love to an acceptable heterosexual one, a conversion reproduced in the numerous reprintings of the 1640 Poems up through the eighteenth century. The source for this account is Hyder E. Rollins's authoritative 1944 variorum Sonnets, the first edition to detail Benson's pronominal changes and titular insertions.1 Subsequent editions have reproduced his conclusions, for example John Kerrigan's 1986 edition which faults Benson for inflicting on the Sonnets 'a series of unforgivable injuries', above all 'a single recurring revision: he emended the masculine pronouns used of the friend in 1 to 126 to "her", "hers", and "she"'.2 With varying degrees of indignation and amusement, critical works on the sonnets have repeated the charge.

The charge, however, is wrong. Benson did not attempt to convert a male beloved to a female. To begin with, the number of his alterations has been greatly exaggerated. Of the seventy-five titles Benson assigned to Shakespeare's sonnets, only three of them direct sonnets from the first group of the 1609 Quarto (sonnets 1-126) to a woman.3 Furthermore, because none of the sonnets in question specifies the gender of the beloved, Benson had no reason to believe a male addressee was intended. As for the pronominal changes, Rollins himself within nine pages of his own commentary multiplies the number of sonnets 'with verbal changes designed to make the verses apply to a woman instead of a man' from 'some' to 'many'.4 Rollins gives three examples as if there were countless others, but three is all there are and those three appear to have been made to avoid solecism rather than homoeroticism. In only one sonnet are pronouns altered, though even there not uniformly. In sonnet 101, masculine pro-nouns are emended to feminine in lines 9, 11, and 13 ('Because she needs no praise wilt thou be dumb?' 'To make her much outlive a glided tomb'; 'To make her seem, long hence, as she shows now'), but the masculine (or neutral) pronoun is retained in line 5 ('"Truth needs no colour with his colour fix'd'").5 Benson apparently wished to avoid a possible confusion between Truth and the beloved by altering the gender of the latter. In sonnet 104, 'friend' is emended to the more conventional 'love' but again apparently out of formal rather than moral considerations: the 'fair love' of sonnet 104 is thereby made consistent with the twice repeated 'my love' of sonnet 105, the sonnet with which it is grouped (along with sonnet 106) to form a single poem entitled 'Constant Affection'. The only other alteration may also be stylistic: the emendation of sonnet 108's nonce 'boy' to the frequently repeated 'love' avoided the anomaly of a single sonnet addressed to a boy.6

Indeed the 1640 collection hardly seems concerned with covering up amatory poems to males. The very first fourteen lines printed in the 1640 Poems contain eleven male pronouns, more than any other sonnet, in celebrating an emphatically male beauty. If Benson had wished to censure homoerotic love, why did he not omit the notoriously titillating master-mistress sonnet (20)? Or emend the glamorizing sonnet 106 that praises the beloved—in blazon style, part by part—as the 'master' of beauty? Or the sexually loaded sonnet 110 that apologizes to a specifically male 'god in love' for promiscuity of a decidedly 'preposterous' cast?7 The same question applies to the numerous sonnets in which references to a male beloved as 'my...

(The entire section is 9,158 words.)