Monday, August 31, 2009

Childbirth, Form, and Androgyny in Shakespeare's Sonnets

I've read Eve K. Sedgwick's groundbreaking Between Men several times, and Sedgwick's theory of the homosocial, particularly the frequent erasure of women by the structure of the erotic triangle, is something that has influenced some of what has become the academic writing I've most enjoyed producing. Even though I'd read the book (including, of course, the Sonnets chapter) before, I'd never read it next to the sonnets themselves, and I'm still a bit shocked at what I found. The sonnets to the young man have been my favorite since late high school and early college, when I first started really getting into Shakespeare. Back then, I thought they were romantic and forbidden. Now, they seem to be dripping with misogyny, due precisely to that same triangular erasure. I still can't ignore the speaker's urging the young man to procreate (Sonnets 1-17), just as I couldn't when I first read those poems. Now, though, I'm increasingly aware of the role of women in this homosocial plea for procreation. They're, as Sedgwick says, nearly invisible in the poems, which is horrible, given how incredibly present they must be in order for the speaker's plan to be carried out. I just can't get away from the speaker's references to the young man's “form” being reproduced in future offspring. The word is used explicitly in 3.2 and 13.8, but is under the surface in other places, problematically so in Sonnet 11. To my knowledge, this refers to period medical theories adapted from Galenic ones that say that when babies are conceived, the men contribute the physical form, while the women contribute the less important matter (a misreading of the Latin “mater,” or “mother”). I know I originally got this from Laquer's Making Sex, but I don't have a copy in front of me, so I can't give you a page number. The word echoes this meaning in sonnet 3 (“Now is the time that face should form another”), while giving women none of the glory the speaker associates with the young man's future efforts at procreation by saying that the speaker will “unbless some mother” if he doesn't have children. Reproducing the young man's form is the blessing here, according to the speaker. The work of childbirth, or indeed, of child-rearing(confined almost exclusively to the feminine sphere in the period), gets no acknowledgement, and yet the woman is supposed to be blessed because the child she's been given is so beautiful, no thanks to her.
A few of the later sonnets in that section complicate the notion of form and how it is transferred. In sonnet 11, the speaker says that nature “best endowed” the young man with his beauty, and though there is no capital “N,” nature is anthropomorphized. She is also characterized as female. Since other sonnets have equated beauty with form and form as masculine dominion, sonnet 11 seems to say that female (N)ature gives form as well. Is something so godlike androgynous? Lastly, I'm not sure how to take sonnets like 18 and 19, in which the speaker suggests that the young man will be immortal through the poems that the speaker writes, as if textual reproduction is quasi-sexual as well. If that's the case, isn't the presumably male poet supplying both form (meter, poetic structure, etc.) and matter (words, topic-- e.g. Polonius' question to Hamlet in 2.2 : “What is the matter that you read?” and Hamlet's response of “Words, words, words.” ? I'm not so sure this fits with Virginia Woolf's notion of the androgynous mind, but it's certainly interesting, and something I'd love to explore further.

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