Whilst many members of the public know of ‘Sonnets’ noted poems, such as Sonnet 18 (popularly known as ‘Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day’), few note that half of the collection’s most erotic and romantic pieces are dedicated to a male ‘youth… Mr W H’. This immediately draws interest into Shakespeare’s own experiences; because, if we assume that the narrative voice is male, it creates evidence that Shakespeare produced a queer, or at least ‘homoerotic’ content.
It is possible to claim that Shakespeare’s queer expression is an honest reflection of his own emotions. However, even if we choose to stray from the eternally debated questions surrounding Shakespeare’s sexuality, the history of the collection itself is worth noting, as it portrays the shifts in changing attitudes towards queer love. Whilst the collection was originally published in 1609, it has since been reproduced numerous times, including the 1640 edition, which attempted to erase the gender of the subject of affection. This dismissal of (presumably) a man expression of love towards a male figure (of questionable identity) is in itself a statement of attitudes towards to queer identity in the mid seventeenth century.
If we then cast our minds forward to the late nineteenth century, we find that this iconic collection is still the subject of social discourse and literature. The manhunt for ‘Mr W H’ had now spanned for over two hundred years, and was still inspiring writers to question the identity of Shakespeare’s object of affection. This includes ‘The Portrait of Mr W H’- Oscar Wilde’s short story which explores the friendship between two men. Their bond is forged through their shared interest in the theories surrounding the identity of Mr W H- and the lengths of which both men will go to uncover the secrets behind this long standing mystery. The fact that Oscar Wilde, one of the most famous queer individuals within the British English Literature canon, addressed and engaged with the mystery shows the importance of Sonnets as a collection. And shows that even after Shakespeare’s death his expressions of love continue to inspire and excite readers.
The Cadbury Library is fortunate enough to hold a rare copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which was published in 1903, and shows a continuation of the interest in Shakespeare’s frequently questioned sexuality. However one of the most interesting aspects of the piece is the identity of its illustrator, Charles de Sousey Ricketts, and the way that the artist’s own sexuality brings a new element to the history of Sonnets and its queer context. Charles de Sousey Ricketts notably lived with his ‘lifelong partner’ Charles Haslewood Shannon, from the moment that they met in the City and Guilds Art School in Kennington in 1882, until Shannon’s death. Oscar Wilde spoke affectionately of the pair and their bond, as referred to Shannon as ‘the marigold to Ricketts orchid’1.
I hope that Sonnets continues to inspire love amongst readers of all sexual and romantic orientations.
Object: Oscar Wilde: ‘The Portrait of Mr W H’, Classmark PR5819.P6, currently in the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.
Object: William Shakspeare: ‘Sonnets’, decorated by Charles Ricketts, Classmark PR 2753.V2, currently in the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.