How Sonnet 18 is a perfect example of historical LGBTQIA literature.
Shakespeare was a visionary in many ways. During his dramas, gender roles were reversed to match the climate of the day. Instead of females playing Juliet, males disguised as women took on the part. The first drag queen in high society were the male actors of Shakespeare's day. It is reasonable to suppose that studying Shakespeares' plays and sonnets through the perspective of the LGBTQIA+ community is a worthwhile endeavor.
The presence of the LGBTQIA+ community in this period is emphasized by applying Queer Theory to Sonnet 18, which asks if I should compare you to a summer's day. In Shakespeares' time, same-sex couples expressed love but kept it hidden behind a wall of gender.
Queer theory and Shakespeare
In order to apply queer theory to this sonnet, it is important to remember that according to Nigianni & Angie "a queer clinic needs to question the traditional reliance on and privileging of transference interpretation" (pg. 236). You must look at the text from the eye of the queer experience. This requires a different view on sexuality, gender and preventing any bias from influencing your interpretation. Objectivity is important and empathy for the experiences of the LGBTQIA+ community when reading the text.
The use of language in the sonnet could be considered problematic. Using similar clichés to make Sonnet 18 seem like any other love poem might be seen as incorrect. The usage of pronouns is an intriguing issue when looking at how Shakespeare would have interpreted his sexuality, especially when compared to other works by him. While Shakespeare often uses traditional pronouns such as "he" and "she", in this poem Shakespeare specifically uses he/they pronouns. For example, shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate.../"And often is his gold complexion dimmed (Line 1-2, 6). In these lines Shakespeare could have used "she" pronouns, but instead the use of nonbinary terms and male pronouns are used.
The sonnet 18 is a love poem addressed to a man or nonbinary, genderfluid person. It compares the unhealthy relationship to summer and claims that it would be better for both of them if they never saw each other again. This may appear unusual in a typical love poem, but rather than expressing an external conflict between gender identity and sexuality.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May/And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.../By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed (Lines 3-4,8). Shakespeare's protagonist is in love with someone whose gender identity makes things uncertain. Perhaps Shakespeare was attempting to figure out his sexuality or come to terms with nonbinary sexuality in Sonnet 18. There is no way to decipher Shakespeare's thoughts, but the conflict depicted in this poem can be seen with the queer theory eye.
It has been suggested that Shakespeare's sonnets are autobiographical. If true, this theory would explain the ending lines of the sonnet that read so long as men can breathe, or eyes can see/ So long lives this, and this gives life to thee (Line 13-14). Notice that Shakespeare did not say "man", but used the plural which is "men" which suggests the sonnet is speaking of two male lovers that desire to be together, but will always be apart.
The freedom to be LGBTQIA
In Shakespeare's time, homosexuality was considered a disease that left men and women alike without companionship. Queer theory suggests that Shakespeare is not speaking of male and female lovers, but of two male lovers. This claim has never been proven true or false, yet the use of pronouns and the structure of the sonnet denote an LGBTQIA+ aspect.
Shakespeare had a freedom that was not given to every artist of the time. The stage was filled with cross-dressed men and no women were allowed to portray feminine characters. According to Denisoff in Before Queer Theory: Victorian Aestheticism and the Self "they realized that the aesthetic, as a space located within the social yet not strictly bound by its rules, was a realm where the sexual difference could be embraced without being pathologized" (para.3). Shakespeare's stage was the safest place for men to explore their identities without fear of judgment or being ostracized.
The actors felt liberated by the sonnets written by Shakespeare, which mirrored their own feelings. The characters in the sonnets were free from societal constraints and had the liberty to be themselves. Despite the fact that it is easy to overlook the actual significance of the words within the literature, literary theories enhance meaning. When you take a closer look at the words and consider their historical significance, a tiny sonnet may make a huge statement. Shall I Compare Thee to a Summers Day is a prime example of LGBTQIA+ representation in literature from over a century ago.
Originally written as an essay in our Lit 375 course 2021
Denisoff, Dennis. "Before Queer Theory: Victorian Aestheticism and the Self." Victorian Studies, vol. 63, no. 1, autumn 2020, pp. 154+. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A65772
Nigianni, Chrysanthi, and Angie Voela. “Psychoanalytic Practice and Queer Theory: Queering the Clinic.” Studies in Gender & Sexuality, vol. 20, no. 4, Oct. 2019, pp. 234–237. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/15240657.2019.1673976.
Poets.org - Academy of American Poets. “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day? (Sonnet 18).” Academy of American Poets, poets.org/poem/shall-i-compare-thee-summers-day-sonnet-18. Accessed 12 Sept. 2021.