I admit that it’s a little unnerving. In any case, I can’t read Shakespeare’s sonnets without noticing and feeling distracted by the fact. Yes, the first 126 of them are addressed to a beautiful young man. Many scholars and critics have published their speculations about who the fair youth is, as if assuming that he is a real, particular person, and not a character. And of course, there is much speculation as to Shakespeare’s sexual preferences in light of these poems. What does it mean?
It certainly could mean that Shakespeare had homosexual desires for a young man. Such things happen. But the young man of the poems could be a character. Or the “I” of the poems could be a character. I remember watching an episode of The Andy Griffith Show in which Andy sits on the front porch and sings “Black, Black, Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” the “true love” in the song being explicitly a “he.” And I remember concluding, not that the actual man Andy Griffith was a homosexual, not that the character Andy Taylor was a homosexual, but that “Black, Black, Black” is such a beautiful song, it would be a shame if half the human race were barred from singing it.
Or it could mean that “love” doesn’t always refer to sex. I know that’s hard to believe in our day and society, but some cultures have held such a view. Maybe Shakespeare or his poetic persona truly admired the beauty of a young man without that love involving any intimate desires. In fact, several of the sonnets urge the man to find a wife and pass on his dazzling beauty to a new generation.
But, as I said, the issue feels like a distraction. Shakespeare’s sonnets mean so much more. They mean, My love for you is so great that the words “I love you” are not adequate. They mean, Time may win over beauty every time, but I still prefer beauty. And they certainly mean, I have found some gorgeous language and I want to share it with the world.