From Phyllida's Desk

Handsome and Glamorous

March 15, 2009

It's official now: only the really good-looking men are bisexual. Thatís the gist of a press release about a recently discovered painting that some scholars claim is a portrait of William Shakespeare. From the New York Times of March 10: " 'This Shakespeare is handsome and glamorous, so how does this change the way we think about him?' the handout reads. 'And do the painting and provenance tell us more about his sexuality, and possibly about the person to whom the sonnets are addressed?' "

As the article in the Times explained: "the [Shakespeare Birthplace] Trust said the portrait might open a new era in Shakespeare scholarship, giving fresh momentum, among other things, to generations of speculation as to whether the playwright, a married man with three children, was bisexual. Until now, that suggestion has hinged mostly on dedications to the Earl of Southampton that Shakespeare wrote with some of his best-loved poems and some of the sensual passages in his poems and plays, particularly his sonnets, most of which, the London scholars said, are centered on expressions of love and desire for men, not women."

Wow! All this time, ever since I first learned about the "fair" young man and "dark lady" of the sonnets, I had simply enjoyed the extra dimensions of meaning these personae gave to my reading. It wasn't really a new interpretation of the words themselves, just something interesting to bear in mind when brooding over "Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action" or "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

Part of the pleasure of this kind of speculation is that it's necessarily vague. The young man and dark lady may or may not have been "real," and Shakespeare may or may not have had "sexual relationships" with them. But the possibilities were so much greater because we couldn't know for sure. All we could do was imagine. If I had any visual image of the author it was probably that standard black-and-white engraving we all see in textbooks. That bland face certainly isn't going to set the world on fire. Then there's the "Chandos portrait," named for its first documented owner. Whoever that's a picture of, at least it looks like a writer. Somewhat scruffy, with a high forehead, receding hairline with hair too long in back (to compensate?), just like Detective Andy Sipowicz as played by Dennis Franz on NYPD Blue. That little gold earring adds a welcome rakish touch.

Of course, the sonnets themselves give us some hints, although we should be wary of taking anything a writer says of himself at face value.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

(Sonnet 73)

Shakespeare died at 52, not so unusual in his time as in ours, and he probably didn't look like a miraculously preserved, Botoxed thirty-something when he passed. Still, let's not forgot this is, on some level, a love poem, a seduction. Is there a part of the author that's winking at his readers, letting us in on the way he's manipulating the sympathies of the innocent young man to whom the maudlin message is addressed?

But it honestly never occurred to me that, of course, Shakespeare couldn't have been bisexual, or even sexual at all, if he wasn't handsome or glamorous enough.

It makes me think, as it probably made everybody who read it think, of the so very different way writers are viewed now. In a debate a while ago on the "Dear Author" blog, there were some comments as to how it's better not to see a photo or know anything about an author apart from the works themselves. But good luck with that in today's publishing world. Writers who are published by a major publisher rarely have the option of not providing a photo. We are practically required to present ourselves as handsome and glamorous. During a telephone seminar I took on self-promotion for writers (I know, I know) the only thing it turned out I was doing "right" was the headshot at the top of my website.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, always the voice of reason, explains in an opinion piece (New York Times, Editorial Notebook, March 11):

"The perennial search for a portrait of Shakespeare is really a search for an image that justifies our idea of Shakespeare, our idea of writing. We somehow want the young Shakespeare to look like Joseph Fiennes, fiery and slashing. But what if he looked like Ricky Gervais? Would the plays mean less to us? Ö
"From a canon as rich as his, and a documentary record as meager as his, you can infer almost anything. When it comes to privacy, Shakespeare out-Salingers Salinger and out-Pynchons Pynchon. Go looking for the man, and you will find only the person doing the looking."

Selected Works

Fantasy, Women's Fiction (e-books)
Book Six in the ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs.
Book Five in the ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs.
Book Four in the ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs.
Book Three in the ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs.
Book Two in the ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs.
Book One in the ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs.
Short Story
A queered version of the Cinderella story in the 4th Gay City anthology, "At Second Glance."
Newsletter article
Describes the typical upbringing of middle- and upper-class children in Austen's time.
Romantic Comedy, M/M/F Menage
A breezy tale of love, lust and secrets set against the backdrop of Regency England.