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 The Lady Is a Man 

August 28, 2007 
[Originally published by the Universal Press Syndicate, September 16, 1997.]
paragraph indent-Dark 
LadyThis just in from Berlin: A new biography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe says the great German poet was actually gay. Never mind his idealization of “the eternal feminine,” his five children, his legend as a Don Juan. He preferred men. According to the biographer Karl Hugo Pruys, Goethe’s letters show his physical affection for males.

Today's column is "The Lady Is a Man" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.paragraph indent-Dark LadyMany Germans hate the idea. I think it serves them right. Not only do they elevate Goethe to the level of Shakespeare, they also insist that Shakespeare reads better in German than in English. Such arrogance can’t go unpunished.

paragraph indent-Dark 
LadyMeanwhile, from England, this just in about Shakespeare: An Oxford University scholar named Katherine Duncan-Jones, editor of the new Arden edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, says the famous “Dark Lady” was actually male. This would mean that nearly all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets were addressed to men.

paragraph indent-Dark 
LadyJohn Kerrigan, editor of the New Penguin edition of the sonnets, agrees that the poems “are certainly homoerotic.” But Anne Barton of Cambridge University insists that Shakespeare was “bisexual” and “reacted equally to both men and women’s sexuality. Our society is only now coming to terms with this kind of thing.”

paragraph indent-Dark 
LadyFunny how Shakespeare always seems to have anticipated whatever is trendy in our own time. Now it appears that Goethe did too.

paragraph indent-Dark 
LadyGoethe is outside my ken, but the notable thing about these three Shakespeare scholars, to my mind, is that, despite their disagreements, they seem willing to acknowledge two obvious facts. One is that the sonnets reveal the poet as a man of unconventional sexual tastes. The other fact is implicit in this one: the sonnets are autobiographical poems.

paragraph indent-Dark 
LadyProfessor Duncan-Jones shows just how erratic (I nearly said “homoerratic”) the orthodox Shakespeare scholars can be. She gets Shakespeare’s identity wrong — he was actually Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford — but that’s par for the course: she would be driven out of academia if she got it right. But she goes beyond anyone else. Nobody has ever nailed down the identity of the Dark Lady, but until now there has been general agreement among all scholars and readers of all persuasions that whoever the Dark Lady was, she was a woman. Professor Duncan-Jones is surely the first to get even her sex wrong.

[Breaker quote for The Lady Is a Man: Torn between trends]paragraph indent-Dark LadyOh well. At least we seem to be agreed that no matter which sex she belonged to, the Dark Lady was a real human being. And the admission that whoever wrote these poems had some homosexual experience also means that the sonnets are about real experiences, since in Elizabethan times nobody would dare feign such a thing.

paragraph indent-Dark LadyI stress this because some orthodox professors have accused me of being “naive” for thinking the sonnets are autobiographical. Now it seems that that belief puts me in respectable company.

paragraph indent-Dark 
LadyWhy should anyone deny that these passionate poems come from the poet’s heart? For the simple reason that they describe the Earl of Oxford rather than the mythical “Shakespeare of Stratford.” The poet is an aging nobleman, down in the heels, in some disgrace, learned in the law, and lame. This can only be Oxford, not the Stratford gent.

paragraph indent-Dark 
LadyYou might expect the champions of the Stratford man to welcome the sonnets as evidence of their man’s authorship. But they don’t. On the contrary, they usually try to rule the sonnets inadmissible evidence. To hear some of them, you’d think that any reference to the sonnets was a violation of their client’s Miranda rights and must be kept from being used against him in court. They’d hardly try to exclude the sonnets from the authorship debate if these poems supported the Stratford man’s claim.

paragraph indent-Dark 
LadyBut when the authorship question isn’t at issue, many orthodox scholars lean to the view that the sonnets show that Shakespeare was gay, or at least bisexual.

paragraph indent-Dark 
LadySo the academic scholars, unanimously Stratfordian, are now torn between yesterday’s trendy denial that the sonnets reveal anything about the poet’s real life and today’s trendy insistence that they reveal his kinky sexual nature.

paragraph indent-Dark 
LadyHowever, any admission that “Shakespeare” was really someone else would be an admission that the professional scholars — from Cambridge to your local community college — don’t know what they’re talking about.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2007 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation.
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