“What is your substance, whereof are you made?” The formation of identity in Shakespeare’s Sonnets to the Young Man

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

24 Pages, Grade: 1,0




“What is your substance, whereof are you made?” – The Formation of Identity in Shakespeare’s Sonnets to the Young Man

1 Emotional and sexual identity
1.1 The relationship of the poet and the young man in the light of Renaissance concepts of sexuality
1.2 Fashioning the young man: Towards an androgynous ideal

2 The philosophical formation of identity via Neo-Platonism

3 Art as a source of identity
3.1 Nature: Modelling body and will
3.2 Identity rooted in poetry
3.2.1 The sublimated young man
3.2.2 Epideictic praise and narcissism




Shakespeare’s sonnets have often been discussed in terms of the degree of their autobiographical content. The question what role the persons which the poet addresses, a young man and a dark woman, had actually played in the author’s life sparked as much debate as the opaque initials “W. H.”, a dedication by Thomas Thorpe, who had published a Quarto by the title of ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Never before imprinted’ in 1609 (Edmondson / Wells 4). Some critics were led to conclude their research with triumphant statements such as ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The Problems solved’, a title employed by A. L. Rowse in 1964. Rowse claims to have spotted the identity of the young man, the dark lady, the rival poet, as well as of “W. H.”. His edition of the sonnets also includes a chapter called “The Story: its Outlines” (24).

Other critics have been focussing less on a coherent story with identifiable characters. In their analysis, they often take a purely immanent stance and are more concerned with how the poet, the speaking voice of the sonnets, establishes an identity, a private subjectivity and sensibility and in the course of his amorous encounters engages in a struggle to keep them afloat. I want to argue along the lines of those researchers who put the previously rather central issues of homosocial desire and Platonic and Petrarchan love into the lager context of what Stephen Greenblatt calls the “self-fashioning” of the Renaissance individual (1). He points out that “the power to impose a shape” upon oneself or another person is a major issue in the English Renaissance, the age of “the formation of identity” (1 / 6). According to Colin Morris, there had been distinctions between “types and individual representation” as early as 1020 (33 / 65), but A. J. Piesse states that “self-interrogation” beyond a religious context began to loom only at the beginning of the sixteenth century (634). In the 80s, Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Belsey stressed that “any formulation of identity must be seen in the light of cultural context, that any exposition of self is a manifestation of a series of options, rather than something intrinsically different from anything else” (Piesse 635). In his work Sources of the Self of 1989, Charles Taylor differentiates along the lines of Plato and Aristotle between the importance of context and interior self for the individual (Ibid 635). A. J. Piesse shows with the help of selected Renaissance texts that “it is quite possible to construct a more or less linear journey into the interior in the early modern drama”, which is discernible especially in Shakespeare’s writings (639).

My aim is to display the resources which provide the poet and his friend with identity, and I want to explore how those resources are used for the construction. I will first deal with Renaissance notions of sexuality and sodomy in particular. The results will subsequently provide a backdrop for those sonnets of the cycle which thematise homosocial desire. Next, I will depict the androgynous fashioning of the young man by the poet. In the second chapter, I will move on to describe the relationship of the poet and the young man as the illustration of a philosophical problem by drawing on Plato’s love concept as captured in his works Symposium and Phaedrus. In the third chapter, I will analyse the importance of art to the formation of identity in the sonnets. First, I will deal with the influence of nature. Next, I will use the aesthetic concept of sublimation to show how a refined self of the young man is produced. The last chapter hopes to demonstrate how the poet cultivates his love for the youth on rather narcissistic soil and how he extracts a sense of self from his verses. A radical reading would go so far as to say that the friend dissolves – or shrinks to the size of a flower as it happens to Narcissus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I will conclude by saying that Shakespeare, instead of telling a coherent story, confronts the reader with what I call ‘moments of the psyche’, an insight into the sometimes joyful, sometimes anguished soul of a fractured self. My term for the medium through which identity presents itself is ‘modes of loving’, or the love of something, be it of a body, an ideal, art, or oneself. The sonnets present a self which elaborately defends its existence, but which also fears to lose itself because the love object with which it identifies is not always “fair, kind and true” (sonnet 105, 13). I will show how this incertitude is simultaneously mirrored in language and form.

“What is your substance, whereof are you made?” – The Formation of Identity in Shakespeare’s Sonnets to the Young Man

1 Emotional and sexual identity

1.1 The relationship of the young man and the poet in the light of Renaissance

concepts of sexuality

Even though a coherent story line is not detectable in Shakespeare’s sonnets, the reader can discern “the rudiments of a significant incident” in poems nos. 1-126, which emerge and in the next instant “completely disappear” (Hedley 13). The young man, usually the very picture of virtue and beauty, seems to be responsible for a trespass which remains at the margin of the poems yet occasionally infuses a disappointed undertone into the harmonious atmosphere of the poet’s rapture: “That she hath thee is of my wailing chief, / A loss in love that touches me more nearly” (sonnet 42, 3-4). The poet probably alludes to the fact that his friend has entered into an amorous relationship with his mistress, the so-called dark lady to whom the other sub-sequence of the sonnets, nos. 127-154, is addressed. It must be noted that ‘to have’ in this context may well mean ‘to have sexually’ (Duncan-Jones 194). It is not clear if the friend has deeper feelings the dark lady, but that he has slept with her hurts the poet tremendously. Interestingly, and as he says explicitly, it is not the woman whom he wants to reserve for himself but his young friend (sonnet 42, 1 / 3). However, as he is unable to be cross with him for a longer period of time, the poet pardons the youth by falsely attributing to him the following paltry excuse: “Thou doest love her, because thou knowst I love her” (6).

One may ask why the poet takes such pains to defend the young man and why he wants to be loved by the woman but desires to be “one” with his friend (13). There is a reading of such passages which suggests the possibility of a sexual motivation (Duncan-Jones 194). Other sonnets seem to point even more into a homoerotic direction. Even though the word “friend”, which occurs nine times (Edmondson / Wells 69), denotes “a person with whom one enjoys mutual affection and regards (usually exclusive of sexual or family bonds)”, “a sympathizer, helper, or patron” (Hawkins / Allen 562), the young man is also addressed as “my love” several times (e.g. in sonnet 40, 1). The poet even tells him “I love thee in such sort (…)” (sonnet 96, 13). Is the reader witnessing the construction of a homosexual self? Was sexuality a Renaissance category which had the power to form identity in the first place?

The term “sexuality” and its sub-terms “homo-“ and “heterosexuality” belong to the language of the 19th century (Knowles 675). Michel Foucault argues that this was the time when a sexual selfhood was first created, based on the distinction between “a category of forbidden acts” named “sodomy” and the personage of the homosexual with “a past, a case history (…) a morphology (…) and possibly a mysterious physiology”: “The sodomite [of ancient codes] had been a temporary aberration; the [19th-century] homosexual was now a species” (43). Indeed, some critics think that “the institution of sexual difference as ‘identities’ creates the modern subject” (Knowles 675). In the early modern period, there was no comparable discourse for the analysis of male sexual behaviour (Ibid 682). Homosocial bonds dominated society, men shared “domestic space” and even beds without being thought indecent (Ibid 680), and male friendship was seen in broader and more flexible terms than it is nowadays:

Whether or not bodily contact occurred, or would satisfy criteria of the ‘sexual kind’ for twentieth-century observers, Renaissance men addressed each other in affective ways which were so often tinged with the arousal of desire, that they were erotic. Male sexuality was performed across a wider spectrum of sensualities than modern standards usually allow, collapsing any clear boundaries between essential ‘gayness’ and a straightforward ‘heterosexuality’ (Simons 1997).

One can say that sexuality with its present-day implications may not have existed in the Renaissance, or, as James Knowles puts it, that “rather different patterns operated, some of which we have not yet learned how to read” (685).

Shakespeare’s poet may well desire merely a close friendship with the young man, but the possibility cannot be ruled out that the relationship did, indeed, include a sexual dimension. The riddle is carried to extremes in lines 9-14 of sonnet 20 where a bawdy kind of ambiguity rules:

“ And for a woman wert thou first created,

Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,

And by addition me of thee defeated,

By adding one thing to my purpose nothing:

But since she pricked thee out for woman’s pleasure,

Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.”

“Prick” can mean both “select” and “penis” (Edmondson / Wells 75). “Their” is homophonous to “there”, so the following reading would not reserve the youth’s penis for women but for the poet: “Mine be thy love, and thy love there treasure” (Pointer 108). If read in a bawdy way, even lines 7-8 allude to the homosexual potential which runs parallel to the heterosexual one: “A man (…) which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth” becomes “A man (…) which steels men’s penises and women’s holes amazeth” (Ibid 106-7). Furthermore, lines 9-10 suggest that personified nature herself had fallen in love with someone of her own sex before transforming her into a man. This is presented as something “natural”, so homosexuality is here steeped in “naturalness” (Ibid 107).

However, sonnet 20 is also taken as the prime argument against a homosexual interpretation (Klein 22). If circumscribed, the last two lines would read: ‘But since she equipped thee with a penis for woman’s pleasure, mine by thy spiritual love and the use of your genitals women’s treasure.’ The so-called procreation sonnets, nos. 1-17, seem to support the heterosexual argument by stating that the poet apparently wants his friend to engage sexually with a woman to beget a child: “Make thee another self for love of me ” (sonnet 10, 13), or “For where is she so fair whose uneared womb / Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?” (sonnet 3, 5-6). Yet, as I will show later in this essay, a proper relationship with a woman is not the poet’s only let alone his major wish for the young man. A woman is necessary to beget a child in the sense of a tool, but I cannot find any sonnets in the young man sequence which praise a heterosexual relationship because of a merit external to procreation. The poet’s infatuation with the dark lady, which I can only broach in this essay, approaches the female sex from another (sexual) side, but those poems rather convey a bitter and melancholic picture of what a relationship with a woman may look like (Fineman 54).

To sum it up, one could say that traces of a homosexual relationship can be discovered but do not necessarily have to be elaborated into a fully-fledged homoerotic love affair (Klein 22). Also, it would be wrong to assume that Shakespeare himself must have been gay, firstly because of the ambiguous language which does not opt for either reading, secondly because the author and the speaker must not be confused. What can be said, however, is that the poet displays a strong emotional tie to the young man throughout the sonnets, a fact which is reiterated by expressions such as “Lord of my love”, “How I do love thee” (sonnet 26, 1 / 13), and “O thou my lovely Boy” (sonnet 126, 1). The youth’s unfaithfulness makes the poet feel “like a deceived husband” (sonnet 93, 2). Both his tender praise and his lament on the loss of his companion are drawn from a sphere which is responsible for moulding the emotional and maybe also the sexual consciousness of a human being. Great affection for the young man leads the speaker to talk of his experiences in an alternating rhythm of illusion and disillusion. The speaker is unable to make sense of those experiences and thereby creates an authentic self lost in confusion. This self is determined by things interior, using “a philosophical gaze that turns inward” towards what Aristotle calls phronesis, that is, “an understanding of the ever-changing” in which “particular cases and predicaments are never exhaustively characterised in general rules” (Taylor 125).

As I have shown above, a state of emotional and sexual instability told on the basis of personal experience rather than external knowledge hints at the existence of what Piesse calls a “self-speaking subject”. The following subchapter demonstrates how a subject, e.g. the young man, can also be constructed by outside forces: By the poet.


Excerpt out of 24 pages


“What is your substance, whereof are you made?” The formation of identity in Shakespeare’s Sonnets to the Young Man
University of Tubingen
Sonnet Cycles from the 16th to the 20th Centuries
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
500 KB
This text looks at Shakespeare's Sonnets in the light of an important Renaissance issue: It deals with identity and its various sources, focussing on the relationship of the poet and the young man.
Shakespeare’s, Sonnets, Young, Sonnet, Cycles, Centuries
Quote paper
Anne Thoma (Author), 2006, “What is your substance, whereof are you made?” The formation of identity in Shakespeare’s Sonnets to the Young Man, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/83235


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