Shakespeare and “don’t ask don’t tell”

An important article, “The Bisexuality of Shake-speare’s Sonnets and Implications for de Vere’s Authorship” by Richard M. Waugaman, MD, is to be published in the upcoming October issue of Psychoanalytic Review, 97 (5).  Dr. Waugaman is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, and Training & Supervising Analyst Emeritus at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute.  His 98 scholarly publications began with an article stemming from his senior thesis on Nietzsche and Freud.  He and his wife, Elisabeth Pearson, scholar of Medieval French Lit and an award-winning children’s book author, live in Maryland, near Washington DC.

Dr. Waugaman’s path to Oxford runs from Freud (doctoral dissertation) to William Niederkorn (NYTimes article, Feb. 2002), to Roger Stritmatter (Oxford’s Geneva Bible) to a readership at the Folger.  Now this prestigious academic journal has agreed to publish simultaneously not one, but two of his articles on authorship issues, one on Samuel Clemens’s use of the pseudonym Mark Twain, the other on the psychology of Shake-speare’s Sonnets and their connection to Oxford’s biography, the accusations of pederasty made against him made by his enemies, plus the fact that his daughter was being promoted as a wife to the Earl of Southampton, the Fair Youth of the Sonnets.

News of the publication of Dr. Waugaman’s articles in an academic journal is a sign that the wall surrounding Fortress Academia may be weakening. “Things seem to be changing among my analytic colleagues,” says Waugaman. “I now find them far more receptive.  They react as though there is at least “reasonable doubt’’about the authorship, which is a fine place to begin.  And I’m optimistic about the historians as well.”  That Waugaman speaks from and to the psychology community is a double plus, since that’s one of the two arenas that we can conceivably hope will help us salvage the truth about the authorship, the other being the historians.   Once post docs in the less fiction-based Humanities departments begin delving in the English archives we’ll have to rely less on conjecture.

It’s with gratitude that I read Dr. Waugaman’s essay since, as he emphasizes, the nature of the Bard’s sexuality has been so denied, distorted, ignored, or misinterpreted by so-called Shakespeare experts (including some Oxfordians) over the centuries that a straightforward approach to the obvious by someone of authority is clearly in order.  Waugaman asks why Shakespeare commentators have consistently avoided the obvious, that since the Sonnets reflect that the Poet was having (or at least desiring) concurrent sexual relations with a man and a woman––ipso facto, Shakespeare was a bisexual, or at least was behaving like one.  As he states: “One solution to this cognitive dissonance for the past four centuries has been denial or avoidance of Shakespeare’s bisexuality, and of his actual identity.”  By connecting this massive “blind spot,” as he calls it, to the Academy’s refusal to dig any deeper than the unlikely Stratford biography, Waugaman makes an important connection.  We’ve been subjected to James Shapiro’s efforts to psychoanalyze the authorship community, now lets see what a psychoanalyst has to say about Shapiro and his colleagues.  For any who wish to read his argument in full, Dr. Waugaman will email you a pdf; contact him at rwmd at comcast dot net.

Don’t ask don’t tell

When we add to the evidence in the Sonnets all the gender-bending in the plays, the passionate “male bonding” in Coriolanus, and the obvious homosexual love of the Antonios in Twelfth Night and Merchant of Venice, it would seem that at the very least, homosexual desire was something the author understood.  This may have been shocking to the Reformation clergy who acted as censors for what got published in the early 17th century, to the Victorian literary critics, and apparently also to persons who grew up in the 1950s in America, but that some readers today are still grasping for some other interpretation, desperate to avoid the fact that––Gasp! Choke!––Shakespeare had a sex life!––well, what can I say?  If it wasn’t so deplorable it would be funny.

As a professional in the field of human psychology, Waugaman himself is not afraid to think rationally about same-sex attraction, understanding through his years of training and professional experience that male-male love and sex is, and has always been, a factor in human nature.  So he does not attempt, as some Oxfordians have, to equate the hiding of Oxford’s name with shame over his sexuality.  Certainly the Poet is ashamed of himself for any number of unspecified misdeeds, but had he been so ashamed of his sexuality as to hide his identity solely for that reason, he would never have displayed it with such abandon in both the Sonnets and the plays, nor would he have defended it as he does in Sonnet 121:“Tis better to be vile than vile esteem’d . . . .”

No, it isn’t Shakespeare who’s ashamed, nor whoever it was who first dared to publish his poems, male pronouns and all, in 1609.  It’s been the censors, scholars, critics and publishers of his works ever since who, writhing in shame, refuse to face the vital truth about the creation of the language we speak, hiding like a herd of nerdy nincompoops behind the Stratford fable.  The question is not––should not be––was Shakespeare gay, straight or bi?  Though interesting in the same way it’s interesting where he lived or what he liked for dinner, it’s hardly important enough in the grand scheme of things to bury his identity for three centuries.  The real question is, or should be, why are we as a society so frightened by something that a small community of men do in private, something that hurts no one and that obviously gives them pleasure?

Blame it on the Reformation

From the dawn of time until the Reformation the English were just as sexy and life-loving as any other European culture, celebrating the turn of the seasons with carnival-like holidays that lasted for several days on end, much as they had done, as all of Europe had done, in rituals that went back to the Stone Age.  Despite the very real benefits to the community from these moments of psychological release, those reform ministers of Church and State who took power under Elizabeth were bound and determined to rid the nation of this “merry-making” and everything else that brought the people pleasure.   As I’ve detailed elsewhere, it was the loss of these communal celebrations that contributed most to the success of the London Stage and Shakespeare’s early plays, and it was the constant pressure of the animosity of this newly established Protestant Church and State fraternity that throughout Elizabeth’s reign was the greatest threat to both Shakespeare and his Stage.

But this was only one manifestation of a puritanical attitude towards pleasure that gripped the nation, and in fact all of Europe, beginning in the late 15th century.  In England it caused the reformers under Elizabeth’s forerunner Edward VI to shift from the more life-affirmative Lutheran theology to the grim tenets of Calvinism with its focus on sin and damnation.  Nor was it a product of the Protestant Reformation alone, for the European countries that remained Catholic went through much the same revolution, beginning with Savanarola in Florence at the turn of the 16th century, and continuing in bursts with the Inquisition in Spain and Rome and the witch burnings in Scandinavia and France, all part of a reaction against the life-loving humanism, art, and intellectual excitement of the Renaissance.  And at the heart of this reaction was a harsh new attitude towards sex, particularly homosexual sex.

The early pagans, far from seeing sex as dangerous or disgusting, worshipped it––male-female sex, that is––as the source of life, a view that lasted throughout the medieval period in works like the Roman de la Rose, the Courtly love tradition passed on in the Arthur and Orlando tales, and the worship of Mary and other female saints.  So far as we know, no past or present culture has ever openly condoned homosexual behavior.  As Philip Slater shows in his brilliant The Glory of Hera, even the ancient Greeks, who made it the cornerstone of their culture for several centuries weren’t all that comfortable with it.   But whatever shame was attached to it then was mainly directed towards the humiliating position of the men who played the “feminine” or passive role, the “ingles” and “ganymedes,” with little or no shame attaching to the dominant partner.  It must also be noted that, whatever the official attitude, male-male sex has been the primary means for societies throughout the ages to maintain population control.  Nevertheless, simply frowning on something is not the same as fearing and hating it or reviling to the extreme that drove the 19th-century Victorians to hang  accused homosexuals or tie them to posts where crowds of hundreds of screaming fanatics were encouraged to stone them to death (Crompton 21-2).

What caused the English to turn from sin-forgiving Catholicism to to the fiery furnace of Calvinism, which held such dark views of God and life that because human beings are brought into being through sexual intercourse they’re damned from birth, that is, unless they withhold themselves from any kind of sensory pleasure, including, of course, sex for pleasure.  What on earth could have driven the merry English, and other nations as well,  to fall prey to such a wretched belief system, one that, despite the incursions of secular science and modern existentialism, continues to drive many of our communal societal fears and prejudices to this very day?

Syphilis

I believe this fear and hatred of sex had its origins in the spread of a deadly new strain of syphilis that was first documented in Naples in 1494, and that spread rapidly through the ports of Europe in the 16th century as sailors and travellers transported the deadly microbe from the whorehouses and bathhouses of one seaport to another.

The people of ages past were not ignorant fools.  They did not need to study medicine to understand from direct experience that this was a venereal disease unlike any they’d ever known.  It would have taken several generations, say three, taking us into the mid-1500s, for people to realize just how terrible was this “great pox” (as opposed to the “small pox,” that only killed or disfigured) ; how it not only destroyed the person who had it, but how it could be passed through intercourse to that person’s mate, rendering her sterile, or if she managed to have children, made them susceptible to any number of dangerous illnesses, the girls sterile, or if they gave birth, possibly to diseased or stillborn babies.  The most terrible disease until that time, the black plague, either killed within days of contracting it or allowed recovery, while syphilis acted slowly over months and years, rotting the body, and the mind, from within.  Many cures were tried, but nothing seemed to work but mercury salts, which had such terrible side effects that it was arguable which was worse, the disease or its cure.  In fact, no sure cure would be found until the 20th century.

What were the 16th-century Europeans to think?  Believing as so many did that God was still taking a close personal interest in their behavior, what other reason could they come up with than that He was punishing them, and of course, because it it was through sex that the disease was spread, with its first appearance occuring on the genitals, that they were being punished for their sexuality.  Fear spread like wildfire through Europe, focusing on the most vulnerable, prostitutes and homosexuals.

Probably because the issue was sex and the disease could be hidden as other diseases could not, there are not the contemporary references to syphilis that there are to the plague, malaria, etc., and because we’re so used to the pervasive anti-sex attitude bequeathed us by the Reformation, and in America by the emigrating Puritans, we tend not to notice it in the texts from the period.  It wasn’t until I began reading the works of Protestant reformers and pedagogues that I realized that their use of the word “filthy” invariably referred to sexual behavior of every sort (Calvin did except the need for married couples to produce children, but God forbid they should have any pleasure in the process).  What’s inherently filthy about sex?  Waugamon quotes David Bevington on the horror Elizabethan England displayed towards sodomy, how they described it with words like “leprous,” “cancerous,” a “plague spot,” the same words used to describe the symptoms of syphilis.

Déjà vu all over again

In a sense this issue is where I came in.  My first literary love was Lord Byron (yes, it’s possible to fall in love with a long dead writer).  Byron in his letters and journals gave himself to the world of letters in a way that few have ever done.  For three or four years in the late 70s and early 80s I read everything I could find by him and about him.  I own most of the volumes of his letters and journals as edited by Leslie Marchand and am the proud possessor of a personal letter from Marchand, typed by his own hand.  Finally discovering in 1985 that Byron’s self-exile was the only way (other than suicide) that he could escape the terrible fate of men accused of sodomy; that his memoirs were burned by his friends out of anxiety over what he’s revealed about their sexuality; and most of all, that the truth about him was buried by his biographers until it was revealed by Louis Crompton (in 1985) in Byron and Greek Love, makes this issue over the Sonnets and their author’s identity seem like the conclusion to a story that, for me, began with Byron, but for English Literature, began with Shakespeare.

It’s sad that I feel it necessary to add that I myself was married to a (male) jazz musician and composer for 20 years by whom I had four daughters, that I’ve had two long-term sexually fulfilling relationships, both with men, one my husband, which is not to say that I never had to withstand the kind of passing attraction to a “lovely” guy or two that the Poet documents in the Sonnets.

The hellish focus on sin and damnation that that accompanied the Reformation and that threatened to destroy all merry-making (and surely would have if not for the courage of Shake-spear and his patrons), deserves a more thorough examination than is possible here, but I think it should at least be mentioned, for what else could have caused the frenzy of fear and hatred that has fueled English (and American) homophobia ever since.  Surely this and only this is the ultimate reason for the denial of Shakespeare’s nature by the Academy, and by extention, as Dr. Waugaman has realized, coming from his own perspective, their continued refusal to examine the truth about his identity.

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2 responses to “Shakespeare and “don’t ask don’t tell”

  1. Esteemed Stephania. It is easy to assume when reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, that their author was inclined to bisexuality. This phenomenon is as old as the old world. Of course, it is important to know every detail of the individual genius. Perhaps this detail will help in solving the problems of author William Shakespeare. But it is still a little important. It would be surprising if Shakespeare would not experience love in all its manifestations. Perhaps thanks to his sexual bents (and, of course, the his genius) we have not compared his Sonnets. Your Igor

  2. Dear Stephanie,
    Thanks for the notice of Rick Waugaman’s article, which I read with interest and about which I commented to him. In general, while not being blind to the obvious, I get insight from understanding the undercurrent of family blood loyalty, divine king worship, vassal-like admonishment, and implied language under stress that characterize much of the Sonnets. Though I differ therefore with the face-value interpretations, analyzing backward from current perspectives, I am encouraged that the psychiatric community, having no real embarrassment about the issue, is receptive to Rick’s essay.

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