I have remarked before on the mistake of assessing visual art as product rather than as process, for example, here and here. Today’s Grauniad carries a fascinating article by poet and jazz musician Don Paterson on Shakespeare’s sonnets, which makes the same point about his poetry:
I wanted to say something to counteract the perception of Shakespeare’s compositional method as a kind of lyric soduku, and put in a word for the kind of glorious, messy procedure I’m quite certain it was, whatever the crystalline and symmetrical beauty of the final results. Like most poets, Shakespeare uses the poem as way of working out what he’s thinking, not as a means of reporting that thought. Often he’ll start with nothing more than a hangover, a fever and a bad night spent being tormented by the spectre of his absent lover. Then he’ll use the sonnet as a way of making sense of it all – a way, first, to extract a logic from pain, and then a comfort from that logic, however warped it might be. Form, in other words, allows him to draw some assuagement from the very source of the agony itself.”
On Shakespeare’s soduku tendency – the use of puns and associations, clever wordplay, and supreme mastery of subtle and sometimes paradoxical links between syntax and semantics (or, form and meaning) – the best source I know is the commentary of Helen Vendler, which Paterson later refers to.
Paterson also comments on Shakespeare’s sexual orientation:
However, the question: “was Shakespeare gay?” strikes me as so daft as to be barely worth answering. Of course he was. Arguably he was bisexual, of sorts, but his heart was never on his straight side. Now is not the time to rehearse them all, but the arguments against his homosexuality are complex and sophistical, and often take convenient and homophobic advantage of the sonnets’ built-in interpretative slippage – which Shakespeare himself would have needed for what we would now call “plausible deniability”, should anyone have felt inclined to cry sodomy.
The argument in favour is simple. First, falling in love with other men is often a good indication of homosexuality; and second, as much as I love some of my male friends, I’m never going to write 126 poems for them, even the dead ones. Third, read the poems, then tell me these are “pure expressions of love for a male friend” and keep a straight face. This is a crazy, all-consuming, feverish and sweaty love; love, in all its uncut, full-strength intensity; an adolescent love. The reader’s thrill lies in hearing this adolescent love articulated by a hyper-literate thirty-something. Usually these kids can’t speak. The effect is extraordinary: they are not poems that are much use when we’re actually in love, I’d suggest; but when we read them, they are so visceral in their invocation of that mad, obsessive, sleepless place that we can again feel, as CK Williams said, “the old heart stamping in its stall”. “
Helen Vendler : The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Cambridge, MA, USA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
PS: My view on the identity of the author of the plays and poetry known as William Shakespeare’s can be found here.