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The Social Masochism of Shakespeare's Sonnets


This essay argues that the little evidence we have concerning Shakespeare's sonnets in manuscript circulation suggests that many of the poems—particularly those most charged with bawdy innuendo—are more socially coded than is often thought. While scholars of early modern manuscript culture have focused on Shakespeare's "young man" sonnets, which clearly express a hierarchical patron-writer relationship, evidence suggests that the "dark lady" poems were among those written for a gentlemanly audience. Read in this context, these sonnets' use of linguistic ambiguity and imagery of feminization presents a socially innovative persona: a figure whose charm is self-abjection.