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The Scandals of Shakespeare's Sonnets

From: ELH
Volume 77, Number 2, Summer 2010
pp. 477-508 | 10.1353/elh.0.0082



This study of the reception of Shakespeare's sonnets takes as its starting point Margreta de Grazia's influential claim that contemporary understandings of the sonnets--which consider the sonnets to the young man scandalous and the ones to the young woman proper--are, from an early modern perspective, "topsy-turvy." I argue that in positing a single reversal we risk missing more complex synchronic variations and diachronic overlaps in the reception of the sonnets during their 400-year history. Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon have recently called for a "queer history" that embraces the untidiness of the relationship between past and present because neither past nor present is self-identical. I explore the history of the sonnets' reception with special attention to this untidiness, from the moment of the sonnets' production to today. I argue in particular that a definitive eighteenth-century shift, which de Grazia identifies as inaugurating our "topsy-turvy" sense of the sonnets, does not exist. This sense of the sonnets developed over a much shorter period of time, only since about the 1930s, along with a new understanding of heterosexuality per se as a positive value, what Jonathan Katz has called the modern "invention of heterosexuality." Nor is this reception of the sonnets simply definitive of the contemporary moment.

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