Finding Gender in Shakespeare's Sonnets

I apologizing for not being able to finish this, but I'm under a time constraint. If you could just read and give some feedback on what you see here, I'd really appreciate it. Thanks guys!
In many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, it can be difficult to understand who he’s writing them for, especially when it comes to the gender of the recipient. This has caused quite a few debates among scholars, and in his essay “Sexing Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Reading Beyond Sonnet 20” William Nelles explores the different arguments that are both for and against the gender assumptions for the Youth and Dark Lady sonnets. But let’s face it: it can be quite difficult to understand just who Shakespeare might have to been talking to, like in sonnet 20: “A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted/ With shifting change as is false women’s fashion” (20.3-4), but in Nelles’ essay, he points out that “lyric is meant to be voiceable by anyone reading it, [so] it deliberately strips away social specification, including gender.” So, in exploration of this subject, this is the question posed: Is it really a matter of gender of the addressee, or more a matter of the presentation of the sonnets from one person to another in which gender matters? It would be fair to say that it can go both ways, and that the gender of the addressee shouldn’t matter, but when it comes to Shakespeare as the contributor, it seems gender is something that a great number of the critics are hung up on. This essay will show that the gender of the recipients of those sonnets is irrelevant, as it’s more about the person giving the sonnet.

Annotating the Essay
William Nelles opens “Sexing Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Reading Beyond Sonnet 20” by introducing the two distinct groups when it comes to engendering the sonnets, those that see the sonnets as a “collection [rather] than a sequence” (Edmondson, Wells, 2004) and those that “[find] a narrative line connecting the rest of the sonnets” (Nelles). Nelles writes that because of discoveries in the last few decades, the assumption that the Fair Youth and Dark Lady sonnets were written to the same young man and woman has been overturned, but the sequence the sonnets were published in was done so according to Shakespeare’s “consent and…wishes” (Burrow, 2002). But because of lack of evidence to any conflicting information, it has been a general rule of thumb to assume that sonnets 1-126 are addressed to one man, and sonnets 127-152 are addressed to the same woman. Nelles also points out that this lack of evidence “cannot suffice to carry such a burden of proof” (Nelles, 2009).

Nelles continues his introduction by describing both sides of the debate, namely those that view the sonnets as a collection and those that view these specific sonnets as two separate narratives. But while he says the former group does have all the evidence to back their argument, Nelles does view “both sides [as] correct, but in different ways” (Nelles, 2009). This leads to a new thread, in which Nelles begins to point out the inconsistencies of Helen Vendler’s work, in which she both says that there are specific addressees of the sonnets, but “the majority of the sonnets do not reveal the gender of the [addressee].”

In his evaluation of Vendler’s literary work concerning Shakespeare’s sonnets, Nelles points out that her arguments starts out by stripping the sonnets fo gender, possibly more for the sake of the person voicing the sonnet rather than the actual author, using the evidence that “few of the sonnets include gendered pronouns.” As she concludes her argument, however, Vendler decides to return to the accepted assumption that the order of the sonnets is Shakespearean, and because of this common sense readers should continue to assume that sonnets 20-126 are about a young boy, and 127-152 are about a dark haired woman. This conclusion of her work begins presents a very slippery slope, according to Nelles. The conclusion of Vendler’s work actually seems to go directly into Nelles’ next paragraph, setting up his essay by looking at two different approaches to viewing these sonnets: either the two groups of sonnets are “read as belonging to sustained and usually interlaced narrative sequence” or the sonnets are simply “mini sequences connected by themes and images” (Nelles, 2009). Nelles then goes on to explain that he hopes to “point out some of the weaknesses and inconsistencies” in order to redistribute the “burden of logical proof where it belongs” (Nelles, 2009).

Going into his actual argument, Nelles begins by pointing out the discrepancy that seems to revolve around the gender specific pronouns that are actually used in the “Young Youth” or “Dark Lady” sonnets. While many of the critics that have counted come up with different specific numbers, the agreement seems to be that 72% of these sonnets are “entirely unmarked for gender.” He then shows his reader that if someone was to take the few gendered pronouns in the sonnets, and apply them to the entirety of the collection “should be regarded with a higher degree of skepticism” (Nelles, 2009) than it has been granted. To prove his point, Nelles brings out a chart that shows which specific sonnets include gendered pronouns, and what pronouns they are (male or female). He then begins criticizing other critics that take these sonnets and, rather than acknowledge the lack of gender in them, will twist and turn and manipulate their view to make the disambigious sonnets gendered. But before leaving this matter of gender, Nelles drops one more firecracker: is it possible that the speaker of these sonnets is not male, as is generally assumed, but female? This opens a whole new can of worms on the subject, and so he begins comparing and contrasting the sonnets alongside Shakespeare’s plays, noting another argument by Edmonson and Wells: “When read alongside the plays, the Sonnets can soon seem like a collection of fourteen-line monologues, compressed character studies which, in the plays, are given fuller dramatic development” (pg. 101). Other information shows up to support the theory that women could just as well be speakers as the men could, namely that out of 26 lines from sonnets used in Shakespeare’s plays, eleven of those were spoken by female characters. So, all things considered really, it could be just as likely for a woman to have spoken the sonnets, which just adds more confusion to finding the likely gender of the recipients of these sonnets.

After looking at the gender issues of those sonnets, Nelles then turns to the other side, that being the correlation of imagery that is used in the sonnets and “the manifold connections that they find linking consecutive series of sonnets” (Nelles, 2009), which is really just a fancy way of saying that quite a few of the sonnets are talking about the same thing. Nelles begins looking at psychology as a way to help order the sonnets, using an experiment of Stephen Booths (as described in An Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets) that had to do with having a child sort different kinds of blocks according to their similarities. Nelles then correlates the child with the blocks to the reader with Shakespeare’s sonnets, but using Booths’ words to prove the point: “As a child’s mind moves in and out of different systems for perceiving relationships, so does the mind of Shakespeare’s readers” (Booth, pg. 117). Then, Nelles decides to try out the experiment on his own students: generating random sonnets together and asking his students to find correlations between those random sonnets. While he was expecting his students to act like the child did, meaning after they tried to sort the sonnets, they would just “give up trying to sort the blocks and just sit and cry in frustration” (Booths, pg. 117), in the end Nelles was in for quite a surprised. Out of all the groupings he had, only one set of students wasn’t able to find a correlation within their sonnets. Out of the correlations that were found, there was imagery of seasons, comparing to famous literary analogues, and rhetorical continuity. Nelles discovered that his “students found very much the same…patterns that real critics have found” (Nelles, 2009).

When looked at from the outside though, Nelles attests that this way of looking at the sonnets and finding correlations is more valid, as other critics tend to “cherry-pick [their] own groups according to [their] interpretive agenda” (Nelles, 2009). To support this claim, he brings in Joseph Pequigney’s Such is My Love, where Pequigney “defends Shakespeare’s supposed order by abandoning it.” In trying to say that Shakespeare’s order is the only way to read the sonnets, Pequigney actually skips around in the sonnets and uses it to bolster his arguments.

In the very end, though, Nelles basically says “screw everything that everyone else says, because there is no right or wrong way to read the sonnets.” He urges everyone to “quit giving free passes” to those that say there is only one specific way to read the sonnets, and all other ways are wrong. So, critics, “enjoy your playlist, but stop insisting that you took it from Shakespeare. Leave your students the freedom to do the same. As for me, I will leave my sonnet iPod on shuffle play.” (Nelles, 2009)

Everyone has their own way of looking at Shakespeare’s sonnets, and making their own assumptions about said sonnets.


I did go over your paper and maybe i should just email you the response (duh mel way to think of that AFTER the you posted)
i like what you had to say about it all. and i agree that the sonnets, for the most part, could be recieved by both a male or a female. however, as i did my paper on the emotions of the sonnets that came with some background of them, i would have to say that it makes more sense that they are "fair youth" and "dark lady" poems. :) but great paper. hopefully i get to read that conclusion and response :)

Jackson's Response

Evee wrote a very good paper here, I think. I agree with her that people are too interested in determining the gender of the recipients of the Sonnets, and it's taking away from their meaning. Some people like to think that they were all written about other Men because they find homosexual love fascinating. Others, who dislike homosexual love but admire Shakespeare, want to think they're all about women. But Evee says it doesn't matter, and apparently so does Nelles, and me as well. An interesting point is raised that people are so preoccupied with the gender of the recipient that they fail to consider to gender of the speaker. Her introduction is strong and brings some of her main points to the forefront rightaway. In the first sentence of her fourth paragraph she has a typo she needs to fix where she spelled the word "of" as "fo". Her response at the end is short, just as long as it needs to be.. and to the point. She states a great fact here and one that enforces Shakespeare's dynamic appeal. Evee has done a great job. I'll give her a 3.5 for the whole paper. Because, as I've said before, probably only Shakespeare could deserve a 4 ranking which means "masterly"


Introduction - 4
The introduction is pretty solid. Make sure your response ties into the point you bring up in the intro.

Summary - 4
Whithout having read the article this seems to be an in depth and accurate summarization of the text.
The ideas presented are clearly aknowledged to Nelles.
Like the introduction, the summary is pretty solid; I noticed some minor things:

There are a couple of quotes that are longer than five words, I don't know how rigid that rule is, but be careful.
There is a "seems" in paragraph 3 of the summary you could probably get rid of.

Mechanics - 3

Again pretty solid. There are someo minor grammatical and word choice errors, but nothing proof reading wont fix.

Everything so far looks good, keep up this quality of work on your response and conclusion and you should be fine.

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