A creative writing course at a British university has withdrawn graduation requirement that students should attempt a sonnet, not on the reasonable grounds that it is futile to try to turn people with cloth ears for language into sonneteers, but because the sonnet is a literary form that is white and Western.
Indeed so: One has only to read a sonnet of Shakespeare to appreciate just how parochial and ethnocentric, but at the same time offensive to most of the world’s population, any sonnet by the “greatest” sonneteer in English is. I need take only one of the most famous as an example, Sonnet XVIII, which begins:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Does Shakespeare (the ignoramus) not realize that there are equatorial and tropical parts of the world in which there is no summer, at most a wet and a dry season, and where the day and night are invariably more or less twelve hours long? Millions of people live in such regions, for whom the term “summer” can mean nothing. Of course, the people who live in such regions are predominantly those of color, to whom Shakespeare, with his typical Eurocentrism, was indifferent if not actually hostile. He simply didn’t care whether or not they understood him.
Things only get worse with the next line of the sonnet:
Thou art more lovely and more temperate….
Could any word be more blatantly lookist than “lovely”? Physical loveliness is a matter both of chance and economics, insofar as people vary by genetic endowment and economic situation, neither of which is under their control. Some people are born ugly and others are born rich, and it is obvious that the rich, because of superior nutrition, more opportunities for exercise, and so forth, are—statistically—better-looking than the poor.
The solution to all this injustice is obviously a reduction of the importance ascribed to physical good looks in people’s scale of values, such that people cease to be more attracted to or by those who are good-looking. Beauty, in any case, is socially constructed; what is considered beautiful in one time and place is considered ugly in another, and vice versa. When one considers the way people have bound feet, stretched earlobes and necks, molded skulls, tattooed, pierced, overfed, and starved themselves, all in the name of beauty, it is obvious that there is no such quality as human beauty in itself; it is a mirage, a purely subjective means of domination of some people (the so-called good-looking) by others (the so-called ill-favored).
Shakespeare’s use of the word “lovely,” then, reinforces the structures of class and physical domination of our present society. What is needed is a change in mentality to eradicate prejudice in favor of so-called beauty, a change to which would be severely hampered by continuing to teach Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Then we come to the word “temperate.” Clearly Shakespeare intends us to take it as a term of praise; but why should “temperate” be taken as such, privileging as it does the climate of Northern Europe over that of other regions, inhabited, not coincidentally, mainly by people of color? It would have been much more inclusive if he had written “Thou art more lovely and more tropical,” but Shakespeare was too ethnocentric for that.
The two following lines bear this out:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May.
While summer’s lease hath all too short a date….
Again, Shakespeare is totally unaware that there are areas in which the winds do not blow in May, and that, even in those areas of the Southern Hemisphere in which there are summers and winters, May is autumn rather than spring.
As for summer’s lease being all too short, there are areas of the globe in which, summer being so hot and humid, people long for its end.
If you add up all the people who live under meteorological conditions different from those suggested in the poem, you will find that they are more than half the world’s population, to say nothing of those who are not lovely, perhaps 95 percent of the world’s population. Thus the poem is deeply exclusionary and ought not to be taught, for there is every likelihood that it will traumatize, which is to say lower the self-esteem of, a very large proportion of students.
Wherever you look in Shakespeare’s sonnets, in fact, you find the most vicious and politically retrograde sentiments. The very first lines of the whole sequence are virtually an incitement to eugenics:
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That therefore beauty’s rose might never die….
Not again the discriminatory judgment in favor of beauty, and while some people have defended the first line by claiming that “fairest creatures” means “most beautiful,” it is clear that it also means light-complexioned, for in Sonnet CXXVII, for example, we find:
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name….
Could there be any more explicit appeal to a racial hierarchy? And is not the exhortation of the “fairest creature” of the first sonnet to reproduce a claim of the preponderance of the genetic in human affairs (and we all know where that leads to)?
The racial hierarchy is everywhere in the sonnets, so much the more because it is part of Shakespeare’s assumed worldview. In Sonnet CXVI, for example, is the line:
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come….
Shakespeare does not stop to consider that there are races of people who do not and cannot have rosy cheeks. Are they to be excluded from the possibility of love?
In the very same sonnet, we find an example of Shakespeare’s reactionary social attitudes. It begins:
Let me to the marriage of true minds
Why marriage, which is after all but a meaningless piece of paper? Cannot minds be in perfect harmony without it? And what of all the children born to unmarried parents—now the majority, in fact. Will these lines not cause them to think of themselves as second-class and therefore have their self-esteem damaged?
Congratulations, then, to the university for taking the brave step of banning the sonnet, that handmaiden of imperial expansion and oppression.
Theodore Dalrymple’s latest book is Ramses: A Memoir, published by New English Review.
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