Shakespeare's Sonnets and Rembrandt's Etchings

Shakespeare's Sonnets and Rembrandt's Etchings
Was he gay? Giorgio Vasari: "Six Tuscan Poets" (circa 1544); left to right: Cristoforo Landino, Marsilio Ficino, Francesco Petrarca, Giovanni Boccaccio, Dante Alighieri, and Guido Cavalcanti. Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minnesota

Do Shakespeare’s homoerotic sonnets mean he was as gay as Dumbledore? Are Rembrandt’s etchings sacriligious? It’s the private work of these two giants that arouses the most interest these days.

The idea that Shakespeare was gay is based primarily on Sonnet 20 (there are others), and his association with the poet Richard Barnfield. Although these sonnets are indeed homoerotic, all of them are also fictions written from different points of view (including a woman’s) in much the same way he wrote female characters for his plays. Shakespeare was an innovator writing within very public literary conventions and it’s partisan (though not necessarily wrong) to conclude he was gay in his own life.

To take another example, Maya Angelou has said, "When I came to a number of sonnets, I thought: 'That has got to be a black girl who wrote that - a black girl who had been sexually abused'" (she was referring to Sonnet 29).

If Shakespeare was mischievous and hidden in his sonnets, his plays also teem with sexual puns. Over the years, key lines have been eliminated (bowdlerized), especially for schools. They needn't have bothered; most of the obscenities are written in code...

Rembrandt was not so subtle in his satirical private etchings. Below is Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife from 1634, the year he got married. This etching rarely gets serious academic or gallery attention for obvious reasons.


Below is another Rembrandt etching: Jupiter and Antiope, from 1659, by which time Rembrandt looked like his Jupiter, not his Joseph. There is a tenderness here which seems satirical and autobiographical, but some literally minded critics prefer to call it "prelude to a rape" (which is of course what happens in the original Greek myth).