Sacred Paths - Dear Religious Right: Let Shakespeare Speak to You

Of the many poets who loved another of their own gender, the one who comes first to mind when I hear ranting about same-sex marriage on the religious right and the political right (is there a difference?) is William Shakespeare.
You know, the playwright who for 400 years has fascinated audiences and readers with the true-to-life characters he creates and the language he uses to explore the human spirit.
Shakespeare also wrote 154 sonnets, published perhaps without his authorization in 1609, most of which were addressed to a beautiful young man. And one of those sonnets I would like to put into the ear of every politician, U.S. Sen. Larry Craig included, who denies others the right to marry those they love. Sonnet 116 begins, ?Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.?
Although scholars debate whether the sonnets are in the order Shakespeare would have wanted, the series begins in a most peculiar way. The first dozen sonnets basically say, ?You are so incredibly beautiful, it would be a sin for you not to breed to make sons as beautiful as you.? The young man is the subject of the first 126 sonnets.
The sonnets reveal Shakespeare as utterly under the young man?s spell, the heartache from unfaithfulness, the rivalry with another poet who also writes poems to the young man, and a mysterious dark lady and the suggestion of a m?nage a trois.
Whether Shakespeare?s love for the young man was sexual has been much debated, but it was certainly erotic, and there are enough sexual references that I don?t see why people are still arguing about it. He reverses gender roles, makes elaborate puns about his erection and displays the gamut of emotions from delight to despair. The relationship sounds pretty realistic.
When most people quote the sonnets, they assume the poems are addressed to a woman. For example, ?Shall I compare thee to a summer?s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate ?? might in our time, with persistent gender expectations, seem a more appropriate way of talking to a woman. Other famous openings include ?Being your slave, what should I do but tend upon the hours and times of your desire?? and ?Sweet love, renew thy force? and ?Farewell! Thou art too dear for my possessing? and ?Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/ of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme,/ but you shall shine more bright in these contents/ than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.?
But Shakespeare is not ruled by conventional norms in these private poems he writes from his heart. So even though his language is dated and his turn of phrase antique, his spirit is advanced far beyond what Sen. Craig might heed or even understand. Shakespeare?s travail with love is a story that can help us understand our own.
One of the most poignant of the sonnets, 73, is also one of the most perfect in form. In his declining years, Shakespeare characterizes himself as autumn, as the setting sun, and as a dying fire, each image compacted in one of three four-line units, each with alternating end rhymes. The sonnet concludes with gratitude for the devotion of his young friend who realizes Shakespeare is approaching death, and therefore loves more intensely what is about to be lost. As with most poetry, these are words to be read aloud. The music of the language carries the pictures into our hearts.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death?s second self that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see?st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish?d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
The Rev Vern Barnet, DMn., does consulting, teaching and writing for religious and educational organizations here. His Kansas City Star column appears each Wednesday.

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