i've never really read the sonnets before, and now that i'm learning them from the beginning, they are raising all kinds of interesting questions.
the first 17 sonnets are what are known as 'the procreation sonnets,' in which shakespeare (or, 'the poet,' as there is much debate over whether the sonnets are creations to be spoken by a fictional character, or true love poems to shakespeare's acquaintances) is speaking to a guy of unfathomable beauty, and encouraging him to have a kid. whoever this guy is, he is very into himself (sonnet 4 makes a not so veiled reference to masturbation), and shakespeare seems just as into him.
it's fascinating to use these poems to try and reconstruct (or at least peek at) the sexual politics of the time. without cultural boundaries set, without 'gay' as an 'identity,' how would homosexuality express itself in shakespeare's time? is shakespeare gay because he writes so unabashedly of a man's beauty? is the subject of the early sonnets gay because he shows no interest in women? what exactly is the relationship between them? how would either of these guys identify in the modern world? certainly in the underground world of the theatre, love between men was expressed, and certainly many gay men found refuge in playing female roles on and off stage. but not having 'gay' as an identity seems both freeing and constricting. freeing in that there are no boundaries - love and attraction for a man can be expressed without suspicion, and without compromising masculinity. though, it doesn't seem worth that freedom if you must live knowing that you are somehow different, but don't have the words or societal permission to truly express it.
what's most intriguing are the arguments shakespeare lays out to this young man. he serenades the guy with the same gusto that he would use on a potential lover, but doesn't express any desire to be with him. instead, all that effort is to encourage the guy to find a woman (any old woman seems to be sufficient) and have a kid asap, so that the genetic perfection in this guy will continue on.
i've only learned through sonnet 4, but am looking forward to being able to perform all 17 of the procreation sonnets in one big, "have a baby now, you hottie" monologue.