It is said that Shakespeare was not of an age but for all time, but the writers of “All Is True” seem to think that he was not of his age but for ours. Was he an advocate of the bizarre gender agenda with which they are themselves clearly obsessed? Or do the theories defended by the film dabble in the absurd?
One of the most egregiously Orwellian aspects of relativist postmodernism is its denial of the very existence of truth. The postmodern asks Pilate’s question quid est veritas with the tired and calculated indifference of the cynic. He might answer that nothing is true or, with more wit but no more wisdom, that all is true, which is merely another way of saying that nothing is untrue. If all is true, nothing is untrue, which makes it impossible to tell a lie.
“A lie is that which you do not believe,” said the relativist critic, Holbrook Jackson.
“This is a lie,” replied Chesterton, “so perhaps you don’t believe it.”
With these thoughts in mind, one wonders if the makers of the recent film, All is True, really believe the lie they are telling in their depiction of Shakespeare’s last years. One wonders if they really believe that Shakespeare was an advocate of the bizarre gender agenda with which they are themselves clearly obsessed. Do we believe Ben Jonson who said that Shakespeare was not of an age but for all time, or do we believe Ben Elton, the atheist and hardline socialist who wrote the screenplay to the film, that Shakespeare was not of his age but ours? Was Shakespeare trapped in a tyrannical England in which people whom he knew were put to death for being Catholics, or was he trapped in his Jacobean closet wishing for a distant future in which he could be part of a Pride parade?
All these questions are begged as All is True dabbles with the absurd theory that Shakespeare, played by Kenneth Branagh, had a homosexual relationship with his patron, the Earl of Southampton, played by the militantly homosexual, Ian McKellen. Oh, how sirs Branagh and McKellen have fallen Icarus-like since the heights they attained as Henry V and Gandalf respectively.
Without wishing to spend any more time on this sordid spectacle, let’s look at what is true and, more to the point, what is untrue with respect to Shakespeare’s relationship with the Earl of Southampton, focusing on the so-called “homo-eroticism” of sonnet 20, and other alleged homosexual references in Shakespeare’s work.
Several critics have played with the idea that sonnet 20 suggests homosexual inclinations on Shakespeare’s part, and perhaps the most notorious critic to do so was Oscar Wilde in his mischievous piece of fiction, “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” To be fair to Wilde he was literally and literarily playing with the idea, toying with a fancy or fantasy under the guise of fiction pretending to be fact. It is Wilde at his most mischievous and least charming. It is, at any event, not to be taken seriously as scholarship, not that this has prevented many “theorists” from taking it very seriously indeed, including Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s former partner-in-crime, and André Gide, who described Wilde’s theory as “the only, not merely plausible, but possible interpretation of the Sonnets.” Other critics, such as A.L. Rowse, Ian Wilson, and Anthony Holden have all begged to differ with Gide’s dogmatic assertion, insisting that, on the contrary, sonnet 20 illustrates Shakespeare’s robust assertion of his own heterosexuality.
Ian Wilson, in his excellent book Shakespeare: The Evidence has the following to say about this thorny “theory”:
Everything about [Shakespeare’s] work . . . conveys that he was genuinely God-fearing, at a time when sodomy was a capital offence and religious people of all persuasions regarded it as an instant passport to hell. As we have already seen, he bedded and wedded an older woman while still in his teens, quickly having three children by her. His fellow-actors were likewise mostly God-fearing married men with large families, who . . . are most unlikely to have tolerated an active homosexual in their midst . . . Venus and Adonis, the poem that Shakespeare undoubtedly wrote for Southampton, is no work for sharing between gays . . . [It] is the full-blooded story of a highly sexed older woman’s seduction of a handsome young man. In line with the Sonnets’ exhortation of their young man to marry, it is a poetic equivalent of a Titian painting, positively provoking man-woman desire.
The “theorists,” having soiled the sonnets, have also plagued the plays. W.H. Auden, who should have known better, suggested in 1962 that The Merchant of Venice made most sense if Antonio is seen as being “in love” with Bassanio. Auden’s suggestion was taken up with gusto by directors and critics who have portrayed Antonio as having an unrequited homosexual attraction for Bassanio. The absurdity of such a reading of the play was addressed with incisive insight, and with admirable constraint, by the Shakespearian scholar, Craig Bernthal:
It is a measure of the critical influence of gender politics that a homosexual crush rather than close male friendship has become for many critics the most convincing explanation of Antonio’s behavior throughout the play. Yet nothing in the play suggests that the bond of friendship between them needs to be sexualized to make Antonio’s devotion to Bassanio credible. Certainly an Elizabethan audience, accepting biblical strictures about sex between men, would have avoided the play en masse had they thought Shakespeare was implying that Antonio was sexually attracted to Bassanio. The Merchant of Venice, however, was a very popular play, revived many times, and this is the best evidence for what Shakespeare had in mind and what his audience must have understood.
Reminding his readers that in Elizabethan culture “heterosexual men stated very openly that they loved each other” without any suggestion of an erotic connotation, Dr. Bernthal elucidates what is clearly the true nature of Antonio’s love for Bassanio:
Antonio’s love expresses itself not just for Bassanio, but to others whose debts he has paid or to whom he has lent money gratis. Thus, Antonio is established at the beginning of the play as a figure of one aspect of Christian love, generosity. Later in the play, when he is prepared to lay down his life for Bassanio, Antonio will become the allegorical form of love in its most perfect form, sacrifice: “I am a tainted wether of the flock, / meetest for death,” he will say, as Shylock prepares to collect the pound of flesh nearest Antonio’s heart. Antonio will rise to Christianity’s highest ideal of love: “Greater love than this hath no man, that any man bestoweth his life for his friend’s life.”
By becoming “the allegorical form of love in its most perfect form, sacrifice,” Antonio is transfigured allegorically into a figure of Christ Himself, the Perfect Love who offers the Perfect Sacrifice. This is clearly Shakespeare’s deepest meaning, steeped as he must have been in Catholic doctrine and typology, and it is a meaning that takes Antonio as far from the sex-obsessed slandering of him by modern critics as Christ is from the scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites of the Gospel.
A more reliable character portrait of Shakespeare was given by his near contemporary William Beeston, the son of Christopher Beeston, an actor in Shakespeare’s company and no doubt his personal friend. Beeston told the antiquary, John Aubrey, that Shakespeare was “the more to be admired, he was not a company keeper. [He] . . . wouldn’t be debauched, and if invited to, writ [i.e. wrote] he was in pain.”
The abyss that separates Shakespeare from many of his modern critics is rooted in “love” and its meaning. In Shakespeare’s time love was understood in strictly Christian terms, and could encompass, to employ the terminology used by C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves, “affection,” “friendship,” “eros,” and “charity.” One could love affectionately one’s parents or one’s children; one could love one’s friends; one could have the love of eros when one “falls in love” or in one’s relationship with one’s spouse; and one could love in caritas, or charity, in the pure and sacrificial love that God has for us and we are meant to have for Him. And, as Ian Wilson states, the word, “love,” was employed freely in Elizabethan England whenever any of these loves were being evoked:
All too seldom realized is that in Shakespeare’s time the word “love” had not taken on its heavily sexual connotations of our own era. From the same decade as the Sonnets, Thomas Arundel wrote asking for a favour from Lord Burghley’s son Robert Cecil, assuring him in the course of this that “I do truly love you and therefore wish that every man should love you, which love in these troublesome discontented times is sooner won by clemency . . . I am wholly yours.” No one would seriously suggest that Arundel meant those words in the way they would be taken today, and innumerable similar examples can be quoted, not least family-man Ben Jonson addressing Shakespeare as “my beloved” in the First Folio.
In this context, and this was the context in which Shakespeare wrote, Antonio’s love for Bassanio is clearly that of friendship which matures into that of charity. It should be added that the very idea that Antonio could have had an erotic love for Bassanio would have been seen as not only perverse but impossible. Erotic love was bound up with marriage and procreation. It was, like all love, a virtue. It was not furtive but fertile. It had nothing to do with fornication or sodomy, which were vices, and to which the use of the word “love” would be anathema. This might make uncomfortable reading for our modern critic but it is true nonetheless. The fact is that the culture in which Shakespeare lived was very “politically incorrect” by today’s standards, as was he. To attempt to mould Shakespeare into the image of what Evelyn Waugh called “our own deplorable epoch” is not merely absurd, it disqualifies those endeavouring to do so from being taken seriously as scholars or critics. If these critics were able to empathise with the past, even if they could not bring themselves to sympathise with it, they would see and understand the works of Shakespeare as Shakespeare himself saw and understood them. They would see them as they truly are, as the inspired work of a Catholic genius. Were they able to see the works in this way they would see, and understand, that the sonnets have more to do with the psalmody of David than with the sodomy of Gomorrah.
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The featured image is a still from All Is True (2018).