Critical excerpts for tomorrow’s discussion

We will be considering the following argument during Monday’s class on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The author, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, is referring to Sonnet 136:


…this double entendre [“will”] means too many things; it is the name of at least one, probably two, and possibly three of the men involved; it is an auxiliary verb with the future tense; it is a common noun meaning (roughly) desire; it means penis; it means vagina. Its gender bearings are far from neutral…
What seems most striking in the poem’s treatment of “will” is the extension of the word (as, really, its main meaning) to the female genitals, considering that its first meaning on this particular stage must have been as a male name, the poet’s own and perhaps his beloved’s. Why should he do this? The genital names in 136 are also shifty in gender. [Stephen] Booth glosses “nothing” in Sonnet 20, “(1) worthless; (2) no-thing, a non-thing. ‘Nothing’ and ‘naught’ were popular cant terms for ‘vulva’ (perhaps because of the shape of a zero)” (164). The speaker, momentarily sanguine enough to be renunciatory, is willing (for privileges) to be “reckoned none”– “For nothing hold me,” as long as you hold me, “hold / That nothing me, a something sweet to thee.” This last nothing, the one that is to be held “to thee,” scents most distinctly to be a penis; in fact these are the only lines in the two sonnets that sound like actual genital sensation, as opposed to the gargantuan, distracted catholicity of the dark lady’s “will.” But the speaker’s sensate “nothing” is only barely not a female organ or no-thing. The dark lady’s pleasure in holding him is finally meant to be masked, not by her pleasure in some other Will, but her pleasure in holding her own genitals—“For nothing hold me.”


Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia UP, 1992. Print. 38-39.


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