05 December 2007

Out of the Shadows?

Back in October, I asked what major characters in children's fantasies were identified as gay before J. K. Rowling's post-publication comments on Albus Dumbledore. With some commenters' help I came up with a very short list of characters, none of them humans explicitly identified as gay.

I didn't include William Shakespeare in Susan Cooper's King of Shadows on that list even though the real poet wrote love sonnets to a young man. That was because, as far as I could recall, there was no sign of homosexual interest from the character who appears in the novel.

At last month's Cambridge Forum, however, Cooper described her book as having its seed in imagining Shakespeare's attraction to a young male actor. Mentioning Dumbledore, an audience member had asked her why so many recent fantasy stories for children appear to advocate tolerance. (Not unlike most other modern American children's literature: "tolerance is good" is an almost inevitable theme.) Cooper reply included these remarks:
It is hard to do something on purpose without being didactic, and I had intended King of Shadows to be a book about a gay relationship between--a homosexual relationship since the word “gay” meant something quite different in the 17th century--between this boy and Shakespeare, and it wasn’t spelled out in the book. And one of the nicest things anybody has ever said to me about a book is when a friend of mine said, “I wish I’d had that book when I was a gay boy at ten.” So it was there--something--it was as if it was still there in the book for someone who wanted to take it out.
(MP3 download of this talk here.)

That genesis for King of Shadows isn't just a post-Dumbledore revelation. In a 2000 interview with the Guardian, Cooper said:
Initially, my idea was to write a story about Shakespeare's repressed homosexual relationship with one of his boy actors--but then the boy, Nat, got stronger, and by the second chapter I knew that it was a children's story.
Some King of Shadows readers have evidently seen hints of a homosexual relationship in the book. In October, Horn Book editor Roger Sutton wrote cheekily, "I still maintain that, in Susan Cooper's time fantasy King of Shadows, young hero Nat and the Bard of Avon totally had it going on". And a reviewer on Epinions wrote in 2005:
There were several times when I half expected Shakespeare to make a play for Nat - all of the signs seemed to be leaning in that direction - but it never happened. I don't know if that ambiguity was intentional or not, but I'd have greatly preferred that either something had happened or that there'd have been no signals that things might go in that direction. I found constantly wondering if something was going to happen distracting.
So I took another look at King of Shadows. And I still don't see Shakespeare showing any sexual interest in other males. Indeed, I think the book passes up opportunities to address issues of sexuality and gender, and heavily emphasizes other aspects of the relationship between Shakespeare and Nat. Which isn't surprising, considering the abiding themes in Cooper's other fantasies for children.

TOMORROW: What might it mean for King of Shadows to have become "a children's story"?

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