Remembering Peter O’Toole

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My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun (Sonnet 130)
by William Shakespeare

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

I decided to use this poem today because as I was listening to NPR on my way home yesterday and heard an interview from when Melissa Block spoke to O’Toole in 2007. Recalling the interview, Block said that “the most memorable part of our conversation had to do with Shakespeare; in particular, with Shakespeare’s sonnets.” O’Toole said that he knows all 156 of them, and said:

They’re my life companion. They’re at the side of my bed. They travel with me. I pick them up, and I read them all the time. I find them endlessly informing, endlessly beautiful, endlessly – they say, they hit the spot so many times on so many things.

After some prodding, he recited one of his favorites, Sonnet 130, which is the poem above. I’ve always enjoyed this sonnet too; it’s almost the anti-sonnet, a parody. Yet, one may look at it in other ways as well. First of all, love is not what is on the outside,but what is on the inside. A second, for almost four centuries, questions have arisen about William Shakespeare’s sexuality. If you think of his description of the “lady” above she seems more masculine than feminine.

The only indication that Shakespeare may have been homosexual is found, not in his life, but in his writings. One of his most prominent works, his 154 Sonnets, is most often cited in such discussions. The majority of these sonnets deal with the author’s love for a young man, referred to in the works as his “beloved fair youth.”

Sonnet 154

The little Love-god lying once asleep,
Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,
Whilst many nymphs that vowed chaste life to keep
Came tripping by; but in her maiden hand
The fairest votary took up that fire
Which many legions of true hearts had warmed;
And so the General of hot desire
Was, sleeping, by a virgin hand disarmed.
This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
Which from Love’s fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy,
For men diseased; but I, my mistress’ thrall,
Came there for cure and this by that I prove,
Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.

The writer’s intense romantic feelings for this person have triggered many to believe that Shakespeare may have been gay. Even the dedication of another of his works, his poem “The Rape of Lucrece,” is strongly worded. “The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end.”

It has not been uncommon for writers and musicians to substitute the sex of the object of their desire to hide their sexuality. So maybe Sonnet 130 is just that, the description of a plain woman instead of a tall, dark, and handsome young man that the sonnet nearly describes. It’s just a theory and probably a bad theory, yet, still let’s read this sonnet and remember two things:

Shakespeare was a wonderful poet, and should be read often.
Peter O’Toole was a wonderful actor who will be missed, yet we will always have two of my favorite movies to remeber him by: Lawrence of Arabia and A Lion in Winter.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

5 responses to “Remembering Peter O’Toole

  • lukewinterborne

    Such a wonderful tribute … and so well written. Personally, my favorite of his films remains The Ruling Class. It’s drop-you-down hilarious, and yet a stunning perfect send up of British society. Thanks for this, Prof.

    • closetprofessor

      Thanks for the comment. It’s funny and tragic that the world will always seem to think that T.E. Lawrence looks like Peter O’Toole, whose portrayal is far more famous than the actual man.

      • lukewinterborne

        So true. From what I read of Lawrence as a grad student he seemed like (excuse my words here) but somewhat off his rocker … all of that motorcycle craziness and gay compensatory behavior. Peter O’Toole made him seem great … and perhaps he was, who am I to say?

      • closetprofessor

        Lawrence was “off his rocker” in many ways; however, if the British had taken his advice about the Middle East, that part of the world might not be as messed up as it is. His part in WWI was admirable, but he was also a little bit nuts in nearly every other regard.

      • lukewinterborne

        Agreed … I think he was definitely on to something vis-à-vis the Middle East.

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