Good evening and congratulations.
This is my copy of Helen Vendler’s commentary on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. I bought it because I had always found the Sonnets difficult to crack. I actually love this commentary and was changed by it in ways you’d expect and perhaps wouldn’t.
Not surprisingly, I grew to love these 154 little puzzles, with all their puns, wordplay, alliteration, structural designs matching the theme of the poem, and more. I found more action pumped in those 14 lines than I could possibly have imagined. Layers within layers. They’re just brilliant. And so, with Vendler’s help, I continue to read them over and over again.
I’m certain, however, that Vendler never intended for her commentary to upend my trust of education – though it did. You need to understand that I bought and read this book in my 30s. I’m embarrassed to tell you that I had been reading Shakespeare since I first read "Romeo and Juliet" at age 12 and thought myself reasonably familiar with his plays. It turns out though that when I heard, “Shall I compare thee to a summers day,” I was gravely mistaken about who “THEE” was.
You, of course, know that many of the first 126 sonnets are written to a young man with whom Shakespeare is clearly in love and relationship, and that the latter sonnets refer to a woman who has entered both their lives and shifted their loves in ways they find exciting and disturbing. These are poems of love’s “infatuation, idealization, and dissolution,” (Vendler, 638). Some are tortured. Others are achingly beautiful. When my classmates and I were taught these poems or introduced to Shakespeare’s other writings in school, we were only shown the ones with gender-neutral pronouns or that referred to the woman.
When we read in Sonnet 29:
When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast fate…
Haply I think on thee, and then my state …
Sings hymns at heaven’s gate.
For thy sweet love rememb’red such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings
No one told us those lines were written by a man to a man.
In Sonnet 18, when he says that the very purpose of this poem is to preserve his lover’s memory in literature for all time:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
We discussed the lovers as if they were heterosexual, and our professors let us.
When the author expresses his self-absorbed fears of being in a love triangle with both a man and woman in Sonnet 144, (“Two Loves I Have”), no teacher ever assigned it or brought it to our attention.
I grew angry as I realized that my teachers had to have known the actual love objects of the sonnets. Whether out of prejudice or fear, they shaped their teaching so we wouldn’t. To be especially effective, they assigned “anthologies” in which the editors’ selections colluded in the cover-up.
Generations before me had been radicalized by Hesse’s "Beneath the Wheel," and Paulo Friere’s "Pedagogy of the Oppressed." Oddly enough, it was this book that surfaced the question for me: What else had been intentionally left out from my education by a society that didn’t want me to think in a certain way?
I tell you this story to explain why I said “yes” when your dean, Michael Mezey, approached me in my very first week as president of DePaul in 2004 and asked my blessing for a minor in LGBTQ Studies.
Quite simply, I didn’t want DePaul to cooperate in the world’s cover-up. A university of DePaul’s stature must show students the entire world, including those whom society had been ashamed to acknowledge all those millennia.
I’m proud of DePaul that we are the first Catholic university with an LGTBQ Studies program. I am saddened for Catholic higher education that we are still the only Catholic university with an LGBTQ Studies program.
But today, I am proud. Proud of our faculty and what they have built these past 10 years. Proud of our Student Affairs staff who for almost half a century have welcomed and supported student LGBTQA groups. Proud of decades of strong student leaders who themselves built structures and built safe havens for our students. Proud of everyone who visibly or quietly created the kind of university that educates people fully and humanely for the world as it actually exists.
Happy anniversary to all of you. Enjoy this celebration. Thank you for making DePaul a place of which we can be proud.