As speculation about Shakespeare’s sexuality surfaces once again, Rob Buchanan says that not only was The Bard bisexual, but his work showed the courage of an LGBT rights activist.
Recent developments in the analysis of Shakespeare’s work have once again pushed speculation about his sexuality to the forefront. Was William Shakespeare queer? Professor Brian Vickers of University College London restarted the heated debate by arguing against literary critics who list Shakespeare’s Sonnet 119 as a “primarily homosexual context”. Most of the gay rumours have arisen from The Bard’s sonnets rather than his plays. It’s long been speculated that the object of these romantic, and for their time quite erotic verses was one or several young men in Shakespeare’s affections.
It is rumoured that the Earl of Southampton, a patron of Shakespeare’s was one of a few youths who got his quill wagging. The far more outrageously camp playwright Christopher Marlowe was a suspected lover too. Dozens of Shakespeare poems were published without his approval and in this treasure trove over a hundred are addressed to ‘The Fair Lord’ and ‘The Fair Youth’. There are also other love poems dedicated to ‘Mr W.H.’ The Earl of Southampton’s name was Henry Wriothesley and there was also another Earl who Shakespeare befriended called William Herbert. (It is noteworthy that both of these strapping young Earls were pin-ups in their day.)
Attitudes and tastes in Elizabethan homosexual circles certainly did blur towards a type of platonic affection between older and younger men, which had overtones of Hellenic Greece. But the consistency of Shakespeare’s affections and the volume of his works that unabashedly heap praise on the looks of young fellas makes them far more than just platonic.
A classic example of The Bard’s gay love poetry is Sonnet 20, which has always been seen as a lament for unrequited same sex love:
A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion….
But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.
]This is a poem about frustration and jealousy. There’s a melancholy that this man was made for women not for him. The woman referred to in it is Nature.
Sonnet 13 is even less ambiguous. Its male object of affection is addressed as “dear my love”. This was not a common form of address for a guy you were not related too back in the day.
Much of Shakespeare’s adoration is centred on the youth of the boy in question. Sonnet 15 declares that the poet is at “war with Time for love of you.” Many people are unaware that the famous Sonnet 18 – “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate” – is actually directed a young man. Sonnet 52 has some quite blatant double entendres:
So is the time that keeps you as my chest
Or as the wardrobe which the robe doth hide
To make some special instant special blest
By new unfolding his imprisoned pride.
“Imprisoned pride” is a cryptic reference to an erect penis.
When a second edition of some of the more homoerotic sonnets was published in 1640 the personal pronouns where changed to attempt to ‘rehabilitate’ the heterosexuality of Shakespeare’s work. If there were any doubts about the Bard’s sexuality, surely this would not have been necessary? But again in 1780 those stubborn male-directed love poems remerged in their original format
Ironically it is Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway that yields some of the most telling clues about his homosexuality. Anne was eight years his senior and the marriage happened with haste, even for Elizabethan times. It is recorded that the Chancellor at the ceremony from Worcester rushed through the ceremony possibly due to Anne’s pregnancy.
William and Anne had three children together but they hardly lived in wedded bliss. After three years William abandoned the family and moved to London. The couple are even buried in separate plots in the same churchyard. One of the most often cited indicators of the true state of their marriage was in Shakespeare’s will, in which he famously only left one item to his wife: “the second best bed with the furniture”.
Despite his cold marriage and the wealth of evidence of Shakespeare’s attraction to the opposite sex, it is unlikely that he was wholly homosexual. It is far more likely that he was bisexual. He would have had ample opportunity to partake in the libertine activities of the non-judgemental, entirely male community of actors and musicians he worked with. It’s important to remember that actors were seen as very far down the social strata of the time. They were considered “less than prostitutes”. The field of drama was (as it is now) full of LGBT folk. This is not to say it was an out and proud community. Whilst an eyelid would not be batted at male actor performing in full drag (women were not allowed on stage), participating in an actual homosexual sex was punishable by hanging.
It is not shocking to consider that Shakespeare was bisexual. In fact, given the wealth of evidence in his work and lifestyle, it would be more shocking if he weren’t. The Bard was not a campaigner for equality or rights. Still, he spoke up for the love that dared not speak its name long before any other famous person ever did. In that respect he was one of the great LGBT leaders.
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