Sexuality of William Shakespeare

The sexuality of William Shakespeare has been questioned numerous times over the years. Even though he married Anne Hathaway and had three children, circumstantial evidence (such as in Shakespeare's sonnets and plays) suggests he had affairs with other women or may have taken an erotic interest in men. The suggestion of Shakespeare's other female lovers has been given a good deal of scholarly and public interest, while the possibility of a non-heterosexual Shakespeare has historically been controversial given his iconic status. That said, no reliable direct evidence for any of these claims has been discovered.

Shakespeare's married life

As with many aspects of Shakespeare's life, there is little direct evidence with regards to Shakespeare's sexuality aside from the fact that he was married to Anne Hathaway and fathered three children. Circumstantial evidence suggests Shakespeare's wedding to Hathaway was hurried because she was already pregnant. Evidence for this is that their first child, Susanna, was born six months after the marriage ceremony on May 26, 1583. In addition, a marriage license was issued for the couple after only one reading of their intent to marry (the reading was normally done three times in order to give local residents a chance to voice any legal or other objections to the marriage).

Shakespeare probably initially loved Hathaway, speculation supported by an early addition to one of his sonnets (Sonnet 145), where he played off Anne Hathaway's name and said she saved his life (writing "'I hate' from hate away she threw/And saved my life, saying 'not you.'"). However, after only three years of marriage Shakespeare left his family and moved to London, possibly because he felt trapped by Hathaway. Other evidence to support this belief is that he and Anne were buried in separate (but adjoining) graves and, as has often been noted, Shakespeare's will makes no specific bequeath to his wife aside from "the second best bed with the furniture". This may seem like a slight, but many historians contend that the second best bed was typically the marital bed, while the best bed was reserved for guests. The poem 'Anne Hathaway' by Carol Ann Duffy endorses this view, describing how, for Shakespeare and his wife, the second best bed was "a spinning world of forests, castles," whilst "In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on, dribbling their prose." If this viewpoint is to be accepted, Shakespeare's act was rather affectionate than cold. The law at the time also stated that the widow of a man was automatically entitled to a third of his estate, so Shakespeare did not need to mention specific bequests in the will. However, even if this does suggest that Shakespeare was cold toward his wife, nothing is proven about his sexuality thereby.

Sexual identities

Possible affairs with women

While in London, Shakespeare may have had affairs with different women. One anecdote along these lines is provided by a law student named John Manningham, who wrote in his diary that Shakespeare had a brief affair with a woman during a performance of Richard III.

Manningham stated that:

"Upon a time when Burbage played Richard the Third there was a citizen grew so far in liking with him, that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard the Third. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained and at his game ere Burbage came. Then, message being brought that Richard the Third was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third."

While this is one of the few surviving contemporary anecdotes about Shakespeare, scholars are skeptical of its validity (although the anecdote may have helped inspire the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love). Still, the anecdote suggests that at least one of Shakespeare's contemporaries (Manningham) believed that Shakespeare was heterosexual, even if he wasn't "averse to an occasional infidelity to his marriage vows."

Possible evidence of other affairs are that twenty-six of Shakespeare's Sonnets are love poems addressed to a married woman (the so-called "Dark Lady").

Possible affairs with men

For the Elizabethans, what is today termed homosexual or bisexual was more likely to be recognised as simply a sexual act, rather than a sexual orientation. Just as today however, it is possible there was a spectrum of individual responses: from those engaging in homosexual acts who considered it irrelevant to their persona and simply a variation of both lust and love, to those who believed it marked them out as different. Sodomy was a crime in the period, but Phillip Stubbs in Anatomie of Abuses (1583), Edward Guilpin in Skialetheia (1598), and Michael Drayton in The Moone-Calfe (1605), all noted the prevalence of "sodomites" at theatres, which does imply a recognised group. A homosexual subculture which identified itself as separate, and which was centred around the Molly house, certainly existed in London by the mid-seventeenth century, and may well have existed in Shakespeare's time. (See History of Homosexuality).

With regard to Shakespeare's sexuality, no direct evidence exists to support the view that he was bisexual; all theories along these lines, as with the theories of his heterosexual affairs, come from an analysis of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets.

Sexuality in the sonnets

Shakespeare's sonnets are the principal evidence for his attraction to men. The poems were initially published, perhaps without his approval, in 1609. One hundred and twenty-six of them appear to be love poems addressed to a beautiful young man (known as the "Fair Youth", and often assumed to be the same person as the enigmatic 'Mr W.H.', dedicatee of the sonnets). The identity of this figure (if he is indeed based on a real person) has been much debated; the most popular candidates are Shakespeare's patrons, the Earl of Southampton and the Earl of Pembroke, both of whom were considered handsome in their youth; another theory, set out most notably by Oscar Wilde in a short story, holds that puns in the sonnets point to a boy actor called Willie Hughes as the beloved (there is no other evidence for the existence of such a person and Wilde's theory is avowedly fictional)..The potential relationship between Shakespeare and WH is examined in the comic play "To W.H." by Stuart Draper.

The only explicit references to sexual acts and to physical lust occur in the Dark Lady sonnets, which unambiguously state that the poet and the - equally mysterious - Lady are lovers. Nevertheless, there are numerous passages in the sonnets addressed to the Fair Lord that have been read as expressing desire for a younger man. In Sonnet 13, he is called "dear my love", and Sonnet 15 announces that the poet is at "war with Time for love of you." Sonnet 18 asks "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate," and in Sonnet 20 the narrator calls the young man the "master-mistress of my passion." The poems refer to sleepless nights, anguish and jealousy caused by the youth. In addition, there is considerable emphasis on the young man's beauty: in Sonnet 20, the narrator theorizes that the youth was originally a woman whom Mother Nature had fallen in love with and, to resolve the dilemma of lesbianism, added a penis ("pricked thee out for women's pleasure"), an addition the narrator describes as "to my purpose nothing." In some sonnets addressed to the youth, such as Sonnet 52, the erotic punning is particularly intense: "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." A complex relationship is hinted at in Sonnet 20: the narrator tells the youth to sleep with women, but to love only him: "mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure"; some have inferred from this line that Shakespeare ruled out sexual relations despite his love for the youth.

Not everyone has interpreted these passages as sexual, as they can be explained as referring to intense platonic friendship, rather than sexual love. In the preface to his 1961 Pelican edition, Douglas Bush writes,

"Since modern readers are unused to such ardor in masculine friendship and are likely to leap at the notion of homosexuality... we may remember that such an ideal, often exalted above the love of women, could exist in real life, from Montaigne to Sir Thomas Browne, and was conspicuous in Renaissance literature".
Bush cites Montaigne, who distinguished male friendships from "that other, licentious Greek love" , as evidence for a platonic interpretation of the Sonnets.

Another explanation is that the poems are not autobiographical but fiction, so that the narrator of the Sonnets should not be simplistically identified with Shakespeare himself. Nevertheless, many readers and scholars take the "I" of the Sonnets to be Shakespeare, not least because this first-person narrator declares "my name is Will" (136), as well as punning on the name "Will" elsewhere. Many readers consider the Sonnets to be the closest we can get to Shakespeare's own voice, as opposed to the voices of the characters in his plays.

Despite these alternative interpretations, numerous readers throughout the past four centuries have been disturbed by the poems' apparent homoeroticism. In 1640, John Benson published a second edition of the Sonnets in which he changed most of the pronouns from masculine to feminine so that readers would believe nearly all of the sonnets were addressed to the Dark Lady. Benson's modified version soon became the best-known text, and it was not until 1780 that Edmund Malone re-published the sonnets in their original forms.

The question of the sexual orientation of the Sonnets was first openly articulated in 1780, when George Steevens, upon reading Shakespeare's description of a young man as his "master-mistress" remarked, "it is impossible to read this fulsome panegyrick, addressed to a male object, without an equal mixture of disgust and indignation". Other English scholars, dismayed at the possibility that their national hero might have been a "sodomite", concurred with Samuel Taylor Coleridge's comment, around 1800, that Shakespeare's love was "pure" and in his sonnets there is "not even an allusion to that very worst of all possible vices." Robert Browning, writing of Wordsworth's assertion that "with this key [the Sonnets] Shakespeare unlocked his heart," famously replied, "If so, the less Shakespeare he!"

Critics in Continental Europe were also surprised. In 1834, a French reviewer asked, "He instead of she?... Can I be mistaken? Can these sonnets be addressed to a man? Shakespeare! Great Shakespeare? Did you feel yourself authorized by Virgil's example?" alluding to the Roman poet known for his pederastic verse.

The controversy continued in the 20th Century. By 1944, the Variorum edition of the Sonnets contained an appendix with the conflicting views of nearly forty commentators. C.S. Lewis wrote that the sonnets are "too lover-like for ordinary male friendship" (although he added that his sonnets were still not the poetry of "full-blown pederasty") and that he "found no real parallel to such language between friends in the 16th century literature." In 1964 Ingram and Redpath also argued that there may have been no carnal relationship between the poet and the Fair Youth: "the relationship was one of profound and at times agitated friendship, which involved a certain physical and quasi-sexual fascination emanating from the young Friend and enveloping the older poet, but did not necessarily include pederasty in any lurid sense."

Sexuality in the plays

Some readers have found similar evidence in Shakespeare's plays . The most often-cited evidence is several comedies, including Twelfth Night and As You Like It, which contain comic situations in which a woman poses as a man, a device that exploits the fact that in Shakespeare's day women's roles were played by boys. While the situations thus presented are heterosexual in terms of the story, the stage image of same-sex wooing and kissing may well have been titillating to those of a homosexual orientation, and while other dramatists occasionally used the same device, Shakespeare seems to have had an exceptional preference for it, using it in five of his plays.

The unexplained melancholy of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice is explained by some critics (for example Isaac Asimov in his Guide to Shakespeare) as caused by unrequited love for his young friend Bassanio; his self-sacrificing spirit then makes him help Bassanio find a wife. The relationship has been interpreted as a sexual/mentoring relationship between an adult male and a young man in which the adult helps his lover in the transition to adulthood, a relationship that culminates in helping him find a wife . A similar conclusion can be reached about the Antonio in Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night, where he displays an affection to Sebastian throughout the play and is the only major character who, in contrast to most characters of other Shakespearean comedies in his position, fails to find a lover-- a similar scenario to the Antonio of The Merchant of Venice. The text of the plays neither confirm nor deny these interpretations.

See also

Additional reading

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