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Was Shakespeare Gay?

The question sometimes provokes a dismissive reaction - that it represents meaningless projection onto the Shakespearean era of concepts which did not then exist. This argument relies on an unreasonably narrow interpretation of words such as “gay”, “bisexual” and “homosexual” - which takes them to be descriptive only of a person's sense of identity. However, most English speakers also use the words to represent sexual preferences (or orientations) which existed in humanity long before Shakespeare arrived on the scene – and it is in these senses that such words are used here.

Of course, terminology has changed since Elizabethan times, when words, such as “gay” or “heterosexual” either carried different meanings or did not exist. Nevertheless, there was plenty of vocabulary to describe sexual relationships between men. For example, a young boy or man who provided sexual gratification to another, usually older, man was alluded to variously as “ganymede”, “ingle”, “pathic” or “catamite”. Physical intercourse in such pairings was described as “buggery”, “paederasty” or “sodomy”. The concepts were also conveyed more obliquely or more elegantly, through references to male characters in classical literature. Allusions were made, for example, to content in Virgil's Eclogues, where Corydon lusts after the beautiful young man, Alexis, and Amyntas offers himself to Menalcas.

Although sodomy was then a capital offence in England, prosecutions were rare compared to the frequency of its practice, as alluded to in contemporary writings. It appears that sexual relationships between men were condemned in public but tolerated if they remained sufficiently discreet – much the situation which continued in England over the following four centuries.

It is clear from the content of Shakespeare's plays and poems that he was familiar with the dynamics of such relationships. Most would consider this to be unsurprising, given his background of show business and a culture which prevented the playing of female roles in theatre by women. All members of the playing companies of the time would have come in frequent close contact with comely lads who appeared as women. Was the playwright-actor sexually attracted to ganymedes? Did he enjoy sexual relationships with an ingle? We don't know – though, if so, Shakespeare was bisexual in his practices, given the record of his marriage as a teenager to Anne Hathaway, which match was evidently initiated by pre-marital conception. The marriage supported at least one further pregnancy in Anne (resulting in the birth of the twins, Hamnet and Judith).

However, the evidence which most points to his bisexuality (and which usually triggers the question) comes in the form of Shakespeare's Sonnets. These portray intense (and physical) relationships by the “I” of the relevant poems with, in some cases, a beautiful young man and, in others, a woman by whom the writer is smitten. The sonnets look – uncomfortably to some – like autobiography. Indeed it is probably the discomfort with their homoerotic content which led to the suppression or side-lining of the poems for over three hundred years. Given their technical quality (and, in some cases, their sheer beauty) it is hard to see what other reason there can be for reactions such as those of the eighteenth century analyst and editor, George Steevens, who, excluding the poems from a collection of Shakespeare's works, wrote of them: “The strongest Act of Parliament which could be framed would fail to compel readers into their service”.

Since Steevens' day, much more on the nature of the Sonnets has been discovered. The evidence (summarised at the Biography in the Sonnets) shows that in all probability they were originally formulated as private correspondence from Shakespeare to his patron, the then young and effeminate-looking aristocrat, Henry Wriothesley. Moreover, it suggests that neither poet nor recipient ever intended these communications to become public. No doubt, the additional information would have made Steevens no less averse to the poems. However, it does allow the more open-minded to weigh the content of the Sonnets against the detail of history and to reach reasoned conclusions as to what is consequently suggested of Shakespeare's circumstances and sexuality.

As suggested by the evidence, the early sonnets were produced at a time of severe economic hardship in London's theatre industry. With the prolonged closures of the playhouses (during the years 1592-4) it appears that a hard-pressed (and ambitious) Shakespeare set out to save his means of living (and perhaps that of his family back in Stratford) through the patronage of the eighteen year old earl of Southampton. To do so, he developed a strategy of artistic, emotional and physical seduction. Sonnets 1-17 depict intimate, often humorous, flattery of the woman-shy ward, balanced with outwardly responsible urgings for the latter's marriage and his begetting of an heir (in line with the aspirations of an onlooking senior circle). Perhaps the dimension of physical intimacy only developed on his closer friendship with a youth suggested by history to be narcissistic, bisexual and demanding. Sonnets 18-20 point to the successful accomplishment of this aspect of the seduction. It seems that Shakespeare was now well into the young lord. He became committed to public (as well as private) promotion of both his target and his own standing as an author, through the composition of a long poem, Venus & Adonis.

However, the story underlying the Sonnets suggests that the poet found it hard to maintain the physical aspects of the relationship (conveyed so effusively and colourfully in Sonnet 20). Sonnet 23 looks like the eloquent excuses of someone who is showing insufficient affection to a complaining lover. Sonnets 25-51 depict separations, both emotional and physical. Sonnet 52 extols the pleasure to be obtained from the poet's phallic-looking “key” - but in almost the same breath suggests that the pleasure is better for its infrequency. Sonnets 56-85 tell the story of a Rival who outperforms the poet in all three strands of his strategy. Sonnet 80 suggests that the poet is impotent in what has become a triangular relationship; he is “wracked” while the well endowed Rival “spends all his might”, riding upon their mutual friend's “soundless deep”. Subsequent sonnets suggest no successful resumption of a physical relationship between Shakespeare and his patron.

By contrast, the biography associated with other sonnets (40-42, 127-128, 130-145, 147-152) depicts a Shakespeare besotted with a woman for whom he aches emotionally and sexually. He is moved by their intercourse. He is frustrated that he cannot get enough of her. He becomes indignant with her infidelities. He is tormented by their separations. Everything in this biography points to a writer with powerful heterosexual urges.

Those interested in a more detailed discovery of the story underlying the sonnets (individually and as a whole) will find it in a reading of A Hidden Life Sung in a Hidden Song . The demonstration of biography in the Sonnets points to a Shakespeare whose sexual drive was primarily oriented towards the enjoyment of women. Given sufficient motivation, he was prepared to chance his pen on a young, well-connected man. Results in the latter endeavour fell limply short of aspirations - either because there was insufficient spark in this particular relationship or because his efforts lacked the stimulus of gaiety.