Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Was Shakespeare Gay?

Was William Shakespeare Gay?
Relatively little is known of Shakespeare’s life and one of the many rumours surrounding the Bard of Avon is that he may have been homosexual. So, how did this theory arise and is there any truth to it?

At the age of 18, Shakespeare married the 26-year-old, Anne Hathaway (not exactly on a par with Mrs Robinson, but a significant age gap nonetheless).

As it turned out, the ceremony, which was rushed through, was a shotgun wedding and, six months later, Anne gave birth to the couples' first child, Susanna. Two years later, came twins; a boy and girl, named Hamnet and Judith.

Now, the fact that Shakespeare fathered children and was married is, you might argue, not proof of his sexual orientation, and you’d be right. After all, Oscar Wilde, Cole Porter and Elton John were all once married to women.

Why is There a Debate About Shakespeare’s Sexuality?

The principal reason Shakespeare’s sexuality is questioned is that the first 126 of his 154-strong collection of sonnets, are addressed to a young man known as the ‘fair youth’.

The identity of this man, if he even existed, is unknown. However, it has been suggested that he could be Henry Wriothesley (3rd Earl of Southampton) or William Herbert (3rd Earl of Pembroke); both of whom were patrons of the poet and considered to cut quite a handsome figure.

Whether the ‘fair youth’ was one of these men, another beefcake of a young man or a fictional creation, the sonnets speak of love, devotion and passion for their subject. For example, Sonnet 96, states:

"How many gazers mightst thou lead away,
If thou wouldst use the strength of all thy state!
But do not so; I love thee in such sort,
As, thou being mine, mine is thy good report."

And, of course, there is the most famous sonnet of all, number 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”

However, there is no direct mention of physical lust or a sexual relationship between the two. The only sonnets that do contain more explicit material are numbers 127-152, which are addressed to the ‘dark lady’ another unidentified subject, who may have been the poet’s mistress.

Mary Fitton (1595) One of The Women
Thought to be Shakespeare's Dark Lady
Shakespeare’s Love for the Ladies

Just as there is no way of truly knowing whether or not the fair youth existed, we cannot know for certain whether the dark lady was a real woman in Shakespeare’s life.

However, a number of women have been cited as being prime suspects in the hunt for Shakespeare’s dark lady; including Emilia Lanier and Mary Fritton (pictured right), but, oddly enough, not Cher.

Of course, the problem for those who claim that the fair youth sonnets are autobiographical and, therefore, evidence of Shakespeare’s homosexuality is that, if we assume one group of sonnets is based on fact, then we must assume that the other group is, too.

Consequently, the sonnets could only be used to assert that Shakespeare was bisexual.

Why Would Shakespeare Write ‘Love’ Poems to a Man?

If the fair youth did exist, why would Shakespeare profess his love for him?

Well, one very obvious reason is that, if the fair youth was a patron, it was clearly in Shakespeare’s best interests to flatter him; hence the ‘reproduction’ set of sonnets, in which the poet encourages the subject to have children in order to preserve his beauty.

"From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die," (Sonnet 1)

However, it’s also worth mentioning that the use of the word ‘love’ was not always an indicative of passion or familial bonds. Believe it or not, there was a time when men could say they loved one another, without having to add, “no homo!”

And herein, really lies the problem with trying to unravel Shakespeare’s sexuality. The perceptions of homosexuality in many eras; including the 16th and 17th centuries, were vastly different from our modern view.

In fact, in Ancient Greece, what we would now consider homoerotic themes had less to do with Plato et al being gay, and more to do with a perception of women as lesser.

A fine Shakespearean example of this notion, is Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice.

Jeremy Irons as Antonio and Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio
in The Merchant of Venice (2004)
"Commend me to your honourable wife:
Tell her the process of Antonio’s end;
Say how I loved you, speak me fair in death;
And, when the tale is told, bid her be judge
Whether Bassanio had not once a love." (IV.i)

Now, of course, there are those who assume that this was a homosexual relationship. 

However, it may merely be a strong bond of friendship.

So, Was Shakespeare Gay?

Well, we will probably never know for certain. It is impossible for us to say what went on behind closed doors, in his “second best bed” back in Stratford Upon Avon or countless beds in London and elsewhere.

However, in my opinion, the fair youth sonnets suggest a strong platonic bond of friendship rather than a sexual relationship. But what do you think? Share your views below.

For more on this subject and other aspects of Shakespeare’s life, check out the author’s An Introduction to The Bard of Avon


  1. Shortly, precisely and interesting.


    1. Hello Igor,

      Thanks for the comment. I'm glad you found the post interesting and I'll be sure to check out your blog.

      Thanks again!

  2. this actually helped me a lot with my English essay! Thank you for the information!

    1. Hello Aly, I'm very glad that it was helpful. Thanks for taking the time to let me know.

  3. I don't know too much about Shakespeare compared to most other English Majors, but I suspect he was more or less "bisexual". I suspect he thought like the Ancient Greeks, and found erotic beauty in young men.

    1. Hello, Lacey.

      I agree with you. I think it's so easy to try to apply our modern perception of sexuality and male relationships on a world that was so very different. For centuries, men recognising the beauty (and/or eroticism) of other men was seen as the norm.

      Strict definitions of sexuality simply didn't exist. So trying to label Shakespeare (and many, many other men) as 'gay' or 'straight' is, I think, impossible.

  4. Hey, I've been doing A level English literature coursework on traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity, and your site was very informative (had a little chuckle at the no homo part!) , what i found particularly interesting was the notion of sexuality, and how beauty could be admired by both sexes without it becoming erotic love. This i feel is exemplified in sonnet 20 where the fair man "steals men's eyes and women's soul amazeth". I completely agree with the comment you made about the lack of clear cut sexuality within the Shakespearean era. The relationship between the poet and the fair man, like Lacey, reminds me of the ancient Greek period where older men could show appreciation for younger males. It also reminds me of the current Arab culture where men are allowed to hold hands and call each other 'habibti' meaning my love without being seen as homosexuals.

    1. Hello, Zarah. Thanks for the great comment. I'm glad you found this useful in your A-Level studies. I find it very interesting that what is culturally 'acceptable', in terms of demonstrative affection, shifts. As you say, in Ancient Greece platonic love between men was very much the norm. In the Victorian era (here in Britain), male friends would walk with their arms linked - as I believe is still the custom in some South American countries.

      Given all that, I get the feeling it's not men's natures that change. Instead, in my opinion, most (certainly in some parts of the world), are conditioned to restrain their inclination to be affectionate with friends, because it's deemed a 'gay' thing to do. Hopefully, as we start to become more relaxed about sexuality (in the Western world anyway), that stigma will begin to drift away again. But, who knows?! It's a fascinating topic, though.

      Thanks again!