6 – Shakespeare might well have been gay, or at the very least bisexual
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,’
Sonnet 18, addressed to a man
Questions over the sexuality of William Shakespeare have been around since the 18th century at the very latest. From the beginning of scholarship on the issue, it has been downplayed, though many who did so – Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example – were very likely to do so, as Shakespeare was already ensconced as England’s greatest ever writer, and it really wouldn’t have done for England’s literary hero to have been, as they saw it, a sodomite.
He certainly addressed many of his sonnets towards men – 126 in total. Whether this was because he loved them, or had had affairs with them, or simply held them in high regard, is up for debate. Certainly, the idea of loving yet platonic relationships between men was not completely out of the question, and indeed, it provided the bedrock of the lives of many an artist: wealthy patrons would provide ready cash and other benefits to struggling writers so that they might be able to remain writing, with there being something of an expectation that the writers might then glorify the person who was essentially buying their dinner and keeping them in good ruffs. Whether any of these relationships ever progressed further is one for the ages to discuss.
It is worth bearing in mind that sodomy was illegal in Tudor England, though almost nobody was ever punished for it. Scholars have questioned how enforced the law was, as it was seldom that anyone was actually charged under sodomy laws, and those that were charged were often charged as part of something else, in an attempt to besmirch their character. There are two theories on why so few sodomy charges were ever filed: nobody was ever caught committing sodomy, which seems unlikely, or just that it was simply something that nobody ever bothered to prosecute. This may be because it was difficult to prove, or too scandalous to mention or simply not worth the effort. It is noticeable that the first appearances of literary critics claiming that Shakespeare was gay came in the year after homosexuality was legalized in the United Kingdom, giving rise to a theory that many experts had long suggested it, but had not risked saying it aloud.
Within 40 years of Shakespeare’s death, a volume of his poems and sonnets was published with all the pronouns changed to female – some, of course, were about women anyway, but all the male ones were made female. The reason that many have put such a weight on the sonnets is that it was unlikely that Shakespeare intended to publish them, and thus they provide one of the best insights into what he was actually like as a person. There are plenty of reasons why he might not have thought to publish them, or indeed, wanted them to be seen at all: political censorship was ever present, for example, while we have spoken elsewhere about the potential threat of his Catholic tendencies being exposed.
Of course, there is no proof that he was gay or even bisexual, but the way in which he talks about men in his poetry, if taken by the same standards which he uses to talk about women, would point in that direction. While it is correct to point out that Coleridge and the other nay-sayers who initially denied charges of homosexuality were biased, then it would also be remiss not to point out that a large part of the modern theory on Shakespeare’s sexual orientation is also colored by the way that contemporary literary critics think. Much of the language that is used, for example, regarding love and affection might not have seemed at all sexual at the time, rather an expression of admiration and platonic friendship.
Even if he wasn’t gay, the personal life of William Shakespeare was certainly colorful, as we have heard: from his shotgun wedding, his myriad affairs and a level of personal tragedy that would have put Hamlet et al to shame.