Was Shakespeare gay?

This topic was inspired by gobear, who asserted in another thread that William Shakeaspeare was gay.


Okay, maybe not entirely phooey, but not really all that likely, IMH Cafe Society O.

The evidence for Shakespeare’s homosexuality or bisexuality rests entirely on the first hundred or so of the sonnets, in which the poet/narrator sings the praises of a young nobleman. They are certainly sexually-charged at points, though there is nothing that indicates any sort of physical relationship between the two men. The sonnets certainly raise some questions about the author’s sexuality, but there’s nothing there that clearly demonstrates homosexual desire. Sucking up to a young patron is at least as likely an explanation for the sonnets, compared to sexual orientation.

The context of the sonnets further argues against any expression of homosexual desire. Elizabethan/Jacobean England was not a great place to be openly gay. Just ask Kit Marlowe. Yet the sonnets were freely passed around among Shakespeare’s friends–I can dig up the cite, if needed–and were published without so much as a hint of scandal near the end of his literary career. Even a simple comparison between the nobleman sonnets and the sonnets addressed to the dark lady indicates the poet/narrator had a much greater passion (albeit transformed to hate) for the dark lady than the noble youth.

Of course, relatively little is known about the details of Shakespeare’s life. But what we do know supports a heterosexual orientation rather than homosexuality or bisexuality. There is no question that Shakespeare got Anne Hathaway pregnant and then married her, eventually becoming father to three children. The records indicate that he returned to Stratford regularly throughout his years as an actor, writer, and businessman in London. And of course, it was to Stratford and his wife that Shakespeare retired when he quit the London theater world.

In contrast to the well-documented facts of his marriage, there is no contemporaneous evidence of homosexual orientation on Shakespeare’s part. One would expect his business and literary rivals to make make some sort of complaint if they were getting usurped by a gay guy. They did not. This silence strongly contrasts with Marlowe, who was roundly condemned for his apparent homosexuality.

But if the assertion of homosexuality is to rest on purely literaary grounds, the plays and poems strongly argue in favor of Shakespeare’s heterosexuality. They guy practically invented the modern concept of romantic love, and he did it entirely within the context of relationships between men and women. Out of more than thirty plays, I can think of only one obvious homosexual relationship, that of Achilles and Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida. And though T & C isn’t one of the plays I best remember, my recollection is that Achilles’ homosexuality was an excuse to make fun of the big, bad warrior.

The only other play that even approaches a homosexual relationship is As You Like It, where Rosalind poses as a boy and she and the Duke fall in love with each other. Again, the gender-bending is played for laughs, and the two don’t manage to hook up for real until Rosalind reveals her real gender. (Though I once saw a production where the public revelation was more or less blackmail to force the duke to marry her, but that seems like a big stretch to me.) Aside from that, we’re pretty much talking about offhand jokes and snide innuendo scattered throughout the plays.

In short, though there are some very interesting bits of text in the sonnets, it is impossible to affirmatively assert that Shakespeare was gay. The rest of the canon and what biographical data we have strongly indicate a heterosexual orientation.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. :wink:

When plays in the 1990s can get protested for having gay charactesrs and gay themes, it’s not that inconceivable that any gay references in the 1590s would have to be hidden very very well. Also consider that, as you intoned, his main objective was sucking up to the royalty at the time. It’s a pretty good guess that homosexuality wouldn’t fly too well with that crowd.

Nevertheless, you can interpret some things liberally. Hamlet has a gay joke in it. Also, the director of one play took a somewhat interesting interpretation to a confrontation between Rosencrantz (or was it Guildenstern?) and Hamlet. Instead of pressing the reed up to R’s throat, H shoves it down his throat. It changes the context of the lines slightly as R is choking on the phallic symbol. What if this is what Shakespeare meant all along?

Look at all the evil women. Lady MacBeth. King Lear’s daughters. The Shrew, for goodness sake! Maybe this meant something. Maybe it didn’t.

Was Shakespeare gay? Who knows? Who cares? It’s all about the boys in drag.

Speculation, Ender, is not the same thing as evidence. Where is the evidence that Shakespeare was gay, and how does it stack up against the evidence that he was not?

Look at all the good women cast in romantic roles with men.

Whoa, he must be gay. But enough about the director. What about the writer? :wink:

Well, what about all the good ones? Cordelia, Desdemona, Beatrice, Viola, Rosalind, Portia, Miranda, Hermione, Imogen… and for that matter, look at all the evil men! The fact that someone writes some villainous female characters is hardly an indication of his sexuality.

Also, it’s important to remember a few other things: first of all, people during the Renaissance didn’t really think of sexuality the same way we do today – the whole concept of sexual orientation is a fairly recent one. It’s also true that people accepted more intense expressions of male friendship than most do today (this is where the phrase “cult of male friendship” comes in) though that doesn’t explain away the homoerotic nature of some of the sonnets. But then, we can’t just read the sonnets as entirely autobiographical, either. (For instance – the sonnets, although they were published in 1609, are conventionally dated between 1592 and 1594 – when sonnets were trendy, the theaters were closed due to plague, and when Shakespeare wrote his two long narrative poems. But the speaker of the sonnets talks about his advancing age, when Shakespeare himself would only have been about thirty.)

(I also don’t think I agree with your assertion, minty, that the sonnets addressed to the Dark Lady are more passionate than those addressed to the youth, though I think I can see where you’re coming from – the ones to the youth, even at their most emotional, are more “literary” than the ones to the lady, which are more overtly sexual…)

Anyway, of course there’s no evidence that Shakespeare was gay, and no way to find out (unless someone invents a time machine). It doesn’t change anything he wrote, and if gay activists want to claim him as one of their own I’m not going to be particularly upset about it.

What about this?

And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.

Seems to be a strong indicator to me, though also implies the relationship is unconsummated. But again, we’re talking primarily about the fictionalized persona in the Sonnets.

I took a Shakespeare class that focused on women and gender a few semesters ago, and I’d have to agree with you, minty green. I had to do busloads of reading (primary and secondary sources) about gender relationships during Shakespeare’s time. What many modern readers fail to realize is that women were considered the weaker sex, and not many argued otherwise. Men did not expect to have conversations with their wives; as Pretuccio mentions, women were bought, sold, and viewed as chattel. You should read the laws about how husbands and wives were supposed to legally have sex! Alas, most women were considered inferior for a reason - they were uneducated, couldn’t read or write, and knew little outside of their own closed realm of living (of course this wasn’t true of everyone, but for most).

Because of that, men gravitated toward men for companionship. Men were very close, and that wasn’t thought of as “homosexual” - sodomy was completely illegal and offenders would have their penises chopped off in some parts of England. Men were just closer, in ways that are not socially acceptable today, and that may seem shocking or indicative of homosexuality right now. Upper-class men went out to smoking rooms and pubs and private clubs that women were not allowed in, and they spent much of their free time with each other. Women were necessary evils that they actively avoided (read some Puritan sermons about the pregnant devil nursing evil with her teats - definitely some strange notions of feminism.)

Also, from my reading of the sonnets (and believe me, I attended a performance/celebration for Shakespeare’s birthday this afternoon - there are more variations of readings that I ever thought possible) - Shakespeare loves the youth and vitality and beauty of his subject, who may or may not be his benefactor, Wriothesley (sp?). But I don’t think he loved him sexually. Shakespeare encourages him to enjoy his youth, spread his seed, appreciate the beauty of youth, but I don’t think this means either man was gay. I think it means they were close, and Shakespeare admired him for what he himself had lost with age.

All the books that contain this material are collecting dust in the UMBC library - I’m afraid I don’t have any cites offhand. But if it gets really heated, I’ll dig them up. For now you have my word.

Terribly sorry, the two epic poems (Rape of Lucrece, Venus and Adonis) were addressed to Wriothesley. My edition, a Nortion, only mentions that the sonnets are addressed to W.H., which the footnote argues is a misprint of W.S. (Shakespeare).

Translation: You were made for a woman.

Translation: Until Nature got all puppy-eyed for you.

Translation: Nature gave you a penis, and thereby deprived me of you.

Translation: But because you were made for the pleasure of women, you have my love, and the ladies get your love as a treasure.

Not to me. It’s ambiguous at best. At worst (for those who would use #20 there to “out” the writer), it takes the position that men are by nature created as lovers of women. That makes sense too, given that the particular poem comes early in the cycle, when the poet/narrator is still urging the young nobleman to get a wife and make some babies.

As for the the poet’s “passion” for the dark lady versus the young man, you are correct that I was specifically referring to the sexual passion as being much greater for the dark lady. It’s obviously a close, intimate relationship between the writer and the nobleman, but as Sara aptly points out, close, intimate, and nonsexual relationships between men were pretty ordinary in Elizabethan/Jacobean times. Without more, it does not indicate a homosexual orientation, at least as we conceive of it today.

I don’t know. The Avon lady stole it?
I never claimed that there was any evidence to prove Shakespeare was gay. For that, I suppose you’d have to go straight to gobear and see if he can back up his statement.
The only thing I did was adopt a contrary position from your thesis and run with it. Whatever evidence I have is circumstancial and probably doesn’t prove a thing. Then again, I never set out to prove anything in the first place.

So let’s assume he’s gay. Must he write about gay topics only? At all? My argument about him writing for his audience still stands. He’s not going to write about being gay any more than he’d write about killing a Queen named Elizabeth and tossing her breasts on a spike. It’s hard to write a good play when you have no head.

Au contraire. For a fine example of a homosexual playwright writing about homosexuality, I refer you to Marlowe’s excellent Edward the Second.

There is absolutely no evidence that Shakespeare is gay. Any analysis of the poems does not provide evidence, since you can analyze them to “prove” any conclusions you want.

Consider this quote:

“I’m in love with a wonderful guy” – Oscar Hammerstein II

Hammerstein actually wrote this. It doesn’t prove he’s gay, though.

As for the dedication, consider this example. Isaac Asimov dedicated one of his books to John W. Campbell. That doesn’t make either of them gay.

You cannot make any generalization about the life of an author by analyzing his fiction. If you know his biography, then you can pick up references, but when you’re working in a vacuum (like with issues of Shakespeare’s sexuality), all you’ll find is what you want to find. If you want to “prove” Shakespeare was a Martian, you can find evidence of that, too.

I assume you are thinking of The Tempest, one of the eeriest of the plays, perhaps as a metaphor for the alienation and angst of a Martian marrooned in a hostile world? Do provide actual cites, please.

If Shakespeare was a Martian, the question of whether he really authored the plays becomes doubly critical: how could the establishment ever accept that Shakespeare wasn’t a dead white European male? Geesh, he might have to be rehabilitated or something.

Because we know Shakespeare was married to Anne Hathaway and had kids by her, we can only say that he was, at most, bisexual.

Is there any concrete evidence that Shakespeare ever did guys? Not really. Sure, we have the sonnets, which do contain love poems addressed to a young man, but we have no real proof that the poems were inspired by a real-life same-sex romance or whether the gay motif was a mere literary conceit to curry favor with King James I, himself a full-on practicing homosexual.

In addition, while we know that the Lord Chamberlain’s rules for theatrical companies forbade women on the stage, thus requiring boys to be cast in female roles, it does not fully explain the depth of same-sex passion we see in his plays. For example, in Twelfth Night, we have the Captain quite passionately attached to Sebastian in a more-than-fraternal way. We also have the Lady Olivia falling for a page who she thinks is a boy , but is really a girl, leading to at least one kiss between the two.

That’s not really sufficent evidence to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that Shakespeare was a homo. However because some of the sonnets DO address same-sex attraction, that’s good enough for me to include Will in the LGBT camp.

The difference, of course, is that Hammerstein put those words in the mouth of Nellie Forbush, a female., while Will was writing as himself, and not as a character. Of course, he could have been using the metaliterary trick of includinh the author as a character, as John Fowles did in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Minty Green, I shouldn’t have to point out that physical consummation is immaterial to the question of sexual orientation. Waylon Smithers flames with unrequited passion for Monty Burns. Even though Waylon will never have Monty, he is no less gay for that. Love is a matter of the heart, not the Johnson (although I’m told that the Johnson figures largely[sup]+[/sup] in matters of love.)
[sup]+[/sup]Larger for some guys than others, though (darned genetics!).

A physical relationship would not, of course, be a necessary prerequisite to Shakespeare’s alleged bi-/homosexuality. But the absence of any evidence in the sonnets for a sexual relationship with the young man or any other man militates against a homosexual orientation, doesn’t it? It makes little sense to me that Shakespeare would be a closeted, repressed gay man writing passionate gay poems to his young friend. If he’s so closeted, why would he apparently give the sonnets to the person who inspired them, or share them so widely with his own friends that their existence was well-known long before they were published? And why no scandal when they were published, apparently to an enthusiastic reception?

I’m not at all persuaded by your point about the ban on women actors. Yes, the necessity of having boys play women’s roles is some very interesting gender-bending. But every playwright of the time had to use those same boys in women’s roles. So how does that show Shakespeare in particular was gay? The argument proves too much to be very useful.

Check out Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy sometime. There is a very passionate love scene near the beginning of the play (end of Act I?). The male character would have been all over the boy playing the “female” role. Does that mean Kyd was gay? Not bloody likely. He was one of the guys who ratted out Marlowe to the authorities, condemning his licentiousness quite strongly, as I recall. Many other playwrights of the time wrote strong romantic roles for men and women characters, even though both would inevitably be played by males. Shakespeare was generally better at creating depth of character than his contemporaries were, but he was far from unique in that regard.

I’m perfectly willing to concede that the sonnets raise legitimate suspicions about the writer’s sexual orientation. What got my dander up was your unsupported assertion, which contradicts almost all of what little we know about the actual person, that Shakespeare was gay. As an affirmative declaration, it just doesn’t bear up to much scrutiny.

A side note- not all scholars are convinced that William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon was the actual author of the plays and poems in the Shakespearew canon. One of the people often speculated about as the 'real" author is Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. And, for what it may (or may not) be worth, De Vere WAS known to swing both ways.

Thne we are in agreement. certainly, there is room for suspicion and the raised eyebrow, but no real evidence of Will being That Way.

Really, it’s ahistorical to refer to anyone living before the 20th century as gay, since the concept of sexual orientation didn’t exist until quite recent times. To folks back in the day, sodomy was an act, not an identity.

However, I was writing in Full-on Mad mode to address a clueless, homphobic poster, and I wasn’t using caveats or qualifications of statements.

I would prefer not to go off-topic on the authorship question, astorian. For the sake of this discussion, let’s just assume Shakespeare really was Shakespeare.

Note also that William Shakespeare was identified as the author of the sonnets years before they were published, and that the same writer who identified him as their author also stated Shakespeare was passing them around among his friends. That’s not the sort of behavior you’d expect from an illiterate hick perpetrating the greatest literary fraud of all time.

Thne we are in agreement. Certainly, there is room for suspicion and the raised eyebrow, but no real evidence of Will being That Way.

Really, it’s ahistorical to refer to anyone living before the 20th century as gay, since the concept of sexual orientation didn’t exist until quite recent times. To folks back in the day, sodomy was an act, not an identity.

However, I was writing in Full-on Mad mode to address a clueless, homphobic poster, and I wasn’t using caveats or qualifications of statements.

Whoops, sorry about the double post.

Well said, gobear. It looks like we pretty much agree after all.