Was Shakespeare gay?
In recognition of February being LGBTQ+ History month we consider Shakespeare’s sexuality
Was Shakespeare gay? It’s a popular question from students and audience members at public talks. Revealingly, it’s often posed in ways that draw attention to the debate: ‘I’ve been told that Shakespeare was gay – is that true?’ ‘I asked my teacher if Shakespeare was gay and he said no – what do you think?’
The answer’s more complicated than you might think.
It’s not that it’s exactly hard to find a homoerotic sensibility in Shakespeare’s works. Think of the ties of romantic friendship and erotic yearning that bind Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, or Antonio to Sebastian in Twelfth Night. That play is a queer fantasia, to be sure: Olivia loves Viola, thinking she’s ‘Cesario’, and ends up with Sebastian – who looks the same as Viola; Orsino falls in love with ‘Cesario’, not realising he’s a she, and seems absolutely delighted that she stays in her men’s clothing after he’s proposed.
We often read Shakespeare’s Sonnets as an account of the poet’s intense relationships with a beautiful young man and a bewitching ‘dark lady’. Lots of people find the poems simply too passionate, too obsessive, to be anything other than poetic autobiography. Oscar Wilde certainly thought the Sonnets contained a secret, suggesting in his essay-masquerading-as-a-story ‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H.’ that the fair youth was ‘none other than the boy-actor for whom [Shakespeare] created Viola and Imogen, Juliet and Rosalind, Portia and Desdemona, and Cleopatra herself’ (his youthful good looks must have lasted the best part of fifteen years if the same boy created the female lead in Romeo and Juliet in 1594 and Cymbeline’s Imogen in 1609).
‘Our modern words for sexual orientation – gay, straight, homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual – are all nineteenth or twentieth-century coinages’
Wilde might have veered into fiction with his identification of Shakespeare’s lover, but many readers are still reluctant to discard the notion that the Sonnets offer a glimpse of the ‘real’ Shakespeare. The poet Don Paterson writes in his recent commentary on Shakespeare’s Sonnets that they are literary proof positive of his bisexual or gay identity.
The complexity arises from the language and terminology we use to describe the sexual identity of historic people. For one thing, our modern words for sexual orientation – gay, straight, homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual – are all nineteenth or twentieth-century coinages. Comparable words used in the past – ganymede, catamite, ingle for men, tribade for women – didn’t carry precisely the same meaning.
Even more complicatedly, scholarship has insisted since the 1980s that sexual orientation is a modern concept. Most historians are of the view that early modern people didn’t think of themselves as gay or straight (not that those words carried their modern meanings in any case). Sexuality wasn’t so much about the gender of one’s object of desire, but about the degree of license, debauchery and sinful abandonment that an individual permitted oneself. Although we can talk about sexual acts in the past, we probably shouldn’t think about people’s sexual identities.
It might sound odd, but this can actually be a liberating way to think about sexuality. I’ve found it enlightening to think about the ways in which same-sex eroticism and queer emotion were woven into early modern society. What we now specify as homosexuality was infused into the culture at large, in customs, practices and social institutions. Widespread same-sex bed-sharing, the high value placed on single-gender friendship, and a generally un-prudish attitude to bodily functions created an environment in which homosexual acts, while technically illegal, went virtually unreported and unpunished.
‘But I still feel a bit caught out when someone wants to talk about Shakespeare’s sexuality. And I think it’s because ‘Was Shakespeare gay?’ is actually a really apt question. It’s not the ‘wrong’ thing to ask’
Disapproval loomed, of course, as well as hostility from the church, but social history research suggests that the more usual response to same-sex intimacy was a worldly shrug, as long as it didn’t frighten the horses (or challenge society’s rigid gender roles).
But I still feel a bit caught out when someone wants to talk about Shakespeare’s sexuality. And I think it’s because ‘Was Shakespeare gay?’ is actually a really apt question. It’s not the ‘wrong’ thing to ask, and I’m beginning to wonder if it really is so anachronistic to think about the sexual orientation of historical people. I’m not sure I’m satisfied any more with our rather convoluted academic discourses about sexual subjectivity. When we queer the whole Renaissance, we obscure genealogy. The LGBTQ woman or man of today who seeks in the past for ancestry instead finds a well-meant dead-end: we are told that one of the things that makes us who we are did not exist four centuries ago.
The words we use to describe emotions, selfhood and sexuality have changed over the centuries, but I’m yet to be convinced that an early modern person with a prevailing sexual interest in their own gender wouldn’t have thought of themselves as distinct from the majority.
For what it’s worth, when I point my literary gaydar at Shakespeare I get a maybe. The dramatist who gave us the playfully queer wooing of Orlando and ‘Ganymede’ in As You Like It also created happy hetero couple Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. As a sonneteer, he was able to imagine a complex and anguished affair with a young man, as well as an obsessive, even controlling, relationship with a woman. Perhaps it’s more interesting to think about Shakespeare as a writer who knew that his audience and readership was sexually diverse: he was catering to the LGBT market long before such a thing had a name.
But that’s not to say there weren’t other writers of the time for whom homoerotic subject matter and sexual identity seem to our eyes to overlap. The playwright Christopher Marlowe (whose Edward II is on now at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) and pastoral poet Richard Barnfield produced works that explored same-sex love in much more candid ways than Shakespeare. And we know for a fact that Shakespeare read these writers.
So he may or may not have been gay, but he definitely read gay literature – and that’s a lesson we can all appreciate during LGBT History Month.