Jennifer Wilber is an author and freelance writer from Ohio. She holds a B.A. in creative writing and English.
Did William Shakespeare Swing Both Ways?
Centuries after his death, the sexuality of the man who is widely regarded as the greatest playwright who has ever lived is still hotly debated in certain academic circles.
Though William Shakespeare was married and had several children, many scholars speculate that he also had a number of affairs—with both men and women— throughout his life. There is also evidence in his sonnets and plays that may hint at his secret homosexual desires.
Shakespeare’s Marriage to Anne Hathaway
Though there are few records surviving detailing Shakespeare’s private life, it is well-known that he was married to a woman named Anne Hathaway. Very little is known about Anne Hathaway’s personal life or personality. There is also very little known about the nature of her relationship with her husband, but the couple did have three children together.
The couple was married when Anne was already pregnant with their first child, leading some to speculate that the pregnancy was entirely unplanned.
Though there are some theories that William Shakespeare was secretly entirely gay, and married his wife only to keep up appearances, the timing of the birth of their first child gives credence to the idea that he was genuinely attracted to and sexually interested in women.
Alleged Affairs with Women
It is believed by many scholars that William Shakespeare had affairs with different women while in London. According to one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, a lawyer named John Manningham, Shakespeare had an affair with a woman during a performance of Richard III in 1602:
"Upon a time when Burbage played Richard the Third there was a citizen grew so far in liking with him, that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard the Third. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained and at his game ere Burbage came. Then, message being brought that Richard the Third was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third."
Other evidence of William Shakespeare’s extramarital affairs with women include the fact that 26 of Shakespeare’s sonnets were addressed to a married woman known only as the Dark Lady. If these sonnets were, in fact, autobiographical as some scholars believe, William Shakespeare had an affair with this woman, who is described in the sonnets explicitly as the poet’s lover.
Alleged Affairs with Men and Evidence of Homosexual Attraction in Shakespeare’s Poetry
The most compelling evidence for William Shakespeare’s affairs with men can also be found in reading his sonnets. Of his famous sonnets, 126 are love poems addressed to a young man, who is referred to as “Fair Lord” or “Fair Youth” throughout the sonnets.
These sonnets were dedicated to a Mr. W.H., whom historians believe may have been William Shakespeare’s male lover of whom the poems spoke. The most common theories as to the identity of this man are two of Shakespeare's patrons; Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke.
Both of these men were considered to be quite handsome during their youth. Some historians even believe that William Shakespeare may have been involved with both of these men at different times throughout his life.
Many of the sonnets mentioning the Fair Lord can be easily read as the author professing his love and/or sexual desire for a younger man. The sonnets speak of sleepless nights, anguish, and jealousy caused by the young man. There is also a great emphasis on the young man's beauty throughout the poems. Some examples of references to homosexual romance in the sonnets include:
- In Sonnet 13, the young man is referred to as "dear my love."
- In Sonnet 15, the author states that he is at "war with Time for love of you."
- Sonnet 18 asks of the young man, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate."
- In Sonnet 20, the author refers to the younger man as the "master-mistress of my passion."
- Also, in Sonnet 20, the narrator theorizes that the young man was originally meant to be born as a woman, but Mother Nature had fallen in love with him and, to avoid lesbianism, changed his sexual organs to those of a male ("pricked thee out for women's pleasure").
- Again, in Sonnet 20, the narrator tells the young man to sleep with women, but only to love him: "mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure".
- Sonnet 26 is addressed to “Lord of my love.”
- Sonnet 52 makes use of a dirty Elizabethan pun in the line "So is the time that keeps you as my chest, Or as the wardrobe which the robe doth hide, To make some special instant special blest, By new unfolding his imprisoned pride." In those times, “pride” was used as a euphemism for an erect penis.
In Shakespeare’s time, male homosexual acts could be met with a prison sentence, losing one’s job, and immense public stigma, so if Shakespeare was involved with men, he would have been forced to keep the relationship secret from the public eye. While he couldn’t publicly profess his love to his male lovers, he could hide declarations of his love and desire in his creative works.
Homosexuality and Genderbending in Shakespeare’s Plays
Another clue to William Shakespeare’s proclivity toward both men and women can be found in his plays. Crossdressing and genderbending are common recurring themes in Shakespeare’s plays.
For example, in Twelfth Night, the character Viola disguises herself as a man named Cesario to get close to Duke Orsino. Orsino finds himself inexplicably drawn to the strange young man. Meanwhile, Orsino’s fiancé Olivia also finds herself attracted to Viola/Cesario.
Another example of bisexuality in Shakespeare’s plays can be found in The Merchant of Venice, which features a love triangle between an older man, younger man, and a woman. Bassanio and Antonio’s feelings for each other are obvious, though their relationship doesn’t minimize the relationship between Bassanio and Portia.
Many scholars believe that these themes in William Shakespeare’s plays were clues into his most private desires. Perhaps the numerous references to genderbending, homosexual attraction, and bisexual love triangles in Shakespeare’s work were the only way for the writer to explore his desires during the time period in which he lived.
Evidence Against Shakespeare Being Bisexual or Gay
Though there is much evidence that he was bisexual, some historians point to cultural differences between Shakespeare’s time and modern times to refute the notion that William Shakespeare was romantically and/or sexually interested in men.
According to these scholars, intense platonic friendships between men, which would appear more similar to romantic relationships in today’s cultural climate, were not uncommon. During this time period, it was common for men to describe their feelings for platonic friends as something similar to romantic love, but without any sexual implications.
© 2019 Jennifer Wilber