We cannot have real proof about the sexuality of a man who died 400 years ago on 23 April.
But like the entirety of William Shakespeare’s work, in books and blogs across the globe, it has never stopped anyone from voicing their interpretations.
1. ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’
Written to a man. Yes, the most famous of sonnets is a man writing to another man.
‘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,’
The sonnets, most importantly, were published without Shakespeare’s permission so is generally believed to be the best way of understanding the Bard behind the words.
Sonnet 18, and 125 of the other poems, are written directly to a man described as the ‘fair youth’.The others are directed to a ‘dark lady’ and are far more sexual and intimate in nature.
The first 126 urge the fair youth to have children to pass along his beauty to another generation. The sonnets become progressively broody, lonely, and almost bitter that the man prefers another poet.
Originally published in 1609, they would have been lost to obscurity if it wasn’t for John Benson in 1640. But Benson, eager to sanitize Shakespeare’s work, changed many of the male pronouns to female. This is still occasionally done in modern schools. Thankfully, most editions of the sonnets work from the original rather than the bastardized version.
2. ‘I give unto my wife my second best bed…’
What can we know about Shakespeare’s relationship to Anne Hathaway, an older woman, who he married and had three children with?
Well, very little. The two married when Shakespeare was 18, she was 26 and already pregnant with their first child Susanna.
Most famously, when he died, Shakespeare gave her only one thing – the second best bed.
This is viewed by many as a slight and a claim of how he had come to dislike her, viewing the marriage as a trap away from his free life in London.
To explain this, the ‘second best bed’ in Elizabethan times was the marital bed. The ‘best bed’ went to the guest.
Some critics have suggested this to be a show of thanks to his wife, for bearing him his children, and of little else. Others consider it to be romantic.
In the rest of the will, the majority of Shakespeare’s possessions went to his daughter Susanna. Hamnet, his only son, died at the very young age of 11. It is believed Shakespeare’s other daughter Judith got very little in the will so as to avoid it going to her husband, a man who had got another girl pregnant.
3. ‘The master-mistress of my passion…’
Back to the sonnets. In the often-cited Sonnet 20, he describes the male object of his affection as the ‘master-mistress of my passion’.
To a modern reading, the poem reads like a gay guy in love with a straight man.
He says Mother Nature created something so beautiful, it was obviously intended to be used for procreation. But he still urges the man to save emotional love for him.
‘But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure/Mine by thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.’
4. ‘Oh thou, my lovely boy…’
The final of the ‘fair youth’ sonnets, this is about Shakespeare being bitter about growing old and his final farewell to a man that appears to become more beautiful with every passing day.
Sonnet 126 and Sonnet 99 are notable for differing from the traditional form of verse. Normally they are 14 lines, but the former has 12 and the latter has 15.
But that isn’t the only reason. Sonnet 126 is a clear goodbye to an unrequited love, and 99 made several Victorian critics uncomfortable with the extravagant praise of the beloved’s body.
5. All male casts and cross-dressing
Many point out Shakespeare’s plays were all originally performed by men, men kissed men on stage, and several of them were cross-dressing as women, so he must be gay or bisexual.
However, many fail to say the reason: women were not allowed on stage in the 16th and 17th century.
But that doesn’t change the fact Shakespeare’s canon contains a LOT of cross-dressing. Many actresses have complained about the lack of decent roles in Shakespeare, but it is a deluge compared to his contemporaries.
In Twelfth Night, it plays with this and the idea of homosexuality very clearly.
Shipwrecked Viola, dressed as a man called Cesario, enters the service of Duke Orsino and begins to fall in love with him. Orsino, in turn, is in love with wealthy countess Olivia. Olivia is in love with Cesario, but does not realise she is actually in love with a woman dressed as a man.
6. Who is Mr W.H?
The sonnets are dedicated to a ‘Mr W.H’.This is widely believed to be the ‘fair youth’ described in the sonnets.
The identity of the figure, if he is indeed a real person, are most likely to be one of Shakespeare’s patrons Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton or William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke. They were both considered handsome in their youth.
7. The ‘pin-up portrait’
The majority of pictures we see of Shakespeare are not exactly flattering.
But in 2009, a portrait was revealed purporting to be the only known likeness to have been painted in his lifetime.
Instead of balding and solemn, he has a head of styled hair, trimmed beard and wearing an elaborate lacy collar and gold-trimmed suit.
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust suggested the discovery would give ‘fresh momentum to generations of speculation as to whether the playwright was bisexual’.
Essentially saying it must have been commissioned by someone wealthy and enamored with the Bard, such as a third Earl.
8. Hamlet spells out ‘I Am A Homosexual’
In what is probably the weakest argument on this list, there is an urban legend that suggests the first published copy of Hamlet contained an acrostic that spells out ‘I am a homosexual’.
The last 14 lines of Hamlet does not. The closest you can come to do this is blending Horatio’s final speech with Prince Fortinbras, as well as the final stage direction, and divide ‘Exeunt’ over three lines.
I shall have also cause to speak,
And from his mouth whose voice will draw on
more; But let this same be presently perform’d, Even while men’s minds
are wild; lest more mischance On plots and errors,
happen. Let four captains Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage; For he was likely, had he been put
on, To have proved
most royally: and, for his passage, The soldiers’ music and the rites
of war Speak loudly for him. Take up the bodies:
such a sight as this Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss. Go, bid the soldiers shoot. A dead march.
unt, bearing off the dead bodies;
after which a pea-
l of ordnance is shot off
9. Henry V death scene
But that isn’t to say male-on-male love isn’t anywhere in the plays.
In Henry V (spoilers alert), the Earl of Suffolk and Duke of York die in each other’s arms.
Many have suggested the scene crosses the line from a deep male friendship to ‘forbidden lovers’.
‘So did [York] turn and over Suffolk’s neck
He threw his wounded arm and kiss’d his lips;
And so espoused to death, with blood he seal’d
A testament of noble-ending’
10. Achilles has a gay lover and homophobia
In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare directly discusses homosexuality and makes clear Achilles has a male lover.
‘Prithee, be silent, boy; I profit not by thy talk,’ Thersites says, ‘thou art thought to be Achilles’ male varlet.’
Patroclus responds: ‘Male varlet, you rogue! what’s that?’ And Thersites says he is Achilles’ ‘masculine whore’.
Thersites then goes into a long, homophobic rant promising it would lead to ‘rotten diseases’, ‘raw eyes’, ‘bladders full of imposthume’ and ‘incurable bone-ache’.
11. Antonio in The Merchant of Venice
In The Merchant of Venice, some argue it centers around a love triangle between an older man, a younger man and a woman.
Antonio, a middle-aged bachelor, has adoration for the younger Bassanio. He’s willing to risk his life on Bassanio’s account and drains his own finances to support him.
The line ‘My person … lie[s] all unlocked to your occasions’ even suggests a sexual dimension to their relationship.
Many modern productions use the theory Antonio is suffering from his love for Bassanio to explain his melancholic behavior.
The poet W.H Auden described Antonio as ‘a man whose emotional life, though his conduct may be chaste, is concentrated upon a member of his own sex.’
Of course, the last three points are up for far more debate. Just because Shakespeare wrote about male on male relationships, it doesn’t mean he was personally interested in it. He wrote far more about heterosexual relationships, but perhaps shows he was at least open to the idea.
12. Sir Ian says so
You’re not going to argue with Sir Ian McKellen are you?
The gay British actor, who has made a career of performing Shakespeare’s work, is convinced about the Bard’s sexuality.
‘I’d say Shakespeare slept with men,’ he said in an interview in 2010.
‘The complexity in his comedies with cross-dressing and disguises is immense.
‘Shakespeare obviously enjoyed sex with men as well as women.’
The reality is it is impossible to unpick Shakespeare’s sexuality from his writing. Many of these interpretations are essentially little more than a fan theory about the Pixar movies.
But the point is the reason Shakespeare has lasted in the minds of people for 450 years is because his words are eternal.
Until new evidence is found, the debate will rage on. It’s an argument where there will be no rest for silence.
Like with the rest of Shakespeare, the interpretation is up to you.