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How gay was William Shakespeare?

How gay was William Shakespeare?

Was William Shakespeare gay? director

‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day / Thou art more lovely and more temperate’

Some of the most famous lines in all English literature and one of the most quoted love poems ever written, a wedding favorite. But do those blushing brides and grinning grooms simpering at each other in marriage ceremonies from Washington to the Wash know that it was written by one man to another?

Famous it may be, it’s also one of the most exquisite gay love poems in the English language.

The writer, William Shakespeare, the 400th anniversary of his death on 23rd April, was both a man of his time and for all time, arguably the greatest poet dramatist who ever lived, whose lines, like those above, are quoted consciously and unconsciously every day in every language. But what was he doing writing in such terms to another man? In the 1590s? Was he gay?

Shakespeare worked in a profession where boys and young men dressed up as women to be wooed by other men on stage for a rowdy crowd that knew exactly what was going on. His wife, we know, was tucked away in Stratford-upon-Avon while he strutted the boards.

Why are there so many girls who are boys who like boys to be girls in Shakespeare’s comedies? Is it just expedient to have a boy dressed up as a girl pretending, for reasons which rarely hold much water, to be a boy? In As You Like It the disguised heroine Rosalind takes the name Ganymede, a well-known contemporary handle for rent boy.

These gender-bending plot lines of many of Shakespeare’s plays offer a queer insight into his times. Take Viola in Twelfth Night, disguised as a youth both Orsino and Olivia fall for, each are at least half aware that what they love is something of their own sex. The scene where Olivia makes a pass at Viola pumped up in a codpiece would have had all the more piquancy for an audience that knew they were both boys.

And then there are the more conventional male love plots: Antonio and Sebastian in Twelfth Night, Achilles and Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida, Suffolk and York in Henry V; need I go on? Claims have even been made for Iago in Othello, Hamlet, Henry V himself.

Women notoriously were not permitted on the public stage for reasons of public morality. Youths, the contemporary cultish beauty of whom led poets like Christopher Marlowe to shiver at the prospect of ‘That heavenly path with many a curious dint / That runs along his back’, were a decent, some thought an indecent, substitute for male longing. Ironically, the stage denuded of real female presence offered an alternative sexuality which horrified those same puritan censors who railed against actresses.

This same-sex saltiness caught men, at least, at a young age. The schoolboy in Elizabethan times was more likely to be reading about gay shepherds and bisexual kings in the pages of Latin authors than much else. At the universities his education expanded to Greek homosexual love. Is it surprising that religion’s mighty bugbear, and the Buggery Law of 1533, had a hard time controlling them when it came to experimental bedfellows?

Christopher Marlowe, unique for his time as a shameless celebrant of male love, placed it center stage in his tragedy Edward II. Edmund Spenser, Good Queen Bess’s poet laureate, wrote about bucolic boy-on-boy love in his pastoral poetry, Michael Drayton too, and a raft of lesser known poets dared to dip their quills in queer ink.

Richard Barnfield, having read a lot of those pesky gay Latin poets in his time, produced his own version in The Affectionate Shepherd, charting a love affair between two young men:

Cursing the time, the place, the sense, the sin;
I came, I saw, I viewed, I slipped in…
If it be sin to love a lovely lad,
Oh then sin I, for whom my soul is sad.

This predilection for men whose looks ‘were all that men desire’ ran the gamut of society: in the early 17th century, it seems, the majority of men prosecuted under the Buggery laws were farm laborers, while at the other end of the social spectrum was philosopher, jurist and Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon, whose mother complained of ‘the bloody Percy’, Francis’s groom, ‘a coach companion and bed companion’.

And then there’s King James I: ‘The love the King showed [his favorites] was as amorously conveyed as if he had mistaken their sex and thought them ladies, which I have seen Somerset and Buckingham labur to resemble,’ remarked one courtier waspishly.

James notoriously compared his passion for the beautiful George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, to Jesus’ love for the apostle John – ‘Christ had his John, and I have my George’, or as French poet Théophile de Viau rather more prosaically put it ‘Everyone one knows the King of England / Fucks the Duke of Buckingham’.

We don’t know the identity of Shakespeare’s male lover, the Fair Youth of the sonnets: possibly the Earl of Southampton, possibly Pembroke, possibly neither. But we do know that what he describes is real and that he charts a real relationship.

In one of his most telling sonnets, he calls his lover ‘the master-mistress of my passion’ and seems to lament the fact that the youth has a penis. He has sleepless nights, is fearful and jealous, plagued by doubt and delirious with pleasure. He is in love.

In the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, young Will is clearly perturbed by his growing attraction towards the young ‘Thomas Kent’, a woman in disguise. I think the real William Shakespeare wouldn’t have been.

Happy Birthday Mr W S.

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