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The sexuality of William Shakespeare has been the subject of recurring debate. It is known that he married Anne Hathaway and they had three children. In addition there has been speculation that he had affairs with other women, or may have had an erotic interest in men. Given the scarcity of reliable direct information about his personal life, most of the theories are highly speculative in nature, relying on circumstantial evidence and inference from an analysis of his sonnets. The suggestion that Shakespeare had multiple female lovers has been given a good deal of scholarly and public interest, while the possibility of a non-heterosexual Shakespeare has historically been controversial given his icon status. It has been suggested that Shakespeare was bisexual.

Shakespeare's married life

At the age of 18, Shakespeare married the 26-year-old Anne Hathaway. The consistory court of the Diocese of Worcestermarker issued a marriage licence on 27 November 1582. Two of Hathaway's neighbours posted bonds the next day as surety that there were no impediments to the marriage. The couple may have arranged the ceremony in some haste, since the Worcester chancellor allowed the marriage banns to be read once instead of the usual three times. Hathaway's pregnancy could have been the reason for this. Six months after the marriage, she gave birth to a daughter, Susanna. Twins, son Hamnet and daughter Judith, followed almost two years later.

Shakespeare probably initially loved Hathaway, speculation supported by an early addition to one of his sonnets (Sonnet 145), where he played off Anne Hathaway's name and said she saved his life (writing 'I hate from hate away she threw/And saved my life, saying "not you."'). However, after only three years of marriage Shakespeare left his family and moved to London, possibly because he felt trapped by Hathaway. Other evidence to support this belief is that he and Anne were buried in separate (but adjoining) graves and, as has often been noted, Shakespeare's will makes no specific bequeath to his wife aside from 'the second best bed with the furniture'. This may seem like a slight, but many historians contend that the second best bed was typically the marital bed, while the best bed was reserved for guests. The poem 'Anne Hathaway' by Carol Ann Duffy endorses this view, describing how, for Shakespeare and his wife, the second best bed was 'a spinning world of forests, castles', whilst 'In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on, dribbling their prose'. A bed missing from an inventory of Anne's brother's possessions (removed in contravention of their father's will) allows the explanation that the item was an heirloom from the Hathaway family, that had to be returned. The law at the time also stated that the widow of a man was automatically entitled to a third of his estate, so Shakespeare did not need to mention specific bequests in the will.

Possible affairs with women

While in London, Shakespeare may have had affairs with different women. One anecdote along these lines is provided by a lawyer named John Manningham, who wrote in his diary that Shakespeare had a brief affair with a woman during a performance of Richard III.

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.

While this is one of the few surviving contemporary anecdotes about Shakespeare, scholars are skeptical of its validity. Still, the anecdote suggests that at least one of Shakespeare's contemporaries (Manningham) believed that Shakespeare was heterosexual, even if he wasn't 'averse to an occasional infidelity to his marriage vows'.

Possible evidence of other affairs are that twenty-six of Shakespeare's Sonnets are love poems addressed to a married woman (the so-called 'Dark Lady').

Possible homoeroticism

Shakespeare's sonnets are cited as evidence of his possible bisexuality. The poems were initially published, perhaps without his approval, in 1609. One hundred and twenty-six of them appear to be love poems addressed to a young man known as the 'Fair Lord' or 'Fair Youth'; this is often assumed to be the same person as the 'Mr W.H.' to whom the sonnets are dedicated. The identity of this figure (if he is indeed based on a real person) is unclear; the most popular candidates are Shakespeare's patrons, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton and William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, both of whom were considered handsome in their youth.

The only explicit references to sexual acts or physical lust occur in the Dark Lady sonnets, which unambiguously state that the poet and the Lady are lovers. Nevertheless, there are numerous passages in the sonnets addressed to the Fair Lord that have been read as expressing desire for a younger man. In Sonnet 13, he is called 'dear my love', and Sonnet 15 announces that the poet is at 'war with Time for love of you.' Sonnet 18 asks 'Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate', and in Sonnet 20 the narrator calls the young man the 'master-mistress of my passion'. The poems refer to sleepless nights, anguish and jealousy caused by the youth. In addition, there is considerable emphasis on the young man's beauty: in Sonnet 20, the narrator theorizes that the youth was originally a woman whom Mother Nature had fallen in love with and, to resolve the dilemma of lesbianism, added a penis ('pricked thee out for women's pleasure'), an addition the narrator describes as 'to my purpose nothing', which Samuel Schoenbaum interprets as: 'worse luck for [the] heterosexual celebrant'.Schoenbaum (1977: 179–181) In some sonnets addressed to the youth, such as Sonnet 52, the erotic punning is particularly intense: '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 Sonnet 20: the narrator tells the youth to sleep with women, but to love only him: 'mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure'.

However, others have countered that these passages could be referring to intense platonic friendship, rather than sexual love. In the preface to his 1961 Pelican edition, Douglas Bush writes,

Since modern readers are unused to such ardor in masculine friendship and are likely to leap at the notion of homosexuality (a notion sufficiently refuted by the sonnets themselves), we may remember that such an ideal, often exalted above the love of women, could exist in real life, from Montaigne to Sir Thomas Browne, and was conspicuous in Renaissance literature.'

Bush cites Montaigne, who distinguished male friendships from 'that other, licentious Greek love' , as evidence for a platonic interpretation of the sonnets.

Another explanation is that the poems are not autobiographical but fiction, another of Shakespeare's "dramatic characterization[s]", so that the narrator of the sonnets should not be presumed to be Shakespeare himself.

In 1640, John Benson published a second edition of the sonnets in which he changed most of the pronouns from masculine to feminine so that readers would believe nearly all of the sonnets were addressed to the Dark Lady. Benson’s modified version soon became the best-known text, and it was not until 1780 that Edmund Malone re-published the sonnets in their original forms.

The question of the sexual orientation of the sonnets' author was openly articulated in 1780, when George Steevens, upon reading Shakespeare's description of a young man as his 'master-mistress' remarked, 'it is impossible to read this fulsome panegyrick, addressed to a male object, without an equal mixture of disgust and indignation'. Other English scholars, dismayed at the possibility that their national hero might have been a 'sodomite', concurred with Samuel Taylor Coleridge's comment, around 1800, that Shakespeare’s love was 'pure' and in his sonnets there is 'not even an allusion to that very worst of all possible vices'. Robert Browning, writing of Wordsworth's assertion that 'with this key [the Sonnets] Shakespeare unlocked his heart', famously replied in his poem House, 'If so, the less Shakespeare he!' The controversy continued in the 20th Century. By 1944, the Variorum edition of the sonnets contained an appendix with the conflicting views of nearly forty commentators.

See also


  2. Schoenbaum (1977:78–79)
  3. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, pages 120-121.
  4. Schoenbaum (1977:93)
  5. Schoenbaum (1977:94)
  6. Greenblatt (2004: 143)
  7. Greenblatt (2004:143)
  8. Wood (2003:338)
  9. Wood (2003:338)
  10. Diary of John Manningham, of the Middle Temple, and of Bradbourne, Kent, barrister-at-law, 1602-1603 by John Manningham, Westminster, Printed by J. B. Nichols and Sons, 1868.
  11. A detailed discussion of the reliability of the Manningham anecdote.
  12. Berryman's Shakespeare by John Berryman, Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2001, page 109.
  13. Shakespeare, William, 'Shakespeare the man, Life, Sexuality' Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to Shakespeare, accessed April 4, 2007.
  14. Recent summaries of the debate over Mr W.H.'s identity include Colin Burrows, ed. The Complete Sonnets and Poems (Oxford UP, 2002), pp. 98-103; Katherine Duncan Jones, ed. Shakespeare's Sonnets (Arden Shakespeare, 1997), pp. 52-69. For Wilde's story, see 'The Portrait of Mr W.H.' (1889)
  15. Enter Willie Hughes as Juliet Or, Shakespeare's Sonnets Revisited by Rictor Norton, accessed Jan. 23, 2007.
  16. Pequigney, p.64
  17. Montaigne, p. 138
  18. Bate (2008: 212)
  19. Crompton, Louis, Homosexuality and Civilization, pp. 379
  20. Rollins 1:55
  21. Rollins 2:232-233
  22. James Schiffer, Shakespeare's Sonnets: Critical Essays, Routledge, 1999, p.28

Additional reading

  • Keevak, Michael. Sexual Shakespeare: Forgery, Authorship, Portraiture (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 2001)
  • Alexander, Catherine M.S., and Stanley Wells, editors. Shakespeare and Sexuality (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001)
  • Hammond, Paul. Figuring Sex Between Men from Shakespeare to Rochester (Oxford, Eng.: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002)
  • Smith, Bruce R. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991; reissued with a new preface, 1994)
  • Pequigney, Joseph. Such Is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985) [the most sustained case for homoeroticism in Shakespeare's sonnets]

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