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Was Shakespeare Gay?

In the seventh episode of Let's Talk Shakespeare we ask "Was Shakespeare Gay?"

This is a really big question that people have written a great deal about, so this episode acts as a sort of summary of some of the arguments for and against Shakespeare being gay. To answer this question, we have to think about the nature of friendships and sexuality and self identification of those things in Shakespeare time, as well as looking at evidence from this text, in particular the sonnets.

Image: Dedication in Shakespeare's Sonnets, discussed in this episode.

This week's guests (in order of appearance) are:

- Dr Elizabeth Dollimore, Outreach and Primary Learning Manager at the SBT
- Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute
- Professor Sir Stanley Wells, Honorary President of the SBT
- Greg Doran, Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company 

Narrator: Jennifer Reid


REID: Hello, and welcome to the seventh episode of “Let’s Talk Shakespeare”, a podcast brought to you from Stratford-upon-Avon by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. I’m Jennifer Reid, and today we’re asking, “Was Shakespeare gay?”

So before we get started, just wanted to give you a wee trigger warning: although there’s nothing in this week’s content that’s meant to cause offence, it might raise some questions about some more adult themes, so you probably want to just give it a whizz through before listening along with any young listeners. And in previous podcasts, I’ve played you lots of short clips from a variety of speakers, but this week I’m going to do it slightly differently, and play you fewer, longer clips, as the clips ought to be played in their entirety.

So was Shakespeare gay? Well, quite simply, we don’t know. What do we know about his sexuality and his relationships? Well, we only know that he was married once, to a woman named Anne, and that they stayed married for the rest of their lives. They had three children together from two births, so their marriage must have been consummated at least twice, but that’s pretty much it. We’ve covered in an earlier podcast Shakespeare’s relationship with his wife Anne, so, although she comes into this week’s discussion, she isn’t the main focus.

So my first clip comes from Elizabeth Dollimore, who is the manager of Outreach and Primary Learning at the SBT, and she’s going to set us off exploring this question with a discussion on the nature of Tudor friendship and relationships.

DOLLIMORE: I don’t know whether Shakespeare was gay or not, because he didn’t leave any personal record. Some of the known facts are that some of his sonnets, which are definitely love poems, are written to a man because they have a male pronoun in them. However, it’s very easy for us to interpret this left of centre, because the word ‘love’ meant very differently in Tudor England. Today, we have a very defined boundary between love and friendship, and for us, those two relationships are tangibly different, and we have all kinds of phraseology in the modern world to distinguish those things. We say about two people, “Oh, they’re just friends”, meaning they’re definitely not lovers. And for us, the boundary between a love relationship and a friendship relationship is absolutely cut and dried. We don’t hang around in ambiguous relationships, which have a bit [of] “might be friendship and might be love” for any length of time.

For Shakespeare, the word ‘love’ could mean all sorts of things. It could mean a very dry, business relationship of patronage, and some people interpret the sonnets that way, as simply flattering poetry written towards a patron. It could mean a romantic relationship, as it does to us today, and it could mean the love which might exist between friends. And so, because the word ‘love’ covers such a broad spectrum of relationships in Shakespeare’s day, his use of it doesn’t tell you very much about his sexual feelings towards other people. It’s also true that we now, in our society, have this idea that it’s women who form these very close, emotional friendships. Women have best buddies, or bosom buddies, or whatever, but in fact in Shakespeare’s day, it was men who were thought to form these very, very close emotional, and emotionally reciprocal relationships. And nobody really questions whether those relationships were driven by sex or not.

It is also true that sodomy was a hanging offence. However, the definition of sodomy was terribly vague in Shakespeare’s day, and people who were prosecuted under that law variously did things such as have sex with animals (which we wouldn’t call sodomy today), and one person, for instance, was prosecuted under the law for standing on a balcony, making a blasphemous speech, dangling his penis in a glass of wine, and throwing the wine over the assembled audience below. [laughs] We would not call that sodomy today. We might call it strange, but not sodomy. So, what that actually entailed [sic] people isn’t the equivalent of what a loving gay relationship is today.

So, whether or not Shakespeare was gay is a difficult question. If, by that, you mean, “Did he have sex or sexual feelings for other men?”, it’s certainly not impossible that he did; it’s certainly not definite that he did. One thing that is definite, though, is that there was no self-identity as gay or homosexual or, as far as we know, any other term during that time period. The earliest emergence of a sort of self-identification which might have been related to sexuality is later than that, and that comes with the molly-house culture. So, Shakespeare certainly didn’t go around self-identifying himself as homosexual or bisexual or straight or gay. He had loving relationships with people, and nobody can say whether those people were all men, all women, or a mixture of both.

REID: Now, we’ve got to be very careful about reading biography into Shakespeare’s work. He was clearly extraordinarily adept at getting into the minds of characters of all shapes and sizes and backgrounds, [but] just because he could beautifully depict same sex relationships or love or lust does not mean that he himself felt that, in the same way that writing about Cleopatra did not make him an Egyptian queen. Michael Dobson explored this idea, the idea of Shakespeare’s awareness of different sexualities and sexual preferences when I spoke to him.

DOBSON: Well, insofar as the categories of gay and straight didn’t exist, then he wasn’t gay, but that equally means that he couldn’t have been straight either. There's a lot of debate about whether anybody was gay, in any of the modern sense, in Elizabethan culture, or whether there were just certain things they did, sometimes, that didn’t actually define a particular set of identities. But then again, they do have terms like ‘ingle’, and a sense of what a ‘catamite’ is, and whether there might be a kind of personality trait that goes with that.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are full of knowing references to same sex practices, as well as very passionate same sex friendships, so Shakespeare clearly knew all about the erotic, but then I know you can even pick that up from the plays. Theatre’s an innately erotic business. We’ve paid money so that we can stare at other people’s bodies for two hours. Shakespeare’s plays exploit that in all possible directions; I mean the boys are sometimes boys, they’re sometimes girls, they’re sometimes girls pretending to be boys, and it’s all fun. It’s all very engaging and exciting and charged. So, the modern term would probably be… interested, rather than, [laughs] rather than gay. Shakespeare’s very alive to sexuality and clearly is capable of imagining it from all kinds of different positions.

REID: Now, both Liz and Michael have mentioned the sonnets, and these are, by far, the most personal of all of Shakespeare’s work that survives today. There has been a lot of time and effort put into exploring who these may have been written for, who they were intended for, and if that’s something you’re interested in, there’s plenty to read out there about it, but, for now, Stanley Wells gave me an excellent summary and his thoughts on Shakespeare’s sexuality.

WELLS: Shakespeare’s personal writings, it would be appear, are his sonnets. His plays are all set in the past, usually the distant past, and in remote places. He doesn’t write directly about his own time, or about himself, apparently, in the plays (although his own life no doubt influenced the plays, in ways we can only guess at).

In 1609, a book appeared called Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Never Before Imprinted. It’s an interesting phrase. It implies, I think, that they had been written, some of them at least, probably quite a long time before – ”never before imprinted” – and also, probably, that they had been rather eagerly awaited. The publisher just calls it “Shakespeare’s Sonnets”. Not “Sonnets by William Shakespeare”, but “Shakespeare’s Sonnets”, implying, I think again, that he’s a rather famous name: “Oh… Shakespeare’s sonnets!” that were imprinted.

Those are the most personal of all of Shakespeare’s writings. We don’t know whether he himself wanted the book to be published. My feeling is that he didn’t, particularly. He didn’t publish it himself; the dedication to the volume is written, not by Shakespeare, but by the publisher Thomas Thorpe; it’s signed T. T., and dedicated to Mr. W. H., which has made lots of argument about who Mr. W. H. might be, and whether Shakespeare himself wanted the sonnets to be associated with Mr. W. H. I think that’s a red herring, myself, but some people think that W. H. is William Herbert, who was a courtier; some that it’s Henry Wrisley – for some weird reason the initials [were] reversed (Wrisley was the Earl of Southampton).

Now those sonnets vary a great deal in their expression. They’re love poems. Nearly all of them are love poems. Some of them have become some of the most popular love poems in the language: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” for example, a poem which is often still read at weddings or civil partnership ceremonies. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Some of them, however, and these tend to be the less popular ones, are intimate poems. Some of them are quite difficult in style. Some of them are poems of personal anguish, written by someone who seems to be trying to work out difficult emotional situations within himself; trying to decide whether, for example, his desire for the other person is loving or lustful. It’s a difficult distinction to make, isn’t it, that distinction between when you physically desire somebody... is that because you genuinely love them? To what extent is it just impelled by the desire for sexual experience? And Shakespeare knew that tension within himself. He shows it in the plays as well sometimes, but the sonnets are those that seem to be the most relevant to his personal life.

Now some of those sonnets are addressed to a male person. They use, for example, the phrase “sweet boy”, suggesting a young person, and these are love poems. Did Shakespeare have relations, or loving relations, with a male person – was he, as we say, gay? Well he certainly wasn’t gay in the complete sense of the word throughout his life, because he marries early, marries young, and he has three children – so to that extent, he’s heterosexual. However, it’s not impossible, in my view, that Shakespeare did have sexual relations, actually with both females (other than his wife) and with males.

He doesn’t portray homosexual relationships very clearly in his plays. The only one which is absolutely clear, I suppose, is the one between Patroclus and Achilles in Troilus and Cressida, and there that’s authenticated by Greek legend, on which the play is based. He’s not making that up. The other two most intimate male-to-male relationships in the plays are between Antonio and Sebastian in Twelfth Night – where Antonio expresses love for Sebastian; talks about his desire, sharper than “filèd steel”, which is a very phallic image, I think – and the other one is The Merchant of Venice, where the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio [is] a very, very loving, close relationship, where Antonio actually shows himself willing to give his life for Bassanio, that is often interpreted [that way] – although is not actively explicit from the text.

So, in other words, we don’t know for certain, but it’s not unreasonable to suppose that Shakespeare was sometimes in a relationship, as we say, with men and also with women other than his wife.

REID: My final clip on this episode is a long one; it’s about ten minutes long, and it’ll round off the episode, and it comes from Greg Doran, who’s the artistic director at the RSC. And Greg begins by highlighting how people like to cast Shakespeare in their own image. This is an interesting part of the history of people studying and writing Shakespeare’s biography. But over to Greg, to expand upon this and tell you what he thinks about Shakespeare’s sexuality.

DORAN: Was Shakespeare gay? Well, there’s a lot of nonsense talked about this “gay wasn’t really gay then”, as if human nature and the expression of human feelings changed in this one regard in the last 400 years. I do believe Shakespeare was gay, and… Ah, you know, as I say that I’m aware that everyone tends to cast Shakespeare in their own image, in some way, so I, as a gay man, brought up a Catholic in Lancashire, like to feel that Shakespeare might have spent his last years as a teacher in Lancashire, had some Catholic sensibilities (or at least an understanding of the nostalgia for the old faith), and that he experienced a passionate desire for his own sex! I do believe that the sonnets provide the key to his soul, as Wordsworth said, that Shakespeare unlocked his heart in these sonnets, and they bear witness to the ecstatic turmoil of being in love: the furious jealousy, the pleasure, the pain, the longing, the loneliness, the futility, the sense of inadequacy that can accompany that sort of passion. And of the series of one hundred and fifty-four, it has to be noted that the first one hundred and twenty-six sonnets are all addressed to a man, to the master mistress of his passion. But, I think there’s an extraordinary tenderness in Shakespeare when he describes the love of one man for another, and it comes in surprising places.

In Henry V, for instance, in the height of the Battle of Agincourt, the Duke of Exeter witnesses the deaths of the Duke of York and the Earl of Salisbury on the battlefield. The description, I have to report, is often cut in performance, and is unfamiliar to audiences, therefore. Though not, as you might imagine, in my production!

Exeter tells the King that the Duke of York commends him to his majesty and he says, “By his bloody side, / Yoke-fellow to his honour-owing wounds, / The noble Earl of Suffolk also lies.”  Then he describes a really extraordinary scene. He says, “Suffolk first died: and York, all haggled over, / Comes to him, where in gore he lay insteep'd, / And takes him by the beard; kisses the gashes / That bloodily did spawn upon his face; / And cries aloud 'Tarry, dear cousin Suffolk! / My soul shall thine keep company to heaven; / Tarry, sweet soul, for mine, then fly abreast, / As in this glorious and well-foughten field / We kept together in our chivalry!' / Upon these words I came and cheer'd him up: / He smiled me in the face, raught me his hand, / And, with a feeble gripe, says 'Dear my lord, / Commend my service to my sovereign.' / So did he 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 love.” And this description makes both the Duke of Exeter cry, but it also makes the King’s eyes “mistful”, as he says.

There’s another description of two great warriors who experience a passion for each other in Coriolanus, of course, which I think is a pretty fascinating description. It’s between Tullus Aufidius and Coriolanus himself, and Coriolanus turns up – having been exiled from Rome – he turns up in Antium, in Aufidius’s own house, much to Aufidius’s surprise, and immediately Aufidius says, “Let me twine / Mine arms about that body, where against / My grained ash an hundred times hath broke / And scarr'd the moon with splinters: here I clip / The anvil of my sword, and do contest / As hotly and as nobly with thy love / As ever in ambitious strength I did / Contend against thy valour.”

Then, rather extraordinarily, he goes on: “Know thou first, / I loved the maid I married; never man / Sigh'd truer breath; but that I see thee here, / Thou noble thing! more dances my rapt heart / Than when I first my wedded mistress saw / Bestride my threshold.” That’s a pretty extraordinary description, and he admits that he has had some fairly erotic dreams about his rival! He says, “I have nightly since / Dreamt of encounters 'twixt thyself and me; / We have been down together in my sleep, / Unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throat, / And waked half dead with nothing.” Now, that is a pretty [chuckles] extraordinary erotic description of male passion.

And of course, there’s also a description on the battlefield of homophobia – of homophobic prejudice, at any rate – and in the most scurrilous terms, in the mouth of Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, where he derides the love of Achilles for his friend Patroclus, saying, “Thou art thought to be Achilles' male varlet.” And Patroclus rails at that and says, “Male varlet, you rogue! what's that?” And Thersites says, “Why, his masculine whore,”  and then comes out with a tirade of the most appalling diseases that he says, “Take and take / again such preposterous discoveries!”  Well, it’s so weird and unfunny. It’s a brilliant description of homophobia. And, I think there has been homophobia in recognising where those relationships – those gay relationships in Shakespeare occur. Just as Catherine Duncan Jones in her excellent edition of the Sonnets describes how there has been a process of heterosexualization of the sonnets, people have somehow been unable to accept that the national poet could have obsessions for somebody of his own sex.

But I do think two of the most beautiful observed relationships in Shakespeare come in Twelfth Night, and, indeed, in The Merchant of Venice, and both characters are called Antonio. And, part of me thinks that Antonio may indeed be a sort of self-portrait of Shakespeare. Both the Antonio: the eponymous merchant of Venice and indeed, Antonio in Twelfth Night. In Twelfth Night, Antonio is the man who rescues the shipwrecked Sebastian, and not only befriends him but falls in love with him, and begs Sebastian to let him go along with him, saying, “If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant.” He encounters grave danger for Sebastian’s sake, but shrugs it off (or the potential danger), by saying, “But come what, come may, I do adore thee so, / That danger shall seem sport, and I will go.”

I think the Antonio in The Merchant of Venice is perhaps the most potent and moving description of a man trapped in an obsession for a younger man. Antonio’s love for Bassanio is evident and painful as the merchant lends his young prodigy the money to go and woo the wealthy heiress Portia. Antonio is observed by the “Sallies” as they’re named, Solanio and Salerio, and they describe the parting between them. Salerio says, “I saw Bassanio and Antonio part: / Bassanio told him he would make some speed / Of his return: he answer'd, 'Do not so; / Slubber not business for my sake, Bassanio / But stay the very riping of the time; / And for the Jew's bond which he hath of me, / Let it not enter in your mind of love: / Be merry, and employ your chiefest thoughts / To courtship and such fair ostents of love / As shall conveniently become you there:' / And even there, his eye being big with tears, / Turning his face, he put his hand behind him, / And with affection wondrous sensible / He wrung Bassanio's hand; and so they parted.” And then Solanio, in what I think is one of the most beautiful lines Shakespeare ever wrote about the power of love, says, “I think he only loves the world for him.”

In the court, Antonio – in front of Portia disguised as the young lawyer – Antonio, facing death, tells his beloved Bassanio to let his wife know how much he loved him. “Tell her the process of Antonio's end; / Say how I loved you, speak me fair in death; / And, when the tale is told, bid her be judge / Whether Bassanio had not once a love.” Well, I think that’s an extraordinary description. So, if Shakespeare wasn’t gay, he certainly had a great compassion for and an understanding of gay relationships, that’s certainly the case. My own feeling is yes: Shakespeare was gay.

REID: Well, that’s all we’ve got time for in today’s podcast. This is a huge subject, and it's something that there’s been a great deal of writing and research done on, so if it is something that interests you, I would encourage you to read further on it; but I hope that was a helpful and interesting introduction to the subject.

So thanks for joining us, and thanks to all the people who spoke to me today: we had Liz, Stanley, Michael, and Greg, and a huge thanks to the friends of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, without whom the podcast would not have been possible.

Don’t forget to join us next week for episode eight, where we’ll be asking “How much was Shakespeare worth?

Related Posts:

– Queering Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes
– Shakespeare’s Many Moods of Love

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