And if he was how should we describe it?
Shakespeare presents us with all the problems that can occur when we attempt to attribute a hidden sexuality to an historical figure and then complicates it further by being the most famous person in the world about whom we know so little and about which there is so much speculation.
Did he write the plays? All of them? Some of them?
Did he love his wife?
Was he any good as an actor?
What happened during the ten missing years between his leaving Stratford and his arrival in London?
How come he was born and died on the same date? – April 23 rd.
Despite many, many words written about him and two of the very best books just recently published – Peter Ackroyd’s “Shakespeare – the Biography” & James Shapiro’s “1599 – A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare” – there is much we will never know.
So was he or wasn’t he?
A bit of background – homosexuality was illegal and sodomy punishable by death during his lifetime, although there does seem to be some leeway with this. Christopher Marlowe managed to lead something close to what we might now describe as an openly gay life, and, early violent death not withstanding, seemed to do alright. Also there were numerous “happily married men” of a certain class, who seemed able to indulge without causing too much concern.
So far, so good. Shakespeare had a wife and children – albeit at a distance, which is where, it appears, he liked to keep them!
What about his work? (We can discount those who consider the plays written by someone else, particularly that bunch who think Marlowe wrote them after he was dead.) Do the plays and the poems contain any clues?
Cross dressing, gender identity and issues of sexuality, both implicit and explicit occur in much of his work from the portrayal of Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship in “The Merchant of Venice” to the lesbian themed “Twelfth Night”; from Mercutio’s love for Romeo to Ulysses and Pandarus in “Troilus and Cressida” and including the gender swapping “As You Like It” and the sexual confusion of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
For those of you that think that dramatic depiction of homosexuality began with “Eastenders” and “Brookside” – read the Bard!
However the clearest clues come from his most personal work – the Sonnets.
Written between 1592 and 1609 – yes we are speculating – these 154 poems (not all of them are technically sonnets!) tell a story as dramatic as any of his plays. As we read them we are caught up in the lives, loves and rivalries of the Poet, the Young Man, the Dark Lady and, just for a bit of spice, the Other Poet. It is a gripping tale! There is only one problem – we think that the poems, and therefore the story, were ordered not by Shakespeare, but his publisher, Thomas Thorpe. Thorpe is at the centre of the second confusion – the dedication. The Sonnets are dedicated “TO THE ONLY BEGETTER OF THESE INSUING SONNETS MR. W. H. ALL HAPPINESS AND THAT ETERNITY PROMISED BY OUR EVER-LIVING POET WISHETH THE WELL-WISHING ADVENTURER IN SETTING FORTH”
and is signed “T. T.” See the confusion. The remarks are made by “OUR EVER-LIVING POET” – that is Shakespeare, but is signed “T.T.” – Thomas Thorpe.
And it doesn’t get any easier.
Who was Mr W.H.?
Who was the Young Man written about in many of the poems?
Who the Dark Lady?
And who the Other Poet?
Speculation abounds, but we don’t know!
We do know that Shakespeare did not want the Sonnets as a whole published whilst he was still alive. Were they too scandalous even for him? Perhaps.
What we do know is that our greatest poet and playwright was no stranger to the complexities and duplicities of human sexuality, gender confusion and desire; that he wrote about them regularly; that within the Sonnets he expresses them in a most personal form.
So, was he or wasn’t he?
Read his work, marvel at its depth, its beauty and understanding and wonder why asking the question was so important in the first place.