13 January 2010

The Other Question About Shakespeare

When I taught Shakespeare I could always count on the class asking me two questions. The first, did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?, I answered a few posts down. The second question, was Shakespeare a homosexual? I will discuss now.

The question is actually a surprisingly thorny one to answer, for merely asking the question requires a series of assumptions that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would not have made, and would quite possibly have regarded as meaningless. For example, simply to begin with, the term "homosexual" is a modern term, having been in existence for only about one hundred and ten years. Shakespeare's time has no equivalent. Therefore this question, which we would regard as a fundamental aspect of Shakespeare's identity, would have been literally meaningless to him.

Let me first establish some form of meaning for the word "homosexual", before I try and address how the concepts may have applied to Shakespeare's era. Even in our era, the word has thorny implications and can be rather difficult to pin down. In its broadest sense it refers to people who have same sex attraction. In another sense it refers to people who have sex with people of their own gender. If we take these two senses of the term we can begin to look at how it may apply to Shakespeare and to Shakespeare's time.

Two paragraphs ago, I said Shakespeare's time had no equivalent for the word "homosexual". This is true, but with a caveat. Shakespeare's time had no equivalent of the word in the sense of people who have a same sex attraction. It did have words for those who partook in same sex activities, and the terms were based on synonyms for sodomites and catamites, which is not exactly the same as the idea of an over arching "homosexuality". So, men did have liaisons with other men, but what about the idea of men in love with other men?

This is rather difficult to pick out for the period, because of their conception of manhood as a whole. At that time, a man was defined through his relationship with other men- his betters, his inferiors, his patrons, his enemies, his friends. A man's most important relationships were with the men who were around him, and these relationships defined the men. The men of this period called the feelings they felt for the other men around them "love", and they could be quite florid in describing their feelings for each other. It was common for educated men of this period to loudly protest their love for another man. Does this make them homosexuals?

It was Shakespeare's protestations of love for another man, or other men, that have started the idea that Shakespeare was gay, because everything else indicates he was not. Take the Wikipedia article on Shakespeare's sexuality. It spends a brief paragraph discussing his known and established marriage with Anne Hathaway (a hasty marriage, as their first daughter was born just six months after their marriage) and another of rumours of affairs while he lived in London, rumours which came to life not long after his death, and other hints at affairs which are hinted in the 'dark lady' sonnets. The bulk of the article is devoted to the possibility of Shakespeare's homosexuality, for which but one source of evidence is offered: The fact that Shakespeare may have written 126 sonnets to another man, or to men. Since so much of the evidence rests on the sonnets, we must first briefly look at the question, what is a sonnet? or, more to the point, why were they written?

Sonnets were written for many reasons. Often they seemed to have been used as part of a correspondence, brief letters written in a florid style, offering advice, commenting on news, that sort of thing. In general, the more literary sonnets fall into one of two categories: The first are the sonnet sequences, such as those written by Petrarch, Sidney, Fulke Greville, Spenser. The second are incidental sonnets, often written to a patron.

The first kind are usually inspired by the neoplatonic philosophy of the era, and how the writer hopes to ascend the platonic 'ladder of love', the scale of ascending love which begins with a love of beautiful things, ascends to a love of beauty itself and on until the source of all beauty. Petrarch, for example, loved Laura, who, halfway through his mammoth sonnet sequence, dies. A mere death is insufficient to affect his love, so his love follows her up to heaven, until he learns to love the goodness and beauty that surrounds her there. Sidney, on the other hand, wrote a series of sonnets, called Astrophil and Stella, as a warning. Astrophil falls in love with Stella, but the love goes nowhere, does nothing, and Stella remains stubbornly alive and has little to do with Astrophil. Astrophil is stuck, and ends up going down the ladder of love, rather than up. Fulke Greville climbs his ladder of love by having sex with Caelica, and then rejects her and all earthly attachments.

The point of these sonnets is that they present a kind of rarefied, idealized love. Even Sidney and Greville rarefy their loves as leading them to something else, something beyond their love. The stories told in these sequences is most often not a story at all, but the absence of a story. Everything that happens takes place only in the mind and the heart of the sonneteer. Petrarch, for instance, probably never spoke to Laura when she was alive. It did not matter to him: she was the love of his life. Creepy, but there you are.

Another point to be touched on is that these sonneteers were rather in competition with each other. They strove to come up with the most extreme metaphors and similes to describe their love and to make their ideal women better than all others. In the process they created outlandish portraits of their idealized women, who had stars for eyes, and lilies and roses on the cheeks, pearls for teeth and globes for breasts. Cupid sat on their brows, using their eyebrows for bows to shoot his arrows out of their eyes. Their very breath was ambergris, and such creatures were so heavenly they scarcely walked upon the ground, and even more, as each poet strove to make his woman stand above and beyond the women of all other poets.

The other group of sonneteers were also in competition with each others, but they wrote to a different purpose: money. Back in that time, authors did not make money by selling their works. They made money by dedicating their works to a wealthy patron, in the hope that the patron would give them money for dedicating their works to them. The sonneteers would write sonnets proclaiming their love for the patron, and extolling the patron's goodness. They offered the patron an exchange: the patron would give them money, and they would make the patron immortal. That was their position. I may be poor, the poet says, but I have the power to make you immortal.

It was a boast which was most effective on the wealthy elite of the Renaissance. The steeped themselves in the stories of the great men of the past, and longed to have their own names added to the lists of the great worthies, and they knew they needed a good writer to make their fame endure. They likened themselves to Alexander, who wept that he had not a poet like Homer to record his glory. To give a poet a little money in exchange for a chance at immortal fame was fair exchange to many of the nobility. With that in mind, let us begin to look at a few of Shakespeare's sonnets.

I said earlier that the claim that Shakespeare was a homosexual or a bisexual is based on the fact that he wrote 126 sonnets to a man or to some men. The wikipedia article I mentioned, following in the footsteps of many of those who make this claim, uses the fact of the 126 sonnets as evidence without looking at a single one of the sonnets. If we were to look at some of the sonnets, would they prove the case? Let us begin with the first few sonnets.


From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel:
Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak'st waste in niggarding:
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.


When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field,
Thy youth's proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter'd weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv'd thy beauty's use,
If thou couldst answer 'This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,'
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel'st it cold


Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose unear'd womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love, to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother's glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remember'd not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.

These sonnets all have the same theme: you are old enough now to start having children. This theme is continued for the first 17 sonnets. It is one man giving advice to another man informally, and it is only with great difficulty that these can be turned into evidence of Shakespeare's homosexuality. We must now count on the remaining 109 sonnets to give evidence of Shakespeare's homosexuality.

If we were to look at two of Shakespeare's most famous love sonnets, perhaps a different picture would appear. The first occurs immediately after the end of the "go have a son" sonnets, number 18.


Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

This sonnet is among my favourites, and were there but world enough and time, I would go over it word by word, for it has a richness and beauty to it that rewards its study. However, let me be brief.

The poet begins this sonnet with fairly common sort of trope: What can compare to my love? The poet then does a comparison to something commonly held to be beautiful, in this case, a summer's day, and finds that a summer's day is an unworthy comparison to the addressee of this sonnet: the addressee is far, far better than a summer's day. But what is also interesting are the two final lines of the sonnet: he drops the simile completely and shifts over to a new tack and promises the addressee immortality through this poem. It is the promise of a sonneteer seeking money from a patron, not a simple disinterested praise of a beloved.

Another veiled attempt at writing for money may be seen in another famous love sonnet, number 29


When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Again, if I had time I would go over this complicated little poem line by line. For now, let me point out the use of words with double meaning- Shakespeare was well known for his puns and his plays on meaning- and the constant use of monetary terms: Fortune, rich, possessed, and wealth. He is equating the addressee's love with wealth, and perhaps not metaphorically. On this level, the poem seems to say "When I am broke, I think of you, rich guy..."

So we are now down to 107 sonnets. If we were to look at one of the more sexually punning sonnets, perhaps we would get an idea of Shakespeare's homosexuality. Let's try number 20. This time, I'll comment within the text.


A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;

'Master mistress of my passion'? There may be something to the Shakespeare is gay thing after all. Let's continue.

A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;

Holy cow, this guy is better than a woman. Looking bad for the Shakespeare is straight guys now.

A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;

Even nature thought the guy should be a woman! But then...

Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

Notice the punning verb used in the second last line. The whole poem sets up a man as an object of sexual love, but then, in the last few lines, states clearly that his sexual favours are to be given to women, and the writer will have to content himself with simply loving him emotionally.

I could go on, but I will stop here with the fair youth sonnets. Others also proclaim love for the youth, while others speak of money owed and books borrowed. To turn them into a declaration of homosexuality requires a large amount of twisting and planting of innuendo within the text by the modern reader. These sonnets are, as a whole, not overtly sexual. The fact that Shakespeare wrote 126 sonnets to a man or to men does not prove his homosexuality if he wrote 126 straight sonnets to a man or men.

What about the Dark Lady sonnets? Are they as not sexual like the fair youth sonnets? Well...


The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

I don't think I have to explain Elizabethan slang in this sonnet for the reader to see this as an obvious and open meditation upon sex, one which was lacking in the first one hundred and twenty six sonnets.

With what, then, are we left? We are trying to apply a modern term to a Renaissance man who would not have known what we were talking about. As a man of his time, his most critical relationships would have been with other men. His emotions for these other men he calls 'love' and spends a great deal of time meditating on this love and proclaiming it loudly. If simply loving men is sufficient to make Shakespeare a homosexual, then perhaps he was. It may also have been a very strong friendship. However, if one defines homosexuality as sexual activity, then one will not find it here. All concrete evidence of Shakespeare's sexuality shows that, in modern terms, he was a heterosexual. He married and his wife had children he recognized as his own. The evidence that he may have had homosexual tendencies lies in the fact that he wrote 126 sonnets to men, but an examination of those sonnets does not conclusively prove homosexuality or even bisexuality, whereas his Dark Lady Sonnets indicate a strong overtly sexual theme. In the Fair Youth Sonnets Shakespeare explicitly rejects sexual desire. In the Dark Lady Sonnets explicitly regrets sexual desire. Shakespeare may have been an adulterer, but adultery with a woman does not a homosexual make.

Quite the opposite, really.

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