WATCH: 'Who Slept In Shakespeare's Bed?' - By Critic Stephen Greenblatt
Was William Shakespeare Gay? Ian McKellen Says Yes
SEXUALITY AND SHAKESPEARE: Was William Shakespeare gay? This 400-year-old question about England's greatest playwright continues to resonate, despite a lack of any new evidence. Gay actor Ian McKellen is one of the latest voices to contend that Shakespeare was homosexual.
The number of people worldwide who Google the question, “Was Shakespeare gay?” each month.
WAS SHAKESPEARE GAY? It remains one of the most contended questions about the playwright, despite a
lack of clear evidence. Now actor Ian McKellen has added his voice to the debate. By Ben Arogundade.
WAS WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE GAY? The question has pre-occupied historians for centuries. There are two main drivers behind the speculation. Firstly, we know very little about Shakespeare's personal life, and this has been a source of intense curiosity and frustration for scholars desperate to know and understand his life and genius. As a result it has galvanised the market for conjecture.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE WAS GAY?
Second is the fact that Shakespeare scripted 126 sonnets of adoring prose to a certain young man, known only as the “Fair Youth”. The identity of this person — if indeed he existed at all — is unknown. In the same way that the Shakespeare authorship question has offered up all manner of suspects — from Francis Bacon to Edward de Vere, whom anti-Stratfordians suggest actually wrote the plays — the gay Shakespeare fraternity has its own candidates for the Bard's affections — namely Shakespeare's effeminate patrons Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke. The gay rumours have been further fuelled by the unsubstantiated contention that the love sonnets were not intended for publication, suggesting that they constituted the Bard's actual secret homosexual feelings for the mysterious young man.
HOMOSEXUALITY IN THE THEATRE
Further, the all-male environment of the London stage, which he left his family to participate in, is often cited as a prelude to his alleged homosexuality. Others point to suggestions of gay passion in The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Othello and Troilus and Cressida. It has also been noted that fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe included an openly gay relationship in Edward II, suggesting an atmosphere of homosexuality amongst Shakespeare’s literary contemporaries, in which he may have been a participant.
MCKELLEN'S GAY BARD
In January 2012 the actor Sir Ian McKellen became the latest high profile personality to add his voice to the debate. “No doubt Shakespeare was gay,” he told New York Post columnist Cindy Adams. “His predilection was evident from his works. An unmistakably feminine portrait of his patron Henry Wriothesley adds evidence that early sonnets to the ‘fair youth’ were probably meant for males.” McKellen continued: “Married, with children, he left his wife in Stratford to live in London. I’d say he slept with men. ‘The Merchant of Venice’, centreing on how the world treats gays as well as Jews, has a love triangle between an older man, younger man and a woman. And complexity in his comedies with cross-dressing and disguises is immense. Shakespeare obviously enjoyed sex with men as well as women.”
THE EVIDENCE GAP
But, fascinating as these hypotheses are, ultimately they reveal no truths. Indeed, many of the strongest voices advocating the Bard’s homosexuality come from within the gay community itself, which has much invested in the idea, but little in the way of hard evidence. What facts we do know about Shakespeare support the exact opposite view of his sexuality. We know for sure that he fathered three children from a heterosexual relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway. But nowhere is there any evidence that he had gay sex.
At most, the sonnets reveal the writers skill in understanding passionate male relationships. But the decision to read Shakespeare’s sonnets in strictly biographical terms is unreliable. It seems absurd to suggest that the words a creative writer produces about sexuality, or indeed any subject, somehow determine the personal preferences of the author. It is hard to imagine this principle being applied to today’s novelists, playwrights and screenwriters, who routinely create fictional characters with no personal relation to themselves.
Interestingly, if the authorship question that is also being debated simultaneously suggests that Shakespeare did not in fact write Shakespeare — which is the theme of the recent film, Anonymous — then presumably he did not write the sonnets either, the crucial texts which form the main case for his alleged bi-sexuality.
Such questions about Shakespeare’s life and work continue unabated, despite the fact that no new evidence has come to light for centuries, and probably never will. In today’s world in which being gay is gradually being more accepted in wider society, questions about Shakespeare’s alleged homosexuality seem increasingly outdated. Thankfully, his plays won't end up the same way.
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