It is almost impossible to determine whether Shakespeare was homosexual because only scant documentary evidence has survived about his personal life.
Yet, the question is constantly asked: was Shakespeare homosexual?
Before we can answer this question, we first need to establish the context of his romantic relationships.
Was Shakespeare Homosexual or Heterosexual?
One fact is certain: Shakespeare was in a heterosexual marriage.
At the age of 18, William married Anne Hathaway in a shotgun ceremony probably because their child was conceived out of wedlock. Anne, who was eight years older than William, remained in Stratford-upon-Avon with their children while William left for London to pursue a career in the theater.
Whilst in London, anecdotal evidence suggests that Shakespeare had multiple affairs.
The most famous example comes from the diary of John Manningham who recounts the romantic rivalry between Shakespeare and Burbage, the leading man of the acting troupe:
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.
In this anecdote, Shakespeare and Burbage fight over a promiscuous woman – William does, of course, win!
Promiscuous women turn up elsewhere including the Dark Lady Sonnets in which the poet addresses a woman he desires, but should not love.
Although anecdotal, there is a body of evidence to suggest that Shakespeare was unfaithful in his marriage, so to determine if Shakespeare was homosexual, we have to look beyond his marriage.
Homoeroticism in Shakespeare’s Sonnets
The Fair Youth Sonnets are addressed to a young man who, like the Dark Lady, is unobtainable. The language in the poetry is intense and charged with homoerotism.
At the start of the poem, the Fair Youth is described as the “master-mistress of my passion”, but Shakespeare finishes the poem with:
And for a woman wert thou first created;
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.
Some claim that this ending reads like a disclaimer to clear Shakespeare of the serious charge of homosexuality – as it would have been perceived in his time.
Art Vs. Life
The sexuality argument rests on why Shakespeare wrote the sonnets. If Shakespeare was homosexual (or perhaps bisexual), then the sonnets need to overlap with the Bard’s personal life to establish a link between the content of the poems and his sexuality.
But there is no evidence that the poet speaking in the texts is supposed to be Shakespeare himself and we do not know who they were written for and why. Without this context, critics can only muster conjecture about Shakespeare’s sexuality.
However, there are a few significant facts that lend weight to the argument:
- The Sonnets were not intended to be published and it is therefore more likely that the texts reveal the personal feelings of the Bard.
- The Sonnets were dedicated to “Mr WH”, widely believed to be Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton or William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke. Perhaps these are the handsome men the poet lusts after?
The reality is that it is impossible to unpick Shakespeare’s sexuality from his writing. All but a few sexuality references are heterosexual in tone, yet vast theories have been built around the exceptions. And at best, these are rather codified and ambiguous references to homosexuality.
Shakespeare may well have been homo- or heterosexual, but there simply is not the evidence to say either way.