THAT’S RIGHT IT’S A SPECIAL IN HONOUR OF MY BIRTHDAY: MY BOYFRIEND, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE AKA BILLY SHAKES
Okay so we don’t know for definite that my babe was bisexual. But still! I’m not alone in this theory. In fact, it’s so well known that I first learned about the idea through – guess what – Doctor Who.
I’m really enjoying linking everything to Doctor Who
The ‘fifty-seven academics’ line is a reference to Sonnet 57, which is often held up as evidence of heteroflexibility on Shakespeare’s part. The sonnet begins ‘Being your slave, what should I do but tend/Upon the hours and times of your desire?’
Sonnet 57 is one of 126 (out of 154 sonnets) with a masculine subject. Another, more famous sonnet – in fact, possibly the most famous ever – is Sonnet 18. This is also known by its first line: ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’
‘And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,’
this sonnet is literally everywhere
One hundred and twenty-six sonnets are written directly to the masculine ‘fair youth’. Of course, there is no proof that Shakespeare was in love with a man/boy, but that doesn’t cancel out the fact that he clearly felt very strongly about this ‘youth’. This is often assumed to be the same person as the ‘Mr W.H.’ to whom the sonnets are dedicated. We don’t know who this is, but it is theorised to be one of Shakespeare’s patrons, either Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton or William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke (who were both apparently quite fit).
In some sonnets addressed to the youth, such as Sonnet 52, the erotic punning is particularly intense: ‘So is the time that keeps you as my chest/Or as the wardrobe which the robe doth hide/To make some special instant special blest/By new unfolding his imprisoned pride.’ To an Elizabethan, ‘pride’ would be a euphemism for (an erect) penis.
In Sonnet 20 the narrator calls the younger man the “master-mistress of my passion”. The poems refer to sleepless nights, anguish and jealousy caused by the youth. In addition, Shakespeare won’t shut up about how fit this guy is: the narrator says that the youth was originally a woman, but so beautiful that Mother Nature fell in love with them, and gave them a penis (‘pricked thee out for women’s pleasure’), which the narrator describes as “to my purpose nothing”. This can be read either as ‘this doesn’t affect me either way because you’re just some bloke’ or, to my mind more accurately, as ‘I love you for you, not what’s in your pants’.
what a boundary-crossing babe.
Some people, who don’t see homosexuality wherever they go, have said that the sonnets are not about romantic or sexual love, but instead the platonic love of friendship. For a 1961 edition of the sonnets, Douglas Bush wrote, ‘Since modern readers are unused to such ardor in masculine friendship and are likely to leap at the notion of homosexuality (a notion sufficiently refuted by the sonnets themselves), we may remember that such an ideal, often exalted above the love of women, could exist in real life, from Montaigne to Sir Thomas Browne, and was conspicuous in Renaissance literature.’ How much of this is wishful thinking, however? In 1961, homosexuality was still illegal, so it’s not like Bush would be willing to stick his neck out and vouch for the queerness of long-dead Shakespeare.
We know that Shakespeare ‘got off with’ girls. For one thing, he had a wife and children. For another, he wrote several sonnets to his female lover. The other sonnets are directed to a ‘dark lady’ (according to Doctor Who, the ‘dark lady’ is Martha Jones) and are far more sexual and intimate in nature.
Anyone studying pre-Victorian history needs to keep in mind that human sexuality hasn’t always been neatly labelled; or, indeed, has homosexuality been as villified as in recent Western history. So while I deeply want to label Shakespeare a bisexual, he might not feel as though the label were applicable. We’ll never know! But as the great Sir Ian McKellan says: ‘Shakespeare obviously enjoyed sex with men as well as women.’
Are you going to disagree with Gandalf?