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The sexuality of William Shakespeare has been the subject of recurring debate. It is known that he married Anne Hathaway and they had three children. In addition there has been speculation that he had affairs with other women, or may have had an erotic interest in men. However, no reliable direct evidence exists to support the view that he was interested in men; all theories along these lines rely on circumstantial evidence and inference from an analysis of his sonnets. The suggestion that Shakespeare had multiple female lovers has been given a good deal of scholarly and public interest, while the possibility of a non-heterosexual Shakespeare has historically been controversial given his iconic status.
At the age of 18, Shakespeare married the 26-year-old Anne Hathaway. The consistory court of the Diocese of Worcester issued a marriage licence on 27 November 1582. Two of Hathaway's neighbours posted bonds the next day as surety that there were no impediments to the marriage. The couple may have arranged the ceremony in some haste, since the Worcester chancellor allowed the marriage banns to be read once instead of the usual three times. Hathaway's pregnancy could have been the reason for this. Six months after the marriage, she gave birth to a daughter, Susanna. Twins, son Hamnet and daughter Judith, followed almost two years later.
Shakespeare probably initially loved Hathaway, speculation supported by an early addition to one of his sonnets (Sonnet 145), where he played off Anne Hathaway's name and said she saved his life (writing 'I hate from hate away she threw/And saved my life, saying "not you."'). However, after only three years of marriage Shakespeare left his family and moved to London, possibly because he felt trapped by Hathaway. Other evidence to support this belief is that he and Anne were buried in separate (but adjoining) graves and, as has often been noted, Shakespeare's will makes no specific bequeath to his wife aside from 'the second best bed with the furniture'. This may seem like a slight, but many historians contend that the second best bed was typically the marital bed, while the best bed was reserved for guests. The poem 'Anne Hathaway' by Carol Ann Duffy endorses this view, describing how, for Shakespeare and his wife, the second best bed was 'a spinning world of forests, castles', whilst 'In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on, dribbling their prose'. A bed missing from an inventory of Anne's brother's possessions (removed in contravention of their father's will) allows the explanation that the item was an heirloom from the Hathaway family, that had to be returned. The law at the time also stated that the widow of a man was automatically entitled to a third of his estate, so Shakespeare did not need to mention specific bequests in the will.
Possible affairs with women
While in London, Shakespeare may have had affairs with different women. One anecdote along these lines is provided by a lawyer named John Manningham, who wrote in his diary that Shakespeare had a brief affair with a woman during a performance of Richard III.
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.
(Duncan-Jones, Katherine (2001). Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from his life. London: Arden Shakespeare. pp. 132-133. ISBN 1-903436-26-5.)
The Burbage referred to is Richard Burbage, the star of Shakespeare's company, who is known to have played the title role in Richard III. While this is one of the few surviving contemporary anecdotes about Shakespeare, some scholars are sceptical of its validity. Still, the anecdote suggests that at least one of Shakespeare's contemporaries (Manningham) believed that Shakespeare was heterosexual, even if he was not 'averse to an occasional infidelity to his marriage vows'. Indeed, its significance has been developed to affording Shakespeare a preference for "promiscuous women of little beauty and no breeding" in his honest acknowledgement that well-born women are beyond his reach.
Possible evidence of other affairs are that twenty-six of Shakespeare's Sonnets are love poems addressed to a married
woman (the so-called 'Dark Lady').
Shakespeare's sonnets are cited as evidence of his possible bisexuality. The poems were initially published, perhaps without his approval, in 1609. One hundred and twenty-six of them appear to be love poems addressed to a young man known as the 'Fair Lord' or 'Fair Youth'; this is often assumed to be the same person as the 'Mr W.H.' to whom the sonnets are dedicated. The identity of this figure (if he is indeed based on a real person) is unclear; the most popular candidates are Shakespeare's patrons, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton and William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, both of whom were considered handsome in their youth.
The only explicit references to sexual acts or physical lust occur in the Dark Lady sonnets, which unambiguously state that the poet and the Lady are lovers. Nevertheless, there are numerous passages in the sonnets addressed to the Fair Lord that have been read as expressing desire for a younger man. In Sonnet 13, he is called 'dear my love', and Sonnet 15 announces that the poet is at 'war with Time for love of you.' Sonnet 18 asks 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate', and in Sonnet 20 the narrator calls the young man the 'master-mistress of my passion'. The poems refer to sleepless nights, anguish and jealousy caused by the youth. In addition, there is considerable emphasis on the young man's beauty: in Sonnet 20, the narrator theorizes that the youth was originally a woman whom Mother Nature had fallen in love with and, to resolve the dilemma of lesbianism, added a penis ('pricked thee out for women's pleasure'), an addition the narrator describes as 'to my purpose nothing', which Samuel Schoenbaum interprets as: 'worse luck for [the] heterosexual celebrant'. 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.' In Sonnet 20: the narrator tells the youth to sleep with women, but to love only him: 'mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure'.
However, others have countered that these passages could be referring to intense platonic friendship, rather than sexual love. In the preface to his 1961 Pelican edition, Douglas Bush writes,
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.'
Bush cites Montaigne, who distinguished male friendships from 'that other, licentious Greek love', as evidence for a platonic interpretation of the sonnets.
Another explanation is that the poems are not autobiographical but fiction, another of Shakespeare's "dramatic characterization[s]", so that the narrator of the sonnets should not be presumed to be Shakespeare himself.
In 1640, John Benson published a second edition of the sonnets in which he changed most of the pronouns from masculine to feminine so that readers would believe nearly all of the sonnets were addressed to the Dark Lady. Benson's modified version soon became the best-known text, and it was not until 1780 that Edmund Malone re-published the sonnets in their original forms.
The question of the sexual orientation of the sonnets' author was openly articulated in 1780, when George Steevens, upon reading Shakespeare's description of a young man as his 'master-mistress' remarked, 'it is impossible to read this fulsome panegyrick, addressed to a male object, without an equal mixture of disgust and indignation'. Other English scholars, dismayed at the possibility that their national hero might have been a 'sodomite', concurred with Samuel Taylor Coleridge's comment, around 1800, that Shakespeare's love was 'pure' and in his sonnets there is 'not even an allusion to that very worst of all possible vices'. Robert Browning, writing of Wordsworth's assertion that 'with this key [the Sonnets] Shakespeare unlocked his heart', famously replied in his poem House, 'If so, the less Shakespeare he!'The controversy continued in the 20th Century. By 1944, the Variorum edition of the sonnets contained an appendix with the conflicting views of nearly forty commentators.
Sexuality in Shakespeare
The subject of sexuality and sexual language in Shakespeare's plays has long been a topic of critical interest. Ranging from the humorous and playful to the dark and taboo, the exploration of human sexuality is a constant in Shakespeare's texts. And while Shakespeare's bawdy language has led some to censor it in the past, the trend in modern scholarship has been to undertake a close analysis of his writing for the purposes of uncovering the cultural and historical factors behind his presentation of the sexes. To this end, scholars have used the contemporary tools of feminism and gender theory to explore the prevalent forces of misogynistic and patriarchal thinking, as well as to unearth some of the sexual anxieties of Renaissance culture as they are shaped by language.
Critics have observed the comic mode of Shakespeare's sexual language by tracing the forms of his ribald punning, innuendo, and metaphor. Spearheaded by the first publication of Eric Partridge's Shakespeare's Bawdy in 1948, modern scholars have become increasingly enlightened as to the depth of Shakespeare's linguistic portrayal of human sexuality. Such topics as marriage and the battle of the sexes are predominant in the comedies, in which scholars have noted the prevalence of wordplay and sexual double entendre-the cornerstone of humor in such works as The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing. But behind this bawdiness, many critics have observed the more serious nature of Shakespeare's presentation of the sexual, outlining such issues as the Elizabethan pre-occupation with-and male fear of-the supposed dangers of female sexuality. Further sites of scholarly interest relate to the fact that Shakespeare's theater employed only male actors to portray female characters, leading to discussions of obscured sexual identity, homoeroticism, and the marginal role of women in early-modern Europe.