Shakespeare’s Many Moods of Love

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The great actor Sir Ian McKellen, who is also well-known as a gay activist, was recently quoted in the press as saying that Shakespeare himself was probably gay. Invited to comment on this, I pointed out that there was nothing new in the idea, which for a long time has been frequently expressed especially because some of his sonnets are clearly addressed to a male. Nevertheless none is explicitly homoerotic in the manner of some of his contemporaries such as Christopher Marlowe, Richard Barnfield, and Michael Drayton, or for that matter of some modern poets such as W. H. Auden or Thom Gunn. All those that are clearly addressed to or written about a young man, or ‘boy’, are among the first 126 to be printed in the 1609 volume. Yet Number 116, ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment ….’, one of the most famous love poems in the language, is frequently read at heterosexual weddings. And other poems in the first part of the sequence – such as No. 27 – could even be love poems addressed to the poet’s wife.

Shakespeare’s most idealized sonnets fall among those that are either clearly addressed to a male, or are non-specific in their addressee. His explicitly sexual sonnets, all concerned with a woman and all among the last 26 to be printed, suggest severe psychological tension in a man who has to acknowledge his heterosexuality but who finds something distasteful about it, at least in its current manifestation. An example is Sonnet 147, which begins:

‘My love is as a fever, longing still,
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
Th’uncertain sickly appetite to please.’

None of the poems that celebrate love between the poet (whether we think of him simply as an identity assumed by Shakespeare for professional purposes or as Shakespeare speaking in his own person) and a ‘lovely boy’ is explicitly sexual in the manner of the frankest of the ‘dark lady’ sonnets.

But many of these poems would have had, and continue to have, a special appeal to homoerotic readers, and also that they have met with castigation from homophobic readers for this very reason, as the history of their reception over the centuries makes abundantly clear. And a number of the Sonnets addressed to a male are deeply passionate if idealized love poems which one can easily imagine being addressed to a young man with whom the poet was having a physical as well as a spiritual relationship. Consider for example Sonnet 108:

‘What’s in the brain that ink may character
Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit?
What’s new to speak, what now to register,
That may express my love or my dear merit?
Nothing, sweet boy; but yet like prayers divine
I must each day say o’er the very same,
Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,
Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name.
So that eternal love in love’s fresh case
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page,
Finding the first conceit of love there bred
Where time and outward form would show it dead.’

That poem, explicitly addressed to a ‘sweet boy’, gives an echo, as Viola says in Twelfth Night, or What You Will, ‘to the very seat / Where love is throned’ (2. 4. 20-1). It expresses an intensity of love that knows no limits.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets transcend the boundaries of sub-divisions of human experience to encapsulate the very essence of human love.

Stanley Wells’s book, Shakespeare Sex and Love, is due out in paperback from Oxford University Press on 14 February 2012.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
  • http://realshakespeare.com/BiographyinSonnets.aspx Ian Steere

    They show that the concept of homosexual orientation was strongly represented in the English of the time and that persons were indeed recognized and described as being of such orientation. Currently we use the more general word “gay” – but the concept of homosexuality is the same. Why should McKellan or anyone else be castigated for using non-conflicting modern jargon to make their point?

  • http://twitter.com/shakespeareprof Emily Sloan-Pace

    Again, those are different categories or sexual expression/accusation at the time, but they are still far from the identitarian construct that McKellan is trying to impute to Shakespeare.

  • http://realshakespeare.com/BiographyinSonnets.aspx Ian Steere

    As you say, his pen was the key to his sponsor’s treasure. Unfortunately – probably because he was essentially straight – its wielding was less productive than that of the Rival Pen.

  • http://44calibreshakespeare.com Humphrey

    Yes I got that. To get sponsorship he may have just put his pen to work, even though he was straight. An intriguing idea!

  • http://44calibreshakespeare.com Humphrey

    aahahahahahahahhaaa YIK-BAFFLED humphrey@44calibreshakespeare.com

  • http://realshakespeare.com/BiographyinSonnets.aspx Ian Steere

    I doubt that this view would have been shared by those on the receiving end of categorizations such as buggerer, paederast, pathic and Cynedian.

  • http://twitter.com/shakespeareprof Emily Sloan-Pace

    Yes and no. The concept of gay, particularly as an identity (which is McKellan’s point as I read it), certainly had not.

  • 38 Cal

    YILLIDUCCI

  • http://realshakespeare.com/BiographyinSonnets.aspx Ian Steere

    Actually, my take is more of Shak, the desperate actor/author trying to find the wherewithal to survive during a period (1592-4) of plague, economic downturn and prolonged closure of the London playhouses. A number of his fellow authors died young – essentially because of their poverty.

  • http://44calibreshakespeare.com Humphrey

    Hahaha …er… I don’t suppose you believe in the conspiracy theories by any chance do you??

  • http://44calibreshakespeare.com Humphrey

    A simple point – BIT over-explained – but otherwise mostly correct, in my opinion. Two questions though; 1. do you really think bisexuals are THE MOST oppressed minority?? Just because they can hardly be the most invisible and the most oppressed… neglected perhaps but not denied a taxi when getting chased by hooligans (John Hurt, The Civil Servant) 2. I don’t think anything in Pro. Wells’ article contradicts what you are suggesting; he is merely addressing the two different vistas of sexuality and the space between where they overlap in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Basically, I think you’re both right! Just because your post seemed to me to be a rebuttal of some form…

    Either that or Mr. Steere’s post >scroll down< has the truth of it! Gotta love that take on it… Shakespeare the ruthless, heartless, hetrosexual seducer of homosexuals! (…um the second post, not the one about terminology)

  • http://realshakespeare.com/BiographyinSonnets.aspx Ian Steere

    Certain terminology – such as “homosexual” or “gay” – had not been invented, but similar concepts did exist. Indeed, such concepts must be as old as language, since humanity’s nature has changed very little. In Shak’s times, for example, words such as “ingle” and  “ganymede” were used like the modern “poof” or “bumboy”.

  • http://twitter.com/shakespeareprof Emily Sloan-Pace

    My first response was “how anachronistic.” Modern conceptions of sexuality are not applicable to Shakespeare; the conception of “gay” as we understand it wasn’t even invented until the late 19th century. Shakespeare wasn’t gay, but he wasn’t straight, either. His sexual object choice didn’t define his identity in the way that it might today.

  • Anonymous

    A good article, but I want to lodge one query, which has to do with the word ‘boy.’ The author quotes Sonnets 126 and 108, lifting from them the phrases ‘O thou, my lovely boy’ and ‘Nothing, sweet boy’, but when he speaks in his own voice, he – with no explanation or justification – changes ‘boy’ into ‘male’ or ‘young man.’ At one point, he writes: ‘a young man, or “boy”,’ which suggests that ‘boy’ is just a fancy way of saying ‘man.’ But it seems to me that ‘man’ (or ‘male’) and ‘boy’ have very different meanings, or at least carry with them significantly different trains of associations, however reassuring it may be for modern sensibilities and prejudices to conflate the words, and assume that that is what Shakespeare was doing as well. If we work on the assumption that, in Shakespeare, ‘boy’ means ‘boy’ and not something else, then we open ourselves into an area of Shakespeare’s mind that is, depending on one’s own perspective and preferences,
    either disturbing or liberating. The conclusion of this article – ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets transcend the boundaries of sub-divisions of human experience to encapsulate the very essence of human love’ – is sympathetic, but I fear that it has been arrived at by means of mystification, specifically by an attempt to whitewash one specific human relationship, and turn it into another one.

  • Christian Smith

    The label that comes to me when considering the sexuality of the narrator of the sonnets is ‘bisexual’, not ‘gay’. My concern for this stems partly from the sonnets themselves and from the politics of LGBT. If we take the sonnets by themselves (I am aware that Stanley and Paul hold that they are not necessarily a cycle), then the gender and sexual orientation of the narrator holds less importance, but if we consider them in total, then we are confronted with a person who clearly loves (physically and emotionally) both a man and a woman and is therefore bisexual – which is distinct from gay. If we lessen the distance between the narrator and the poet, then we have an important piece of information about Shakespeare. And this information can be used in our examinations of all of his work. Virginia Woolf considered Shakespeare’s genius to arise from his man-womanly mind. The move from gay- to bi- sexualilty is also a move along the Queer Theory continuum from mono-sexuality (and any effects that this may have on one’s outlook) to poly-sexuality. It moves away from fixed gender and sexual preference towards a more polyvocal sexuality (all the loves that dare not speak their name). Indeed the play that Stanley mentions in this post, Twelfth Night, is Shakespeare’s greatest example of that sexual polyvocality. Reading the narrator as bisexual is a step towards “transcend[ing] the boundaries of subdivisions of human experience to encapsulate the very essence of human love.”   Finally, I ask for the label ‘bi’ for political reasons. Bisexuals are the most oppressed minority in the LGBT. One of the most common oppressions that they suffer is invisibility. 

  • http://realshakespeare.com/BiographyinSonnets.aspx Ian Steere

    The Sonnets as a whole appear to have been supplied by Shakespeare over time to one person only, his bisexual patron, Henry Wriothesley (see http://realshakespeare.com/BiographyinSonnets.aspx for the evidence). When overlaid with history, they suggest that Shak was primarily heterosexual, though prepared to do what it took to obtain patronage in desperate times. Interestingly, they also suggest that he was not very successful in providing sexual satisfaction to Wriothesley.

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