The Bard is bi. Or so claims a new book that has examined Shakespeare’s 182 sonnets, and discovered that 27 are addressed to males, 10 to females, and that the other 145 are ‘open’ in the direction of their desire.
He may have even been involved in a three-way love triangle, if we are to take sonnets 40-42 and 133-134 as autobiography. By arranging the sonnets in chronological order (and including poems from his plays) the authors of this work have concluded that Shakespeare was ‘undeniably bisexual.’ It’s a bold claim.
On the surface this should be welcome news. Bi men are one of the least visibly represented groups in the LGBTQ community, so to be able to retroactively claim one of the most famous, revered and recognisable people to have ever lived as one of our own is undoubtedly a win.
The language of love has been so informed by Shakespeare that the revelation the man himself loved fluidly is both subversive and exciting. “Shall I compare thee to a summers day” was written about a boy?! A million lazy barstool Romeos just turned in their graves. Shakespeare was making us all a little queerer without us even knowing it. What a wonderful centuries old middle-finger to all those who have claimed him as middlebrow, conservative and respectable.
Instead, let us now picture the Globe Theatre, not as some sanitised tourist attraction on the banks of the Thames, but as a bawdy drag (from the Shakespearian stage direction ‘dressed as girl’) extravaganza, the audience braying drunkenly as they watch political satire, sexual intrigue and dirty jokes. A young Shakespeare watches from the wings as his newest muses- a man and a woman, lovers themselves- laugh and gasp at his latest play.
He is proud but he is jealous and he will commit his conflict to verse later that evening in immortal words of love and lust whose true meaning will only be deciphered 400 years later. I wish this was the Shakespeare I had learnt about at school.
Yet is there something regressive about assigning a sexuality to a writer who has been dead for four centuries?
We know so little about Shakespeare’s life as it is, to make concrete claims based on his poetry seems particularly spurious. Poetry is, after all, not meant to be taken literally. Whilst there is no denying that same sex love and attraction is a universal constant in every society, so much of how it was navigated, tolerated and described has been lost to history.
Shakespeare may well have been bisexual in today’s parlance, but we can be certain he would not have used that word himself in the 16th century. It is only natural that us bis may now want to stake our claim to the bard, but we should be wary of absolutes. And in staking our claim, like Catholics and atheists and Freudians and Marxists before us, we are joining a long tradition of identities seeing themselves in Shakespeare.
For indeed, little about Shakespeare is certain or absolute. It might seem suitably 2020 that we now question his sexuality, but in truth people have long questioned mare than that about the man. The paper trail of his life- whilst not as absent as conspiracy theorists may claim- is sparse (as befits a man born in 1564.)
This scarcity of evidence when combined with the brilliance of his body of work has always led people to question his identity. Did Shakespeare even write Shakespeare? Wikipedia currently lists 87 candidates for the authorship of the plays (amongst them Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots.) Shakespeare, it would seem, can be who ever you want he/she/them to be.
Even Shakespeare’s signature is fluid. We have 6 surviving signatures…spelt six different ways. How tempting to imagine the author of these legal marks slipping in and out of identities, trying new things, refusing to be pinned down. Why stick rigidly to one prosaic spelling of your surname when you could play with six…or more! Indeed, the very act of playwriting is to slip in and out of other people’s shoes, to try out identities, to imagine with empathy how other lives are lived. And no writer has done that with greater imagination or empathy than Shakespeare. So of course he was fluid!
Am I overreaching? Absolutely.
That is the point.
Shakespeare encourages such overreach.
Theorising about who Shakespeare’s sex life just shows our collective hunger to know the bard; who he was, how he lived, who he loved. But ultimately those are distractions from the real question we want to ask, a question so impenetrable that it has led very clever people to develop and believe very elaborate (and silly) conspiracy theories. How. How did one person produce such a body of work? How did a glove-maker’s son from rural Warwickshire write with insight and imagination enough to entrance the entire world for 400 years? How can a voice from the past still speak to the current moment? How is genius formed?
And of course, there is no one answer to that question, no matter how many times and way we ask it.
Does it matter who Shakespeare loved? Yes and no- the words remain the same regardless, and we are all free to bring our own preferences, contexts and even conspiracies to them. What is certain is that it is a sign of progress that literary scholarship no longer discounts or explains away possible same sex romances. The “they’re just good friends” school of erasure. That we can acknowledge that Shakespeare might not have been straight by modern standards (or even, was very probably queer by modern standards) is part of the process of dismantling the heteronormative hegemony of the ‘canon.’ And that is a very good thing.
Like identity itself, we are left with infinite variations of who Shakespeare could be. But as a bisexual writer from Stratford-upon-avon myself, transplanted to London and working in theatre, I’m very pleased to claim him for my team… for now at least.
Written by Joe Von Malachowski