People in History: William Shakespeare

ShakespeareEngland’s most famous playwright, darling of the Elizabethan and Jacobean court, and beloved of schoolteachers ever since, Shakespeare might seem an odd choice for a biography, not least because so little is known about it. We don’t even know the day he was born, although from the existing records it’s pretty clear he died if not on, then close to, his birthday (baptised 26 April 1594, died 23 April 1616, are the known dates).

We don’t even spell his name correctly: there are six surviving signatures, and in none of them did he use Shakespeare, which has only been the accepted spelling since the mid-20th century. The only spelling the man himself used more than once was Shakspere, and that only twice, although the inability to spell your own name correctly wasn’t unusual in the days before dictionaries, when the idea that words had to be rendered in one particular way would have been considered quite extraordinary.

The portraits of him, including that illustrating this post, might not even be of Shakespeare at all. The man is elusive; a ghost we’ve been chasing for four hundred years.

So how can we talk about Shakespeare’s sex life with any authority? Quite simply, we can’t. Which is why I don’t want to talk about the man himself today, but rather the even more elusive and enigmatic person of Mr WH. Lovers of Shakespeare’s sonnets might recognise the name: it is the man to whom they were dedicated.

To the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets Mr WH. All happiness and that eternity promised by our ever-living poet wisheth the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth.

The 154 sonnets, when read collectively, tell the story of the author’s relationship with the Fair Youth, a subsequent affair with the Dark Lady, and an ongoing battle with the Rival Poet. If the reader assumes Shakespeare was writing autobiographically when he uses first person (which is, admittedly, a colossal assumption), they paint an interesting picture of his social/sexual life, and form the crux of any argument that the Bard was bisexual (although that term is of course anachronistic). Certainly we can state that Shakespeare’s persona was attracted to men and women, although that doesn’t mean he was himself.

Mr WH has long been tied to the suspected identity of the Fair Youth. The whole theory is expounded in Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Mr W. H., ostensibly a short story, which really is little more than an account of the theory that Mr WH was a boy-player in Marlowe’s company (Marlowe being the most obvious “Rival Poet”) by the name of Willie Hughes.

Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe: the Rival Poet?

The obvious suggestions for Mr WH are William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, both known personally by Shakespeare at the approximate time the sonnets were written. The main problem with the man in question being either of these is that no Earl is titled “Mr.” Still, that hasn’t put off several generations of scholars from exploring those avenues, digging into both gentlemen’s lives to match their stories with the sonnets.

Removing all the likely suspects — who aren’t, in truth, particularly likely at all — leaves the tantalising possibility of an unknown, undocumented person being the subject. It wouldn’t be at all surprising for Shakespeare to have had a lover who today is lost to history, given how little we know about Shakespeare himself. The Portrait of Mr W.H. relies on a close reading of the sonnets themselves to provide clues to their subjects’ identities, rather than trawling the history books and trying to make a known figure fit. Plays on words within the sonnets such as “Will” and “Hews” provide the name. The suggestion the Fair Youth is beholden to the Rival Poet places him as a player in Marlowe’s company. Certainly, boy-actors came and went with great regularity in Tudor England. They were required to play female parts (women not being allowed on the stage), but once their voices broke and they grew beards, if they hadn’t established themselves as actors of any great talent, they ceased to be useful.

A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hew, all ‘Hews’ in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
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.

— Sonnet 20

Note the play on words of “Hews,” and the obvious suggestion the subject is male, but whose lover is not a woman: “the master-mistress of my passion” who “steals men’s eyes” despite being “for a woman… first created”.

The theory is certainly fascinating, and incredibly plausible. Ever since it was first suggested, scholars have been digging through the archives, seeking proof of Willie Hughes’ existence. So far, they’ve been disappointed. Perhaps because there was nothing autobiographical about the sonnets at all, and anyone who assumed otherwise was grasping at straws.

What is certain is that Shakespeare was happy writing about men taking both male and female lovers. He was a bawdy Bard, and his plays are peppered with references to sex, some which strike us as surprisingly modern, such as when Iago informs Brabantio that his daughter and “the Moor” are “making the beast with two backs” (Othello, Act I, Scene i), or the following exchange between Chiron and Aaron in Titus Andronicus:

CHIRON: Thou hast undone our mother.
AARON: Villain, I have done thy mother.

— Act IV, Scene ii

Yes, that really is a “your momma” joke.

Shakespeare wasn’t immune to same-sex innuendo, either. From Hamlet:

HAMLET:  ‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seem to say so.

ROSENCRANTZ: My lord, there was no such stuff in my thoughts.
HAMLET: Why did ye laugh then, when I said, ‘Man delights not me’?
ROSENCRANTZ: To think, my lord, that if you delight not in man, what lenten [limited] entertainment the players shall receive from you. We coted them on the way; and hither they are coming, to offer you service.

— Act II, Scene ii

While I’d be the first to argue that there is a world of difference between a writer’s private life and what they write, Shakespeare’s works are worthy of note for the sexual fluidity of his characters, his playfulness when it comes to gender expression (having boy-actors playing women pretending to be men, who then fall for male characters), and the ever-intriguing possibility that his life just might have imitated art. Shakespeare’s success and enduring popularity stand as testament to the fact that despite the evolution of increasingly draconian laws to the contrary, same-sex attractions could still be performed before, and appreciated by, the highest and lowest in the land.

Born on this day: Eric Allman (60, American), computer engineer; Elizabeth Birch (59, American), former chair of directors for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (1992-1994) and Executive Director for the Human Rights Campaign (1995-2004); Annie Ellerman (1894-1983, English), aka Bryher, novelist; and Tuc Watkins (49, American), actor best known for his role as Bob Hunter in Desperate Housewives.

Died on this day: Willi Ninja (1961-2006, American), dancer and choreographer best known for Paris is Burning.

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The History of Homosexuality: Identity

Erastes eromenos Staatliche Antikensammlungen 1468We often think of sexuality as though it exists on a linear continuum: we talk about homosexuality in Ancient Greek society, for example, when in fact there was no such thing as a “homosexual” before 1868, when the word was coined by German sexologists. It wasn’t used in English until the 1890s.

There were, obviously, other words in use before that time: pederasts, inverts, urnings, sodomites, lesbians, tribads, and so on. Most of those terms referred very specifically to particular socio-sexual behaviour (the active or passive partner in anal intercourse, etc.), and not to identities as we know them. Before the second half of the nineteenth century, when the Germans became obsessed with the idea of how the sex we have affects the people we are, the very idea of a sexual identity would have seemed absurd.

“Sex” itself is a relatively new concept. Its first usage only dates to the sixteenth century, when it referred specifically to anatomy. From there rose the idea of gender, and gendered behaviours. It didn’t come naturally to people to think of behaviour as “manly” or “womanly.” What gives these concepts their enduring credibility is that they arose at a time when Western European society was starting to organise into systems still recognisable today (the parliaments and courts by which we impose and enforce laws; the way the workforce is organised and the family is structured), and people started to write. Practically all the literature available to modern lay readers dates from around or after this period, which coincided with the shift to Early Modern English, rather than the more impenetrable Middle English (think Shakespeare, rather than Chaucer). When Elizabeth I spoke of having “the body of a weak, feeble woman; but…the heart and stomach of a king…” the concept was far more revolutionary than today we give credit.

Three hares swimming in a river, woodcut, 1547 Wellcome L0029225From the theory that the different sexes had different attributes—the concept of gender—came the realisation that some people didn’t conform. This is an ages-old idea, although only recently has it evolved into anything approaching a dominant norm. When Chaucer compared the Pardoner to a hare in The Canterbury Tales, he was alluding to a common medieval belief that hares were symbolic of sexual depravity and grew a new anus every year (really), and the audience was meant to infer that the Pardoner was a man of suspect sexual character (i.e. queer). What Chaucer didn’t do was say the Pardoner was effeminate, or woman-like.

Indeed, while today gay men are often considered feminised (and gay women as masculine), for a long time after the adoption of the concept of gender roles the opposite was true. From the mid-17th century terms such as “fop,” “popinjay,” “Macaroni,” (as in the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) and, later, “dandy” all referred to men we think of today as effeminate (and by default, queer), but whom at the time were considered excessively attracted to women, this being a period when well-to-do young men—the only sort rich and idle enough for foppish behaviour—spent very little time with ladies outside the marriage bed. Spending too much time with women made one womanly, it seemed, but the root cause was considered to be hyper-virility, not a lack thereof. The closest modern approximation is “meterosexual”: the young, straight, city-slicker who spends an obsessive amount of time on his appearance.

Phrenology1Everything changed in the mid-to-late-19th century, with the rise of sexology, which coincided with a rise in multiple exciting new branches of social biology that gave us, among other disciplines, phrenology (the study of how skull shape affected personality, particularly with a view to criminology), physiognomy (the same but for the face), and degeneration (the opposite of evolution). Doctors were falling over themselves to define people according to type, and had all manner of cures for perceived ills, from hydrotherapy and electric-shock treatment to being masturbated to orgasm (that is, given a “pelvic massage” to induce “hysterical paroxysm”).

Perhaps what is surprising, given the medical climate of the day, isn’t that sexuality as the concept we know now was developed, but that very quickly most sexologists held it couldn’t be altered or cured—something many of their predecessors decided to deny for the next hundred and fifty years. The World Health Organisation didn’t remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders until 1990.

Born on this day: Scott Hoffman (39, American), aka Babydaddy, Ivor Novello Award winning musician from glam rock band Scissor Sisters; Ernie Manouse (46, American), TV presenter; and Lily Tomlin (76, American), actress most recently known for her role as Frankie in Grace and Frankie.

Died on this day: Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), English poet and decorated soldier, best remembered for his First World War poetry; and Ethel Waters (1896-1977), American jazz and gospel singer.

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Being A Good Blogger: An Experiment

I’ve had this blog well over four years now, and I’m quite proud of it. I enjoy having my own space in which to rant or celebrate or discuss the news of the day. I can spend hours playing with widgets and plugins and colour schemes. What I don’t do is blog consistently, and I know that’s a mistake. Since switching to WordPress a couple of years ago, I’ve been watching my stats and know on any given day there are 50 people on my blog, even when I haven’t posted anything new in a month. I always feel a little bit guilty when I see that, even if those numbers are small fry in the blogging world 😀

So, it’s new leaf time! Starting tomorrow, I’m launching an exciting new regime of daily blogging. From now until Christmas, I’ll be filling the interwebs with 500-1000-ish words on a theme close to my heart: queer studies. From the history of how we moved from pederasty to homosexuality, politics, criminality, backlash, pride, and the equality movement, through brief biographies of the people who helped change the world — or were punished by it — and fictional representations of queerfolk from all dates and places. In a few short months, I want to travel from Ancient Greece to modern times; from Buggery Acts to same-sex marriage; from Zeus and Ganymede, Achilles and Patroclus, all the way to m/m romance.

I’ll be writing this stuff because I know and love it. Because it’s always pouring out of me and hell, I’ve got to use that degree somehow 😛 I hope you’ll find it as interesting as I do. Feel free to get involved in the comments, even if it’s only to disagree with me. The world needs more decent debates, and very little of what I’m going to say can be interpreted in black and white.

Before I take the plunge, some housekeeping. You’ll notice a lovely new tab at the top titled Queer Blogging: that’s where I’ll keep permalinks to all the posts, in order, so they’re easier to follow from the beginning as this project gets bigger. I’m anticipating something in the region of 125 posts, so it’s soon going to get messy otherwise! Posts will be split between history, biography, and fiction, and will move in roughly chronological order.

A note on the word “queer.” I’m going to be using it lots, because when we’re talking about same-sex attractions prior to about the 1860s, any modern term is redundant. I completely understand that plenty of people recoil from that word, and with good reason. I know it’s divisive. However, within an academic context it’s also useful for referring in general terms to non-cis/het folk without imposing upon them terminology or identities which are anachronistic or to which they don’t subscribe. “Queer” will be my compromise when I cannot be specific, and no offence is meant in its use, although I appreciate some will nonetheless be taken, and for that I apologise in advance. (I’ll also be using other words in some posts which might also make you cringe — sodomite, molly, etc. These will be used only within the specific context of the timeframe about which I’m writing, to discuss subcultures to which they applied. Times change, meanings evolve, and I won’t alter history to pander to modern sensibilities.)

The only other counter I’ll offer to “queer” is that we shouldn’t surrender words to our oppressors and allow slurs against us to stand unchallenged. Minorities benefit from reclaiming the language of aggression and rendering it redundant. And if you can’t accept that, I still understand, and hope you know that when I use terminology which makes you uncomfortable, I’m not referring to you, but speaking in the abstract.

And on that note, I’ll leave you until tomorrow, when I’ll start my epic history of homosexuality by explaining why there is no such thing as a history of homosexuality :) I hope you’re looking forward to it as much as I am!

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Bumps In The Road

a-bump-in-the-road-1519580This is something of a confession. The last few months have been a bit of a mess for me. Visa stuff and family stuff and medical stuff, none of it very serious but all of it distracting, and my brain’s been turned to mush. I haven’t written much of anything since I finished Balls Up. I’ve got the sequel, Bottoms Up, all plotted out, but I’ve only got 15k written and it’s become increasingly clear in the past weeks that it isn’t right. There’s something missing and I can’t put my finger on what, but right now the book is sub-par. I’ve tried powering through but until I know what the problem is, I can’t fix it. So I’ve decided to pull up my big girl pants and made the difficult decision to shelve the book for the time being.

Instead, I’m turning my attention to a couple of characters who are speaking to me: Ryan and Sameer. I’m plotting a prequel to the Blowing It series right now, with them at the helm. This will be my first time writing full-on contemporary BDSM, so it’s going to be an interesting challenge, and I hope I can do it justice. (I’d better, or there will be a queue to lynch me, with AJ at the head!)

noah-1-1486926-638x423As of now, the book is untitled, but I’m hoping all that will change in the next couple of months. I’m aiming to release in November, but I’ll be keeping the blog updated with progress so I should have more information soon.

I’d like to thank everyone who’s following the series and apologise to anyone I’ve disappointed with this announcement, but I promise there will be a third Owen and Magnus book. Their story isn’t done yet, it’s just percolating a little longer than anticipated.

For now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a whole plethora of research to do….

The Cost of Immigration

An open letter to the man who said I should stay home because America has “enough foreigners” already.


Dear Southern Man,

So you saw this blog post by my fiancee, excited I’ve finally (*finally* — we started this process last October) got the date for my visa interview, and you decided to piss on our parade with a fatuous remark about foreigners, like every immigrant to America is as ignorant as you are. I assume from your snide remark — with comments disabled, of course, so I couldn’t respond — that you think England is some sort of third world nation and I’m rocking up to suckle on Uncle Sam’s generous teats. Oh, how I laughed.

Just for giggles, here’s what moving to America has cost me so far:

  • Processing fee for relative immigration visa I-130, $420.00
  • UK police certificate (valid for 12 months), $70.00
  • Visa-standard photographs for police certificate, $15.00
  • Mandatory immunization shots, free (*smooches the NHS*)
  • Medical in Knightsbridge, London, $400.00
  • Visa-standard photographs for medical documents, $15.00
  • Train fare to London for medical, $120.00
  • Processing fee for visa interview, $265.00
  • Train fare to London for interview, $240.00
  • Visa-standard photographs for interview, $15.00
  • Courier fee to have visa shipped to me, $30.00

That’s almost $1600 just in processing fees, required documentation, and transport because there’s only one doctor in the whole of the UK the Embassy will accept a medical from, and it’s on the other side of the country to me. I haven’t even started on getting a last-minute flight to America (because from the moment the visa is granted, I’ve got six months in which to pack up my UK affairs, get Stateside, and get married) which is easily going to run me to another $1400 or so, the cost of shipping my belongings (bringing over only my books, clothes, and a PC is going to cost me approximately $1200), or considered the cost of all the flying back and forth I’ve done over the past couple of years, which adds several thousand more to what I’ve spent so far because I happened to fall in love with somebody from a different country.

And you know what? It’s worth it. She’s worth every last penny, and more besides. Once I arrive in America, we’ll have a marriage license to pay for, then application fees for me to get an Adjustment of Status (because all the visa means is I can enter America, not that I can stay) which costs another $1100 in filing fees alone. And until it’s all done and dusted, I am not permitted to get a job. Were it not for the fact I’m a writer earning royalties from around the world, I would be completely dependent on AJ to support me.

As a matter of fact, part of the visa application process was an Affidavit of Support AJ had to provide, giving the government permission to empty her bank accounts and take her house if I ever become a public burden. Not only am I not now or ever going to (be able to) sponge off the state, I’ve made America considerably richer just by applying to move there, all while expressly prohibited from attempting to support myself as the wheels of bureaucracy grind with soul-crushing slowness around us. We’ve joked more than once that I was financially solvent when we started this process, but by the time Uncle Sam expects me to prove it, he’ll have already drained my bank accounts.

I’ll also, of course, contribute to the American economy in other ways once I’m a resident. I’ll pay taxes, I’ll buy products, and the money I earn in royalties (the majority of which comes from America and at the moment get sent straight to the UK) will remain within the American economy, spent in American stores. I’ll have to buy a car and get a phone contract, pay bills, and maybe even feed and “cloth” myself as well.

As appealing as the idea of shuffling hordes in rags turning up with outstretched hands ready to grasp and take might be to your xenophobic little mind, the reality is far different. People don’t up and leave their place of birth and everything they’ve known unless they’re searching for a better life. Immigrants want to work, they want to contribute, and America was founded and became great off the back of them. I guarantee that’s why your ancestors moved there.

native immigrant

Unless you’re full-blood native, you’ve really got no room to talk. Especially not to make vacuous assumptions that the only reason people would emigrate in America is to be supported by people like you. Rather, my taxes will go towards paying for welfare that I as a non-citizen will be prohibited from claiming. We are supporting you, not the reverse. And this in a country where net migration is relatively tiny — 2.45 immigrants per 1,000 in 2014 (compared to 2.56 in the UK, and all the way up to 83.82 in little ole Lebanon). The UAE is almost 84% foreign-born, and even Australia is pushing a third of its population, compared to less than 15% in the US. This in a country with a population density less than most of Europe, Africa, and Asia (85 people per square mile, compared to 660 for the UK, for example).

Whichever way you cut it, America has got the room for thousands more immigrants, and the result would be a benefit for all: a UCLA study estimated that overhauling the immigration system to allow currently undocumented workers to be validated would add $1.5 trillion to the US GDP over the next ten years. The DREAM Act alone would add $329 billion to the economy. Rather than telling us to stay at home, you should be welcoming us with open arms.