England’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.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.