By Stanley Wells
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 are 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 Number 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 Number 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. They have also 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 Number 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
By Stanley Wells
In 1979 Oxford University Press appointed me as the founding head of a Shakespeare department. The Oxford Shakespeare, first published in 1891, had been rendered seriously out of date by advances in scholarship.
By Kirsty McHugh, OUP UK
With news coming over the last day or so that a ‘lost’ play by Shakespeare called Double Falsehood is to be published, I thought that today would be the perfect time to give you a little taster of a new book of ours that is publishing in the UK in a couple of weeks. Shakespeare, Sex & Love is the latest book by the pre-eminent Shakespearian critic Stanley Wells, Chairman of the Trustees of Shakespeare’s Birthplace and Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Birmingham. In it, Wells examines how Shakespeare portrayed sex and love in his writing and how this was shaped by the sexual conventions of his time. In the short excerpt below you can read about how sexual behaviour was implicitly recorded in public records.
Stanley Wells will be appearing at the Oxford Literary Festival this Saturday, March 20th, at 12 noon. Click here to see a video of Stanley Wells talk about his book.
It is in the nature of things that sexual behaviour that does not offend agreed norms makes no special stir. Even so it may be revealing. People masturbate, woo, marry, copulate, and give birth. Of these events the law requires only that marriages and, in Shakespeare’s time, baptisms rather than births be recorded. Analysis of such records may in itself illuminate the sexual mores of the period and, indeed, of Shakespeare and his family. We know, for example, that between 1570 and 1630 the average age for first marriage among men in Stratford-upon-Avon, calculated on the basis of 106 known cases, was between twenty and thirty, though legally they could marry from the age of fourteen, with the ‘greatest number of marriages (fifteen) taking place when the bridegroom was twenty-four’. There was a practical reason for this: it would have given time for the men to have ‘become settled in work at the expiry of their apprenticeship’, which normally lasted for seven years. On the other hand, women by and large married younger: though the average age of brides at first marriage, based on sixty known cases, was also twenty-four, the favoured ages were ‘either seventeen or twenty-one’. The youngest bride married at the age of only twelve—the earliest legal age for a woman, younger even than Shakespeare’s thirteen-year-old Juliet—though she did not have a child until she was sixteen, which may (or may not) mean that the marriage was not initially consummated. ‘The men of Stratford’, we learn, ‘rarely looked farther afield than the outlying hamlets of the parish and, provided it was agreeable to the family, their choice usually seems to have been dictated by mutual attraction. Arranged marriages were only for the rich.’
Marriage is not a prerequisite for births, and records of baptism sometimes reveal sexual irregularity, as in the entry in the Stratford register on 5 May 1592 of the birth of ‘John, son of Katherine Getley, a bastard.’ There is a slight Shakespeare connection, as the mother’s father owned the cottage in Chapel Lane, close to Shakespeare’s house New Place, and which Shakespeare bought in 1602.