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Shakespeare, William (1564-1616)  
 
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As one of the key figures that western civilization has used to define itself, William Shakespeare stands in a complicated, fiercely contested relationship to homosexuality.

Shakespeare and Homosexuality

The subject of Shakespeare and homosexuality is really four subjects: it (homosexuality), he (Shakespeare), they (Shakespeare's contemporaries), and we (actors, audiences, readers, and cultural pundits across the four centuries since Shakespeare's death).

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It (Homosexuality)

Like "sexuality" in general, "homosexuality" did not exist as a conceptual category in sixteenth-century Europe. That does not mean, of course, that feelings we today would describe as did not exist, any less than behavior we would describe as homosexual.

The closest that early modern English comes to a word for homosexuality is "." But "sodomy" was a short-hand term for socially taboo acts that we today would put in very different categories from sexual acts. Even in the lawbooks, "sodomy" spilled over into heresy, witchcraft, and treason. These conceptual differences remind us that sexuality is not a natural given but something that changes as social and political circumstances change.

He (William Shakespeare)

Concerning the sexuality of William Shakespeare the man, we are in a position to say almost nothing. No private documents of any kind survive. What we have instead are a handful of public documents--entries in the parish register of his baptism and burial, conveyances of real estate, his testimony in a court case involving the dowry of his London landlord's daughter, his last will and testament--plus a few snide remarks, mostly by rival playwrights, on his facile talents as a scriptwriter and several testimonials to his geniality.

None of these documents and comments makes any specifically sexual references. In this respect, Shakespeare differs from his near-contemporary Christopher Marlowe, who was accused (after he was safely dead) of having said such things as "all they that love not Tobacco & Boies [are] fooles."

It is worth noting, however, that Shakespeare's domestic arrangements were, by early modern standards, not exactly ideal. With the help of other people's money, he negotiated the ecclesiastical hurdles necessary to marry in a hurry a woman who was eight years his senior. His first child was born six months after the event.

He apparently spent most of his career living in London while his wife and children stayed behind in Stratford. Shortly before his death, he dictated a will that is unusual in making his elder daughter, not his wife, the primary beneficiary of his estate.

They (Shakespeare's Contemporaries)

Concerning the sexuality of William Shakespeare's contemporaries, we are in a position to say a great deal more, thanks in no small part to Shakespeare's plays and poems. The general picture looks radically contradictory.

If all we had to go on were lawbooks, we would have to conclude that early modern England was a virulently society. The sodomy statute 5 Elizabeth, chapter 17, passed by Parliament in 1562-1563, made acts of sexual penetration between males a felony that was punishable by death.

Listening to certain speeches in Shakespeare's plays, however, we are astonished to hear expressions of homoerotic feeling that seem by today's standards remarkably direct and, more to the point, remarkably uncomplicated. In Coriolanus (1608), for example, the warrior Aufidius welcomes his erstwhile enemy by casting his feelings in the erotic terms of marriage:

          O, let me clip ye
In arms as sound as when I wooed, in heart
As merry as when our nuptial day was done,
And tapers burnt to bedward! Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sighed truer breath. But that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold. (4.5.113-118, Oxford edition)

What Aufidius felt on his wedding night was nothing to what he feels in the presence of his archenemy.

Just what are we to make of such a disparity between the courtroom and the theater? We might, first, stress the differences between the two places as venues. In the courtroom, attention is centered on certain specific sexual acts; in the theater, the focus widens to include desires and fears, to what it feels on the inside to say and do things that the law considers only from the outside.

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