Generations of readers have wondered about Shakespeare’s romantic life and sexuality. Much of the speculation about Shakespeare’s romantic life has arisen in relation to his apparently strained marriage. After marrying Anne Hathaway and having three children with her, Shakespeare left his family for London. Although he returned to Stratford from time to time, Shakespeare spent the majority of his working life in the city. Many wonder whether Shakespeare had affairs during his time away. One story survives about Shakespeare and his leading man, Richard Burbage, competing for the affections of a noblewoman who was very taken with
But gossip about the sex lives of actors were commonplace, so we can’t know whether there’s any truth to this story. The most suggestive evidence that Shakespeare may have had a love life outside his marriage comes from his sonnets, and particularly from the later sonnets addressed to a mysterious dark lady. The sonnets depict this dark lady as unchaste and faithless, yet also as someone who elicits a strong desire in the poet. The identity of Shakespeare’s dark lady remains the subject of much speculation, but we don’t know whether she was real or a product of the poet’s imagination.
In addition to the temptations of the dark lady, the sonnets also depict intense homoerotic desire, which has inspired readers to conjecture about Shakespeare’s sexuality. The first 126 of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets address a beautiful young man. In Sonnet 20 the poet declares that he prefers this young man to any woman, calling him “the master-mistress of my passion,” but final lines of the poem carefully deny a sexual relationship. Elizabethans acknowledged the existence of same-sex desire, and James’s court prized the ideal of intimate, even erotic male companionship. But regardless of how much leeway the contemporary culture allowed for men to desire other men, both the law and religious doctrine strictly prohibited sodomy. As with the dark lady, the young boy may not be a real person, but Shakespeare’s dedication of the sonnets to a “Mr. W. H.” has created intrigue. Some scholars suggest that the dedicatee is William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, though the “W. H.” could also reverse the initials of Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. Both Herbert and Wriothesley represented possible patrons, in which case it would have made sense for Shakespeare to write about a friendship between men. But whether or not he had an erotic relationship with either man remains completely speculative.