In Elizabethan England, sex between people of the same gender was a crime. The punishment was death. At the same time, same-sex friendship, and especially friendship between men, was often expressed in language that seems romantic or even erotic to a modern reader. Friends spoke and wrote of their love, devotion and longing for one another. Close friends were expected to be physically affectionate, which meant it wasn’t unusual for people of the same gender to embrace, kiss, or share a bed. Because passionate non-sexual love between people of the same gender was encouraged, it’s hard to know how same-sex desire was understood by the people who experienced it, or how often they acted on these desires. Regardless of their sexual feelings or behaviors, a person in Shakespeare’s time would not have identified as “gay,” “lesbian,” or bisexual, as those designations did not exist. At the same time, Elizabethans recognized that people of the same gender did sometimes have sex with each other.
Homosexual sex was very rarely written about in direct language. The only surviving direct references to homosexual relationships are accusations of sodomy against men. “Sodomy” was the crime of “unnatural sex,” of which homosexuality was one form. Written accusations of sodomy don’t necessarily tell us anything about the way homosexual relationships actually happened, but they do tell us what circumstances made ordinary Elizabethans suspicious that a friendship between men had become a sexual relationship. Men who were close friends could be suspected of homosexuality if they were of a different class status from one another, or if one friend appeared to be committed to the friendship primarily for financial reasons. Certain social groups (usually groups who were already subject to other prejudices) were also considered more likely to commit sodomy. One such group was the unpopular demographic of Italian merchants.