William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Sexuality and the Sonnets

Generations of readers have wondered about Shakespeare’s own sexuality and romantic life. When he was just eighteen, Shakespeare married the twenty-eight-year-old Anne Hathaway. They had three children together. Although Shakespeare spent his working life in London, he lived in cheap lodgings there, and invested his income in a large home for his wife and children in Stratford. He famously left Anne his “second-best bed” in his will. Although this might seem a stingy legacy, a bed was an expensive item, and the second-best bed was probably William and Anne’s marital bed, because the best bed in a house was usually saved for guests. We know that many successful writers and actors of Shakespeare’s generation abandoned their wives and children, or raised second families with their mistresses, so Shakespeare was at the very least a more dutiful husband than many of his colleagues.

Nevertheless, Shakespeare spent most of his time in London, leaving his wife in Stratford. Some readers have pointed out that there are very few happy marriages in Shakespeare’s plays, although others have argued that there are few happy marriages in anybody’s plays. Happy marriages don’t make for great drama. A gossipy story survives about Shakespeare and his leading man Richard Burbage competing for the affections of a noblewoman who was very taken with Richard III, but gossip and jokes about the sex lives of actors were commonplace, so we can’t know whether there’s any truth to this story. The most important evidence that Shakespeare had a love life outside his marriage comes from his own Sonnets. The first 126 sonnets describe a passionate relationship between the poet and a “lovely boy.” Sonnet 20 declares that the poet prefers this young man to any woman, calling him “the master-mistress of my passion.” The final lines of the poem are careful to deny a sexual relationship, but without this denial, Sonnet 20 would have been very risky indeed.

Many readers have concluded from these sonnets that Shakespeare had at least one homosexual relationship. Some Elizabethan readers certainly found the poems morally shocking. One surviving first edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets contains the scribbled marginal note: “What a heap of wretched infidel stuff.” However, love was a conventional theme for sonnet sequences, and it’s possible that the relationship Shakespeare describes in his poems is nothing more than a literary device. The contemporary ideal of passionate, even erotic, but non-sexual male friendship was especially prized in the court of James I, and the bulk of Shakespeare’s sonnets were probably written or revised early in James’s reign. The Sonnets were published with a dedication to “Mr. W.H,” whose identity can probably never be known for certain, but the most likely candidate is William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke. Herbert was a favorite of King James’s who kissed the king at his coronation. Herbert was a generous patron of poets, and if Shakespeare’s goal was to win Herbert’s favor, it would have made sense for him to write about a friendship between men that flirts provocatively with romantic and erotic attraction.