(Homo)sexuality in Shakespeare’s Sonnets
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 it dead.
That poem, explicitly addressed to a ‘sweet boy’, gives an echo, as Viola says in Twelfth Night, to the very seat where love is throned. It expresses an intensity of love that knows no limits. Shakespeare’s Sonnets transcend the boundaries of sub-divisions of human experience to encapsulate the very essence of human love.
Stanley Wells is a renowned authority on Shakespeare and other writers of his time. He has published many books and articles on the subject and lectured all over the world. He is Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham in Stratford-upon-Avon. He is Chair of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Honorary Governor Emeritus of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and member of the Board of Directors of the Globe Theatre. In 2007, he was awarded a CBE. Shakespeare, Sex, and Love published in paperback this month. Read more about his experience of editing the entire Shakespeare canon.