Was Shakespeare gay? Some experts think so – but not all can agree

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Some of the top Shakespeare experts around the world have become embroiled in a debate over whether the legendary playwright’s sonnets prove that he was gay.

The row broke out after a book review claimed that Sonnet 116 appeared in “a primarily homosexual context”.

Was Shakespeare gay? Some experts think so – but not all can agree

Later, the review was condemned by Sir Brian Vickers, a visiting professor at University College London, who wrote to the Times Literary Supplement, saying the claim was an “anachronistic assumption” because experts now accept that some forms of rhetoric allowed men to express love in a way which does not mean sexual attraction.

Continuing, Vickers said that it was futile to suggest that there was anything biographical in the sonnets, as Shakespeare wrote professionally under a “poet-persona”.

Some have criticised Vickers’ comments, however, including “friendly acquaintance” Arthur Freeman, who said Sir Brian was promoting “one of the great fallacies of modern Shakespeare criticism.”

Freeman wrote: “I cannot think of any responsible editor … who would dismiss the premise of homosexual, as well as heterosexual passion pervading [the sonnets].

“Why should Shakespeare alone be thought so committed to the ‘negative capability’ of his dramatic craft that all his most personal writings are treated as potentially artificial?

“And even if we insist on regarding the sonnets, wholly or in part, as a kind of long-term dramatic narrative … why on earth would Shakespeare choose so often to impersonate a pathetically ageing, balding, lame and vulnerable bisexual suitor, abjectly whingeing about rejection and betrayal — unless the self-humiliation that surfaces again and again through these particulars were both genuine and cathartic?”

The Chariman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Stanley Wells also criticised Sir Brian, writing: “When a poet whose name is William writes poems of anguished and unabashed sexual frankness which pun on the word ‘will’ – 13 times in [Sonnet] No 135… it is not unreasonable to conclude that he may be writing from the depths of his own experience.”

Despite their differences of opinion, Sir Brian said there was “no bad blood” among the experts.

Someone with a more clear-cut opinion on the matter is Sir Ian McKellen.

Back in 2012, Sir Ian said: “I’d say Shakespeare slept with men.

“The Merchant of Venice, centring on how the world treats gays as well as Jews, has a love triangle between an older man, younger man and a woman.

Was Shakespeare gay? Some experts think so – but not all can agree

“And the complexity in his comedies with cross-dressing and disguises is immense. Shakespeare obviously enjoyed sex with men as well as women.”

Also in 2012, a public meeting was held in Thanet after local Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale, wrote an article describing prime minister David Cameron’s plans to introduce civil marriage equality as “almost Stalinist” that would “rewrite history and tradition”, including asking whether Shakespeare’s plays would have to be rewritten.