Ian McKellen explains why William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is bisexual

Ian McKellen

Sir Ian McKellen explained why he thinks Hamlet, one of William Shakespeare’s most famous characters, is bisexual.

The acclaimed actor spoke about Hamlet’s sexuality as he prepared to play the prince of Denmark a full 50 years after he first took on the role.

“When you come see me you won’t see an old man pretending to be a young man, you’ll see a man pretending to be a prince, pretending to be an intellectual, pretending to be neurotic, pretending to love his mother, pretending to love girls and boys,” Ian McKellen told BBC Radio 4’s Front Row in June 2021.

“You didn’t know that was in Hamlet did you? It’s there, Rosencrantz to Hamlet: you did love me once,” McKellen said, referring to Hamlet’s childhood friend who is summoned in the play to determine the prince’s mental state.

Ian McKellen was surprised when he was asked to play Hamlet

McKellen played Hamlet in an “age-blind interpretation of the young prince” at the Theatre Royal Windsor in 2021.

Speaking on Front Row, McKellen admitted that he was surprised when he was asked to play Hamlet in the production. He was 82 at the time, whereas the character was likely intended to be around 30.

“I suppose I thought I might be playing Polonius, ‘No we’d like you to play Hamlet,’ said Sean [Mathias, the director].

“There was a pause, I thought that sounds like a bit of a silly idea, and then I thought no if that’s what you want to do, if you want to just say at the beginning of the show; ‘Here is a group of actors – all sizes, shapes and ages, and colours and ethnicities, and experience – and we’re going to tell the old familiar story, but perhaps not in the old familiar way,’ that seemed to me an adventure worth going on.”

Elsewhere in the interview, Ian McKellen reflected on his momentous decision to come out publicly as gay during a live BBC Radio broadcast in 1988.

The actor said Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin pushed him to come out, arguing it would be “important” for his development as a person and would also benefit others.

“I hadn’t felt up to that time that I was disadvantaged by the laws of the land which made it illegal for me to make love, because I simply broke the law,” McKellen said.

“But of course when I grew up and understood what the actual laws were – and this pernicious new little law [Section 28] that was being brought in, very mean spirited, inhibiting children to being introduced to the fact of homosexuality in society – it was only when I realised that there was grave injustice, that I realised it was a grave injustice against me and I took it personally, and once I’d taken it personally it became obvious not what I had to do, but wanted to do.”

Coming out was a liberating experience for McKellen, and it resulted in his life changing “in every aspect for the better”.

“Is it any wonder that my acting got better? It did, almost overnight. Now my acting is not about disguise but about revelation.”