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Was Shakespeare straight or gay?

We don't know whether Shakespeare was heterosexual or bisexual. Shakespeare married early and had 3 children. He moved to London in his twenties, leaving his family in Stratford on Avon, and returned to live in Stratford in his late forties. Shakespeare's plays are strongly and exclusively heterosexual in content, and the language expressing love in these plays - Romeo And Juliet, Antony And Cleopatra, Othello, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and many others - is probably the most powerful language of love between man and woman in the English language.

However, in Shakespeare's sonnets there is some suggestion that William Shakespeare was bisexual. Of his 154 sonnets, 1 through 126 are generally interpreted by critics as being addressed by the poet to a "youth" - a young man or boy - and often stress the subject's physical beauty. The remaining sonnets appear to be addressed to a "dark lady"; none of these sonnets seem very impressed by her beauty or sensuality, and some are not very flattering. Sonnet 20 expresses the poet's attraction to the beauty of a youth, and devotes the last 4 lines to his prick. Those who believe Shakespeare was exclusively heterosexual emphasize that the poet seems to reject the boy's prick as an undesired feature; those who believe Shakespeare was bisexual say this is an unusual topic for a heterosexual poet. Sonnets 40 through 52 seem particularly controversial. Sonnets 40 through 42 focus on a love triangle between the poet, a young man, and a woman. These sonnets are fairly clearly addressed to the young man, and seem at least as interested in him as in the woman. If one assumes that the addressee of the sonnets closely following 40 - 42 continues to be the young man, then the poet is saying that he dreams and day-dreams of the young man, agonizes when the young man goes away, and in general experiences feelings today associated with love and sexual desire. In Such Is My Love, Joseph Pequigney argues for Shakespeare's bisexuality based on the sonnets. Many critics view the seemingly homoerotic content of some sonnets as reflecting only the culture and writing style of the Elizabethan Age, which treated male friendship in more emotional and poetic language than we do today. Some of these critics believe that Shakespeare's sonnets are not concerned with a specific youth, but rather follow a poetic convention in writing love sonnets. Probably it is best to pay little attention to this issue, and instead enjoy the love poetry of each play and sonnet for the feelings it evokes in you.


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Copyright 2002 Dana Spradley, Publisher, for shakespeare.com