– The Mystery Unraveled
By Michael Warren
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is famous both as a playwright and as a poet. Between 1592 and 1594 he composed 154 sonnets, which were sent to his youthful patron the Earl of Southampton – they were not intended for publication, and in fact they were only published much later in 1609 after the death of Southampton’s mother. These poems are very personal and very revealing of Shakespeare’s inner life and emotions.
In the movie Shakespeare in Love we see a randy poet pursuing and ending up in bed with a beautiful and well-born young woman, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. He dashes off a sonnet – “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” – in between writing Romeo and Juliet and clambering up the ivy to his mistress’ bedroom. It’s a delightful fiction, because the early sonnets were certainly addressed to his patron Southampton who was a beautiful young man. Perhaps there was some flattery involved, but the expressions of love seem more than poetic. The Elizabethans were acutely conscious of the shortness of life, and it was not uncommon for the aristocracy to have affairs with both sexes.
In 1593, Shakespeare was 29 and his patron Southampton was 20. So, was Shakespeare bisexual? Sonnet 20 says it all: A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted/ Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;/ A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted/ With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
And for a woman wert thou first created,/ Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,/ And by addition me of thee defeated,/ By adding one thing to my purpose nothing;/ But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,/ Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.
If Southampton were a woman, as Nature intended, Shakespeare could consummate his love. Unfortunately the Earl is a man, so let women enjoy him physically while the poet’s love remains platonic. Perhaps it is hard for us today to understand the fuss and consternation these homoerotic phrases have caused. In 1640, an edition of the sonnets changed all the pronouns from masculine to feminine, and this remained the standard reading until 1780. At that time a commentator said “It is impossible to read this fulsome panegyric, addressed to a male object, without an equal mixture of disgust and indignation.” Others agreed with Samuel Taylor Coleridge (author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and of Kubla Khan), that Shakespeare’s love was pure and in his sonnets there is “not even an allusion to that very worst of all possible vices.” You can draw your own conclusions.
Next, who was the Dark Lady, the object of Shakespeare’s desire and infatuation?