The other day I stumbled across an article with the headline “William Shakespeare was undeniably bisexual, researchers claim.” I immediately rolled my eyes at the word “undeniably.” Shakespeare was not undeniably anything. Due to limited records (which is perfectly normal for the period), doubt can be cast on almost every aspect of his existence. Basic facts are doubted by many, let alone the less public facing details of his life, such as his religion or sexuality. So, it is preposterous to assert that anything can be undeniably known about Shakespeare, especially from a biographical reading of the sonnets. But before I get too far into this rant, let’s talk about the meat of the article.
Sexuality from Sonnets
The article was discussing the recent findings of some researchers to tease their upcoming book all about it. Professor Sir Stanley Wells and Dr. Paul Edmondson took Shakespeare’s sonnets and rearranged them into the order they were likely written. They also pulled some sonnets from the plays for a total of 182 sonnets. Using an unknown methodology, they concluded that Shakespeare was bisexual because the sonnets are addressed to both males and females. That is what we know so far, but there’s already quite a bit to unpack there.
Of course, as with all biographical readings of the sonnets, it all comes down to the “fair youth” and the “dark lady.” Clearly Shakespeare had multiple affairs with people of different genders because it says so right there in the sonnets. (For those in the back, that last sentence was sarcasm.) Now, I’m not saying that it didn’t happen. I couldn’t care less if Shakespeare identified as bisexual. What I’m saying is that the research here does not provide any concrete answers, despite what the researchers may claim.
First of all, there is no evidence that the sonnets are biographical. Shakespeare was likely writing under the patronage of a nobleman or woman. He would have written the sonnets for them. It’s just as plausible that he was writing from the point of view of someone other than himself. Maybe some of them were biographical, but we’ll never know. Second, they included some sonnets from the plays and those were DEFINITELY written from the point of view of a character, not Shakespeare. There is no way for us to determine which lines in the plays were biographical, if any even were.
To conclusively or “undeniably” determine Shakespeare’s sexuality from the sonnets requires us to assume that the sonnets are biographical. That assumption can not be made with certainty. The foundation of their thesis – that the sonnets are biographical – is questionable at best, so any conclusion drawn from that assumption must also be questionable.
Originality from Sexuality
Questioning Shakespeare’s sexuality is nothing new. People have been assuming Shakespeare was gay for decades by relying on biographical readings. Professor Wells apparently became interested in studying the sonnets after challenging the idea that Shakespeare was gay in 2014. Sir Brian Vickers claimed that the content of one sonnet was primarily homosexual in nature. Professor Wells disagreed with this because Shakespeare had a wife and children. It would be impossible for him to be gay.
Again, Professor Wells displays his flawed logic because of course Shakespeare had a wife and children. Homosexuality was considered a horrible sin at the time and getting married was what you did. End of story. People are still trying to cover up their sexuality today with marriage, so I don’t see why it’s out of the realm of possibility for Shakespeare to do the same. But I digress.
What really rubbed me the wrong way was one specific quote from Professor Wells:
“Some of these sonnets are addressed to a female and others to a male. To reclaim the term bisexual seems to be quite an original thing to be doing.”Professor Stanley Wells, The Independent
Perhaps it is original, but to point it out while discussing your own research seems a bit gauche. Not to mention, it makes me question the authenticity of his analysis. Did he go into his analysis with an open mind, or was he looking for something “original” to say? Depending on the methodology, literary analysis can be very subjective. If you’re looking for something interesting, you’ll probably find it.
I should probably reserve my final judgement for after I’ve read the book, but I had a lot of feelings. There are so many red flags flying in this short article teasing the book that I have a hard time believing the book will be better. I can’t imagine the book will completely change my mind, but I guess we’ll see…