If you want a one-stop article about the same-sex desire expressed in Shakespeare’s first 126 sonnets, Sandra Newman’s recent Aeon article is the place to go. Newman neatly summarizes the historical debates over the sonnets and pretty much puts the matter to rest: they really are expressions of homosexual love from Shakespeare to a young patron. As she puts it,
[T]he simplest explanation, the one that best obeys the principle of Occam’s razor, is that both Shakespeare and the Fair Youth were gay or bi, against the backdrop of a fluidly sexual society where such distinctions made less difference than they do today.
The sonnets and Shakespeare’s crossdressing plays (especially As You Like It and Twelfth Night) have bolstered LBGTQ folk ever since. This was especially true in Victorian England, when revulsion against homosexuality forced it underground. (In Shakespeare’s time, young men’s homosexual affairs were regarded as no more than youthful peccadilloes.) Although the Victorians otherwise lionized Shakespeare, the sonnets were a problem, giving the scandalous Oscar Wilde an opportunity to troll the homophobes. In “Portrait of Mr. W. H.,” he imagines Shakespeare’s love for the mysterious man to whom he dedicates the sonnets.
For those gays who internalized society’s condemnation (and how can one not?), the sonnets and Wilde’s short story must have felt heaven-sent.
Concern over the sonnets’ homosexual content dates back to the late 18th century, when Edmond Malone defensively argued that Shakespeare and the Fair Youth were just good friends. His unconvincing explanation would drain the sexual content from Sonnet 18:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate…
And from Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments, love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds…
And from Sonnet 126:
O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle, hour…
Sonnet 20 is the lyric that removes all doubt. Female Nature is so in love with her creation that she “pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,” thereby depriving Shakespeare of the “master mistress” of his passion:
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;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
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.
Unable to rationalize to the same degree as his colleague Malone, George Steevens was filled with “disgust and indignation” at the sonnets’ homoeroticism and omitted them from his 1793 edition of Shakespeare’s work.
While the poet addresses the first 126 sonnets to the young man, the final 27 focus on a “dark lady,” and Newman speculates about a bisexual love triangle where Shakespeare’s true beloved is the man”:
At the end of the cycle (sonnets 127-154), a woman suddenly appears, the so-called “Dark Lady.” These poems are again surprising in their content. Shakespeare carps about the Dark Lady’s dishonesty, her reeking breath, promiscuity, venereal disease, and dark complexion (synonymous with ugliness in the Elizabethan period). The poet-narrator is nonetheless having sex with her; in sonnet 133, more remarkably, it transpires that the Fair Youth is sleeping with her too. In sonnet 144, Shakespeare makes it clear which of the two he prefers:
Two loves I have of comfort and despair
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colored ill.
Anthony Burgess plums the sonnets for his unsettling novel Nothing Like the Sun (1964), imagining that the young man gives the dark lady syphilis, who passes it on to a disillusioned Shakespeare.
Once one ferrets out a homosexual love affair from the sonnets, one finds apparent confirmation in the plays. In As You Like It, for instance, we see a man wooing someone he thinks is another man. To be sure, they’re just playacting: not recognizing Rosalind in her Ganymede disguises, Orlando acts out his love with a man in lieu of the woman he really wants. Still, it has all appearance of same-sex desire:
Rosalind (as Ganymede): Come, woo me, woo me; for now I am in a holiday humor and like enough to consent. What would you say to me now and I were your very, very Rosalind?
Orlando: I would kiss before I spoke.
As You Like It also has a very suggestive relationship between Rosalind and Celia, who follows her into the forest when Rosalind is banished.
Newman brings up one other variation in her article: what if one of the men is actually gay while the other is just looking for “a sexual stopgap.” Much of the drama of the sonnets involves the speaker (Shakespeare) having to counsel the Fair Youth to go marry and bear children. Sometimes he seems okay with this, as in Sonnet 3:
Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another…
In other sonnets, however, including Sonnet 20 quoted above, he seems less happy. The sonnets display a range of emotions, from heroic self-sacrifice to petulant whining.
We see a possible “stopgap” scenario in Twelfth Night between Antonio and Sebastian. Antonio is clearly gay, describing his love for Sebastian as “more sharp than filèd steel.” Sebastian, on the other hand, appears ready to leave Antonio behind and only accepts his company following Antonio’s insistence. Then he marries the first woman he runs into with never a backward glance. The play ends with Antonio alone on the stage while practically everyone else has paired up.
Over the centuries, Shakespeare gorgeous poetry has assured the LBGTQ community that their love is beautiful. He has also let them know he sees their loneliness and pain. What a gift he is to humanity!