LGBT History Month 2020: Bi Bard

Rev. Dr Paul Edmondson is Head of Research for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and will be giving talks about the bard’s sonnets this LGBT History Month.

It’s probably safe to assume readers will be already familiar with Shakespeare – but what about bi-Shakespeare?

What we might understand as Shakespeare’s bisexuality can be found in his remarkable sonnets, a poetic form which was especially popular during his time, and which was associated with romantic love. Shakespeare became the master of the sonnet, made it his own, and 154 of his sonnets were published in 1609. Unlike the sonnets of his contemporaries, Shakespeare’s are much more intimate, personal, sometimes enigmatic, and often sexy. When we read Shakespeare’s sonnets carefully and closely, we can see that some (perhaps as many as twenty-seven of them) are addressed to male subjects. Some of these, for example those Sonnets which set out to persuade young men (or is it the same young man?) to beget children (Sonnets 1-17), show Shakespeare to be captivated by – and desirous of – male beauty and male sexuality. Some of the Sonnets (perhaps as few as ten) are addressed to females. Six others are about tortured, triangular relationships (see for example Sonnets 40-42 and 133-134), and one of these, Sonnet 144, begins, ‘Two loves I have, of comfort and despair’ before going to describe ‘a man right fair’ as being like an ‘angel’, and a competing woman as being a corrupting, ‘worser spirit.’

How does your research enhance our understanding of Shakespeare as bisexual? Is it a contested claim?

I’ve been reading and thinking about (and teaching and writing about) Shakespeare’s Sonnets for thirty years. Over the past year, I have co-produced (with Stanley Wells) a new edition of them for Cambridge University Press. For centuries, readers and critics have made many unfortunate assumptions about the Sonnets, and continue to do so. Our edition seeks to set Shakespeare’s poems free from the bonds of those old ideas. We achieve this in part through printing the Sonnets in a possible chronological order. In so doing, we find them to be freshly personal, and that part of their distinctive personality is a resonant and unabashed bisexuality. Critics and readers who have not noticed (or who have conveniently ignored) the sexuality that crackles through the Sonnets tend not to realise how bisexual these poems are. Eighty-six of the sonnets could be addressed to either males or females, a characteristic which invites the reader to remain open about the possibilities and directions of desire. He was also writing sonnets over a much longer period of time than has often been supposed, and seems not have wanted them to be published, which encourages our acceptance of them as personal poems.

He was married. Is there any evidence for non-heterosexual affairs, or does this seem to be a story of unrequited affections?

It seems that Shakespeare fancied Anne Hathaway so much that could not resist impregnating her outside wedlock, something of a scandal for a boy of his age. He was only eighteen (adult maturity was not acknowledged until you were twenty-one), but he had to marry her. She was twenty-six. They had three children; many families were often much bigger. The Sonnets suggest he did had other lovers, indeed he mentions ‘the trophies of my lovers gone’ in Sonnet 31. Certainly he is able to imagine and portray non-heterosexual desire across his wider works, too. The Sonnets do not tell one story; each Sonnet is its own story – in miniature – some forming pairs or mini-sequences. Sonnet 20, which is especially flirtatious, at once admires an irresistible female-looking male and articulates a sense of defeat because the object of the poet’s desire has a penis (he has been ‘pricked out for women’s pleasure’ adding ‘one thing to my purpose nothing’). But the amount of self-knowledge in this poem suggests that Shakespeare’s affections have not remained unrequited; he seems only to have resolved not to pursue them – for the time being.

From the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries to the twenty-first century: why does Shakespeare being bi back then matter now?

Shakespeare’s special authority and reputation as a writer means that he is often used as a sounding-board or a testing ground for our own concerns and interests. I did not think that I would be especially interested in Shakespeare’s bisexuality, but in thinking about it and trying to read more about what it means to be bisexual (for example Luke Turner’s moving and important memoir, Out of the Woods) I came to realise that there is very little writing available about the bisexual experience.
I also learned more about the on-going prejudice against bisexuals. If we seek a seminal, bisexual text for literature in English, and indeed for our own times, then I think we need look no further than Shakespeare’s own Sonnets. Their multiplicity of sexual identities is matched by their gender fluidity – as dizzying and as complex as that bodied forth in Shakespeare’s comedies.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets continue to be empowering texts for us all, and I hope they now speak directly to the LGBTQ+ experience in our time and culture.

You can find out more about Shakespeare’s life, work, and times on the website of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust:
You can hear Paul Edmondson’s talk ‘The Bisexual Voices of Shakespeare’s Sonnets’ on Saturday 29 February at 5.00pm at Bolton Museum. Admission free.
All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, ed. by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells is due out from Cambridge University Press in September.