OPINION - Straight Acting review: It’s an eye-catching claim: was William Shakespeare queer?


This short, snappy work of popular scholarship by Will Tosh, head of research at Shakespeare’s Globe, is a necessary provocation and a highly selective bid to claim our national poet as a queer icon. Fair enough. As Tosh says in his introduction, red-faced heterosexuals have spent centuries explaining away the many sympathetic depictions of gay or transgressive love that lace some plays and dominate the sonnets and love poems, insisting Shakespeare was “an occasional non-participatory tourist into the strange terrain of queer desire”.

A book that views him through an exclusively queer lens is a much-needed corrective, then, but just as partial as those that insist that the sailor Antonio’s passion for Sebastian in Twelfth Night is purely platonic. Tosh tells us that Shakespeare wore skirts as a child, was educated in homoerotic and gender-fluid Graeco-Roman stories, and lived in a mostly-male milieu where bed-sharing was common and courtly love (amicitia perfecta) between men idealised. So were many, many men of his class and upbringing.

True, Shakespeare also worked in theatre where gender ambiguity reigned — all those young boys playing desirable female characters pretending to be men. The issue of pederastic boy-love, in classical literature and in the dark recesses of London’s first theatres, along with the “sexualised sadism” of 16th-century schoolroom floggings, leads Tosh into some awkward accommodations. Hence his use of the word “queer” — “to mean sexuality that was dissident, unusual, or athwart the erotic mainstream” — rather than “gay” to describe Shakespeare’s sensibility. (Both words were current in Shakespeare’s time, but he never used “queer” in print: often the pleasure in Tosh’s book comes from such incidental details or close readings rather than his central thrust.)

He suggests Shakespeare was inspired by the ravishingly naughty Christopher Marlowe (finding echoes of the latter’s Edward II in the former’s Richard II) and the lesser-known sonneteer of man-on-man love, Richard Barnfield. There’s the usual nudge-nudge, wink-wink mention of the dedication of the love poem Venus and Adonis to the Earl of Southampton, allied to an insistence that Venus really seems quite butch as written.

Countless works that don’t fit the bill — Hamlet, Lear, Much Ado — are skimmed over or ignored

Indeed, Shakespeare’s poems and sonnets are the main prop of Tosh’s argument, along with the plays that highlight passionate male relationships and gender confusion — As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and to a lesser extent The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet. He seems briefly to flirt with the idea of Falstaff in the Henry plays as equivalent to the unsuitable male “favourites” of some of Europe’s more louche monarchs, before swiftly moving on.

Countless works that don’t fit the bill — Hamlet, Lear, Much Ado — are skimmed over or ignored. Similarly Tosh writes loftily that “to consider [Shakespeare’s] queer life is in no way to erase the significance of his wife” Anne Hathaway, or his three children. But whenever they crop up they seem like awkward bollards impeding his linear progress. Gay relationships in Shakespeare’s plays suggest he was gay in real life: straight marriages in them “don’t follow a pattern from which we can infer an autobiographical portrait”.

He’s acute on period detail and historic context: sodomy was a capital crime during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James II, but in those 67 years only one person was convicted of it “in all the home counties surrounding London”. But he prefaces each chapter with fictional scenarios from different periods in Shakespeare’s life: feeling an erotic frisson among the peacocking men perusing books in St Paul’s precinct; fretting about plague; using a male lover’s back as a writing desk. Doubtless this is playful, but it undermines his scholarship.

So was Shakespeare queer, or gay, or bi? As with so much in his life, we simply don’t know. Certainly, he was open enough to the complexity of humanity to write sympathetic gay characters, as well as Moorish soldiers, Jewish moneylenders, mad kings and lovelorn women. Definitely, he wrote poetry that was more ardent when addressed to a man than to a woman. It’s quite possible he had sex with men: again, we don’t know. Tosh’s book forcefully and elegantly suggests we should at least entertain the possibility after centuries of outright denial. But it also exposes the folly in trying to pin this myriad, mysterious genius down as either one thing or the other.

Straight Acting by Will Tosh (Sceptre, £22) is published on June 13

Nick Curtis is the Evening Standard’s chief theatre critic