Guest Blog: Playwright Nicholas de Jongh on Shakespeare's Sexuality and PRICKED OUT
My play Pricked Out may be set in Dorset on Midsummer's Day 2016, where two young men meet and make a sensational discovery about themselves, but the focus is on time past - in the shape of William Shakespeare and the extraordinary revelation of his sonnets, published in 1609 to far more embarrassed silence than to general applause. It was the playwright's greatest act of self-exposure and a most uncharacteristic one at that from a man known for his canniness and personal diplomacy...
The fact that just 20% of the sonnets were addressed to the famous Dark Lady while the rest of the 154 poems, as in the case of Shakespeare's friend Richard Barnfield, record the joys and pains of his impassioned and obsessive relationship to a young aristocrat partly explain the icy reaction, but the facts were more complicated and sometimes contradictory.
Shakespeare was a married man with children - not that he saw much of them in faraway Stratford. But what did that imply about his sexuality? His own sexual behaviour, if you exclude the evidence of the sonnets, alludes to the odd heterosexual encounter. Same-sex relationships may have been illegal and a prosecutable offence in Elizabethan England, but were only prosecuted where they involved underage youth. And by 1609 the bisexual James I was presiding over a court in which young male favourites captured the king's heart and probably more than that crucial organ.
Yet in the Elizabethan and Jacobean literary world, familiar with the mythology of a classical Greek and Roman world of same-sex dalliances, frank and open allusion to any contemporary gayness - to use our own word - was quite another matter. Christopher Marlowe may have proclaimed his interest in men, but his play Edward II harked back to a safely distant past. As now, some males may have been gender fluid, but discretion was supposed to be the informal rule. These matters in terms of contemporary life were often shrouded in ambiguity when written about, not flamboyantly revealed.
So Shakespeare's sonnets, for all their puns, allusions and metaphors, came to cause long-running trouble, and not that long after their publication. By 1640, the publisher of a new edition set about changing as many of the "he" pronouns in the sonnets to "she"; "sweet boy", for example, became "sweet love". The idea, carelessly worked through, was to convert Shakespeare's object of desire into a woman. These outrageous changes provide typical evidence that the sonnets were not accepted as examples of pure platonic love/friendship; it was felt commercially vital to remove any potential taint of same-sex love from his work.
Since then, academic critics, writers, poets and publishers - usually heterosexual - have clung to what might be called a cover-up. They conclude that William Shakespeare's sonnets cannot certainly be accused of recording the joys and pains of a same-sex relationship with a young aristocrat - probably the Earl of Southampton. Who can suggest, after all, with complete confidence, what precisely happened, when, and for how long, in the course of the two men's relating.
On the other hand, the receding waves of disquiet, disapproval and even dismay that marked the reaction to these sonnets are still highly significant today. Not until 1985, some 18 years after parliament decriminalised sex between two adult males over 21 in England and Wales, was there a frank, enthusiastic and convincing homoerotic reading of the sonnets - by the American scholar Joseph Pequigney.
Ten years earlier an analysis of the poems, which suggested that Southampton caught syphilis from the Dark Lady and transmitted it to Shakespeare, was ignored. What is remarkable and disturbing though is that even in today's climate of relatively liberal attitudes in the UK to same-sex relations Shakespeare scholars remain flamboyantly reluctant to concede that Shakespeare actually had sex with the Lord.
"At its most innocuous their friendship [Shakespeare and Southampton] was one of homage and patronage, at its most daring a full-blown homoerotic affair, which stopped just short of physical consummation," wrote one distinguished professor, Rene Weis, in his quite recent Shakespeare Unbound, its dust jacket modestly announcing "At last a key that unlocks the secrets of Shakespeare's life".
That "full-blown affair", though, had blown out within a mere seven pages, concluding the relationship was "probably not of a physical nature". What justifies the probability? "Whether they only stared longingly at one another or embraced, kissed passionately, went to bed together, was almost certainly shaped by an overwhelming sense of transience," according to the great contemporary Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt - just so.
But why should two young men in love - one of them an aristocrat - confine themselves to mere staring? Desire chafes against boundaries and often breaks through them. "Comradely affection in the literature of friendship", judged a key 20th-century sonnet. None as blind, of course, as those who want to avert their eyes and minds. It took a woman - the distinguished Shakespearean biographer and editor of his poems, Katherine Duncan-Jones, to strip away the cover-up.
But even today, we await the scholar who argues and deduces what many readers must surely now admit, in an age where same-sex attachments do not in Europe and America raise many eyebrows: that Shakespeare's sonnets deal with a great gay love affair and perhaps the strongest relationship of his life. This is the standpoint from which Pricked Out sets off...