The Rev. Montague Summers once said in response to a query about the nature of Shakespeare's Sonnets: "But of course they are!"
Whether the Sonnets are gay or not, they have certainly gone through a number of editions which shows how really afraid people are that they are. John Benson in his 1640 edition changed all the "he" pronouns to read "she," thereby creating a surrealism of sexual anatomies. Eventually the Sonnets were re-arrantged by scholars who swore by typographical honesty, however much they disliked the moral of the tale. When the scholar George Stevens read the newly-corrected edition in 1780, he acknowledged reading them "with an equal admixture of disgust and indignation." The great scholar Edmund Malone in 1790 tried to explain to neoclassical readers that Renaissance men of letters often so addressed one another in such intimate terms, and that "friendshippe", rather than "loue" was the central passion. The industrious scholar Edward Dyce in 1832 revised Malone's explanation for a Romantic audience, concluding that Faithful Friendship was indeed but a mere convention.
In 1890 the not-very-erudite scholar Angelo Olivieri succeeded in documenting the occurrence of similar terms of masculine endearment in the works of Poliziano, Martelli, Bembo, Michelangelo, and other Renaissance poets quote uncognizant of the facts that both Poliziano and Bembo were definitely known to be overt homosexuals even by their contemporaries, and that Michelangelo certainly came under the suspicion as much then as he does now. So the general scholarly and critical consensus has been, and continues to be by professors such as A.L. Rowse of Oxford, that Renaissance friendship as illustrated by Shakespeare's Sonnets is a typical convention having absolutely no homoerotic element.
Let us say here and now that this is sheer rubbish. If a Renaissance gentleman addressed another as "the master-mistress of my passion," as a "tender churl," as "my rose," and as "sweet love" he would either be accompanied to the nearest bedchamber, or kicked in the cod-piece for so rudely flaunting decorum. As a matter of scholarly fact a fact which critics canting about convention continue to ignore the only other English Renaissance sonnet sequence addressed by one man to another was Richard Barnfield's unabashedly and overtly homosexual Certayne Sonnets (1595). Barnfield has lines such as "Sometimes I wish that I his pillow were,/ So might I steale a kisse" and
I think that Samuel Butler in 1899 made the first intelligent, reasonably perceptive, and realistic remark upon the subject: that Shakespeare's love for Master W.H. was "more Greek than English." Unfortunately the remark is also a bit coy, for Butler was himself homosexual and knew that it was quite English as well as Greek. But the fact that Butler was gay in no way depreciates the validity of his perceptions, for, let us go ahead and say it, homosexuals are certainly as sensitive to their own literary heritage as anyone whose knowledge is limited to a recognition of sodomy when physically described.
The Sonnets should certainly stand on their own as very fine examples of artistically wrought emotion, in other words as Literature, with parts ranging in achievement from the mediocre to the very great, rather than be read as mere biographical artefacts. I have no argument with this when it urges us towards an appreciation of beauty, but usually this exhortation to "Stick to the text" has been used simply as a ploy to evade the question of whether or not they express homosexual love. It is easier to ignore homosexual love when you think only of a writer with his pen and ink rather than with his boyfriend. So all due apologies to textual purists let us get down to the substantive enigma of these very personal poems: Who was "Mr. W.H." to whom the Sonnets were dedicated as "the only begetter" on the title-page?
Some of the duller suggestions as to the identity of this mysterious personage are: William Harte, Shakespeare's nephew (who was an infant at the time); William Hathaway, Shakespeare's brother-in-law; William Hall, an errand boy for the printer of the First Folio; William Hunnis, a minor poet; William Harvey the physician, who was Wriothesley's stepfather; and, an especially ingenuous suggestion, William Himself! Nearly all scholars have abandoned these suggestions. Two other suggestions that some critics still favor are Henry Wriothesley (with initials inexplicably reversed), the third Earl of Southampton, to whom Venus and Adonis and Lucrece are dedicated; and William Herbert, the third Earl of Pembroke, to whom the First Folio of the plays was dedicated in 1623. But it is extremely doubtful that either of these two noblemen were Shakespeare's lover or dedicatee however appealing an affaire aristocratique might be to pedagogues in the library.
First of all, the initials "Mr." mean "Master" (not "Mister," incidentally), which roughly translates as "Young Sir": for either a poet or a printer to have addressed an Earl as "Mr." would have been unforgiveable in that era. Further, Shakespeare in Sonnets 25, 124 and 125 explicitly says that his beloved is not a member of the nobility. It could not have been Pembroke because we know that most of the Sonnets were written by 1598, when Shakespeare says, in Sonnet 105, that he had known W.H. for three years: but Pembroke did not come to London until 1598. We also learn that W.H.'s father was dead (i.e. before 1598), whereas Pembroke's father did not die until 1601. Further, W.H. is described as having blond hair, whereas Pembroke's hair was dark brown.
It could not have been Southampton because W.H. is described as having no marriage plans, whereas Southampton had been engaged to Elizabeth Vernon from a very early age. Further, W.H. is described as exceedingly beautiful and resembling his mother, whereas Southampton's portraits show him to be rather plain and certainly not resembling his mother. Lastly, the inversion of H.W. to W.H. was by no means a common device in Shakespeare's day, and he plays this game nowhere else. In any case, we can be certain that W.H.'s first name was Will (William), not Henry, because of the elaborate and repetitious puns in Sonnet 20, in which each occurrence of the word will is printed in italics in the original edition, and the punning Sonnets 135 ("Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,/ And Will to boot, and Will in over-plus"; it uses the word "will" 13 times) and 143 ("So will I pray that thou mayst have thy Will").
We also know that W.H.'s second name was Hughes, because of the similarly elaborate and repetitious puns in Sonnet 20, in which the eighth line is properly spelled and italicized as "A man in hew, all Hews in his controwling" (Hews is an acceptable Renaissance spelling for Hughes). The pun on "hue," "hew," and "usury" is found especially in Sonnets 4, 20, 67, 82, 135, and 136.
This identification of W.H. as William Hughes was first made by Thomas Tyrwhitte (1730-86); unfortunately neither he nor we know exactly who William Hughes was! Oscar Wilde, however, made a painstaking investigation into the matter, and concluded, with persuasive evidence, that Willie Hughes was a boy-actor who played the women's parts in Shakespeare's early plays. Wilde's essay is an excellent example of the best sort of erudite and critical argument that can be mounted, though it has been ignored by mainstream scholars simply because its author went to jail for his love's sake. Wilde's knowledge of the world of the theatre also helped him to identify Will Hews as a boy actor, who at one point abandoned Shakespeare's company for a rival writer or perhaps a rival theatre company. For example, in Sonnet 78 he says "Every alien pen hath got my use/ And under thee their poesy disperse," i.e. he is speaking the words of another playwright. Wilde points out that the lines --
What is your substance, whereof are you made,"would be [says Wilde] unintelligible if they were not addressed to an actor, for the word 'shadow' had in Shakespeare's day a technical meaning connected with the stage." And Shakespeare tries to persuade Will Hews to leave the stage: "Why should false painting imitate his cheek/ And steal dead seeing of his living hue?/ Why should poor beauty indirectly seek/ Roses of shadow, since his rose is true?" [No. 67]. Wilde also established that the name "Will Hewes" was a not uncommon Elizabethan name: The Earl of Essex had a musician named William Hewes in 1585 (whose son or younger brother perhaps could have been Shakespeare's W.H.); there was an English actress names Margaret Hews (perhaps W.H. was a relative); there was a playwright named Thomas Hews who wrote a play with help from Sir Francis Bacon (perhaps W.H. was a kinsman). But, alas, the links are not firm. Wilde urged that someone write a scholarly history of Elizabethan boy actors, which I do not think has been to this day.
But to return to the Sonnets themselves bearing in mind the possible or probable existence of a Willie Hughes dressed as Juliet. Willie Hughes is the Muse in boy's attire, one of the finest embodiments of adolescent androgyny, in English literature. His hermaphroditic beauty is attributed to the capriciousness of Mother Nature, who at the last minute could not quite decide whether to make him a girl or a boy (Sonnet 20):
This single sonnet raises a wealth of speculations, all of which are more relevant to the homosexual literary tradition than to the spiritual friendship tradition. Shakespeare's genealogical argument is that Nature, falling in love with the woman she was creating, added "one thing" to make fulfillment of that love possible: that "one thing" punningly underlined by "prick'd thee out" is of course a penis. Shakespeare's attitude towards that one thing can be variously interpreted. He obiously loves W.H. and his beautiful body with a "passion" usually accorded by a lover to his mistress, and the addition of the penis may mean that his desires are foiled. Or perhaps "one thing to my purpose nothing" could also mean that Shakespeare has no use for being sodomized by, or for fellating, that one thing but that other homoerotic possibilities (such as intercrual intercourse) are not therefore ruled out. Admittedly "mine be thy love, adn thy love's use their treasure" and "women's pleasure" seems to mean that he will forgo the specifically sexual delights offered by Willie, but I cannot seriously entertain the notion that Shakespeare in this quite playful sonnet is earnestly denying a homoerotic desire. The final couplet, in which he says he will forgo the specifically sexual delights offered by W.H., is a superficial jest that is inadequate to counterbalance the weight and direction of the preceding three quatrains. The sonnet reveals in fact a man who is nearly obsessed by the fact that his lover has a penis. By expressing this awareness on paper, he has violated all the conventions proper to the missives between a faithful friend and his alter ipse or "another myself". There is no other example in Renaissance literature, either in England or on the Continent, in which a gentleman even hints at, much less so blatantly, his friend's genital endowment and its possible relation to his own pleasure. The facile dismissal of its usefulness to him raises an issue that should otherwise have gone unnoticed. The sonnet smacks of a campy overture of a man to his boy.
Shakespeare and Master W.H. have entered into a "marriage of true minds," and critics have expanded this with reference to Platonic metaphysics. But, more specifically, Shakespeare views W.H. as his wife: "So shall I live, supposing thou art true,/ Like a deceived husband" (Sonnet 93); in a sense they are the very first married couple on earth, and suffer the fate of Adam and Eve: "How like Eve's apple doth thy beauty grow / If thy sweet virtue answer not thy show" (Sonnet 93). W.H. is repeatedly described as a woman in a husband-wife pair-bond. W.H.'s many guises of marked physical beauty suggest that he was an actor specializing in playing the roles of young boys and women.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeitW.H. is "the blazon of sweet beauty's best," the harlequin- like composite archetype of all the beautiful males and females described by the "antique pens" of the authors of ancient and medieval literature: he resembles not only the "lovely knights" but also the fair "ladies dead" of medieval romance (Sonnet 106). Shakespeare is the king, and W.H. is even described as his "throned queen" (Sonnet 96)
Some readers may feel it is distasteful to investigate the bawdy aspect of the Sonnets, for their central theme and greatest beauty is love and friendship in the fullest meaning of these experiences. But the fullest and healthiest and richest fraternity is erotic fraternity, so let us proceed forthwith. "Treasure" and "pleasure" are erotic puns in Renaissance diction, the former connoting semen, and the latter connoting orgasm or at least sexual foreplay. In Sonnet 20 Shakespeare seems to reject both treasure and pleasure, but the Sonnets were written over a number of years, and this sonnet does not necessary express the author's final position; nor do we know the order in which the Sonnets were written. (In fact it may be more of a playful overture than a decision.) In Sonnet 75 Shakespeare says that he does indeed have both Willie's treasure and his pleasure:
I am not particularly Freudian, but I will note briefly the oral orientation of the glutton/suffeit/feast complex of metaphors. It is also interesting to note that the miser metaphor conjures up a pile of gold coins, and that gold coins and money are often used in Renaissance erotic poetry to connot sperm (the "purse" being the testicles, "spending" connoting ejaculation). This equation of treasure with semen is nearly explicit elsewhere in the Sonnets, e.g. "all the treasure of thy lusty days" (Sonnet 2) and "Make sweet some vial, treasure thou some place/ With beauty's treasure" (Sonnet 6). Shakespeare seems to have tasted this treasure:
So am I as the rich whose blessed keyNote, incidentally, the possibly phallic metaphor of "blessed key."
Shakespeare reverses the apparent renunciation of pleasure in Sonnet 20, and in Sonnet 121 he quite explicitly argues with Willie to grant him this pleasure. As I read the lines, he seems to be saying, "You may as well sleep with me, since others already think we are queer anyway" (or to put in contemporary Renaissance words, "If I am going to be called a sodomite I may as well enjoy the delights of sodomy"):
'Tis better to be vile than vile esteemedThe tremors of Shakespeare's sportive blood which of course means sexual excitement are revealed most clearly in sonnets 50 and 51, in which he develops one of his favourite erotic metaphors, upon riding a horse. Eric Partridge in Shakespeare's Bawdy documents more than a hundred erotic horse- metaphors in the plays, summed up in Cleopatra's cry, "O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!" In Venus and Adonis a dozen stanzas develop a minature erotic allegory between two horses representing Venus and Adonis, Adonis being unable to deal properly with his horse: "He will not manage her, although he mount her." If the Sonnets had been addressed to a female, most critics would unhesitatingly point out the erotic puns in sonnets 50 and 51, which describe the poet riding on a horse away from his friend:
"My grief lies onward and my joy behind" may be a sodomitical pun. Apologies for this digression.
We know from Sonnets 27 and 28 that Shakespeare's yearing for Willie kept him awake at nights and that he nearly had what might almost be called wet dreams as a result of his yearning, and perhaps he even masturbated while fantasizing about his beloved Willie. In Sonnet 98 Shakespeare tells Willie:
From you have I been absent in the spring,"Leaped" and "play" are erotic puns in Elizabethan diction. (Shakespeare is also using homosexual mythological allusions here: W.H. is Eros, fought over by Apollo/Shakespeare and Dionysus/Father Time. He is as the rose-like Cyparissus fought over by the wind god Zephyrus and Shakespeare as the god Apollo. Shakespeare desires to play with W.H. just as Dionysus wrestled with Ampelos, or Saturn played with the fertility-spirit of April.)
Homoerotic fantasy and desire are clearly evident in the poems, and I think also there is evidence that his love was physically consummated, as suggested by references to "disgrace," "offence," and "ill deeds" in Sonnet 34; the exclamation "No more be griev'd at that which thou hast done:/ .../ All men make faults, and even I in this,/ Authorizing thy trespass with compare,/ Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,/ Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are" in Sonnet 35; and the suggestion in Sonnet 36 that Shakespeare must separate from Willie in order not to harm his reputation: "I may not evermore acknowledge thee,/ Lest my bewailed guilt should do thee shame."
It is impossible to give any final answer to the biographical questions as to the degree to which Shakespeare was aware of the erotic aspect of his love for W.H.; whether or not Shakespeare and W.H. physically consummated their love; whether or not there was mutual guilt if this love was so consummated (as implied in the "sensual fault" Sonnets 34, 35, and 36); whether or not Shakespeare's desire for W.H. to beget offspring can be concommitant with homosexual love (though similar admonitions are given by Barnfield's Daphnis to Ganymede, by King James to Buckingham), or whether, as Wilde suggests, Shakespeare is exhorting Willie to "marry" his own Muse. What I am suggesting is that at the time Shakespeare wrote the Sonnets he was not exclusively heterosexual, though neither was he exclusively homosexual. About a fourth of the Sonnets make it clear that he had a mistress, a "dark lady" who may have been Mary Fritton, a lady-in-waiting. Neither was Master W.H. exclusively homosexual, for he slept with this dark-complexioned lady, and this betrayal tore the poet's heart asunder. It should be emphasized, however, that the tragedy in this affair was not that Shakespeare's best friend nearly stole away his mistress, but that his mistress nearly stole away his boyfriend. There is no doubt whatsoever that Shakespeare preferred his boyfriend his "better angel" to his mistress.
Shakespeare also nearly lost his boyfriend to a rival playwright, as previously mentioned; Wilde speculates that he was enticed away by Marlowe to play the part of Gaveston in his homoerotic play Edward II. Shakespeare mentions that the playwright described Willie in sublimely rhetorical poetry ("the proud full sail of his verse"), and nearly all critics agree that the only poetry that fits this characterization at this time was that of the homosexual Christopher Marlowe. The description itself is most likely Marlowe's description of the beautiful naked boy Leander in Hero and Leander:
Amorous Leander, beautiful and youngThe parallels between Shakespeare's description of W.H. and Marlowe's description of Leander may not be exact enough to prove that they were one and the same androgynous boy. But certainly it is worth noting that Southampton and Pembroke were never so described by any Renaissance poet.
Unfortunately it is not possible to chart the progress of Shakespeare's and Willie Hughes' love. The sonnets were not written in the order in which they were printed, and no one has been able to convincingly put forth a proper ordering for them. The relationship may have lasted anywhere from four or five years to more than a dozen years. There were one or two separations that lasted for more than several months, and there were one or two quarrels. The affair with the dark lady may have effectively terminated the relationship of the two men, or it may have been followed by a loving reconciliation. The fact that the group of dark lady sonnets are printed at the end of the squence proves nothing about when they were written in relation to the preceding group to Willie (and Wilde suggests that they should be moved to a position following Sonnet 33). And about half a dozen sonnets that appear within the dark lady section have no sexually identifiable pronouns and may well be addressed to Willie.
In general, there is no conclusive (or even very persuasive) evidence in the Sonnets that the love of Shakespeare and Willie reached some sort of crisis and ceased. Like many another love in history, it quite probably just faded away as the men went their separate directions.
It should be noted that Willie appears in a number of Shakespeare's early plays and poems as well as in the Sonnets. He is quite definitely the model for Adonis in Venus and Adonis and Shakespeare is almost as certainly the model for Venus. If we read Venus and Adonis with our eyes wide open, we will discover hardly a line indicating that the Queen of Love has breasts or female genitals. Our attention is focused on the male body of Adonis, who is really subjected to the male gaze of the author. Venus behaves in an unfeminine manner, and is even described as a robust huntsman in pursuit of his prey. Venus is the active, masculine agent in the affair, and "like a bold-faced suitor 'gins to woo him." At one point Venus is compared to Jove carrying off Ganymede:
Over one arm the lusty courser's rein,Venus and Adonis was written while the Sonnets were still in progress, and Shakespeare and Willie may have had many a chuckle over the poem's hidden meaning.
It is well known that all the female characters in Shakespeare's plays were performed on the stage by boys and young men whose voices had not yet broken, and it was commonplace knowledge that a good many of these boys were hustlers when off stage. It seems quite likely that Willie Hughes was the model for and played the roles of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra in Anthony and Cleopatra, and Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Willie's presence is especially clear behind the portrayal of Rosalynde in As You Like It (1590), a play whose central theme is based upon the master-mistress metaphor and literal transvestism. In this play Rosalynde, a girl played by a boy, dresses up in boy's clothing and assumes for herself the new name "Young Master Ganymede." Shakespeare and his audience (and his actors) knew very well the more- than-mythological significance of that name. For four of the five acts we thus see on stage a boy playing the part of a girl dressed as a boy, attended by a page who is also a boy playing the part of a girl dressed as a boy. So what the audience sees is clear: two pretty hustlers.
This play is quite remarkable because it contains explicitly homosexual passages. Rosalynde pretending to be a boy named Ganymede tells the story of how he had once been wooed by a man:
I set him every day to woo me. At which time would I, being but a moonish youth, grieve, be effeminate, changeable, longing and liking; ... would now like him, now loathe him; then entertain him, then forswear [deny] him; now weep for him, then spit at him; till I drove my suitor from his mad humor of love to a living humor of madness.Further, Rosalind as the boy Ganymede blatantly solicits the favors of a man named Orlande: "I would cure you if you would but call me Rosalind and come every day to my cote and woo me." Orlando, believing that Ganymede is a boy, agrees, and follows him into the forest to play their sport. Of course everything is straightened out eventually, and all the couples are properly (i.e. heterosexually) married.
A great deal of nonsense has been written about Shakespeare's sexual sensibility. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once observed that there were no homosexual passages in all of Shakespeare's plays. Coleridge should have been a better critic than this (as should modern critics who echo his words), for this simply is not true. For example, there is a rather nasty passage in Troilusand Cressida, in which Thersites says to Patroclus, "Thou art thought to be Achilles' male varlet," and Patroclus responds, "Male varlet, you rogue! What's that?" and Thersites answers, "Why, his masculine whore." If that is not a "homosexual passage," then what is? It would be interesting to re-read many of the plays while bearing in mind this meaning of "varlet."
Incidentally, Troilus and Cressida is a late work, and its homophobic attitude need have no relevance to the validity of the emotions that prompted the Sonnets, just as its equally anti-heterosexual attitude bears little relationship to Romeo and Juliet.
Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare's best-loved play, would seem to be ambisexual: "he cares not what mischief he does, if his weapon be out. He will foin [thrust; a pun upon "fuck"] like any devil, he will spare neither man, woman, nor child." I would like to see a re-reading of a passage in Hamlet, in which Hamlet says to Horatio "thou art e'en as just a man as e're my conversation coped withall," bearing in mind that the terms "conversation" and "coped" were commonplace Renaissance puns upon "copulation."
Be this as it may, a good dozen of Shakespeare's plays concentrate upon the importance of friendship situationally homosexual and passionate male love and there are dozens of lovely lads in the plays, notonly the boy-girl-boys but all the very beautiful boys who happen to be literally fairies: Puck, Ariel et al. In response to Eric Partridge's assertion in Shakespeare's Bawdy that Shakespeare could not possibly have been homosexual because all of his erotic jests are from a man's viewpoint, I can only say, as did Horatio to Hamlet following the passage cited above, "Oh, my good lord!"
Copyright © 1998 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.
CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Rictor Norton, "Enter Willie Hughes as Juliet: or, Shakespeare's Sonnets Revisited", Gay History and Literature Canon, 9 Jan. 2000, updated 19 June 2008 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/shakespe.htm>.
[This essay has been translated into German, together with German translations of 21 of Shakespeare's sonnets, by Leander Sukov, Ist besser, verdorben auch zu sein...]
Return to The Queer Canon
Return to Gay History and Literature