gay or straight?
For almost four centuries, questions have arisen about William Shakespeare’s sexuality (as well as Christopher Marlowe’s). The easiest way to examine this question is to compare and contrast the writings of these two men and to then compare their lives.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S WRITINGS
The only indication that Shakespeare may have been homosexual is found, not in his life, but in his writings. One of his most prominent works, his 154 Sonnets, is most often cited in such discussions. The majority of these sonnets deal with the author’s love for a young man, referred to in the works as his “beloved fair youth.”
The writer’s intense romantic feelings for this person have triggered many to believe that Shakespeare may have been gay.
Even the dedication of another of his works, his poem “The Rape of Lucrece,” is strongly worded. “The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end.”
There are hints of homosexuality in The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Othello, and other plays.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S LIFE
Although Shakespeare’s writings may indicate to some that he was gay, his life indicates just the opposite.
There is not a single incident, recorded event, or statement from a contemporary to indicate anything but heterosexuality. There is, however, much to support the thesis that while some of his works may have had homosexual overtones, he was straight.
Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway when he learned that she was three months pregnant. Some historians believe he was seeing another woman at the time.
He had three children and a reputation for being very active sexually. It was common knowledge that while in London he continued a lasting affair with the widow Vautrollier. Though he seldom made the two-day trip to return to Stratford, when he did, he would stop for the night on the way there and on the way back at “The Tavern of Mistress Davenant” in Oxford. The woman later had a son that she named William. The boy always insisted that Shakespeare was his father and most residents of Oxford accepted that fact. Shakespeare referred to the boy as his “godson” and when Shakespeare died, he left money in his will to his daughters and to his “godson,” William Davenant.
It’s also quite well accepted that Shakespeare was a frequent visitor to the London brothels.
His writings may say “gay” but his life says “straight.”
CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE’S WRITINGS
Both the writings and the life of Marlowe have led many to accept the fact that there is good reason to believe that he was probably homosexual.
Even his oft used statement, “All they that love not boys and tobacco -- are fools,” leads one in that direction.
Marlowe gravitated toward works that dealt with gay themes. For one of his most famous plays, Edward II, Marlowe chose the life of the English king who casts aside his wife for his male lover.
Marlowe’s translation of Ovid’s “Amores” had heavy homoerotic themes and was banned by Archbishop Witgifts as “offensive material.”
In Faustus, Marlowe writes that the devil promises Dr. Faust a homosexual import -- anyone he would like. He states that “If the male form once defined beauty in Heaven, men on earth are fairer still.”
In Dido, Queen of Carthage, Marlowe’s play begins with a homoerotic scene in which Jupiter, ruler of the gods, has a craving for the lovely boy, Ganymede.
And the list of examples goes on. Marlowe’s writings are heavily influenced by gay themes.
CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE’S LIFE
But, unlike Shakespeare, Marlowe had a life with strong gay implications.
There has always been much speculation about the relationship between Marlowe and Sir Thomas Walsingham. A common theme is that they were lovers. In the early 1590s, Marlowe, who had previously lived with three other men, Thomas Bradley, Richard Baines, and Thomas Kyd, left Kyd to move into Scadbury Manor with Walsingham. The stated reason for Marlowe living with Walsingham was to get away from the plague in London; but this issue is questioned by some historians.
Marlowe’s biographer, Charles Nicholl, writes in his book “The Reckoning” that Marlowe’s relationship with his sponsor, Sir Thomas Walsingham was not “a formal one,” but rather one of friendship. Nicholl, however, states that, though there has been speculation that Marlowe and Walsingham were lovers, “I would not say that he [Walsingham] … was Marlowe’s gay lover.”
Another Marlowe biographer, Park Honen, writes in his book “Christopher Marlowe, Poet and Spy,” that the poet’s relationship with Sir Walsingham was not the usual sponsorship, but rather a “warm friendship.”
Calvin Hoffman, one of the earliest proponents of the conspiracy theory, wrote that “…there is reason to believe that [the Marlowe – Walsingham intimacy] existed while Kit [i.e. Marlowe] was a student at Cambridge [and] continued for at least a quarter of a century…”
Anthony Burgess, in his very popular fictional work about the life of Marlowe, “A Dead Man in Deptford,” highlights the romance between the two men and even includes a vivid description of one of their sweaty, torrid love scenes.
(Although Thomas Walsingham did marry Audrey Shelton, prior to 1698 -- date not recorded -- many historians accept that the marriage was the result of Walsingham’s need for the funds at the time. This marriage is not referred to in the novel.)
Marlowe never married.
IS THIS CONSISTENT WITH THE CONSPIRACY THEORY?
Comparing the two writers, one learns that:
Shakespeare’s works have homosexual themes.
Shakespeare’s life has only heterosexual indications.
Marlowe’s works have heavy homosexual themes.
Marlowe’s life has some strong homosexual leanings.
If one entertains the conspiracy theory, the above is very consistent.
Marlowe, whose life did contain gay elements, could have written the gay themes in the works attributed to both Shakespeare and Marlowe.
Shakespeare, whose life did not contain gay elements, would not have written any of the works and would not have written plays with gay themes.
Consequently, in light of The Shakespeare Conspiracy, the suggested sexuality of each seems to be consistent.