Who Slept in Shakespeare's Bed? (And Why Does it Matter?)
Was Shakespeare gay? Stephen Greenblatt says that Shakespeare inhabited a world in which "it is much more possible to express homosexual passion and enact that passion without triggering a social crisis."
From 2011-2014, Daniel Honan was the Managing Editor at Big Think. Prior to Big Think, Daniel was Vice President of Production for Plum TV, a niche cable network he helped launch in 2002. The production team he oversaw won over two dozen Emmy awards. Daniel has created numerous shows and documentaries for television, and his film credits include Stealing the Fire, a documentary on the black market for nuclear weapons technology.
Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanielHonan
What's the Big Idea?
Literary scholars have long wondered about the identity of "Mr. W.H.," the man Shakespeare dedicated his sonnets to. Was Mr. W.H. the editor of the collection, or was he an actual love interest? Was he William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke? Was there some sort of love triangle between Shakespeare, Herbert and the "dark lady" of the sonnets? We simply don't know, and this remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of English literature.
Was Shakespeare gay? We can only speculate, but the larger question is what exactly does a "gay Shakespeare" mean given the slipperiness of sexual categories during the Bard of Avon's life? Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, and more recently, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, tells Big Think there was "a perpetual bed shortage" in England during Shakespeare's time. In other words, people really seemed to enjoy sharing beds, including people of the same sex.
On the other hand, Greenblatt points to "exceedingly unpleasant" anti-sodomy laws that would have served as strong prohibitions against homosexuality. However, Greenblatt also points out that "almost no one was prosecuted under these laws."
In other words, Elizabethan England may have been much more permissive in regard to homosexuality than previously thought. In fact, Greenblatt says that Shakespeare inhabited a world in which "it is much more possible to express homosexual passion and enact that passion without triggering a social crisis."
Watch the video here:
So did Shakespeare possess, and act on, such a passion? We know he married Anne Hathaway, of course, who Shakespeare left his "second best bed" to in his will. Much has made of this, although the best bed probably went to his daughter, not a gay lover. Other biographical evidence of Shakespeare's sex life is, at best, ambiguous.
And so we turn to Shakespeare's body of work, and there we see lots of cross-dressing and the use of gender-bending plot devices. There are also several prominent characters in the Shakespeare canon who appear to be gay, notably Antonio in The Merchant of Venice.
Prithee, be silent, boy; I profit not by thy talk: thou art thought to be Achilles' male varlet.
Male varlet, you rogue! what's that?
Why, his masculine whore. Now, the rotten diseases of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs, loads o' gravel i' the back, lethargies, cold palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing lungs, bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas, limekilns i' the palm, incurable bone-ache, and the rivelled fee-simple of the tetter, take and take again such preposterous discoveries!
One could say this condemnation of homosexuality is an argument against a gay Shakespeare. However, as we know, some of the homophobes who shout the loudest turn out to be gay. So given the scant evidence in the plays, critics often turn to the sonnets, which have been called "the Bermuda triangle" of literary criticism. These poems, which may never have been intended for publication, offer us perhaps the most direct glimpse at Shakespeare's inner, erotic life. The poet Don Paterson made waves by arguing Shakespeare was unequivocally gay in his 2012 book Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets: A New Commentary. Paterson says the argument is simple:
First, falling in love with other men is often a good indication of homosexuality; and second, as much as I love some of my male friends, I'm never going to write 126 poems for them, even the dead ones. Third, read the poems, then tell me these are "pure expressions of love for a male friend" and keep a straight face. This is a crazy, all-consuming, feverish and sweaty love; love, in all its uncut, full-strength intensity; an adolescent love.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan
Here's the science of black holes, from supermassive monsters to ones the size of ping-pong balls.
- There's more than one way to make a black hole, says NASA's Michelle Thaller. They're not always formed from dead stars. For example, there are teeny tiny black holes all around us, the result of high-energy cosmic rays slamming into our atmosphere with enough force to cram matter together so densely that no light can escape.
- CERN is trying to create artificial black holes right now, but don't worry, it's not dangerous. Scientists there are attempting to smash two particles together with such intensity that it creates a black hole that would live for just a millionth of a second.
- Thaller uses a brilliant analogy involving a rubber sheet, a marble, and an elephant to explain why different black holes have varying densities. Watch and learn!
- Bonus fact: If the Earth became a black hole, it would be crushed to the size of a ping-pong ball.
From time-traveling billiard balls to information-destroying black holes, the world's got plenty of puzzles that are hard to wrap your head around.
- While it's one of the best on Earth, the human brain has a lot of trouble accounting for certain problems.
- We've evolved to think of reality in a very specific way, but there are plenty of paradoxes out there to suggest that reality doesn't work quite the way we think it does.
- Considering these paradoxes is a great way to come to grips with how incomplete our understanding of the universe really is.
In a breakthrough for nuclear fusion research, scientists at China's Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) reactor have produced temperatures necessary for nuclear fusion on Earth.
- The EAST reactor was able to heat hydrogen to temperatures exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius.
- Nuclear fusion could someday provide the planet with a virtually limitless supply of clean energy.
- Still, scientists have many other obstacles to pass before fusion technology becomes a viable energy source.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.