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."

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."

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