WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, English playwright and actor, died (b. 1564); Arguably the most important playwright in the English or any other language, evidence suggests that Shakespeare wrote sonnets throughout his career for a private readership. Even before the two unauthorized sonnets appeared in The Passionate Pilgrim in 1599, Francis Meres had referred in 1598 to Shakespeare’s “sugred Sonnets among his private friends”. Few analysts believe that the published collection follows Shakespeare’s intended sequence. He seems to have planned two contrasting series: one about uncontrollable lust for a married woman of dark complexion (the “dark lady”), and one about conflicted love for a fair young man (the “fair youth”). It remains unclear if these figures represent real individuals, or if the authorial “I” who addresses them represents Shakespeare himself, though Wordsworth believed that with the sonnets “Shakespeare unlocked his heart”.
The 1609 edition was dedicated to a “Mr. W.H.”, credited as “the only begetter” of the poems. It is not known whether this was written by Shakespeare himself or by the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, whose initials appear at the foot of the dedication page; nor is it known who Mr. W.H. was, despite numerous theories, or whether Shakespeare even authorized the publication. Critics praise the Sonnets as a profound meditation on the nature of love, sexual passion, procreation, death, and time.
Even though he married Anne Hathaway and had three children, circumstantial evidence (such as in his sonnets and plays) suggests he may have taken an erotic interest in men. For the Elizabethans, what is today termed homosexual or bisexual was more likely to be recognized as simply a sexual act, rather than a “sexual orientation.” Just as today however, it is possible there was a spectrum of individual responses: from those engaging in homosexual acts who considered it irrelevant to their persona and simply a variation of both lust and love, to those who believed it marked them out as different. Sodomy was a crime in the period, but Phillip Stubbs in Anatomie of Abuses (1583), Edward Guilpin in Skialetheia (1598), and Michael Drayton in The Moone-Calfe (1605), all noted the prevalence of “sodomites” at theatres, which does imply a recognized group.
A homosexual subculture which identified itself as separate, and which was centered around the Molly house, certainly existed in London by the mid-seventeenth century, and may well have existed in Shakespeare’s time. With regard to Shakespeare’s sexuality, no direct evidence exists to support the view that he was bisexual; all theories along these lines, as with the theories of his heterosexual affairs, come from an analysis of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.
In his Last Will and Testament, William Shakespeare’s sole bequest to his wife of some thirty-three years was “my second best bed with the furniture.” These words, with their stark simplicity, take people by surprise, and invariably bring to mind the question, “To whom
did he leave his best bed?”