Thursday, January 05, 2012

Discuss: Did McKellen Just Out Shakespeare?

In case you missed it going by on Twitter I'll post it again - there's a quote going around attributed to Sir Ian McKellen that says of course Shakespeare was gay.  Honestly, when I saw the headline go by that "Shakespeare actor says Shakespeare was gay" I thought, "Well there's a stupid and uninformed actor trying to get his name in the paper."  Needless to say I was quite surprised to see Sir Ian looking back at me when I clicked.

I'm trying to find the original source since all I can find are clips out of context, but here's the juicy part:

SIR Ian McKellen: “No doubt Shakespeare was gay. His predilection was evident from his works. An unmistakenly feminine portrait of his patron Henry Wriothesley adds evidence that early sonnets to ‘fair youth’ were probably meant for males.

“Married, with children, he left his wife in Stratford to live in London. I’d say he slept with men. ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ centering on how the world treats gays as well as Jews, has a love triangle between an older man, younger man and a woman. And complexity in his comedies with cross-dressing and disguises is immense. Shakespeare obviously enjoyed sex with men as well as women.”
Clearly this merits discussion. I am hoping (nay, assuming) that Sir Ian was being a bit silly, as I don't often see anybody with a Shakespeare credit to their name saying that there's "obviously" or "no doubt" about anything in the man's life.



Lab Rat said...

So - moving over from twitter, sorry to gatecrash but I needed more than 140 characters to talk about antonio and sebastian...

It helps to know that at the time I read 12th night I was experiencing feelings for a fellow student. She, like me, was female. I read the words Antonio said and it was like the world making sense. This was how I felt!

I was at school in a place where any relationships were frowned upon and same-sex ones in particular. I worried ceaselessly that what I was feeling was dirty, or wrong. But in Antonio's words I suddenly found a kind of sense. His words were beautiful, meaningful and deep. There was a true and honest love in there, felt by one man for another man.

Was it sexual? Were my thoughts sexual? Yes and no. Would Antonio have hugged Sebastian for reassurance? Kissed him as a seal of love? Yes, I believe so. Words like "lust" or "f*cking" have no real meaning in this. The way Antonio feels is far, far beyond that.

He has found the man he loves. And he will watch from the sidelines as that man marries. Part of him will feel a wrench as Sebastian says the vows to a woman he doesn't actually technically know (long story) part of him will feel nothing more than a strong desire for his friend to find happiness.

If Sebastian had come to him one night, would he? Maybe. Probably. But that was not why he loved. he loved because he was in love from the moment he saw that beautiful blond young man wash up on the beach. And he couldn't help it.

JM said...

" I don't often see anybody with a Shakespeare credit to their name saying that there's "obviously" or "no doubt" about anything in the man's life."

Alexander Pope on Shakespeare's intentions; Wells on the Cobbe portrait; most Oxenfordians on anything Oxenfordian...

Let the kerfuffle begin!

Christina S. said...

I just get bothered when the homosocial and homoerotic relationships are conflated. "Gay" was not a Renaissance identity, and should not be applied to a man from that time period. Odds are, Shakespeare did have relationships with men, definitely homosocial and perhaps homoerotic. At the same time, he also impregnated Anne Hathaway *before* the two were married (Susanna was born 6 months after their rushed wedding), meaning he was not pressured to marry to keep up appearences or anything--he did at least experiment with a heterosexual relationship.

There are also the "Dark Lady" sonnets which, though it's a fallacy to equate the author with the speaker, can show that he was writing to women as well as the "fair youth."

Regardless, it is impossible to glean the sexual preference of a writer long since gone from his work. One can have sympathies or want to explore the relationships between men without being gay himself, and the changes between our 2012 views of homosexuality cannot be applied to 16th century London.

Duane Morin said...

>Alexander Pope

Writing 300 years ago, when the whole "we can learn Shakespeare's autobiograpy from his work" thing was just getting started. I didn't think that adding an "in our present time" to my statement was required :)

>Wells on the Cobbe portrait;

Precisely - on the portrait, something that Shakespeare himself had nothing to do with. I admit that it's a similar problem in that we can't ever really know any of this stuff without hard evidence. And, honestly, I've heard from people who no longer take Prof. Wells seriously because of his position on this subject.

>most Oxenfordians on anything Oxenfordian...

Yeah, well... ;)

shakespeareprof said...

I think Christina makes a fine point. Identity in the Early Modern period was not determined by one's sexual object choice. Shakespeare was neither straight nor gay; he was attracted to people, be they men or women, as he encountered them.

The Shakespeare Forum said...

In terms of Shakespeare himself. We're free to speculate. We're left with his work, his art, which may make it difficult to judge the sexuality of a person by, especially after 400 years have passed.

In regards to some of Shakespeare's characters:
Maybe I'm a little naive. But I consider the term, bi-sexual or homo-sexual to have a sexual meaning. I think that people can love and dedicate themselves to anyone. Fondness does not make a character homosexual.

An example here:

So did he turn and over Suffolk's neck
He threw his wounded arm and kiss'd his lips;
And so espoused to death, with blood he seal'd
A testament of noble-ending love.

I don't think one can make a strong argument that this character is gay or bi-sexual. This is love. And in my opinion, love knows no sex. How it speaks to an individual, or inspires them in various ways, is a tribute to the writing.

I keep writing and deleting as I continue to think on this subject.

I feel somewhat, and this is just off the top of my head, that sex in Shakespeare's plays (and some contemporaries I'm thinking of) is used predominately for comedic or dark purposes. But is not an expression of love.

The expressions of love, however, in Shakespeare are extreme. These are characters who are moving through epic stories and need to conquer extreme situations to prove their love to the audience. We, then, might consider, as modern audiences, that the only reason one would sacrifice this much, or risk this much for another could not possibly be simply love, because we choose not to live that way.

Ian Thal said...

Theatre critic Thomas Garvey, proposes another option: that Shakespeare was, as the parlance of today has it, "gay-for-pay."

Was Shakespeare queer? (I don't think so.)

Lab Rat said...

@Shakespeare forum: I see what you mean, and I agree that it is possible to have a very close and loving relationship without it being sexual however I think in many cases sexual feelings are not given the credit they are due. In Antonios case I saw true loving loyalty by man who would, if it came to it, be happy to take the relationship to a deeper evel. And i always got the feeling that Sebastian was somewhat clueless about that.

To use modern terms like 'gay' or 'bi' is unhelpful as the concepts meant nothing to Shakespeare and he was writing the characters with concepts he knew. But speculating on the nature of the characters and their relationships is fascinating and occasionally it is tempting to go for a clearly understood modern word to make a point clearer.

And when it comes to relationships, the nature of love, marriage, desire and loyalty, 12th night has so many different and varied examples that it makes great discussion!

Wayne Myers said...

I tend to agree with Shakespeareprof--"Shakespeare was neither straight nor gay; he was attracted to people, be they men or women, as he encountered them." This is, I think, the "middle" essence and "doubleness" of "Twelfth Night, or What You Will." The genius of it all is that it strongly suggests the discomfiting sexual truth, no matter how we may delude ourselves otherwise, that at any point in one's life, one may indeed suddenly find themselves attracted to specific members of both sexes. Olivia, Sebastian, Viola and Orsino are far from free of their extraordinary situation at the play's end, and their future happiness may very well depend on what sexual accommodations they are willing to make. It points to an unconventional arrangement. Shakespeare was very astute and unflinching when it came to love, sex and attraction as "Twelfth Night," "Troilus and Cressida," and "Othello" so lavishly illustrate.

J. Ott said...

Perhaps this is just the umpteenth case of people gazing into the works of Shakespeare and seeing their own reflection staring back.

Duane Morin said...

I realize that we all want to look into Shakespeare's works and see ourselves. My surprise came from the fact that these statements are from Sir Ian McKellen, who hardly needs an introduction among Shakespeare geeks. He's not just some guy who read the works in college and had a crush on his professor. McKellen's had, what, close to 50 years in and around the material? He knows as well as we all do that you can't just read yourself into Shakespeare's shoes.

I stand by my theory that he was putting one over on the interviewer, and that out of context we're taking him too seriously.

Frank Moraes said...

We see ourselves in all things. That is what is going on with Ian McKellen. And who cares what he thinks? What matters is that he was fantastic as Richard! (I'm not entirely happy with the version of the text they used, but it is a splendid film.)

Regardless of the fact there wasn't the concept of "gay" in the 16th century, there were still people who found others of the same sex most attractive. To me, there is no doubt that Shakespeare was not what we would today call "gay."

Don't look at the plays or the sonnets. Read Venus and Adonis and then compare it to Marlowe's Hero and Leander. I think it's pretty clear that Marlowe had a much keener eye for male beauty. Marlowe probably was gay, but who knows. Shakespeare? No way! He was too busy counting his money. Think Scrooge McDuck in a bathtub of doubloons! That's Shakespeare for me. Too involved with his wealth to bother writing the last five years of his life. Cervantes, on the other hand, was writing, nearly blind, almost to the minute of his death.

BTW: Cervantes and Shakespeare did not die on the same day. Most sources are wrong. Same date; different calendars. I know I seem like a troll, but it was a far sadder day in Spain than in England. After all, if Shakespeare had lived another ten years, we could all delight in the complete absence of any more of his work! I defy any Shakespearean scholar to argue against that conclusion. Shakespeare was a businessman with a talent for writing.

But he wasn't gay.