"Is it true that Shakespeare was gay?" I get this question a lot, as a high school teacher. The answer isn't easy. I talk about the sonnets, and the twin figures of the "dark lady" and "WH," and how all of the sex in the sonnets seems to have been saved for the former, but all the love for the latter, and I talk about the surprisingly romantic language that Elizabethan men used to talk about their friends. I try to explain that "gay" was not a concept that would have made sense to Shakespeare. My students, like lots of people over the past 400 years, find the erotic power of the sonnets difficult to deny, and they too want to have faces, names, and facts to ground the sonnets' complex attitude toward love and sex in a real life. I like the ambiguity as it is, but I understand the impulse.
Anthony Burgess' Nothing Like the Sun is a creation of that impulse. It imagines a young William Shakespeare--here called WS--as he matures and becomes a playwright and a poet, but with a special focus on his sex life. Burgess' WS is what we might today call a pansexual; he likes anything and everything, from the older woman whose pregnancy traps him in a marriage he didn't want (Shakespeare's wife Anne Hathaway) to the teenage boy he tutors, though, when the boy's father finds out, he isn't a tutor for long. He sees a black woman for the first time:
He turned, his heart near fainted. Dressed in a fair loose gown of virtuous, though dirty, white, her shoulders and bosom glowing to the empty street, she leaned, her arms folded, at ease against the doorpost, smiling. If Englishmen were white, he thought, then she must be called black; but black she could not in truth be called, rather gold, but the not gold, nor royal purple neither, for when we say colours we see a flatness, as of cloth, but her was flesh that moved and swam on the light's tide, ever changing in hue but always of a richness that could only be termed royal; her colour was royalty.
The dark lady turns out not to be black, or a dark-skinned white woman, but a Middle Eastern woman named Fatimah. WS vacillates between his love and lust for her and that he has for his young patron, Henry Wriothesley--the most common guess for the "WH" the sonnets are addressed to--and rages when Wriothesley seduces the former with his wealth. Things end badly and strangely--spoiler alert--when WS discovers that he has contracted syphilis. The bitter and obscure works of Shakespeare's late life, Burgess seems to imagine, are a product of his disease and his deep disillusionment:
What is your great crime, then?
Love, love, and it is always love. Not wisely but too. Faimiah. I will distribute copies of that sonnet after the lecture. You can never win, for love is both an image of eternal order and at the same time the rebel and destructive spirochaete. Let us have no nonsensical talk about merging and melting souls, though, binary suns, two spheres in a single orbit. There is the flesh and the flesh makes all.
It's a cynical turn for the novel, and unsettling, but perhaps in thoughtful accord with Shakespeare's own writing about love and lust--"Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action."
In fact, I think Burgess does a pretty impressive job of capturing something of Shakespeare's spirit--not an easy thing to do--while retaining his own unique and modern voice. Nothing Like the Sun, like A Clockwork Orange, is verbally dense and unapologetically challenging. Burgess' vocabulary is cobbled together from Elizabethan and anachronistic sources--check out the word "spirochaete" above--and stuff that's just plain made up. It doesn't sound like Shakespeare, but it shares Shakespeare's freewheeling and experimental method when it comes to language. It succeeds in giving us an idea of what it might have been like to hear Shakespeare's words when they were written, fresh and new, rather than calcified by the past four centuries of adoration.