Painting mystery reopens debate on Shakespeare's sexuality

BY Advocate.com Editors

April 22 2002 11:00 PM ET

A painting recently identified as a portrait of William Shakespeare's patron Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, has reignited a debate on Shakespeare's sexuality, reports BBC News. The painting was long thought to be of Lady Norton, so dandyish is the appearance of the earl, who favored long hair, frilly collars, jewelry, and what appears to be lipstick. Susan North, an expert in furniture, textiles, and fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, warns modern observers not to read too much into the earl's appearance. "One of the greatest errors we make in looking at dress of the past is to view gender distinctions from the perspective of our own dress," says North. "A frilly collar was entirely appropriate for a man during this period. Jewelry for men was also acceptable, and earrings are frequently seen in portraits of men of this time, along with long hair. Again, these are signs of masculine fashion and not any sign of sexual preference."

Peter Holland, of the Shakespeare Institute at Birmingham University, acknowledging that the portrait in itself confirms nothing about Shakespeare, adds, "I don't think there was any doubt [Shakespeare] was bisexual. There does not seem to be any doubt that some of the sonnets were written to young men, quite possibly [the earl of] Southampton. But remember, notions of sexuality were different at the time, and the term homosexual did not exist at all."

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