August 24, 2020

William Shakespeare’s Love for a Transfeminine Crossdreamer

Southampton in his teens, c. 1590–93, attributed to John de Critz
The third earl of Southampton en femme.

If I told you William Shakespeare was in love with a transfeminine crossdreamer, would you believe me? 

Some will tell you that gender variance is a recent phenomenon. It is not. Transgender and gender variant people have existed all the way back to Antiquity and beyond, and they have been found many different cultures. See, for instance, my post on the poem written by a European Medieval transgender woman  and the article on transgender characters in the Indian Kama Sutra.

And yes, Shakespeare was in love with a male to female crossdreamer/gender variant person/transgender woman.  Our modern terms do not translate easily into the context of the English Renaissance, and we cannot ask dead people about their identities, but I am pretty sure that at least one of these terms hits pretty close to home.

Henry Wriothesley 


The great Renaissance playwright William Shakespeare lived in a time where men played the role of women on stage, so he was used to “crossdressing”. Indeed, he explores the very act of crossdressing in many of his plays.  The audience would, for instance, see men playing the role of women corssdressing as men.  Shakespeare was clearly intrigued by this kind of complex gender play.

What is less well known is his love for Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton (1573-1624).

This nobleman was Shakespeare's patron. Shakespeare dedicated the poems "Venus and Adonis" (1593) and "The Rape of Lucrece" (1594) to him. Most scholars seem to agree that he was the "The Fair Youth" or "The Fair Lord" referred to in as many as 126 of Shakespeare's poems.

I am using male pronouns for him here, as these were normally the ones used by himself and his contemporaries.

He was often referred to as Rose, and it is Rose we see in the portrait above (dated to 1590-3).  The fact that he is dressed up as a woman in this painting is, as I see it, a clear sign of him being some some sort of gender variant crossdreamer. He is publicly crossdressing in an age which did not  embrace that sort of thing, and he would not have done that unless this meant a lot to him.
This miniature of young Henry Wriothesley
shows us the similarity to "Rose" in the
painting above.


We cannot be 100 percent certain about the Earls's sexual orientation, but a scandal involving him and  Elizabeth Vernon tells us that he was attracted to women. There were rumors of him offering sexual services to men, but these have not been confirmed. 

If he truly was Shakespeare's object of affection, the poems imply that they had a sexual as well as some kind of romantic relationship.

Sonnet XX


Shakespeare’s sonnet number 20 is most likely addressed to him, and it is this poem that most of all reflects the kind of gender variance I am talking about here:
A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.
Many have pointed out that this sonnet has feminine rhymes throughout. It is clearly a celebration of femininity, especially in a man. Indeed, the femininity of the main character in this poem is seen as superior to the one of women – more honest and commanding. 

Because of this you might say that the poem is somewhat misogynistic. Still,  note that the poet's praise of the loved one also clearly underlines that the beloved was considered to be a woman in some sense of that term.  Shakespeare argues that he was created as a woman, but that Nature somehow fell in love with this girl ("fell a-doting") and messed it all up.

William Shakespeare

The joke here is, I suppose, that since Nature is a heterosexual woman, she wanted her love to have a penis. So she added one. This makes things complicated for the poet, as he is not really into that kind of thing. However, since Nature gave Shakespeare's loved one a penis to please the women, he concludes that  women can have his lover's body, while he can have his love.

(Yes, "she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure" is a pun!)

I do understand that not all poems are autobiographical and that the main voice of a poem is not necessarily always the voice of the author, but in this case most of the researchers agree that this is, indeed, Shakespeare talking.

Shakespeare as queer


The poem indicates that the poet was some shade of queer, although not necessarily in the way such a term would be understood today. 

Note also how the poet implies that he was not the only man  to fall for the charm of his beloved. The lover steals men's eyes and amazes women's souls. In other words: It is not only the sexuality of the poet that is ambiguous. The femininity of the loved one causes ambiguity in many of those around him.

In other poems the poet seems to be sleeping with both men and women (and both at the same time), including the Earl himself, so Shakespeare clearly had an open mind as both sexuality and gender identity go

I read all of this as examples of fluidity both as regards sexuality and gender. Shakespeare does not live up to the strict binaries of the 19th and 20th centuries. A man can be attracted to another man's female soul, or his femininity or his body, without being gay in the most narrow modern meaning of that word. He may  be attracted to the femininity of women and men at the same time.

Even if we cannot conclude on the transgender nature of the Earl's identity, he was clearly someone who actively crossed the traditional gender boundaries, both as regards clothing, behavior and the effect he had on others. 

See also Zagria: Henry Wriothesley (1573 – 1624) aristocrat.
William Shakespeare was undeniably bisexual, researchers claim
Crossdream Life discussion on Shakespeare and crossdressing.
Shakespeare, sexuality and the Sonnets


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