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Two men enjoy intimate moment in this extract from new queer Shakespeare book

Dr. Will Tosh is the Head of Research at Shakespeare’s Globe and author of Straight Acting: The Many Queer Lives of William Shakespeare

By Alastair James

Straight Acting: The Many Queer Lives of William Shakespeare by Will Tosh
Straight Acting: The Many Queer Lives of William Shakespeare by Will Tosh (Image: Provided)

In the following extract from his new book, Straight Acting: The Many Queer Lives of William Shakespeare, Will Tosh imagines the queer goings-on that readers and writers of Elizabethan poetry got up to.

As Shakespeare’s love sonnets initially circulated in handwritten copies, sharing verses could be a very intimate activity…

Early 1596. The young man’s back wasn’t the most stable of surfaces, but it was pleasingly broad enough for the half-folio sheet. He lay on his front, propping himself on his arms. He craned his head round to look at the writer straddling his body.
“What are you doing?”
“Ruling lines; lie down.”
He laughed. Lying full length, his shoulder muscles relaxed and the paper settled on his bare skin. “That tickles,” he said, as the stylus moved back and forth, grooving fourteen indentations on the creamy paper. The writer handed him another handwritten sheet. The young man could feel the weight of him tilt forward, his body pressing warmly into the small of his back.
“Here’s the original: you read aloud and I’ll write.”
“On me?”
“Why not?”
The man set the original against the headboard and squinted at the unfamiliar handwriting.
“Sometimes I wish that I his pillow were . . . Is that really the first line?”
The writer swapped the stylus for a quill: “Sometimes I wish,” he wrote. The nib caught in a crease of paper. The young man shifted, adjusting himself on the bed. The writer dipped his quill in the ink pot.
“So might I steal a kiss and yet not seen,” the man recited as the writer wrote. “Is that what we’re going to do?”
“Would you like to?”
“Only if I’m awake for it. Hang on, you take the original. I want to see if I can tell what you’re writing.”
The writer formed his letters carefully: “So might I gaze upon his sleeping eyne . . . It’s no good, the paper’s too thick.”
The writer lifted the page from the man’s back and with the tip of his finger drew a slow snaking ‘S’ on the warm skin. And then an ‘O’, wide enough to stroke the tender part near his underarm. He could feel the man shiver.
“Is it so . . . ?”
“It is so.”
The man suddenly flipped himself over. The copy slid onto the bedsheets.|
“Who’s the poem for, anyway?”
“You, if you want it.”

For well over a decade before 1609, the nationally famous lyric poet William Shakespeare – beloved author of the widely read Venus and Adonis and Lucrece – chose to forego the significant financial reward that would come with a published volume of sonnets dedicated to a rich aristocrat. Instead, his growing collection found an audience through the closed network of manuscript circulation: individual pages or slender sheaves of verses hand-copied by readers and shared with like-minded friends. The intimate, first-person tone of lyric poetry – the romantic ‘I’ of the speaker, the ‘thou’ of the subject – made it ideal material for private exchange motivated by literary interest or amorous desire: each poem a letter between lover and beloved, every sonnet an encapsulation of a particular moment in a relationship.

You can find out more about Shakespeare’s queer world, and discover the story behind the forgotten queer sonneteer Richard Barnfield, whose poetry acts so powerfully on the men in the excerpt, in Straight Acting: The Many Queer Lives of William Shakespeare, by Will Tosh, published by Sceptre on 13 June 2024.