Recently the Guardian was atwitter over the revelation that William Shakespeare might have had a relationship with a young man, the Earl of Southampton. I can’t speak to whether or not Shakespeare slept with men; as far as I know, the idea of Shakespeare as queer dates back to Oscar Wilde’s "The Portrait of Mr. W.H.", an amusing story but not anything resembling serious scholarship, and there’s not really anything in the historical record to make definitive statements one way or the other. But there seems to be a real desire on the part of the semi-scholarly (where I myself reside) to reexamine Shakespeare’s sex life, and this Southampton portrait is providing an opportunity to do it, history be damned. Let us assume that the portrait is, in fact, of Southampton. Is it surprising to see him in drag? As the Guardian article notes, the early moderns had a penchant for cross-dressing, both in real life and in literature (see As You Like It or Dekker and Middleton’s great comedy, The Roaring Girl). There are all kinds of reasons for this fascination, many of them involving gender-bending, but if Southampton did in fact pose in drag, could it have been because of his involvement (whatever sort of involvement it was) with the English theater and its tradition of dressing young actors as girls?
It’s all to easy to look at the past through the lens of the present. If Southampton was in drag, was it because he was a homosexual or because he was mimicking an actor? If Southampton was decked out in jewels, was it because he was gay? The association between dandyism and homosexuality is a fairly recent one. Consider the effeminate Absolon of Chaucer’s "Miller’s Tale":
Crul was his heer, and as the gold it shoon,
And strouted as a fanne large and brode;
Ful streight and evene lay his joly shode.
His rode was reed, his eyen greye as goos.
With Poules wyndow corven on his shoos,
In hoses rede he wente fetisly.
Yclad he was ful smal and proprely,
Al in a kirtel of a lyght waget;
Ful faire and thikke been the poyntes set.
And therupon he hadde a gay surplys
As whit as is the blosme upon the rys.
A myrie child he was, so God me save.
This Absolon, that jolif was and gay,
Gooth with a sencer on the haliday,
Sensynge the wyves of the parisshe faste…
The suspicion Chaucer is casting at Absolon, described in terms formally suited to a woman, is that he knows women too well, that Absolon’s attention to dress and appearance bespeaks a role as heterosexual seducer.
The dandy, according to one review of a scholarly text, was
an international phenomenon, originating in Georgian England with Beau Brummel, but developing its most diverse and important ramifications in France in the writings of Balzac, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Huysmans, and others. As Garelick convincingly shows the figure eventually merges in its most important respects in America, transmigrated into the seemingly unlikely body of Thomas Edison…. In the wide sweep of her study Garelick offers fascinating analyses of various French treatises about the dandy, of such relatively little known French works as Mallarmé’s edition of a fashion magazine written entirely by himself under various pseudonyms and Villiers de l’Isle-Adams’ L’Eve future, in which a scientist named Thomas Edison creates a perfect working simulacrum of a woman.
Beau Brummel is remembered today largely through Regency romances and a John Barrymore movie, but his whims and favor (earned or purchased) carried great weight in the Regency court. Brummel, who famously discarded his ties if he failed to tie them properly in one go and obsessed, by the standards of the day, over his personal cleanliness, was a dandy. He does not, however, seem to be a homosexualized figure; that is a Victorian notion.
Oscar Wilde was an aesthete. If the idea of the Wildean aesthete (or the aesthete in general: poor old Ruskin and Arnold), foppishly dressed, dandyish, someone affected and effeminate, had not been transformed from a heterosexual to a homosexual image before his very public and very scandalous trial turned him into a byword for homosexuality. Would the misidentification of Wilde as Salome have stood as long if it hadn’t played into lasting notions of Wilde? And if a photograph of Wilde, a famous figure who died a hundred years ago, can be misidentified because of preconceptions about the figure it represents, how much more so a portrait four centuries old?