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Bent Bards! Adrian Gillan hits Stratford-upon-Avon and asks: was Shakespeare bi, or even full-on gay?
Amidst gorgeous Warwickshire countryside, on the edge of the Cotswolds, on the banks of the River Avon, Stratford-upon-Avon is one of Britain’s most popular tourist destinations.

With well-staged plays and potentially gay history galore, it may have bore William Shakespeare, but it won’t bore you!

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RSC Theatres on the banks of the Avon
Photo Credit: Stratford On Avon District Council

Sights

In the pedestrianised bit of the town centre lies Shakespeare's Birthplace, the half-timbered house-with-garden where Shakespeare was born in 1564 - complete with biographical exhibition.
King Edward VI Grammar School, in Church Street, is where The Bard was most likely educated.

Beautifully-furnished Nash House and - Shakespeare's Stratford home from 1597 until his death in 1616 - New Place, are nearby, both with fine gardens. Halls Croft, where Shakespeare's eldest daughter, Susanna, lived is just around the corner.

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Shakespeare's Birthplace
Photo Credit: Stratford On Avon District Council
Anne Hathaway's Cottage - with pleasant adjoining orchard and woods - is where Shakespeare’s wife-to-be lived before marrying him in 1582. Mary Arden's House - complete with period-reenactment role-playing staff - is the Tudor farmstead where Shakespeare's mum lived before marrying his father. A few miles out, both these sites are easily reached via the CitySightseeing bus. Tranquil riverside Holy Trinity Church is where both William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway are buried - its gardens bordering the lovely swan-filled Avon, as do the spectacularly successfully revamped Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Swan Theatre, home to the world-famous Royal Shakespeare Company! Ascend the 36m-high Tower, adjoining the theatres, for panoramic views of the town and surrounding countryside. Take in the Gower Memorial, depicting The Bard and some of his most famous characters, in front of said theatres. For an earthy slice of Tudor life, visit tad-cheesy Falstaff Experience. For relaxation, take one of the Bancroft Cruisers along the Avon. For something absolutely - arguably well-nigh refreshingly - unconnected with Shakespeare, visit the UK’s biggest Butterfly Farm, just over the river.

Boozing ‘n Eating

Just two minutes’ walk from the Swan Theatre, the “Dirty Duck” (a.k.a. The Black Swan, Waterside, Stratford-upon-Avon; T: 01789 297312) boasts its signed-photo-filled ‘Actors’ Bar', plus ‘Conservatory Restaurant’, perfect for pre-show meals. What with all the theatre crowd, it’s doubtless the nearest thing Stratford-upon-Avon has to a gay bar!

Sleeping

Built in 1866, in a Jacobean style, the flagship 4-star Menzies Welcombe Hotel Spa & Golf Club (Warwick Road, Stratford-upon-Avon, CV37 0NR; T: 01789 295252) sits in 157 acres of beautiful grounds on the eastern fringes of Stratford-upon-Avon, thrillingly combining traditional oak-paneled charm with more contemporary rooms.

Dine in the ornate two-AA-rosetted restaurant, majoring on traditional English fare, with the odd dash of continental spice; there's an impressive lounge with a grand open fireplace, beautiful, landscaped gardens offering stunning views out over the Cotswolds; an 18 hole championship golf course, tennis and a luxurious spa with indoor swimming pool, external vitality pool and a range of thermal experiences.

Alternatively, roughly 6 miles east of Stratford-upon-Avon, the luxury 4-star Walton Hall (Walton, Wellesbourne, Warwickshire CV35 9HU; T: 01789 842 424) sits in 65 acres of beautiful countryside, with a history dating back to the 16th Century.

It boasts  56 rooms and suites, all individually decorated in a contemporary style, many offering spectacular views over the estate’s lake, gardens and church. Many traditional features are also retained, like crystal chandeliers, antiques and open fireplaces.

Dine in the two-AA-rosetted Moncreiffe Restaurant - named after a wife of a former owner, Harriett Moncrieffe, who is rumoured to have had an affair with the then Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. The Health Club has its indoor swimming pool, sauna, steam room, gym and fitness studio. The real deal! Also contains the separate, and excellent, Walton Hotel in its grounds.

WAS SHAKESPEARE GAY?

Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets (quite possibly not intended for their 1609 publication, by a notoriously unscrupulous publisher), the vast majority (126) seemingly addressing the poet's love for a young man, ‘the Fair Lord’, often assumed to be the same person as the 'Mr W.H.' to whom the sonnets are dedicated: perhaps one of Shakespeare's patrons – most likely either Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton; or William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, both considered handsome in their youth.

However, that said, the only completely explicit references to sexual acts or physical lust occur in sonnets addressing ‘the Dark Lady’, which unambiguously state that the poet and this Lady are lovers. Moreover, Shakespeare himself was a married man with several children – although that was, indeed for some closets still is, rather the ‘norm’!

Thus, the sonnets have led some to suggest Shakespeare was, at the very least, bi, if not outright gay.

Against this, others counter that Shakespeare was not expressing the author’s own feelings here, but those of a character, ‘the poet’; or, if he was, that many of the frequent tender gushing expressions of love for, and admiration for the beauty of, the Fair Lord (most famously, 'Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’) are made on a purely platonic, non-sexual, level, in a manner now alien to us.

The debate will rage and the best, surely only, answer we can hope for, at this distance of time, lies in the sonnets themselves. Read and place your bet. Having so done myself, this humble writer thinks it beyond all reasonable doubt that Shakespeare was hopelessly, helplessly besotted by another male - the sonnets being his heartfelt, oft-anguished and well-nigh obsessive love-letters to him.

Essential Info

For accommodation, special offers and more info about Stratford-upon-Avon, visit the region’s official website: www.shakespeare-country.co.uk For info on The Shakespeare Houses: www.shakespeare.org.uk For the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current offerings, and to book tickets: www.rsc.org.uk Stratford-upon-Avon is just 2 hours away direct from London Marylebone by Chiltern Railways, and even closer to other major UK cities. For times, fares, special offers and bookings: www.chilternrailways.co.uk

Revised June 2015.

 

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