Odd Portrait Has Many Guessing Shakespeare Was Gay
Tue Apr 23, 6:54 AM ET
By Mike Collett-White

Yahoo News

LONDON (Reuters) - A 400-year-old painting previously believed to be that of a woman has been found to portray the male patron and friend of William Shakespeare, its owner said on Tuesday.

The picture of the Earl of Southampton, featuring a figure with long, black curly hair, pursed red lips, an earring and a slender right hand, has prompted speculation in British media that Shakespeare was gay.

"He is wearing perfectly fashionable male attire of the day, but the earring and the hair are effeminate and unusual for the 1590s," the painting's owner Alec Cobbe told Reuters.

He said that his family had assumed for centuries that the picture was of a Lady Norton.

But after discovering links between his own family and the Southamptons and a striking resemblance between the portrait and other representations of the 3rd Earl of Southampton, Cobbe was convinced that it is Shakespeare's friend and frequent host.

Scholars have long argued that Southampton was the handsome young man in his late teens to whom an early sequence of Shakespeare's sonnets was addressed.

The painting is dated to around 1590, when Shakespeare was writing early sonnets including one to the "master-mistress of my passion."

"It certainly illustrates that sonnet (number 20) very vividly. We are looking at the subject of the sonnet, I'm sure," said Cobbe.


Alastair Laing, the National Trust's adviser on art, first suggested to Cobbe that the picture was of a male.

"I was cataloguing this collection and realized that this was a young man with long hair, which one or two dandies of the time affected in this manner," he told Reuters.

He is also convinced that the picture is of Southampton, although he argued that the man was not necessarily affecting a female appearance, as a modern observer may assume.

"This is a man but he is not a cross-dresser," Laing said.

"He is not wearing lipstick -- some pigments just stand the passage of time better than others, giving this appearance. It is dangerous to assume anything about this man's character from this portrait."

British newspapers have played up the significance of the discovery (news - web sites), with the mass circulation tabloid Sun headlining its story "Shakesqueer."

But even if the discovery of the portrait is much ado about nothing, it has proved effective publicity for the painting, which is now on show at Cobbe's stately home at Hatchlands Park in southern England.