Friday, April 23, 2010

William Shakespeare and James Buchanan

What do the "Bard of Avon" and the 15th President of the United States have in common...other than today being their birthdays?*

They both have ongoing speculation about their true sexual orientations.  Despite the indignant protests by those who feel compelled to defend -- what, exactly? -- the clues exist, the hypotheses emerge, and the questions remain open. 

On the straight-to-gay spectrum, Shakespeare would have difficulty achieving anything gayer than bisexuality.  In addition to having married Anne Hathaway and fathering three children by her, it is widely assumed he had other intimate relationships with women.  Indeed, the "Dark Lady" sonnets suggest as much.  Other sonnets, however -- 126 of them addressed to "Mr. W.H." -- contemplate male beauty, express desire for the "Fair Lord" or "Fair Youth" and, at the very least, provide a basis for speculation.

Buchanan's life, on the other hand, provides more fodder for analysis.  Our only bachelor President, he was, as a young man, engaged to be married.  The engagement was eventually broken off by the young lady after the disappointment of a largely-absent Buchanan was compounded by rumors of either other women or "gold-digging".  She died soon thereafter, with Buchanan swearing he would never marry.  Ostensibly, he stayed true to this oath; but, in practical terms, he did form an intimate, 15-year relationship with a senator from Alabama, William Rufus King, that only ended upon King's death.  The two men lived together and were essentially a couple, with some wags referring to King as Buchanan's "better half" or "wife".  Most of their correspondence while separated during various diplomatic posts was destroyed by their respective nieces, but enough remains to testify to a special kind of friendship.

Of course, none of the above proves anything; it doesn't need to.  Dissecting their sexualities may be interesting, but what is far more interesting and telling is observing how people react to the very notion of asking what appears to be, based on the evidence, legitimate and reasonable questions.

* Shakespeare's actual date of birth is unconfirmed.  April 23 is a guess based on a baptismal record, dated April 26.