William Shakespeare
William 'The Bard' Shakespeare may have been gay, a leading director has said Getty Images/Oli Scarff

William Shakespeare may have been gay, according to the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), who has argued that the legendary English poet and playwright's huge body of work contains a slew of references to homosexual relationships.

Greg Doran, who has run the RSC since 2012, believes it is "no longer acceptable" to hide the sexuality of Shakespeare's openly gay characters as has often been the practice in the past. A long-running debate over the Bard's sexuality has been raging for years.

"I guess a growing understanding of Shakespeare as I have worked with him over the many years that I have, makes me realise that his perspective is very possibly that of an outsider," Mr Doran told BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Friday 21 July.

"It allows him to get inside the soul of a black general, a Venetian Jew, an Egyptian queen or whatever and that perhaps that outsider perspective has something to do with his sexuality." Doran said, adding that the biggest clues to his true sexuality were in his sonnets.

According to Doran, Shakespeare wrote one cycle of 154 sonnets, of which 126 were initially addressed to a man rather than a woman.

He claimed academics found a "process of heterosexualisation" of his sonnets during the Victorian period where pronouns had been altered.

The RSC director said the character of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice was "clearly in love with the young man Bassanio" but their relationship is often mistakenly portrayed as "we chaps are very fond of each other". It was "clearly a very particular portrait of a gay man," he added.

Doran continued: "It wasn't somehow quite kosher for the great national bard to possibly have affections for his own sex.

"I am just aware how many times Shakespeare has gay characters, and how sometimes those gay characters are not played as gay, and I think in the 21st century that's no longer acceptable."

Typical of the ongoing debate, not everyone agrees.

Sir Stanley Wells, a Shakespeare expert at the University of Birmingham, said: "Shakespeare was certainly not exclusively gay. He married Anne Hathaway when he was only 18 and they had a daughter, Susanna, within six months, then twins - a boy, Hamnet and a girl, Judith.

"But he was pretty certainly bisexual, and actively so. The strongest evidence comes from the sonnets, in some of which he writes of a triangular relationship with a man and a woman. Some people claim that these poems are fictional, but I think this is an evasion."