By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated April 22, 2002 10:53 AM

Just how in love was Shakespeare, and with whom? Reuters reports that a 400-year-old painting previously believed to be that of a woman has been found, in fact, to be of the third Earl of Southampton — most decidedly a male — the artwork’s owner, Alec Cobbe, said on Tuesday. The earl’s portrait depicts the nobleman as sporting long, black curly hair, pursed red lips, an earring and a slender right hand. This has prompted some wisecracks in the British media, says Reuters. Could William Shakespeare (1564-1616) have been gay? “He is wearing perfectly fashionable male attire of the day, but the earring and the hair are effeminate and unusual for the 1590s,” Cobbe told Reuters, adding that for centuries his family had assumed that the picture was of a Lady Norton. But after finding out about links between Cobbe’s family and the Southamptons, and looking into other representations of the earl, Cobbe come to be convinced that the painting is of Shakespeare’s friend and frequent host from the time Shakespeare was in his mid 20s and Southampton was in his late teens. Scholars have long argued that it was Southampton to whom Shakespeare had addressed some early sonnets. Adding fuel to this fire, the painting is dated to around 1590, notes Reuters, when Shakespeare had penned a particular sonnet to the “master-mistress of my passion.” “It certainly illustrates that sonnet (number 20) very vividly,” said Cobbe of the painting. “We are looking at the subject of the sonnet, I’m sure.”