Recent commentators on the issue of homosexual elements in Shakespeare's writings almost uniformly set their debates in the context of the differences between early modern and postmodern notions of sexuality and gender. Many argue that although we have a limited understanding of the sex and gender typologies of early modern England, it is apparent that Shakespeare's contemporaries viewed sexuality differently than we do. Scholars find no evidence in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century treatises of either the supposition that sexuality is binary—that a person is either homosexual or heterosexual—or the idea that sexual behavior constitutes individual identity. Indeed, commentators often assert that early modern notions of sexuality were flexible rather than categorical. They also point out that the word homosexual and its derivatives were not coined until the late nineteenth century, and that no one in Shakespeare's time would have described himself as a homosexual or herself as a lesbian. Additionally, in early modern England the word sodomy designated a broad range of practices, including witchcraft, sorcery, and rebellion as well as same-sex or anal intercourse. Persons were labeled sodomites if their behavior was seen as subversive: a threat to social, political, or natural order.
Many critics who address the question of sexuality in Shakespeare's writings regard gender and sexual differences as social constructs—not biological or behavioral imperatives—that reflected prevailing political and cultural mores. Bruce R. Smith (see Further Reading, 1999), who examines Shakespeare's sonnets, shares this viewpoint. Smith emphasizes the distinctions between early modern and postmodern ways of signifying gender and sexuality. The “I” of the sonnets cannot be made to conform to twentieth-century social constructs, he argues, and thus the transactions between the speaker and the readers of these poems become entangled in cultural and chronological disparities. Also looking at the issue of reader response to the sonnets, Gregory Woods (1998) contends that reading the sonnets inevitably exposes the reader's own way of thinking about homosexuality. Characterizing Sonnet 20 as the pivotal gay poem in English literature, Woods reviews how critics have historically created or emphasized its iconic stature. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (see Further Reading) maintains that the sonnets present male-male love in the context of institutionalized social relations that underlie male political and cultural hegemony. She points out, however, that the complex symmetry between the fair youth and the dark lady as objects of the speaker's desire images the central role of women in carrying out these relations: their bodies are the means by which patriarchal society is sustained through marriage, family name, and progeny.
The expression of this tension between same-sex desire and the social imperative of procreative union is often observed in Shakespeare's comedies. Valerie Traub (1992), for example, sees this synchronism of desire in As You Like It. She argues that it playfully transcends dichotomous sexual oppositions and explores the possibilities of a range of desires—though she describes its closing as ambiguous. By contrast, she characterizes the homoeroticism of Twelfth Night as nervous and strained. Traub maintains that although it seemingly allows for multiple objects of desire, the play ends by fixing the homoerotic energies of Viola, Olivia, and Orsino on the single persona of Antonio, a figure on the margins of society. Janet Adelman (see Further Reading) also regards Twelfth Night as an exploration of the notion that relationships can be simultaneously homosexual and heterosexual, that one need not choose between homosexual and heterosexual bonds; but, she argues, the play ultimately endorses the idea that sexual indeterminacy is a fantasy. By contrast, Charles Casey (1997) reads Twelfth Night as a subversive portrayal of the instability of sexual and gender difference. Identifying same-sex desire as a central motif, he asserts that the play represents erotic attraction and gender as fluid rather than fixed, exposing sexuality as a social construct. In comparison, Joseph Pequigney (see Further Reading, 1992) regards bisexuality as a recurring theme in Twelfth Night, arguing that both Orsino and Olivia have experiences that demonstrate their bisexuality. Pequigney proposes that Sebastian is the most striking example of the bisexuality motif, arguing that he is not only drawn to but is willing to have sexual relations with both Antonio and Olivia.
Pequigney also evaluates Shakespeare's other Antonio—the one in The Merchant of Venice. But while he asserts that Sebastian and the sea captain Antonio in Twelfth Night have a homoerotic liaison, he maintains that there is virtually nothing in this play's text to suggest a sexual relationship between Bassanio and the merchant Antonio. At the close of the comedy, Pequigney declares, Antonio is permanently united with his friend and drawn into the circle of reconciled and loving inhabitants of Belmont. Adelman, by contrast, maintains that The Merchant of Venice polarizes Antonio's love for Bassanio and Portia, making it clear that in order for Portia to win, Antonio must lose. In Adelman's judgment, the play ends with Antonio's defeat and exclusion. Recently Alan Sinfield (see Further Reading, 1996), addressing the question of whether Antonio is isolated at the close of The Merchant of Venice, notes that adopting this viewpoint means acknowledging that the text endorses the marginalization of men who love men. Douglas E. Green (1998) also takes up the question of conservative ideology in Shakespearean drama, but with regard to A Midsummer Night's Dream. He argues that despite its seeming tolerance and openness toward same-sex desire, the play supports the notion that the primary purpose of erotic union is procreation.
The question of generative sex is also addressed by Jonathan Goldberg (see Further Reading, 1994) as part of his analysis of gender and desire in Romeo and Juliet. He argues that the play portrays non-procreative as well as procreative desire as it moves back and forth through a series of sexual substitutions that minimize both the singularity of individuals and the distinctiveness of gender. Goldberg's evaluation of gender definition in 1 and 2 Henry IV (1995) focuses on the way Hal's relationships with other men—particularly Hotspur and Falstaff—contribute to his production of himself as the legitimate heir to the English throne. Did Hal sleep with Falstaff, with Poins, or with Scroop? According to Goldberg there is no definitive answer, but it is more important to note that in the early modern era such behavior would be reprehensible only if it blurred social hierarchies and distinctions, for this was the dominant factor in determining whether sexual relations between men would be condemned or allowed. In an evaluation of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida, Woods similarly considers the issue of what is permitted between men in Shakespeare's plays, and he describes the broad range of ways in which late twentieth-century theatrical productions have highlighted homoerotic or homosexual aspects of such relationships. Smith (see Further Reading, 1991) argues that both Troilus and Cressida and Coriolanus dramatize, in explicitly sexual terms, the ambiguities involved in male bonding. He sees the reconciliation of Coriolanus and Aufidius in Act IV, scene v as an exemplary expression of the volatile connection between male aggression and male sexual desire—the clash of violent and erotic impulses that, according to Smith, occurs regularly in Shakespeare's military plays.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “William Shakespeare,” in A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition, Yale University Press, 1998, pp. 93-107.
[In the essay below, Woods discusses homoerotic and homosexual interpretations of several Shakespearean plays, particularly Troilus and Cressida. He also offers a synopsis of the critical debate about whether Shakespeare's sonnets to the young man delineate homosexual desires, and contends that the sonnets are profoundly concerned with the distinction between male friendship and male sexual love.]
What we read in Shakespeare is never pure text, any more than the staging of one of his plays can ever be innocent of the hermeneutics of production. As so many recent critics have pointed out, William Shakespeare is far from being just an author with a body of texts to his name. He is a major cultural institution. In ways which are not true of Christopher Marlowe, he is expected to serve the purposes of countless vested interests. His plays come with introductions and footnotes, and are pestered by whole libraries of commentary. In Britain especially, people's enjoyment of the plays is often restricted by the prospect or memory of exams. Rather than add much to this peripheral noise by performing my own readings here, therefore, I have chosen to concentrate on following some strands of other commentators' thoughts about how the issue of homosexuality relates—or, as some...
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SOURCE: “The Homoerotics of Shakespearean Comedy,” in Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama, Routledge, 1992, pp. 117-44.
[In the following essay, Traub compares the representation of homoerotic desire in As You Like It and Twelfth Night, proposing that the early modern theatrical practice of boy actors playing female roles made it possible for Shakespeare to depict multiple sexual desires in both these comedies.]
The phenomenon of boy actors playing women's parts in Shakespearean comedy has engendered analyses primarily along three axes. The boy actor: (1) is merely a theatrical convention in the lineage of medieval drama; (2) is a political convention specifically necessitated by the determination to keep women, excepting Elizabeth I, off any public stage or platform; or (3) is an embodiment of the meta-dramatic theme of identity itself: always a charade, a masquerade, other. Certainly it is too much of a caricature to label the first formulation as formalist, the second as feminist, and the third as new historicist. And yet it might be provisionally useful to do so, if only to place these positions in the context of debates about: (1) the relative political import and impact of aesthetic events; (2) the determining power of patriarchal ideology within a general political economy; and (3) the extent to which politics and gender impinge on the...
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SOURCE: “Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night,” in Theatre Journal, Vol. 49, No. 2, May, 1997, pp. 121-41.
[In the essay below, Charles maintains that Twelfth Night critiques Renaissance notions of masculinity and femininity, demonstrating that the dualism of homosexuality and heterosexuality is a social construct. He calls particular attention to the significance of Viola's cross-dressing, the instances of same-sex attraction between Viola and Olivia as well as Antonio and Sebastian, and the play's ending—which, in his judgment, subverts the notion of stable sexual and gender differences.]
The emergence of queer studies in the academy has led to many influential rereadings of Renaissance works, including those of Shakespeare.1 While Twelfth Night continues to be one of the major textual sites for the discussion of homoerotic representation in Shakespeare, interpretive conclusions about the effect of same-sex attraction in this comedy are divided, especially in light of the natural “bias” of the heterosexual marriages in act 5.2 The relationship between Antonio and Sebastian has proven the most fertile ground for queer inquiry; for example, Joseph Pequigney recently has set out, in New-Critical fashion, to prove the “sexual orientation” of these two characters as unquestionably “homosexual” in a play whose “recurring theme” is...
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SOURCE: “Preposterous Pleasures: Queer Theories and A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in A Midsummer Night's Dream: Critical Essays, edited by Dorothea Kehler, Garland Publishing, 1998, pp. 369-97.
[In the following essay, Green explores the homoerotic aspects of A Midsummer Night's Dream by examining Bottom's explication of his “dream,” Oberon's attraction to the changeling boy, and the relationship between Helena and Hermia. The critic contends, however, that the play ultimately upholds conservative cultural ideologies.]
“HOW HAPPY SOME O'ER OTHER SOME CAN BE!”1
Pleasure and power do not cancel or turn back against one another; they seek out, overlap, and reinforce one another. They are linked together by complex mechanisms and devices of excitation and incitement.2
Of all the illusions produced by performance, for me the most immediate is the illusion that performance can accommodate all of my desires at once. This is the lure of performance and, of course, its failure. And yet, like Bottom, I still go for whatever I can get.3
In 1985 Liviu Ciulei, artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, mounted a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. His version of the play was, as the program notes attest, greatly...
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SOURCE: “Hal's Desire, Shakespeare's Idaho,” in Henry IV: Parts One and Two, edited by Nigel Wood, Open University Press, 1995, pp. 35-64.
[In the following excerpt, Goldberg examines representations of male homosocial relations and normative masculinity in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, particularly with regard to Hotspur and Falstaff. The critic also compares Hal to the fair friend of the sonnets and contrasts the latent sexuality of these plays with the explicit sexuality of Gus Van Sant's cinematic adaptation in My Own Private Idaho (1991).]
The Henry IV plays are, no doubt, history plays, yet their relationship to at least one kind of history—the history of sexuality—has gone largely unexamined.1 The reasons for this are not all that difficult to understand. Sexuality is often thought to be nothing other than heterosexuality, and there is, especially in relationship to the central drama of these plays—the prince's ascendance to the throne—little to be said on that score. The fact that women seem exiguous in this political plot could make the plays available to the kind of gender analysis that takes as foundational and virtually transhistorical the exclusion and subordination of women (assumptions that shape the argument of Phyllis Rackin's Stages of History (1990)); such analyses often assume as well that gender relations are always already structured...
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Adelman, Janet. “Male Bonding in Shakespeare's Comedies.” In Shakespeare's “Rough Magic,” edited by Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn, pp. 73-103. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985.
Focuses on The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, and compares the different ways Shakespeare explored and dealt with the notion that a relationship can be simultaneously homosexual and heterosexual.
Bredbeck, Gregory W. “Tradition and the Individual Sodomite: Barnfield, Shakespeare, and Subjective Desire.” In Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England: Literary Representations in Historical Contexts, edited by Claude J. Summers, pp. 41-68. New York: Haworth Press, 1992.
Examines Shakespeare's Sonnets 1-20 and finds evidence that homoerotic desire could play a role in defining an individual in early modern England. The critic also suggests that in these poems gender and sexuality are intentionally ambiguous because they constitute a critique of whether desire can be expressed through language.
Dollimore, Jonathan. “Shakespeare Understudies: The Sodomite, the Prostitute, the Transvestite and Their Critics.” In Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism, edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, pp....
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