illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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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...

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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 inTwelfth 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.

Valerie Traub (essay date 1992)

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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 problematics of subjectivity. It is as an intervention in these debates that I situate the following chapter.

I want to argue first that the practice of employing boys to act the parts of women was not merely a dramatic convention, nor was it solely a patriarchal strategy. As Stephen Orgel points out, boy actors were “a uniquely English solution”; when, in 1599, women were banned from the Spanish stage, “the spectacle of transvestite boys was found to be even more disturbing than that of theatrical women, and the edict was rescinded four years later.”1 However much the practice did keep women from too publicly displaying themselves, it continued not merely because of its negative power of constraint, but because it made possible complex desires and fantasies, and mediated cultural anxieties. Those desires and anxieties were not only gendered but erotic in their origination and implication. Secondly, costuming boys as women, who might then impersonate men (and then sometimes women as well), was especially well suited for a drama devoted to exploring the construction and dissolution of identity; however, the relevant concept of identity was not that of a generic, nondifferentiated “selfhood,” but of a complex subjectivity always already imbricated by gender and erotic pressures.

I propose that the boy actor works, in specific Shakespearean comedies, as the basis upon which homoeroticism can be safely explored—working for both actors and audiences as an expression of non-hegemonic desire within the confines of conventional, comedic restraints. The phenomenon of the boy actor is not the by-product or the side-effect of a drama “really” about identity or illustrative of misogyny, but rather is the basis upon which a specific deployment of erotic desire and anxiety can be played out. In this chapter I mean to demonstrate my earlier assertion that certain Shakespearean texts display a homoerotic circulation of desire, that homoerotic energy is elicited, exchanged, negotiated, and displaced as it confronts the pleasures and anxieties of its meanings in early modern culture. Shakespearean drama not only responded to the ideological matrix, explored in Chapter 4, by which homoerotic desire was understood; it also contributed, in its own ambivalent way, to the early modern signification of homoeroticism. Neither a transparent mirror, mimetically reflecting social reality, nor a literary-historical aberration explainable by the author's sexual preference, the homoerotics of Shakespearean comedy are most accurately perceived as a cultural intervention in a heterosexually overdetermined field. They thus provide us with a useful theoretical analytic, not only of early modern sexualities, but of contemporary erotic concerns.

The circulation of homoerotic desire in As You Like It and Twelfth Night is what I mean to invoke when I employ the term transvestism over disguise or cross-dressing to describe the consequences of Rosalind's and Viola's adoption of (what was then perceived to be) masculine attire. Although psychoanalytically, transvestism implies the erotic excitement achieved by wearing the clothes of a different gender, and thus is anachronistically and illegitimately applied to the activities of these characters, it is nonetheless because of the specifically erotic valence of the term that I use it. The transvestism in these plays has a more generalized erotic effect, dispersed throughout the entire fabric of the text, rather than located and fixed within one character's desire.

Part of my support for such assertions comes from the anti-theatricalists themselves, who increasingly focused their condemnations of the theater on the figure of the boy actor. In a mimetic theory of sexuality, the anti-theatricalists not only charged that the boy actor dressed as a woman aroused the erotic interest of men in the audience, but that spectators were encouraged to play out their fantasies in off-stage, behind-the-scenes scenes. The specifically erotic images with which Stephen Gosson, John Rainoldes, Phillip Stubbes, and William Prynne denounced theatrical practices demonstrates that they perceived actors in their costumes to cross not only status and gender boundaries, but erotic boundaries as well.2

However much we might discredit the anti-theatricalists as “fanatics” or crude mimeticists, their intuitions about erotic arousal should not be presumed to be incidental to theatrical production. Bodies, in their culture as in ours, were invested with erotic meanings—bodies making a spectacle of themselves on stage even more so. And clothing, as both the anti-theatricalists and the upholders of sumptuary laws made clear, was an important indicator of one's sexual stance, denoting erotic availability or lack thereof. The anti-theatricalist claim that the theater was a site of erotic, specifically homoerotic, arousal is not in itself pathological; as Stephen Greenblatt notes, “Shakespearean comedy constantly appeals to the body and in particular to sexuality as the heart of its theatrical magic.”3 What is pathological, however, is the anti-theatricalist paranoia about what this circulation of eroticism implies for male subjectivity. At any rate, it is not a paranoia shared with other early modern texts that represent homoeroticism as a legitimate mode of desire; for instance, Spenser's The Shepherd's Calendar and Marlowe's Hero and Leander.4

Psychoanalytic and early feminist readings of the transvestism of As You Like It and Twelfth Night stress the liberating effect caused by the temporary inversion of hierarchical gender arrangements, “through release to clarification,” to use C. L. Barber's influential phrase.5 Whereas some early feminist readings also posited gender role inversion as an impulse toward androgyny, later feminist and new historicist critics argued that any subversion of gender is contained by the comic form which mandates marriage in the final act. Recent debates on the relative subversive or containing power of gender in Shakespeare's plays focus on the extent to which women (through transvestite disguise or appropriation of speech) challenge and disrupt gender difference, or are securely repositioned as objects of exchange in a patriarchal economy dependent on “the traffic in women.”6

Clearly, insofar as gender hierarchies seem to be both temporarily transgressed and formally reinstated, the question of subversion versus containment can only be resolved by crediting either the expense of dramatic energy or comedic closure. Yet, to do either is also to reproduce the artificial distinction between content and form—a capitulation to the logic of binarism. One way beyond such fruitless polarization is to historicize the moment in which subversion is thought to occur, to situate abstract transgression within a concrete network of overdetermined social pressures and effects.7 Another way, evident in Chapters 1 through 3, is to stress less the fact of foreclosure than the way such containment is attained: the mechanisms and displacements set to work by the anxiety elicited through subversive action. In the following analysis of erotic transgression, I will attempt to do both.

To the extent that the various critics who have recently written about the phenomena of boy actors and female transvestism have recognized the homoeroticism residing in theatrical transvestism, they have initiated the possibility of a homoerotic analytic.8 For the most part, however, they have focused their attention on gender rather than sexuality—even though, as I discussed in Chapter 4, their language confuses the issue by using synonymously such terms as sexual difference and sexual identity, androgyny and bisexuality, femininity (or masculinity) and heterosexuality. After mentioning the erotic complications raised by the boy actor, they more often than not decline to interrogate how homoeroticism works in specific plays, how homoerotic desire is differentiated between plays, and whether homoeroticism is distinguished along gender lines.

Even in those analyses specifically devoted to uncovering the material reality of homoerotic practice, gender remains the dominant lens of analysis, as in Lisa Jardine's suggestion that male homoeroticism animates all of the cross-dressing scenes. The conclusion extrapolated from Jardine's analysis is that in “playing the woman's part” the boy actor renders unexceptionable and unthreatening female autonomy and erotic power for a predominantly male audience. If young boys are erotically compelling because of their “femininity,” it is in part because they represent all of the attractions and none of the threats of female heterosexuality. More recently, Stephen Orgel concurs with this line of reasoning:

The dangers of women in erotic situations, whatever they may be, can be disarmed by having the women play men, just as in the theatre the dangers of women on the stage (whatever they may be) can be disarmed by having men play the women.9

Whatever the objective truth of these conclusions, they ultimately say more about the gender anxieties of early modern patriarchal culture than about the specificity of homoeroticism. Chapter 4 demonstrates that although gender and eroticism are deeply connected, they are not isomorphic. Here, reliance on a gender model causes Orgel and Jardine to refer the motivation of male homoeroticism to a single cause: the fantasized dangers posed by women. Despite their antihomophobic intentions, Orgel and Jardine continue to place homoeroticism within a category requiring ontological explanation and justification, in which traditional psychoanalytic interpretations are surprisingly reinstalled.

It may well be that gender anxiety is a determining factor in the specific ways homoerotic practice is manifested and encoded with social meaning within early modern patriarchal culture. I question, however, whether gender anxiety is the salient factor in the construction of homoerotic desire. Gender anxiety is no more, and no less, constitutive of homoerotic desire than it is of heterosexual desire. A plenitude of desires are available as unconscious erotic modes within every psyche. But whether a particular mode of desire is given expression or repressed—that is, whether it is manifested as desire or anxiety—is a matter of ideological and institutional elicitations, enticements, and disciplines. To take this argument one step further, whether representations of gendered bodies elicit repulsion or attraction, fear or fascination, is in some ways irrelevant; as I stated in my Introduction, anxiety and desire are two sides of the same erotic coin. As [Eve Kosofsky] Sedgwick suggests, desire itself is less “a particular affective state or emotion” than “the affective or social force, the glue, even when its manifestation is hostility or hatred.”10 Despite the particular affect involved, the psychic investment is, in each case, comparable. Arbitrary divisions of desire into heterosexual and homoerotic are more indicative of socio-political prerogatives than of inherent psychic or biological imperatives.

Whereas formalist critics often ignore the impact of the boy actor on the text's signification, historical critics such as Jardine and Orgel conversely emphasize the extent to which early modern theatrical practice enabled what is increasingly being called a “transvestite theater.” In this, they follow the lead of the anti-theatricalists in conflating the material reality of the boy actor with the play's action. Indeed, the concept of a “transvestite theater” per se seems to confuse mimetically not only the reality of the play with the world of the theater, but also the phenomena of transvestism and male homoeroticism. In my view, transvestism does not correlate in a simple fashion with any particular erotic mode: theoretically, it could engender heterosexual as well as homoerotic desires. Rather, I would like to suggest that homoerotic activity within Shakespeare's plays is predicated on, but not identical to, the presence of boy actors playing female parts. The material conditions of the early modern theater offered a de facto homoerotic basis upon which to build structures of desire, which were then, through theatrical representation, made available not only to male but to female audience members. This dual-gender availability suggests a problem with another increasingly popular term, “sodomitical theatrics”; when used to describe the entire constellation of desires criss-crossing such plays as As You Like It and Twelfth Night, it fails to distinguish between the erotic practices of both genders; as much as it brings to the fore homoerotic desires among men, it neglects the female desires constructed by the playtexts and imagistically available to female play-goers.

The following comparative analysis of As You Like It and Twelfth Night attempts to demonstrate the differential ways homoeroticism is treated: how it is experienced as pleasure and when it elicits anxiety for both male and female characters. These plays are sites of struggle for the signification of homoeroticism: they demonstrate that within the early modern erotic economy the homoerotic relation to desire could be represented as both celebratory and strained. At the same time, the representations of homoeroticism in these comedies are as much cultural fantasies as is the representation of the maternal body in the Henriad—both representations are “fantasmic” interventions in “real” cultural practices, and as such signal the dialectical relation between the psychic and the social.

The homoeroticism of As You Like It is playful in its ability to transcend binary oppositions, to break into a dual mode, a simultaneity, of desire. Insofar as Rosalind/Ganymede is a multiply sexual object (simultaneously heterosexual and homoerotic), Orlando's effusion of desire toward her/him prevents the stable reinstitution of heterosexuality, upon which the marriage plot depends. By interrupting the arbitrary binarism of the heterosexual contract, male homoeroticism, even as it affirms particular masculine bonds, transgresses the erotic imperative of the Law of the Father. The proceedings of Hymen that conclude the play, once read in terms of the “mock” marriage which precedes them, enact only an ambivalent closure. The reinstitution of gender role (and Rosalind's political subordination under her husband's rule) is incommensurate with a rigidification of sexuality.

The homoeroticism of Twelfth Night, on the other hand, is anxious and strained. This text explores a diversity of desire, proceeding with erotic plurality as far as it can; then, in the face of anxiety generated by this exploration, it fixes the homoerotic interest onto a marginalized figure. The homoerotic energies of Viola, Olivia, and Orsino are displaced onto Antonio, whose relation to Sebastian is finally sacrificed for the maintenance of institutionalized heterosexuality and generational continuity.11 In other words, Twelfth Night closes down the possibility of homoerotic play initiated by the material presence of the transvestized boy actors. The fear expressed, however, is not of homoeroticism per se; homoerotic pleasure is explored and sustained until it collapses into fear of erotic exclusivity and its corollary: non-reproductive sexuality. The result is a more rigid dedication to the ideology of binarism, wherein gender and status inequalities are all the more forcefully reinscribed.

Much virtue in If

Touchstone, As You Like It

In “‘The Place of a Brother’ in As You Like It: Social Process and Comic Form,” Louis Adrian Montrose began the pathbreaking work of placing women's subordination in Shakespearean drama within the context of male homosocial bonds.12 In a historicization and politicization of C. L. Barber's analysis of Rosalind in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, Montrose argued that

Rosalind's exhilarating mastery of herself and others has been a compensatory “holiday humor,” a temporary, inversionary rite of misrule, whose context is a transfer of authority, property, and title from the Duke to his prospective male heir.13

More recently, Jean Howard continues within the Barber-Montrose lineage:

The representation of Rosalind's holiday humor has the primary effect, I think, of confirming the gender system and perfecting rather than dismantling it by making a space for mutuality within relations of dominance.14

However, she complicates the analysis of Rosalind's subordination through reference to the French feminist analytic of female “masquerade:”

the figure of Rosalind dressed as a boy engages in playful masquerade as, in playing Rosalind for Orlando, she acts out the parts scripted for women by her culture. Doing so does not release Rosalind from patriarchy but reveals the constructed nature of patriarchy's representations of the feminine and shows a woman manipulating those representations in her own interest, theatricalizing for her own purposes what is assumed to be innate, teaching her future mate how to get beyond certain ideologies of gender to more enabling ones.15

The distance traversed in the progression from Barber to Montrose to Howard indicates a corresponding movement from an essentialist view of gender, to an emphasis on social structure as determining gender, to an assertion of the limited possibilities of subversive manipulation within dominant cultural codes. The subjective if constrained agency conferred by Howard upon Rosalind as a woman can be extended as well to Rosalind as erotic subject. In excess of the dominant ideology of monogamous heterosexuality, to which Rosalind is symbolically wed at the end of the play, exist desires unsanctioned by institutional favor. By means of her male improvisation, Rosalind leads the play into a mode of desire neither heterosexual nor homoerotic, but both heterosexual and homoerotic. As much as she displays her desire for Orlando, she also enjoys her position as male object of Phebe's desire and, more importantly, of Orlando's. S/he thus instigates a deconstruction of the binary system by which desire in subsequent centuries came to be organized, regulated, and disciplined.

That homoerotic significations will play a part in As You Like It is first intimated by Rosalind's adoption of the name Ganymede when she imagines donning doublet and hose. Of all the male names available to her, she chooses that of the young lover of Zeus, familiar to educated Britons through Greek and Latin literature and European painting, and to less privileged persons as a colloquial term used to describe the male object of male love. As James Saslow, who traces the artistic representation of Ganymede in Western culture from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, argues, “the very word ganymede was used from medieval times well into the seventeenth century to mean an object of homosexual desire.”16 Saslow's argument is seconded by Orgel: “the name Ganymede [could not] be used in the Renaissance without this connotation.”17

That Rosalind-cum-Ganymede becomes the object of another woman's desire is obvious. Consciously, of course, Phebe believes Ganymede to be a man, and is thus merely following the dominant heterosexual course. And yet, what attracts Phebe to Ganymede are precisely those qualities that could be termed “feminine.” Notice the progression of the following speech:

It is a pretty youth—not very pretty. …
He'll make a proper man. The best thing in him
Is his complexion. …
He is not very tall; yet for his years he's tall.
His leg is but so so; and yet 'tis well.
There was a pretty redness in his lip,
A little riper and more lusty red
Than that mix'd in his cheek; 'twas just the difference
Betwixt the constant red and mingled damask.


During the first half of her recollection, as she measures Ganymede against the standard of common male attributes—height, leg—Phebe fights her attraction, syntactically oscillating between affirmation and denial: he is; he is not. In the last four lines, as she “feminizes” Ganymede's lip and cheek, she capitulates to her desire altogether.

Many critics acknowledge the underlying homoeroticism of Phebe's attraction; however, they tend to undermine its thematic importance by relegating it to the status of a temporary psychosexual stage. C. L. Barber, for instance, remarks: “She has, in effect, a girlish crush on the femininity which shows through Rosalind's disguise; the aberrant affection is happily got over when Rosalind reveals her identity and makes it manifest that Phebe has been loving a woman.”18 When Barber says that Phebe's “aberrant” affection is “happily got over” he reveals the extent to which homophobic anxiety structures the developmental logic of his response. But if a “girlish crush” is outgrown or overcome, what are we to make of Rosalind's desire to “prove a busy actor” in the “pageant truly play'd” of Phebe and Silvius? (III.iv.50-8). Although her ostensible motivation is her belief that “the sight of lovers feedeth those in love” (56), s/he soon interjects in order to correct the literal-mindedness that feeds Phebe's “proud disdain” (III.iv.52). And yet the pleasure Rosalind/Ganymede takes in this task seems in excess of her putative function. Significantly, it is s/he who first mentions the possibility of Phebe's attraction, interpreting and then glorying in Phebe's changed demeanor:

Why, what means this? Why do you look on me?
I see no more in you than in the ordinary
Of nature's sale-work. 'Od's my little life
I think she means to tangle my eyes too!


Is there not a sense in which Rosalind/Ganymede elicits Phebe's desire, constructing it even as she refuses it? Indeed, in these lines the conflict between discourses of gender and of sexuality are intensely manifested: at the level of gender, Rosalind restates compulsory heterosexuality; at the level of sexuality, Ganymede elicits a desire for that which falls outside (or on the cusp) of the binarism of gender. At any rate, s/he is represented as delighting in her role of the rejecting male:

                                                                                                    Down on your knees,
And thank heaven, fasting, for a good man's love;
For I must tell you friendly in your ear,
Sell when you can, you are not for all markets.


And why does s/he put Silvius through the exquisite torment of hearing Phebe's love letter to Ganymede read aloud, if not to aggrandize her own victorious position as male rival? (IV.iii.14-64). Indeed, as a male, her sense of power is so complete that s/he presumes to tell Silvius to tell Phebe, “that if she love me, I charge her to love thee” (IV.iii.71-2, my emphasis).

Homoerotic desire in As You Like It thus circulates from Phebe's desire for the “feminine” in Rosalind/Ganymede to Rosalind/Ganymede's desire to be the “masculine” object of Phebe's desire. Even more suggestive of the text's investment in homoerotic pleasure is Orlando's willingness to engage in love-play with a young shepherd. Throughout his “courtship” of Ganymede (who is now impersonating Rosalind), Orlando accepts and treats Ganymede as his beloved. To do so requires less his willing suspension of disbelief than the ability to hold in suspension a dual sexuality that feels no compulsion to make arbitrary distinctions between kinds of objects. That Rosalind-cum-Ganymede takes the lead in their courtship has been noted by countless critics; that there is a certain homoerotic irony in that fact has yet to be noted. As a “ganymede,” Rosalind would be expected to play the part of a younger, more receptive partner in an erotic exchange. S/he thus not only inverts gender roles; s/he disrupts alleged homoerotic roles as well.

What began as a game culminates in the “mock” marriage, when Orlando takes for his wife the boy he believes to be fictionalizing as Rosalind. It is Celia, not Orlando, who hesitates in playing her part in the ceremony—“I cannot say the words,” she responds to Orlando's request that she play the priest (IV.i.121)—in part because those words possess a ritualistic power to enact what is spoken. Insofar as ritual was still popularly believed to be imbued with sacred or magical power, the fact that Orlando does not hesitate, but eagerly responds in the precise form of the Anglican marriage ceremony—“I take thee, Rosalind, for wife” (IV.i.129)—suggests the degree to which the play legitimizes the multiple desires it represents. The point is not that Orlando and Ganymede formalize a homosexual marriage, but rather that as the distance between Rosalind and Ganymede collapses, distinctions between homoerotic and heterosexual collapse as well. As the woman and the shepherd boy merge, Orlando's words resound with the conviction that, for the moment, he (as much as Rosalind and the audience) is engaged in the ceremony as if it were real. As both a performative speech act and a theatricalization of desire, the marriage is both true and fictional at once. The subversiveness of this dramatic gesture lies in the dual motion of first, appropriating the meaning of matrimony for deviant desires; and second, exposing the heterosexual imperative of matrimony as a reduction of the plurality of desire into the singularity of monogamy. The “mock” marriage is not a desecration but a deconstruction—a displacement and subversion of the terms by which desire is encoded—of the ritual by which two are made one.

When Hymen in Act V symbolically reintroduces the logic of heterosexual marriage, the text's devotion to simultaneity would appear to be negated. The terms in which Hymen performs the quartet of marriages make the ideological function of the ritual clear: “Peace, ho! I bar confusion. / 'Tis I must make conclusion / Of these most strange events” (V.iv.124-6). “Hymen's bands” (V.iv.128) are called forth to “make conclusion” not only of erotic “confusion” but of the play. And yet the play does not end with Hymen's bars and bands, but with a renewed attack on the pretensions of erotic certitude. In a repetition of her previous gender and erotic mobility, Rosalind-cum-boy actor, still wearing female attire, leaps the frame of the play in order to address the audience in a distinctly erotic manner: “If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleas'd me, complexions that lik'd me, and breaths that I defied not” (Epilogue 16-19). As Orgel, Howard, Phyllis Rackin, and Catherine Belsey all intimate, the effect of this statement is to highlight the constructedness of gender and the flexibility of erotic attraction at precisely the point when the formal impulse of comedy would be to essentialize and fix both gender and eroticism.

Throughout the play, what makes erotic contingency possible is a simple conjunction: “if.” Indeed, Touchstone's discourse on the virtues of “if” can serve as an index of the play's entire erotic strategy: “If you said so, then I said so” (V.iv.99-100). The dependence on the conditional structures the possibility of erotic exploration without necessitating a commitment to it. Orlando can woo and even wed Ganymede as “if thou wert indeed my Rosalind” and as if the marriage were real (IV.i.189-90, my emphasis). Through the magic of “if,” the boy actor playing Rosalind can offer and elicit erotic attraction to and from each gender in the audience. “If” not only creates multiple erotic possibilities and positions, it also conditionally resolves the dramatic confusion that the play cannot sustain. As Rosalind says to Silvius, Phebe, and Orlando, respectively: “I would love you, if I could”; “I will marry you, if ever I marry a woman, and I'll be married tomorrow”; and, “I will satisfy you, if ever I satisfied man, and you shall be married tomorrow” (V.ii.108-12). Even Hymen's mandate is qualified: “Here's eight that must take hands / To join in Hymen's bands / If truth hold true contents” (V.iv.127-9, my emphasis).

My own reliance on “if” should make it clear that I am not arguing that Rosalind or Orlando or Phebe “is” “a” “homosexual.” Rather, at various moments in the play, these characters temporarily inhabit a homoerotic position of desire. To insist on a mode of desire as a position taken up also differs from formulating these characters as “bisexual”: as Phyllis Rackin reminds us, bisexuality implicitly defines the desiring subject as divided in order to maintain the ideologically motivated categories of homo- and hetero- as inviolate.19 The entire logic of As You Like It works against such categorization, against fixing upon and reifying any one mode of desire.

Simultaneity and flexibility, however, are not without their costs. Insofar as the text circulates homoerotic desire, it displaces the anxieties so generated in the following tableau described by Oliver, Orlando's brother:

A wretched ragged man, o'ergrown with hair,
Lay sleeping on his back. About his neck
A green and gilded snake had wreath'd itself,
Who with her head nimble in threats approach'd
The opening of his mouth. …
A lioness, with udders all drawn dry,
Lay couching, head on ground, with catlike watch,
When that the sleeping man should stir. …


The dual dangers to which the sleeping Oliver is susceptible are, on the face of it, female: the lioness an aged maternal figure (“with udders all drawn dry”), the female snake seductively encircling Oliver's neck. Let us first give this passage a conventional psychoanalytic reading: the virile and virtuous Orlando banishes the snake and battles with the lion while his evil “emasculated” brother, unconscious of his position as damsel in distress, sleeps on—their sibling rivalry displaced onto and mediated by gender conflict. Yet at the same time as the snake encircles her prey, she approaches and almost penetrates the vulnerable opening of Oliver's mouth. Rather than posit the snake, in this aspect, as a representation of the “phallic mother,” I want to argue that in the snake's figure are concentrated the anxieties generated by the text's simultaneous commitment to homoeroticism and heterosexuality. If Oliver is endangered by the snake's “feminine” sexual powers, he is equally threatened by her phallic ones. He becomes both the feminized object of male aggression and the effeminized object of female desire. The snake thus represents the erotic other of the text, the reservoir of the fears elicited by homoerotic exchanges—fears, I want to insist, that are not inherent in the experience of homoerotic desire, but that are produced by those ideologies that position homoeroticism as unnatural, criminal, and heretical.

Indeed the relations represented in this tableau suggest that no desire, male or female, heterosexual or homoerotic, is free of anxiety. As Touchstone says in a lighter vein, “as all is mortal in nature, so is all nature in love mortal in folly” (II.iv.52-3). But what is most interesting is that in this play sexual danger is encoded as feminizing to the object persistently figured as male. Consistently, the text seems less interested in the threat of a particular mode of desire (hetero/homo) than in the dangers desire as such poses to men. It is, in this sense, thoroughly patriarchal, positing man as the center of, and vulnerable to, desire. That the text marginalizes this expression of vulnerability by not dramatizing it on stage but reporting it only in retrospect suggests the extent to which the anxiety is repressed in the interests of achieving comic, heterosexual closure, however partially or problematically.

My highlighting of the affirmative possibilities of multiple pleasures is not meant to imply that As You Like It represents a paradisiacal erotic economy, a utopian return to a polymorphously perverse body unmediated by cultural restraints. As the penultimate gesture toward the institution of marriage clearly indicates, endless erotic mobility is difficult to sustain. But just as clearly, As You Like It registers its lack of commitment to the binary logic that dominates the organization of desire. If As You Like It suggests the “folly” of desire, part of that folly is the discipline to which it is subject.

My desire / More sharp than filed steel

Antonio, Twelfth Night

The sexual economy of Twelfth Night is saturated with multiple erotic investments: Viola/Cesario's dual desire for Olivia and Orsino; Orsino's ambivalent interest in Viola/Cesario; Sebastian's responses to Olivia and Antonio; and finally, Antonio's exclusive erotic wish for Sebastian. Although Viola's initial impulse for adopting male disguise is to serve the duke as a eunuch (I.ii.56), her status as sexually neutral dissipates as she quickly becomes both erotic object and subject. Critics often mention Viola's passivity, her inclination to commit “What else may hap to time” (I.ii.60), but they fail to recognize that as Cesario she woos Olivia with a fervor that exceeds her “text” (I.v.227). S/he asks, with no apparent mandate, to see Olivia's face; and upon viewing the “picture” (I.v.228), responds, “if you were the devil, you are fair” (I.v.246).

Critics also point to Viola/Cesario's anxiety over the predicament caused by the disguise:

I am the man. If it be so, as 'tis,
Poor lady, she were better love a dream.
Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much. …
How will this fadge? My master loves her dearly;
And I, poor monster, fond as much on him;
And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.
What will become of this? As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master's love;
As I am woman—now alas the day!—
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!
O time, thou must untangle this, not I;
It is too hard a knot for me t'untie.


The image by which Viola/Cesario expresses her plight is far more resonant than many critics have noted. The implied double negative of a knot that cannot be untied is precisely the figuration of her complex erotic investments: s/he “fonds” on her master, while simultaneously finding erotic intrigue and excitement as the object of Olivia's desire. The flip side of her anxiety about Olivia's desire is her own desire to be the object of Olivia's desire. This desire s/he can (k)not untie because of its status as negation. Why this desire is negated in this play I will take up in a moment. For now, what is important is that the play sets up Viola/Cesario's dual erotic investment, not so much to resolve it as to sustain its dramatic possibilities and to elicit the similarly polymorphous desires of the audience, whose spectator pleasure would be at least in part derived from a transgressive glimpse of multiple erotic possibilities.

To substantiate the play's investment in erotic duality, one can compare the language used in Viola/Cesario's two avowals of love: the first as Orsino's wooer of Olivia, and the second as s/he attempts to communicate love to Orsino. In both avowals, Viola/Cesario theatricalizes desire, using a similar language of conditionals toward both erotic objects. Compare the syntactical and semantic structure of Viola/Cesario's comment to Olivia, “If I did love you in my master's flame, / With such a suff'ring, such a deadly life, / In your denial I would find no sense; / I would not understand it” (I.v.259-62) to her comment to Orsino: “My father had a daughter lov'd a man, / As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman, / I should your lordship” (II.iv.107-9). What predisposes us to credit the second comment as truth but the first as false, a suspect performance, is, I suggest, largely our assumption of universal heterosexuality. Both speeches are equally theatricalizations of desire. As such, both work to undermine the dichotomy between truth and falsehood, fiction and reality, heterosexuality and homoeroticism.

This is not to suggest that Viola/Cesario's position in relation to homoerotic desire is celebrated in the text: unlike Rosalind, her erotic predicament threatens her with destruction—or at least so s/he believes—at the hands of Sir Andrew, who is manipulated by Sir Toby to challenge his rival to a duel. The weapon of choice is not incidental, as the whole point of the threatened battle is for Viola/Cesario to demonstrate the “little thing” that “would make me tell them how much I lack of a man” (III.iv.302-3). As Toby says: “Therefore, on, or strip your sword stark naked; for meddle you must, that's certain, or forswear to wear iron about you” (III.iv.252-54). At this (phallic) point, Viola/Cesario's “lack” is upheld as the signifier of gender difference. And yet, to the extent that masculinity is embodied in the sword, it depends upon a particular kind of performance rather than any biological equipment. This theatrical moment simultaneously reinscribes a binary code of gender into the action, and suggests the extent to which gender is prosthetic.20 It seems telling that at precisely this point of pressure on the meaning of gender, the play of erotic difference is abandoned. Or, more accurately, deflected, for who should enter to defend Viola/Cesario but Antonio, the figure who is positioned most firmly in a homoerotic relation to desire.

The entire first scene between Antonio and Sebastian is focused on Sebastian's denial of the sailor's help, and Antonio's irrepressible desire not only to protect but accompany the man with whom, we later learn, he has spent “three months … / No int'rim, not a minute's vacancy. / Both day and night” (V.i.90-2). Antonio singlemindedly pursues Sebastian through the (to him) dangerous streets of Illyria: “But come what may, I do adore thee so / That danger shall seem sport, and I will go” (II.i.44-5). It is not fortuitous that this scene (II.i) intervenes between Viola/Cesario's wooing of Olivia, when s/he exceeds her “text” (I.v), and her contemplation of the danger inherent in this action: “It is too hard a knot for me t' untie” (II.ii). For Antonio's words allude to the perils in early modern culture of an exclusively homoerotic passion: in order to remain in the presence of one's beloved, “danger” must be figuratively, if not literally, transformed into “sport.” That the danger is not limited to the threat of Orsino's men (the force of law) is revealed in Antonio's plea to Sebastian, “If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant” (II.i.33-4). The love Antonio extends is somehow capable of inciting the beloved to murder.

An even greater danger is intimated in this scene, which will ultimately have severe repercussions on the fate of Antonio's desire. Sebastian explains to Antonio that his father “left behind him myself and a sister, both born in an hour. If the heavens had been pleas'd, would we had so ended! But you, sir, alter'd that, for some hour before you took me from the breach of the sea was my sister drown'd” (II.i.17-22). Sebastian's life is saved when he is pulled from the “breach of the sea,” an image of the surf that invokes the re-birthing we expect from Shakespearean shipwrecks. But this rebirth is coincident with the supposed death of Sebastian's sister; she is “drown'd already … with salt water” and drowned again in Sebastian's tearful “remembrance” (II.i.29-30). In other words, Sebastian's rebirth into Antonio's love is implicated in the destruction of the only woman Sebastian has loved: Viola.

As mentioned, Viola/Cesario is threatened with destruction. Crucially, it is Antonio who saves her/him, thinking that he is defending his beloved. His entrance at this moment enacts the central displacement of the text: when the ramifications of a simultaneous homoeroticism and heterosexuality become too anxiety-ridden, the homoerotic energy of Viola/Cesario is displaced onto Antonio—the one figure, as Laurie Osborne notes, whose passion for another does not arise from deception or require a woman for its expression.21

Just before the swordfight Antonio finds Sebastian, and greets him with these words:

I could not stay behind you. My desire,
More sharp than filed steel, did spur me forth;
And not all love to see you, though so much
As might have drawn one to a longer voyage,
But jealousy what might befall your travel,
Being skilless in these parts. … My willing love,
The rather by these arguments of fear,
Set forth in your pursuit.


Why do editors gloss “jealousy” as anxiety, when both words were available to Shakespeare, and both scan equally well?22 Antonio is clearly both anxious about the dangers that might “befall” his beloved, and jealous of the attractions that might entice him. And not without reason: Sebastian falls rather easily to the “relish” of Olivia's charms (IV.i.59).

Antonio's discourse partakes of what I will call a “rhetoric of penetration.” Male desire in Shakespearean drama is almost always figured in phallic images—which may seem tautological until one remembers the commonly accepted notion that Shakespeare's fops are not only “effeminate” but “homosexual.” On the contrary, Twelfth Night represents male homoerotic desire as phallic in the most active sense: erect, hard, penetrating. Antonio describes his desire in terms of sharp, filed steel which spurs him on to pursuit, “spur” working simultaneously to “prick” him (as object) and urge him on (as subject). To the extent that heterosexual desire in Shakespearean drama is often associated with detumescence (the triumph of Venus over Mars, the pervasive puns on dying), and homoerotic desire is figured as permanently erect, it is the desire of man for man that is coded as the more “masculine.”23

Many critics have noted in addition that in the early modern period excessive heterosexual lust seems to engender in men fears of “effeminacy.” Romeo, for instance, complains that desire for Juliet “hath made me effeminate, / And in my temper soft'ned valor's steel!” Similarly, the Romans maintain that Antony's lust for Cleopatra has so compromised his gender identity that he “is not more manlike / Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolemy / More womanly than he.” In contrast, extreme virility, manifested in Spartan self-denial and military exploits, is not only depicted as consistent with erotic desire for other men; it also is expressed in it, as when Aufidius says to Coriolanus, “Let me twine / Mine arms about that body, whereagainst / My grained ash an hundred times hath broke,” and goes on to compare the joy he feels at seeing Coriolanus as being greater than that which he felt “when I first my wedded mistress saw / Bestride my threshold.”24

Fops, on the other hand, while commonly perceived as having a “passive” interest in male homoerotic encounters, are almost always involved in pursuing (if unsuccessfully) a heterosexual alliance.25 Sir Andrew, for instance, hopes to marry Olivia, if only for her status and money. True, he is manipulated by Sir Toby, and he may therefore be seen to partake of a homoerotic triangular relation, whereby he woos his ostensible object (Olivia) in order to concretize ties with his real object (Toby).26 However, Sir Andrew seems more accurately represented as void of erotic desire, merely attempting to fulfill the social requirements of heterosexuality. Indeed, he seems a vessel into which others' desires are poured, especially Sir Toby's triangular manipulation for wealth, ease, and power through the exchange of the body of his niece. Rather than being homosexual, fops are figured as always already effeminated by their heterosexual relation to desire.

Orsino, whose languid action and hyper-courtly language situate him as foppish, appears to be more in love with love than with any particular object. As Jean Howard points out, Orsino

initially poses a threat to the Renaissance sex-gender system by languidly abnegating his active role as masculine wooer and drowning in narcissistic self-love. … His narcissism and potential effeminacy are displaced, respectively, onto Malvolio and Andrew Aguecheek, who suffer fairly severe humiliations for their follies.27

Orsino is narcissistic and “effeminate,” but I would argue that neither his narcissism nor his “effeminacy” is indicative of desire for males per se. Orsino's “effeminacy,” a gender characteristic, accompanies both his heterosexual desire for Olivia and his homoerotic desire for Cesario. What is most interesting, however, is the extent to which Orsino's desire is anxious, or in our modern parlance, homophobic. In contrast to Orsino's homosocial ease with Cesario—their intimacy is established in three days (I.iv.3)—the possibility of a homoerotic basis to his affection for his servant creates tension: he defers accepting Viola as his betrothed until she has adopted her “maiden weeds” (V.i.252). Indeed, he refuses to really “see” her as a woman, continuing to refer to her as Cesario, “For so you shall be, while you are a man; / But when in other habits you are seen, / Orsino's mistress and his fancy's queen” (V.i.383-5). To the extent that his anxiety is desire, Orsino figures as the repressed homoerotic analogue to Antonio.

Throughout his canon, Shakespeare associates “effeminacy” in men with the fawning superciliousness of the perfumed courtier, and with the “womanish” tears of men no longer in control. Both Hotspur and Hamlet, for example, rail against the “effeminacy” of courtiers; Laertes and Lear describe their tears as “womanish.” Hamlet is as disgusted by Osric and Guildenstern as he is by Ophelia and Gertrude; it is this fear of “effeminacy” that stimulates the homophobic disgust in his charge, “'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be play'd on than a pipe?”28

There is little in the canon to suggest that Shakespeare linked “effeminacy” to homoeroticism, unless we look to the “feminine” qualities of Cesario that ambivalently attract Orsino to his page. Historically, the charge of “effeminacy” seems to have been limited to such “boys” as Cesario, or to those adult men who were “uxoriously” obsessed with women. The unfailing correspondence of adult homoeroticism and “effeminacy” is a later cultural development, and is imported into Shakespeare's texts by critics responding to a different cultural milieu.29 In Twelfth Night, both Antonio and Sebastian pointedly use their phallic swords, and are implicitly contrasted to Sir Andrew, whom even Viola/Cesario one-ups, despite the “little thing that would make [her] tell them how much [she] lack[s] as a man.” “Appropriate” male desire is phallic, whether homoerotic or heterosexual; without that phallic force, men in Shakespearean drama are usually rendered either asexual or nominally heterosexual.

Despite the attractions of homoeroticism, the pleasure Twelfth Night takes in it is not sustained. Not only are Viola/Cesario and Sebastian betrothed respectively to Orsino and Olivia, but Antonio is marginalized—in part because he publicly speaks his desire, in part because his desire is exclusive of other bonds. Like The Merchant of Venice's Antonio, this Antonio gives his beloved his “purse”; shortly thereafter he is seized by the duke's men. As he struggles with the officers, Antonio states to “Sebastian”:

This comes with seeking you.
But there's no remedy; I shall answer it.
What will you do, now my necessity
Makes me to ask you for my purse? It grieves me
Much more for what I cannot do for you
Than what befalls myself.


After Viola/Cesario offers money but denies not only their acquaintance, but knowledge of Antonio's “purse,” the officers attempt to take Antonio away; but he resists:

Let me speak a little. This youth that you see here
I snatch'd one half out of the jaws of death,
Reliev'd him with such sanctity of love,
And to his image, which methought did promise
Most venerable worth, did I devotion.


“What's that to us?” reply the officers, and Antonio is compelled to curse:

But O how vile an idol proves this god!
Thou hast, Sebastian, done good feature shame.
In nature there's no blemish but the mind;
None can be call'd deform'd but the unkind.


To which the officers conclude: “The man grows mad. Away with him!” (III.iv.372)

Antonio is labeled mad by the law not only because of the linguistic and class impropriety of his speech, but because his vocalization of desire is caught uncomfortably between the only two discourses available to him: platonic friendship and sodomy. There are literally no early modern terms by which Antonio's desire can be understood.

Antonio's imprisonment, we conventionally expect, will be revoked when Viola/Cesario's problems are resolved. With the entrance of Sebastian not only do brother and sister rediscover each other, but “nature to her bias,” according to most critics, draws Olivia to Sebastian and Orsino to Viola (V.i.257). This appeal to “nature” can be seen to dissolve the previous dramatic energy expended in portraying socially illegitimate alliances, the conventional betrothals displacing the fantasy embodied by Viola/Cesario of holding in tension simultaneous objects of desire. Many feminist and psychoanalytic critics read this conclusion as a celebration of psychic androgyny in which Viola/Cesario is fantastically split, “An apple cleft in two” into Viola and Sebastian (V.i.221). However pertinent such a reading may be to the gender politics of the play (and I think that it bypasses rather than resolves the question of gender identity posed by transvestism), it ignores the erotic politics. Antonio's final query, “Which is Sebastian?” is answered by the “identification” of Sebastian and Viola and the quick, symmetrical pairings. Or is it? Is the Sebastian whose words to Antonio are: “Antonio, O my dear Antonio! / How have the hours rack'd and torture'd me, / Since I have lost thee!” (V.i.215-17) the same Sebastian who has just sanctified his love to Olivia? Despite his miraculous betrothal, Sebastian's own desire seems more complicated than the assumption of “natural” heterosexuality would suggest. In fact, Sebastian's desire, like Viola/Cesario's, seems to obliterate the distinction between homoerotic and heterosexual—at least until the institution of marriage comes into (the) play. As a reassertion of the essential heterosexuality of desire, Sebastian's allusion to “nature's bias” seems a bit suspect.

Joseph Pequigney offers an alternative interpretation of “nature to her bias” which not only reopens the question of the meaning of “bias,” but inverts its relation to “nature.” He notes that “bias” derives from

the game of bowls played with a bowl or ball designed to run obliquely, and “bias” denotes either the form of the bowl that causes it to swerve or, as in the metaphor, the curved course it takes. Nature then chose an oblique or curved rather than a straight way of operating … This homoerotic swerving or lesbian [sic] deviation from the heterosexual straight and narrow is not unnatural, but, to the contrary, a modus operandi of Nature.30

Despite its closure, then, Twelfth Night's conclusion seems only ambivalently invested in the “natural” heterosexuality it imposes.

Comparison of the treatment of homoeroticism in As You Like It and Twelfth Night suggests that when homoeroticism is not a mutual investment it becomes problematic. This may seem distressingly self-evident, but to say it underscores the point that the anxiety exposed in Shakespearean drama is not so much about a particular mode of desire, as about the psychic exposure entailed by a lack of mutuality. Heterosexual desire is equally troubling when unrequited. Despite Twelfth Night's nod to heterosexual imperatives in the ambiguous allusion to “nature to her bias,” and despite both texts' ultimate movement toward heterosexuality, homoeroticism is constructed throughout as merely one more mode of desire. As Antonio puts it, in the closest thing we have to an antihomophobic statement in an early modern text: “In nature there's no blemish but the mind; / None can be call'd deform'd but the unkind” (Twelfth Night, III.iv.368-9). Both modes of desire are responsive to social and institutional pressures; both are variously attributed to “noble” and “irrational” impulses. In other words, Shakespearean drama measures homoerotic and heterosexual impulses on the same scale of moral and philosophical value.

Secondly, the relative ease or dis-ease with homoerotic desire seems to depend on the extent to which such desire is recuperable within a simultaneous homoeroticism and heterosexuality that will ensure generational reproduction. Specifically, in these plays the dramatized fantasy of eliding women in erotic exchanges seems to initiate anxiety. When homoerotic exchanges threaten to replace heterosexual bonds, when eroticism is collapsed into anxiety about reproduction, then homoeroticism is exorcized at the same time as the female gender is resecured into the patriarchal order.

The specific anxiety about reproduction I hypothesize as a structuring principle for the movement of these comedies is not explicitly voiced in either play. It is, however, a dominant theme in the sonnets, beginning with the first line of the first poem to the young man: “From fairest creatures we desire increase / That thereby beauty's rose might never die.”31 As the poet exhorts his beloved to “Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest / Now is the time that face should form another”—that if he should “Die single … thine image dies with thee” (Sonnet 3)—the failure to reproduce is figured in narcissistic, even masturbatory, terms: “For having traffic with thyself alone / Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive” (Sonnet 4). The sonnets' psychic strategy is founded on a paradox: the narcissism of taking the self as masturbatory object can only be countered and mastered by the narcissism of reproducing oneself in one's heirs.

That the failure to reproduce signified by this masturbatory fantasy is a veritable death knell is evidenced by Sonnet 3: “who is he so fond will be the tomb / Of his self-love, to stop posterity?” Indeed, if one notes that the final couplet of six out of the first seven sonnets explicitly offers death as the sole alternative to reproduction, the anxiety animating the exhortation to reproduce becomes quite clear. The sheer repetition of the sentiment (twelve sonnets out of the first sixteen) attests to the presence of a repetition compulsion, indicating unresolved psychic distress.32 Such distress obviously structures the reproductive madness of Sonnet 6:

Then let not winter's ragged hand deface
In thee thy summer, ere thou be distill'd.
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
With beauty's treasure, ere it be self-kill'd.
That use is not forbidden usury
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
That's for thyself to breed another thee,
Or ten times happier, be it ten for one;
Ten times thyself were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigur'd thee.

That ten is ten times better than one is self-evidently true only if the one is not the one who carries, labors, and delivers those ten offspring. The misogynistic pun on vial, referring both to the vessel of the womb and its supposedly vile character indicates a structuring ambivalence. The logic of the sequence implies that homoerotic love can only be justified through a heterosexual reproductivity that is always already degraded by its contact with female genitalia—the underlying fantasy being the wish for reproduction magically untainted by the female body.

“Make thee another self, for love of me” (Sonnet 10, my emphasis). Surely it is not fortuitous that the homoerotic investment of the sonnets elicits such a strong investment in reproduction. This investment is finally mediated, and the anxiety regarding women's necessary role in reproduction is displaced, as the poet appropriates for himself reproductive powers. From Sonnet 15, in which the poet claims to “engraft” his beloved “new,” through the subsequent four poems, heterosexual reproduction slowly but surely gives way to the aesthetic immortality “engrafted” on the beloved by the poet's skill. The power to create life is transformed into the exclusively male power of the poet's invocation to an exclusively male audience: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee” (Sonnet 18).

The historical reasons for the reproductive anxiety explicitly rendered in the sonnets, and implied by the structure of the comedies, are obviously complex. In order to unpack them, it may be useful to reinsert gender provisionally as a relevant analytic category, to examine the relation of homoerotic desire to the gender system. Eve Sedgwick argues that male homoeroticism was not perceived as threatening in early modern culture because it was not defined in opposition or as an impediment to heterosexuality; [Randolph] Trumbach and [James M.] Saslow emphasize that the general pattern of male homoeroticism was “bisexual.” Exclusive male homoeroticism, however, homoeroticism that did not admit the need for women, would disrupt important early modern economic and social imperatives: inheritance of name, entitlement, and property. Each of these imperatives, crucial to the social hierarchies of early modern England, was predominantly conferred through heterosexual marriage. I am suggesting, then, that the salient concern may be less the threat posed by homoerotic desire per se than that posed by non-monogamy and non-reproduction.

In addition, despite patriarchal control of female sexuality through the ideology of chastity and laws regulating marriage and illegitimacy, there seems to have been a high cultural investment in female erotic pleasure—not because women's pleasure was perceived as healthy or intrinsically desirable, but because it was thought necessary for successful conception to occur. According to Thomas Laqueur, early modern medical texts (including those of midwives) judged both male and female erotic pleasure as essential to generation.33 Viewed as structurally inverted men, women were thought to ejaculate “seed” at the height of their sexual pleasure; conception supposedly began at the meeting of male and female seed. Because they were perceived as naturally cooler than men, women were thought to achieve orgasm only after the proper “heating” of their genitalia. In light of this social investment, it seems possible that an exclusive male homoeroticism could be seen as leaving female reproductive organs out, as it were, in the cold.

Insofar as As You Like It gestures outward toward an eroticism characterized by a diffuse and fluid simultaneity, it does so because the text never feels compelled to fix, to identify, or to name the desires it expresses. In contrast, Twelfth Night closes down erotic possibility precisely to the degree it complies with the social imperative to name desire, to fix it within definitive boundaries, and to identify it with specific characters. The “unmooring of desire, the generalizing of the libidinal” that Greenblatt sees as “the special pleasure of Shakespearean fiction” is, when one gets down to it, more comfortably evidenced in As You Like It than in Twelfth Night.34 In the tensions exposed between the two plays, it may be that we start to move from what we are beginning to discern as Renaissance homoeroticism to what we know as modern homosexuality, from an inventive potentiality inherent in each subject to the social identity of a discrete order of being.35

It is of more than passing interest that insofar as each play enacts a “textual body,” only Twelfth Night depends on a phallic representation of male homoeroticism. Much recent feminist and film criticism has implicated a phallic mode of representation within the visual economy of the “gaze,” wherein value is ascribed according to what one sees (or fails to see): hence, the psychoanalytic verities of female “castration” and “penis envy.” In those modes of representation governed by phallocentric prerogatives, argue many feminist film theorists, only two positions seem possible: the subject and the object of the gaze.36 Although many theorists are now complicating this binary picture, arguing that women, in particular, negotiate as subjects and not merely as objects of the gaze, it might be helpful to distinguish the erotic economies of Twelfth Night and As You Like It along the following lines: Twelfth Night is predominantly phallic and visual; not only is Antonio's desire figured in phallic metaphors, but Orsino's desire waits upon the ocular proof of Viola/Cesario's “femininity.” The final value is one of boundary setting, of marginalizing others along lines of exclusion. The erotics of As You Like It, on the other hand, are diffuse, non-localized, and inclusive, extending to the audience an invitation to “come play”—as does Rosalind-cum-boy-actor in the Epilogue.37 Bypassing a purely scopic economy, As You Like It possesses provocative affinities with the tactile, contiguous, plural erotics envisioned by Luce Irigaray as more descriptive of female experience. We don't return to such a polymorphous textual body until the cross-gendered erotic play of Antony and Cleopatra.

This introduction of a diffuse, fluid erotics, and my analysis of the reproductive anxieties engendered by male homoeroticism, provoke the broader question of the relation of male homoeroticism to feminist politics. Contrary to the beliefs of those feminists who conflate male homosociality with homoeroticism, male homoeroticism has no unitary relationship to the structures and ideologies of male dominance. Patriarchal power is homosocial; but it also has been, at various times including the present, homophobic. As Sedgwick has demonstrated, “while male homosexuality does not correlate in a transhistorical way with political attitudes toward women, homophobia directed at men by men almost always travels with a retinue of gynephobia and antifeminism.”38 Male homoeroticism can be manipulated to reinforce and justify misogyny, or it can offer itself up as the means to deconstruct the binary structures upon which the subordination of women depends.

The logic of the sonnet sequence is, I believe, thoroughly misogynistic, and its homoerotics seem utterly entwined with that misogyny: a debased female reproduction is excised, and its creative powers appropriated, by the male lover-poet who thereby celebrates and immortalizes his male beloved. Conversely, the circulation of male homoerotic desire in As You Like It and Twelfth Night does not seem to depend upon an aversion to women or an ideology of male dominance as its raison d'être. The homoeroticism of As You Like It is not particularly continuous with the homosociality of the Duke's court (the homoerotic exchanges occur primarily between those excluded from it), nor are Antonio's, Viola/Cesario's, Orsino's, or Olivia's homoerotic interests particularly supportive of the patriarchal impulses of Twelfth Night. Indeed, whether the homoeroticism is embodied as male or female does not seem to have much impact on its subversive potential. Viola/Cesario's desire for a dual mode of eroticism is more threatening within the play than is Orlando's similar desire, but it is less dangerous than the exclusivity posed by Antonio.

In fact, the male and female homoeroticism of both plays interrupts the ideology of a “natural” love based on complementary yet oppositional genders. In so doing, the deviations from the dominant discourse of desire circulating throughout these texts transgress the Law of the Father, the injunction that sexuality will follow gender in lining up according to a “natural” binary code. By refusing such arbitrary divisions of desire, homoeroticism in As You Like It and Twelfth Night disrupts the cultural code that keeps both men and women in line, subverting patriarchy from within.

This is not to suggest that Shakespeare's plays do not demonstrate countless commitments to misogyny. Why homoeroticism would be so thoroughly supportive of the misogyny of the sonnets, and so seemingly independent of misogyny in these plays is an important question raised by my analysis. To what extent does genre influence the expression of erotic desire and anxiety? To begin to answer that question, and to substantiate those claims I have made, the treatment of homoeroticism in Shakespeare's predecessors, contemporaries, and followers must be analyzed. Obvious sites of inquiry would be a comparison of Shakespearean homoeroticism with that of Marlowe, and a study of the use of transvestism in Lyly, Sidney, Spenser, Jonson, Middleton, and Dekker.39 What is crucial at this point is that the relation between gender and eroticism be carefully teased out, that eroticism be posed as a problematic in its own right—both intimately connected to and rigorously differentiated from gender.

The danger of pursuing this kind of inquiry at this moment is in ignoring gender differentials altogether, in an energetic pursuit of “sexuality.” But if we remember that the analyses of both gender and eroticism are only part of a larger project of theorizing about and from the multiple subject positions we all live, and if we reflect on the complexity of our own erotic practices, perhaps we can trace the play of our differences without reifying either them or ourselves. Erotic choice is, as Robert Stoller remarks, “a matter of opinions, taste, aesthetics;” it is also a matter of political theater, in which we all, even now, play a part.40


  1. Stephen Orgel, “Nobody's Perfect: Or Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Women,” South Atlantic Quarterly 88: 1 (1989), pp. 7-8.

  2. Stephen Gosson, in The Schoole of Abuse (1579; London: The Shakespeare Society, 1841) makes no explicit mention of homoeroticism but initiates the gendered and erotic focus of the anti-theatrical attack by mentioning the theater's “effeminate gesture, to ravish the sense; and wanton speache, to whet desire to inordinate lust.” The next year, an anonymous pamphleteer (probably Anthony Mundy) argued that the taking of women's parts by men was explicitly forbidden by the Law of God, referring to Deuteronomy 23.5. Due to the strength of this biblical authority, denunciation of theatrical cross-dressing became a most effective argument against the stage. In Playes Confuted in Five Actions (Markets of Bawdrie: The Dramatic Criticism of Stephen Gosson, ed. Arthur Kinney, Salzburg Studies in Literature 4, Salzburg: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1974), Gosson takes up the Deuteronomic code and rails against men adopting “not the apparell onely, but the gate, the gestures, the voyce, the passions of a woman.” In The Overthrow of Stage Playes, John Rainoldes writes: “A woman's garment beeing put on a man doeth vehemently touch and moue him with the remembrance and imagination of a woman; and the imagination of a thing desirable doth stirr up the desire” and “what sparkles of lust to that vice the putting of wemens attire on men may kindle in vncleane affections, as Nero shewed in Sporus, Heliogabalus in himselfe; yea certaine, who grew not to such excesse of impudencie, yet arguing the same in causing their boys to weare long heare like wemen.” With Phillip Stubbes' The Anatomie of Abuses (1583; Netherlands: De Capo Press, 1972), explicit anxieties about homoeroticism enter the debate: “everyone brings another homeward of their way very friendly and in their secret conclaves they play sodomite or worse. And these be the fruites of playes and Interludes for the most part.” The debate culminates in William Prynne's Histrio-mastix: The Player's Scourge or Actor's Tragedy (1633; New York: Garland Publishing, 1974), which charges the theaters as being nothing but a pretext for sodomy by listing those who have historically engaged in unnatural acts, including the Incubi, “who clothed their Galli, Succubi, Ganymedes and Cynadi in woman's attire, whose virilities they did oft-time dissect [castrate], to make them more effeminate, transforming them as neere might be into women, both in apparell, gesture, speech, behavior. … And more especially in long, unshorne, womanish, frizled haire and love-lockes.” For debates about street transvestism, see Hic Mulier; Or the Man Woman and Haec-Vir; Or the Womanish Man (1620) in Half Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy about Women in England, 1540-1640, ed. Katherine Usher Henderson and Barbara F. McManus (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985), pp. 264-89.

  3. Stephen Greenblatt, “Fiction and Friction,” Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), p. 86.

  4. See Orgel, “Nobody's Perfect,” pp. 22-9 and Lisa Jardine Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1983), pp. 9-34.

  5. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom (New York: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 6. Barber writes of Twelfth Night (and the same presumably would be true of As You Like It): “The most fundamental distinction the play brings home to us is the difference between men and women. … Just as the saturnalian reversal of social roles need not threaten the social structure, but can serve instead to consolidate it, so a temporary, playful reversal of sexual roles can renew the meaning of the normal relation” (p. 245). For early feminist analyses, see, for instance, Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1975), pp. 231-71, and Robert Kimbrough, “Androgyny Seen Through Shakespeare's Disguise,” Shakespeare Quarterly 33:1 (1982), pp. 17-33.

  6. The phrase “traffic in women” was first coined by Emma Goldman in her critique of marriage as a form of prostitution. It gained critical prominence through Gayle Rubin's, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), pp. 157-210.

  7. I have learned much in this regard from Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, who also critique the reliance on such polarizations. They demonstrate the extent to which binary classifications are always imbued with their others, and argue that the relative radicality of any transgression can only be ascertained by placing it in history. Also helpful is Jonathan Dollimore, “Subjectivity, Sexuality, and Transgression: The Jacobean Connection,” Renaissance Drama 17 (1986), pp. 53-81.

  8. In addition to Jean Howard, “Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39:4 (1988), Leah Marcus, “Shakespeare's Comic Heroines, Elizabeth I, and the Political Uses of Androgyny,” Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Literary and Historical Perspectives, ed. Mary Beth Rose (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986), and Laura Levine, “Men in Women's Clothing: Anti-theatricality and Effeminization from 1579 to 1642,” Criticism 28: 2 (Spring 1986), see Catherine Belsey, “Disrupting Sexual Difference: Meaning and Gender in the Comedies,” Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 166-90; Phyllis Rackin, “Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage,” PMLA 102 (1987), pp. 29-41; and Karen Newman, “Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987), pp. 19-33.

  9. Orgel, “Nobody's Perfect,” p. 13.

  10. Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), p. 2.

  11. Antonio's marginalization parallels that of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, whose bond to Bassanio is initially honored and redeemed by Portia, but later displaced by her manipulations of the ring plot which, paradoxically, foster her subordination in a patriarchal heterosexual economy.

  12. Montrose, “‘The Place of a Brother’ in As You Like It: Social Process and Comic Form,” Shakespeare Quarterly 32:1 (1981), pp. 28-54.

  13. Ibid., p. 51.

  14. Howard, “Crossdressing,” p. 434.

  15. ibid., p. 435. Terms can be confusing here, in part due to translation. In Luce Irigaray's formulation, la mascarade is “An alienated or false version of femininity arising from the woman's awareness of the man's desire for her to be his other, the masquerade permits woman to experience desire not in her own right but as the man's desire situates her.” Masquerade is the role (playing) required by “femininity.” Thus, Rosalind's improvisation is really closer to mimetisme (mimicry) which, in Irigaray's terms, is “An interim strategy for dealing with the realm of discourse (where the speaking subject is posited as masculine), in which the woman deliberately assumes the feminine style and posture assigned to her within this discourse in order to uncover the mechanisms by which it exploits her” (This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985, p. 220).

  16. Saslow, Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 2.

  17. Orgel, “Nobody's Perfect,” p. 22.

  18. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, p. 231. See also W. Thomas MacCary, Friends and Lovers: The Phenomenology of Desire in Shakespearean Comedy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).

  19. Phyllis Rackin, “Historical Difference/Sexual Difference.”

  20. Peter Stallybrass helped me with this formulation.

  21. Laurie Osborne, “The Texts of Twelfth Night,ELH (Spring, 1990), pp. 37-61. Osborne's excellent analysis of the manipulation of the placement of the Antonio scenes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century performance editions suggests that the playtexts themselves indicate changing significations of homoeroticism.

  22. The Oxford English Dictionary's first entry for “anxiety,” as in “The quality or state of being anxious; uneasiness or trouble of mind about some uncertain event; solicitude, concern,” is 1525. The first entry for “jealous,” as in “Vehement in feeling, as in wrath, desire, or devotion” is 1382; for “Ardently amorous; covetous of the love of another, fond, lustful” is 1430; and for “Zealous or solicitous for the preservation or well-being of something possessed or esteemed; vigilant or careful in guarding; suspiciously careful or watchful” is 1387.

  23. I am indebted to Peter Stallybrass for reminding me of the difference between heterosexual and homoerotic phallic imagery.

  24. Romeo and Juliet III.i.113-15; Antony and Cleopatra I.iv.5-7; and Coriolanus IV.v.111-23. I am indebted to Phyllis Rackin for reminding me of some of these instances, and her further amplification in her talk “Historical Difference/Sexual Difference.”

  25. Randolph Trumbach's historical analysis bears this out; see “The Birth of the Queen: Sodomy and the Emergence of Gender Equality in Modern Culture 1660-1750,” Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Duberman et al. (New York: New American Library, 1989), p. 133.

  26. For an analysis of triangular desire, see René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965).

  27. Howard, “Crossdressing,” p. 432.

  28. Henry IV, part 1, I.iii.29-69; Hamlet, V.ii.82-193 and III.ii.368-9; King Lear, II.iv.271-8.

  29. Trumbach, “Birth of the Queen,” p. 134.

  30. Joseph Pequigney, “The Two Antonios and Same-Sex Love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice,” unpublished manuscript presented to the Shakespeare Association of America, 1989, p. 11.

  31. I am following David Bevington's numbering of the sonnets; he follows Thomas Thorpe, the original publisher of the sequence. In “Making Love Out of Nothing At All: the Issue of Story in Shakespeare's Procreation Sonnets,” Shakespeare Quarterly 41:4 (Winter 1990), pp. 470-88, Robert Crosman takes up the issue of homoeroticism from a sympathetic if rather uninformed historical perspective. Whereas Pequigney argues that the first seventeen “procreation” sonnets record a gradual evolution of the poet's feelings for the young man, Crosman argues that Shakespeare first pretended to fall in love with his patron as a strategy of flattery, and then discovered he was no longer pretending.

  32. For an explanation of the repetition compulsion, see Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961).

  33. Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).

  34. Stephen Greenblatt, “Fiction and Friction,” in Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), p. 89.

  35. Saslow makes a similar point about Michelangelo's status as a transitional figure; see “Homosexuality in the Renaissance: Behaviour, Identity, and Artistic Expression,” in Hidden From History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey Jr. (New York: New American Library, 1989), pp. 90-105.

  36. See, for instance, Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” and “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by Duel in the Sun,Feminism and Film Theory, ed. Constance Penley (London: Routledge, 1988), pp. 57-79; Janet Bergstrom and Mary Ann Doane, “The Female Spectator: Contexts and Directions,” Camera Obscura: A Journal of Feminism and Film Theory 20/21 (May/Sept. 1989), pp. 5-27; and Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, pp. 23-33.

  37. Jean Howard alerted me to the fact that class differences are implicated in these erotic differences: as nostalgic pastoral, As You Like It's class hierarchy is diffused and inclusive; Twelfth Night, on the other hand, is thoroughly aristocratic and, with the exception of Maria, marginalizes those figures below the rank of “gentleman.”

  38. Sedgwick, Between Men, p. 216.

  39. Rackin has initiated such a comparative analysis of transvestism in “Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage.”

  40. Robert Stoller, Observing the Erotic Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), p. 15.

Casey Charles (essay date 1997)

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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 “bisexuality.”3 Although Pequigney's observations are refreshing as well as important, “The Two Antonios and Same-Sex Love” unproblematically applies contemporary constructions of sexual identity to an early modern culture in which the categories of homo- and bisexuality were neither fixed nor associated with identity. In fact, as I will argue, Twelfth Night is centrally concerned with demonstrating the uncategorical temper of sexual attraction.

The other main focus of queer study in this drama continues to be the relationship between the Countess Olivia and the cross-dressing Viola/Cesario, though critics, tellingly, have discussed the lesbian erotics that are integral to the first three acts of the play much less often.4 In her recent Desire and Anxiety: The Circulation of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama, Valerie Traub has acknowledged the lesbian overtones of the erotic scenes between Olivia and Viola as part of what she calls the play's “multiple erotic investments”; but her careful and ground-breaking study warns us that Viola's homoerotic investment is not celebrated in the play and concludes that Twelfth Night is less “comfortably” open in its representation of the “fluid circulation” of desire than As You Like It.5 In my view, the Olivia-Viola affair is more central to Twelfth Night than previously has been acknowledged. This centrality—along with the homoerotics found in relations between Antonio and Sebastian as well as between Orsino and his page—establish same-sex erotic attraction as a “major theme” in the play, to use Pequigney's shopworn term. But this theme functions neither as an uncomplicated promotion of a modern category of sexual orientation nor, from a more traditional perspective, as an ultimately contained representation of the licensed misrule of saturnalia.6 The representation of homoerotic attraction in Twelfth Night functions rather as a means of dramatizing the socially constructed basis of a sexuality that is determined by gender identity.

Judith Butler's critique of the notion that there are fixed identities based on the existence of genital difference provides a useful model for understanding how Twelfth Night uses the vagaries of erotic attraction to disrupt paradigms of sexuality. In Gender Trouble, Butler argues that the cultural meanings that attach to a sexed body—what we call gender—are theoretically applicable to either sex. Initially, Butler questions the idea that there is an essential, prediscursive subjectivity that attaches to the biology of either male or female, arguing that the “production of sex as the prediscursive ought to be understood as the effect of the apparatus of cultural constructions designated by gender.7 In other words, what she calls the law—the cultural, social, and political imperatives of social reality—actually produces and then conceals the “constructedness” that lies behind the notion of an immutable, prediscursive “subject before the law” (2). Her attack on the concept of biological inherence is followed by an equally strong indictment of the “metaphysics of gender substance”—the unproblematic claim that a subject can choose a gendered identity, that the self can “be a woman” or a man (21).

In Bodies That Matter, Butler's subsequent work, she partially retreats from this position of radical constructivism, returning to the sexed body by shifting the terms of the debate from the “construction” of “gender” through an interpretation of “sex” to an inquiry into the way regulatory norms “materialize” the sexed body, both in the sense of making it relevant and fixing or “consolidating” it. The reiteration of norms simultaneously produces and destabilizes the category of sex, creating “terrains” and “sedimented effects” that influence the way we understand the sexed body. Even as the process of materialization creates boundaries, surfaces, and contours by which sex is established as heterosexually normative, these strategies of materialization simultaneously expose the exclusions and “gaps” that are the constitutive instabilities inherent in these norms.8Bodies That Matter seeks to

understand how what has been foreclosed or banished from the “proper” domain of “sex”—where that domain is secured through a heterosexualizing imperative—might at once be produced as a troubling return, not only as an imaginary contestation that effects a failure in the workings of the inevitable law, but as an enabling disruption, the occasion for a radical rearticulation of the symbolic horizon in which bodies come to matter at all.


In both Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter the primary way that the categories of sex are both established and disrupted is through a process of what Butler calls “performativity,” the means by which the norms of sex are naturalized and substantiated simply by their continual pronouncement as foundational and ideal—by the sheer weight of their repetition. Yet because this reiteration necessarily creates erasures that are the very cites of deconstructive possibilities, the interrogation of those exclusions is one strategy by which the symbolic hegemony of sexuality can be challenged.9 Although performativity is primarily a discursive practice derived from the notion of the performative in rhetoric, Butler acknowledges cross-dressing as a performative practice in which the “sign” of gender is parodically reiterated in a potentially subversive way. The performance of cross-dressing can be disruptive, Butler argues, to the extent it “reflects the mundane impersonations by which heterosexually ideal genders are performed” (231) or “exposes the failure of heterosexual regimes ever fully to legislate or contain their own ideals” (237).

Within the context of early modern theatrical culture, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night functions as a dramatic critique of the ideal norm of imperative heterosexuality in three interrelated ways. First, the effects of Viola's cross-dressing point to the socially constructed nature of gender in Shakespeare's play. Secondly, Shakespeare's drama interrogates the exclusionary nature of the constructed categories of sex and challenges the symbolic hegemony of heterosexuality by producing representations or “citation” of same-sex love between Viola and Olivia as well as Antonio and Sebastian. Lastly, I will argue that the final act, through a series of improbable turns of plot and phrase, exposes the failure of heterosexual “regimes ever fully to legislate or contain their own ideals.”


The early modern English theatre, unlike its counterparts in other European countries, maintained the practice of using all-male acting companies to perform the parts of both men and women. Thus, an element of what Butler calls the “denaturalization” of gender difference is built into the structure of Elizabethan stage convention, and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, like many other plays of the period, dramatizes the consequences of this ambiguity by casting its heroine Viola, played by a boy, as a character who cross-dresses as the male page Cesario.11 In the doubly androgynous role of male actor playing a woman playing a man, Viola/Cesario must literally perform the role of the male; her success before the aristocratic Orsino and Olivia consequently points to the constructedness and performative character of gender itself. In other Renaissance critical venues, the concept of performance in social roles has been discussed convincingly by Stephen Greenblatt as “self-fashioning” and by others in relation to the role of the courtier in Castiglione's famous treatise.12 Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is arguably about the fashioning of gender. This staging of gender imitation by Viola, the performance of her gender performance, uses her disguise and her identity with her brother Sebastian as vehicles to demonstrate that erotic attraction is not an inherently gendered or heterosexual phenomenon.13 The homoerotic and cross-gendered disruptions that ensue, finally, operate within a world that is properly named Ill-lyria in order to demonstrate how the phenomenon of love itself operates as a mechanism that destabilizes gender binarism and its concomitant hierarchies. Lovers like Olivia, Orsino, Malvolio, and Antonio construct fantasies that turn the objects of their affection into something more than they are, thereby disrupting the boundaries of compulsory heterosexuality and class-consciousness through the performance of these imaginary fantasies.

Butler's postmodern promotion of gender trouble and its application to Shakespeare's dramatization of sexual identity finds historical support in Renaissance conceptions of masculinity and femininity that, by most accounts, were much less essentialized than today's fixed categories of woman and man. Arguably more patriarchal, more homophobic, and more misogynist than contemporary western culture, the polarized rhetoric of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe nevertheless masks a decided anxiety about what is feared to be the actual fluidity of gender.14 Studying the pseudomedical treatises of the period, commentators like Thomas Lacquer have argued convincingly that sixteenth-century anatomists viewed female genitalia as merely an inverted male penis and testicles.15 Renaissance scientist Johann Weyer, for example, states, “although women are feminine in actuality, I would call them masculine in potentiality,” indicating the degree to which women were thought of as merely incomplete males, capable on certain traumatic physical occasions—a particularly tall hurdle or heated liaison—of springing forth a penis.16 What Weyer refuses to admit, in spite of evidence to the contrary from the physician Ausonius, is that men, given the proper circumstances, could as it were suck in their genitalia and become women. “[N]ature always adds, never subtracts,” Weyer insists, “always thrusts forth, never holds back, always moves toward the more worthy, never toward the less” (346). Weyer's phobic response to the possibility of reciprocated interchange between men and women, his resort to ethics to uphold his science, is a telling sign that the barriers between masculine and feminine in Renaissance discourse were considerably more blurred than they are today. Although Greenblatt has argued that this homology between the sexes was almost always presented within the rhetorical context of a patriarchal ideology, the possibility of women becoming men and to a lesser extent men becoming women was a real one for the physiologic consciousness of the Elizabethan, who upon viewing the final scene of Twelfth Night saw just how interchangeable sex as well as gender were.17

The English Renaissance popularity of both the all-male stage companies and plays about gender switching reflects a social and cultural fascination with the subject who symbolized the bodily cite of this gender ambiguity: the hermaphrodite—strictly speaking, a person who possesses both male and female sexual organs, but more broadly defined as an androgynous subject with both male and female characteristics. Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass have argued that Renaissance discussions of hermaphroditism reveal that all attempts to fix gender during this period were essentially “prosthetic,” that gender in the Renaissance was “a fetish” that played “with its own fetishistic nature” unhampered by the essentializing claims of medicine and biology in the nineteenth century.18 Their view is usefully contrasted to that of Greenblatt, whose essay on Twelfth Night focuses finally on the way the discourse of androgyny is recuperated into a masculine ethos that supports a patriarchal gender hierarchy.19 The views of these critics are not, however, mutually exclusive; anxiety over the “prosthetic” nature of gender difference could well have produced the exaggerated rhetoric of misogyny and male superiority common in Renaissance discourse. In a play like Jonson's Epicoene, for example, representations of the ambiguity of gender in the silent woman exist in conjunction with the rhetoric of antifeminism in speeches by Truewit and Morose. When Sir Edward Coke, the foremost English jurist of the Renaissance, states in his Commentaries that “every heir is either a male, or female, or an hermaphrodite, that is both male and female,” he is acknowledging the degree to which official discourse sanctioned what Trumbach calls the “third sex.”20 But when the same jurist states that hermaphrodites are required by law to follow either a masculine or female role exclusively, his injunction manifests an official desire to place that third term within a juridical binarism that reduces gender to the binary of sex.

The figure of the hermaphrodite, both on and off the stage, gives Renaissance culture a more ready and accepted focus for the questioning of the ideology of gender, even though the rhetoric of that ideology remains more strident. The Renaissance preoccupation with hermaphrodites in medical discourse accompanies social concerns about transvestites walking the streets of London like Moll Cutpurse or the ingle in Middleton's “Microcynicon,” as well as in political concerns about queens who were kings (Elizabeth) and kings who were queens (James I).21 At the outset, however, we must be careful about readily ascribing erotic motivation or sociological categories to these transgender experiences. Cross-dressing was and is undertaken by different subjects for different reasons.22 Woman as diverse as Mary Frith (Moll Cutpurse) and Lady Arabella Stuart passed as males out of economic and social necessity because of the limited public roles for women, while the male ingle in Middleton and the roaring girl walk the streets of London presumably for homoerotic as well as economic reasons. By contrast, an androgynous sixteenth-century portrait of Francois I as Minerva met with approval primarily because the influential philosophy of neoplatonism portrayed the soul as ideally androgynous.23 Women passed as men and men as women for political and social reasons not necessarily attributable to what we now call homo- or heterosexuality.

Viola's metatheatrical cross-dressing takes place within the transvestite context of the Elizabethan stage convention of all-male repertory companies like the Lord Chamberlain's Men, who were the formal successors to the traveling players that roved the countryside in Tudor England as well as other presumably more rotten states like Denmark. Theatrical transvestism—still extant in Asia—arises out of a configuration of social and economic variables that must be distinguished from nontheatric cross-dressing, though most certainly the restricted freedom of women plays a decided part in both. Scholars have questioned why Elizabethan England and not other European states followed the custom of young male actors playing women's parts. Lisa Jardine has argued that the boy actors, by arousing homoerotic passions for the predominantly male audience in late-sixteenth-century England, presented an unthreatening version of female erotic power. In agreement, Stephen Orgel claims that “homosexuality in this Puritan culture appears to have been less threatening than heterosexuality” because it avoids “a real fear of women's sexuality.”24 These explanations shed less light on the historical development of English stage convention than on the growing controversy over the moral implications of this stage practice in the face of the increased secular and religious power of Puritanism.25 As early as 1579, Stephen Gosson in the School of Abuse accuses the theatre of being “effeminate” and effeminizing.26 In Th' Overthrow of Stage-Playes, Dr. John Rainoldes, citing the injunction in Deuteronomy 22.5 against cross-dressing, condemns the wearing of female dress by boy players as “an occasion of wantoness and lust.”27 By 1633, William Prynne's Histrio-mastix proclaims transvestism to be a wickedness “which my Inke is not black enough to discypher.” “Players and Play haunters in their secret conclaves play the Sodomites,” he announces.28 As Barish and others have documented, Malvolio and the Puritans finally were “reveng'd on the whole pack” of actors when the theatres were closed in 1642.29

The continued enjoyment of all-male repertory companies as well as the insertion of Puritans and cross-dressers into plays by Heywood, Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, and Ford evidence how the English theatre became both a literal and figurative staging ground for debates over early modern sexuality. Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, first staged in 1601, dramatizes this debate by incorporating it into the heart of its plot.30 Viola, after her initial introduction as a would-be eunuch, describes herself in her soliloquy as a “poor monster,” a Renaissance appellation reserved for unnatural prodigies, including hermaphrodites.31 Sir Toby will later in jest call her a “firago”—a virago or female warrior (3.4.279). Once Viola realizes the effect of her “disguise” on Olivia, she calls her transvestism “a wickedness, / Wherein the pregnant enemy does much,” anticipating Prynne's rhetoric (2.2.26-27). “Could this enemy be Satan?” commentators have conjectured.32 Instead of blaming herself as the deceiver, Viola displaces the mischief of her disguise on to the device of transvestism itself, which is “pregnant”—ready to hatch—the “wantoness and lust” that serve as the signifiers of same-sex desire in the Renaissance. Viola's surprise and concern over the effect of her deception demonstrates the relational nature of transvestism: it functions as a behavior the motivations for which may wholly differ from the erotic effect it produces on those who confront it.

Viola's androgynous performance as a woman playing a man, like the position of the young men playing women's parts on the Elizabethan stage in general, upsets the restriction of erotic attraction to heterosexual binarism in part because that dualism is collapsed in a single subject. As Viola is a man, her “state is desperate for her master's love,” but as Viola is a woman, Olivia's sighs for her must prove “thriftless,” under the social condemnation of same-sex love (2.3.35-38). She not only upsets essentialist constructs of gender hierarchy by successfully performing the part of a man as a woman, but in her hermaphroditic capacity as man and woman, I will argue, she also collapses the polarities upon which heterosexuality is based by becoming an object of desire whose ambiguity renders the distinction between homo- and hetero-erotic attraction difficult to decipher. The theatrical convention of cross-dressing and the androgyny it comes to symbolize thus challenge the regulatory parameters of erotic attraction through the vehicle of performance, a performance that shows gender to be a part playable by any sex.

Critics have struggled recently to determine the degree to which such theatrical gender trouble affected the social fabric of Renaissance England. Although the plethora of antitheatrical diatribes from 1570 to 1633 would appear to signal a strong reaction among some circles to the influence of the popular theatre, the critical social question has tended to revolve around the circumscribed role of women in the Renaissance in relation to Shakespeare's depiction of strong directorial female characters who cross-dress, such as Portia, Viola, and Rosalind. While Catherine Belsey and Phyliss Rackin argued first that “stage illusion radically subverted the gender division of the Elizabethan world,” new historicists like Stephen Greenblatt and Howard have more recently made claims that the Globe operated as a world in itself, a place of stage and licensed misrule, which had less effect on the diminishing power of women in Renaissance England.33 Even if the popular performance of Shakespeare's comedies did not coincide with social change for women in late-sixteenth-century England, this lack of coincidence does not necessarily warrant a conclusion that the Elizabethan theatre was socially ineffectual. If the relative power of woman was diminished in Renaissance England, the causes of that reduction were as much due to religious and political forces as they were to mechanisms of cultural appropriation.

The larger debate over whether cultural representation has the capacity to subvert and influence social reality or is usually contained by a political matrix that limits its power is not only raging today over questions of pornography and violence on television, but is important for purposes of Gender Trouble and Twelfth Night because both Butler and Shakespeare rely upon performance as a theoretical means of shaking the foundations of the metaphysics of binarism and gender hierarchy. If that performance is contained or circumscribed within the saturnalia or “green world” of comedic convention, its social and political utility is mitigated. Although the effects of literary discourse are rarely as pronounced as the slue of suicides that followed the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther or the gang fights that took place outside the movie houses after Boulevard Nights, Shakespeare's transvestite comedies are safely counted as part of a discursive explosion concerning questions of gender and sexuality, an explosion that included texts as disparate as Sidney's New Arcadia, James I's Letters, and Marston's satires. In his antitheatrical tract Histrio-mastix, Prynne claims that the popular theatre not only promoted sodomitical practices among the theatregoers, but also encouraged effeminacy and sodomitical practices in the general population as well.34

For a stage production in Elizabethan England to occur under the purview of an autocratic and censorious monarchy does not mean that the terms of that play's representation necessarily replicate the terms of that matrix of political power. Ironically, the historicist quest to determine whether Shakespeare's plays or other texts actually produced social trends is finally dependent for its conclusions on an examination of texts themselves—diaries, cases, speeches, satires, and last but not least plays. Monique Wittig theorizes that language is a set of acts repeated over time that produce reality effects that are eventually perceived as “facts.”35 The text and the play Twelfth Night is an act of language both as it was performed in the Globe in 1601 and as it is read by undergraduates preparing to cast or ignore votes on anti-gay rights initiatives. When Shakespeare's play represents gender and sex in a certain way, it is engaging, from the viewpoint of textual materialists like Wittig, in an act of domination and compulsion, a performative that creates a social reality by promoting a certain discursive and perceptual construction of the body. Historicists in search of containment narratives that reinstate a monolithic patriarchy are not only engaging in what Butler calls the determinism behind a universal, hegemonic notion of masculine domination but also forgetting that Shakespeare's play is part of a contemporary canon of literature that the academy is requiring students to read and take seriously—nothing being more serious than Shakespeare's sexual comedies. Which is not to say that women in Renaissance England—or now for that matter—were free of social, political, and religious oppression; yet to extrapolate from this historical trend that Shakespeare's play was and is largely ineffectual or recuperated or contained by larger social and political forces is, I think, an argument that both overlooks the implications of our own inescapable historicity as contemporary readers and fails to consider fully the ways in which textual power operates through complicated, contradictory methods.

Shakespeare's comedies are sometimes read teleologically for reasons that are as ideological as they are aesthetic. Whether under the rubric of a renewal of normality or of patriarchal containment, the categorical heterosexuality that act 5 hastily produces as the solution to the erotic problems explored in the bulk of the play has become the definitive statement of Twelfth Night's perspective, while the possibility of interpreting the conclusion as an ironic retraction in keeping with the medieval tradition remains less appealing to the modern reader. When C. L. Barber suggests that Shakespeare's festive comedies use the sexual and social upheaval of conventional saturnalia in order to renew the meaning of normal sexual relations, he may be overlooking the possibility that Shakespeare's play is as much about the unconventional treatment of erotic attraction in the development of the drama as it is about the conventional romance ending in marriage, as much about Viola fending off Olivia's unknowingly lesbian protestations as about Orsino's decision to marry his page once she retrieves her female habit from the sea captain in the last act.36

II. “I AM THE MAN” (2.2.24)

If part of the problem with the recent criticism of Twelfth Night comes from a proclivity on the part of some to reduce the concerns of gender studies to the us-against-them binarism of traditional feminism, Shakespeare's play arguably introduces patterns of homoerotic representation in order to disrupt that binarism and to show how gender identities that uphold such duality are staged, performed, and “playable” by either sex. Viola/Cesario is the primary performer: she is that strange androgynous “monster,” that eunuch/castrato/page or “script” who, through her gender ambiguity, retunes the music of love that has fallen out of key under the belated courtly scripts that the Count and Countess banally reenact in Illyria. Like the drag queen Butler discusses in Gender Trouble, Viola/Cesario demonstrates a parodic awareness of the three contingent dimensions of her corporeality: her anatomical sex as a boy actor, her gender identity in the drama as a woman washed ashore, and her gender performance as the page Cesario in the employ of the sexist Orsino.

Cesario points to himself as actor or performer in the metadramatic comments he makes in his first encounter with Olivia in act 1, scene 5. Having reluctantly been asked to woo the countess on behalf of the man she loves, Cesario initially feels conflicted about delivering the “speech” he has “penned” and “conned” (1.5.174-75). When Olivia asks where he has come from, Cesario replies, “I can say little more than I have studied, and that question's out of my part” (1.5.179-80). When he admits to Olivia that he is not what he plays, the metaphor of theatricality in this scene continues in even greater earnest. Cesario is alluding, in his staginess, to more than the fact that he is a she in this drama; he is reminding us, when he tells us that he took “great pains” to study his “poetical” “commission,” that he is an actor playing a part, a boy actor playing the part of a woman playing a part of a man (1.5.190, 195-96). Given the common Elizabethan bawdy pun on the word “parts” as sexual genitalia, this confluence of meaning between the theatrical and the sexual has particular significance for Twelfth Night's staging of the performative homology between the two. When Olivia presses Cesario to divulge his identity (“What are you?” [1.5.215]), he cryptically tells her that what he is and what he would be are “as secret as maidenhead,” pointing primarily to his gender identity as Viola in the drama but also alluding to the male virginity that Sebastian will admit to in the final act when he tells Olivia she will marry a man and a maid (1.5.218-19). The boy actor's and Cesario's maidenhead is also Viola's maidenhood; the part he plays depends on the hiding of the nature of his private part(s).

Even though Cesario goes out of his text in 1.5 when he lifts the veil of his rival Olivia with jealous interest and commends her unparalleled beauty, his growing interest in Olivia reminds us that Viola is now adlibbing as Cesario and that this impromptu performance, which points to her servant's role as disguise, is in many ways more endearing than the stiff delivery of an identity-bound young man. In fact, improvisation allows Cesario/Viola to enact her third role as agent of her master: the boy actor playing a woman playing a male page who is asked to act out the passion of his master. “If I did love you in my master's flame” (1.5.268), Cesario proclaims, as he warms up to his poetic performance, he would

Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love,
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills,
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out “Olivia!”


In this performative address, in which the poet speaks the loyal canton s/he has written, Viola/Cesario is the antithesis of Patience on a monument. In Viola's role as a self-conscious male mediator between man and woman, s/he becomes a better—a more eloquent, persuasive—man than the man s/he represents. In fact, Cesario plays his part so well that Olivia immediately catches the plague of lovesickness, a sickness which, from the point of view of gendered identity in the play, casts her as an unwitting lesbian. The upshot of this self-reflexive gender confusion is a layered combination of ironic plays on performance that self-consciously point to boy actor/Viola/Cesario/Orsino's agent's uncanny ability to be what he does, to adopt his identity through imitation, through an art that not only outdoes nature, but shows nature herself to be art. The “babbling gossip” of the natural element air in its reverberate identity as Echo will take on the poetic artifice of the singing poet, crying out, “Olivia.” Echo is a fitting mythological analogue for the imitative Viola/Cesario, whose performative roles as actor and agent make her a master of reverberation.

When Olivia falls in love with the page we know to be a woman, she realizes that the imaginary fantasy of love has taught her that “ourselves we do not owe [own]” (5.1.314-15), that the self is not an entity within the control of an ego-identity. The unorthodoxy of a countess's infatuation with a servant is enough to prove to Olivia that she has, as a result of her passion, fallen into “abatement and low price,” but the dramatic nexus between social degradation and homoerotic attraction—not without its historical analogues—is an even more troubling development. Alan Bray and others have identified the relationship of servant/master as one of the social arenas in which homoerotic interaction commonly took place.37 Admittedly, Cesario/Viola is not Olivia's servant, but Cesario's ostensible estate is well below that of the Countess, and she takes liberties, such as the gift of her ring, which would not be expected to occur between social equals. Although until recently most scholarship in Renaissance homoerotics has dealt almost exclusively with male-male relationships, there is no reason to believe that lesbian practices were not equally as common within the protected hierarchal environment of the domestic household. In fact, erotic practices between women may have been less threatening and more overlooked within domestic spheres. Not only was sex between women not explicitly prohibited under the 1533 sodomy statute enacted by Henry VIII (in force until 1967), but women were also confined within the household to a much greater degree than men.38 Condemned by St. Paul in Romans 1:26 and Aquinas in his Summa, lesbian sexual practice continued to be an egregious offence outside of England, as Greenblatt has demonstrated in his discussion of the hanging in France of Marie le Marcis for falsely impersonating a man and marrying a woman. Yet even on the Continent, where women were condemned for homosexual practice until before the French Revolution, records of premodern persecutions remain scarce.

The relative dearth of lesbian prosecutions in early modern Europe is indicative of a history even more hidden than that of male homosexuality.39 The combination of a crime too nefarious to name and a set of perpetrators officially silenced and obedient within a predominantly patriarchal culture has made lesbian history a “blank,” a closet within a closet, that scholars are only now beginning to attempt to reconstruct.40 Cultural representation of relations between women have recently garnered some attention. The Fiordispina-Bradamante episode in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso and Philoclea's love of the apparently Amazon Zelmane in the New Arcadia are well-known examples from the romance tradition, while Donne's “Sappho to Philaenis” and Katherine Philip's Restoration love poetry are English verses that must be counted as part of this presumably lost tradition.

Jorge de Montemayor's La Diana, a sixteenth-century Spanish romance translated into English by Bartholomew Yong in 1598, is an important analogue to Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, which contains more than one episode of same-sex love between women cast under the narrative rubric of transvestite performance.41 In Book Two of La Diana Felismena disguises herself as the page Valerio when her beloved Don Felis is sent to the Portuguese court by his father. After enlisting in the service of her unwitting Don Felis, Valerio/Felismena adopts the same role as Viola/Cesario, wooing another woman on behalf of the man she loves and causing that woman, Celia, to fall in love with her instead. In this more tragic rendering of the Italian stage comedy Gl'Inganni (1562), Montemayor, unlike Shakespeare, decides not to create a Sebastian-like clone to meet the romance convention of reconciliation. Instead Celia—the Olivia counterpart—dies heartbroken when she learns that the male page with whom she has fallen in love has a stronger affection for his male master than herself. The performance of gender in the story of Felismena leads finally to a suicide that presumably arises out of an assumption by Celia of a male homoerotic relationship that undermines her own unwitting lesbian love for Felismena. La Diana, by some accounts the most fashionable Spanish book in England at the close of the sixteenth century, establishes a prose precedent for the representation of erotic relations between women through the mechanism of transvestite performance.42

In a theatrical forum more public and regulated than the spheres of private circulation and limited publication of early domestic fiction and poetry, Shakespeare's representation of same-sex attraction between women must even more cautiously use indirection to find direction out. In her discussion of the homoerotics of Shakespearean comedy, Valerie Traub has argued that the limitation of the consequences of theatrical cross-dressing to the evocation of male homoeroticism ignores the ambiguities that transvestism creates and reinstates the restriction of gender binarism into the discussion of homoerotics.43 Women were in attendance at the Globe, and there is no reason to ignore female homoerotics as part of the disruptions that cross-dressing explores. The gender ambiguity of Viola/Cesario in fact sets the stage for the representation of a plethora of desires: homoerotic attraction between Orsino and Cesario, heterosexual attraction between Orsino and Viola, and lesbian attraction between Viola and Olivia. The last relationship is in many ways the most compelling and time-consuming in the play.44 Ostensibly, the passion that Olivia finds herself unable “to hide” by means of “wit or reason” is directed at a young man, but dramatic irony tells us that her hidden passion is for a maid (3.1.153-54). When, after their first encounter, Olivia sends Cesario her symbolic ring for him to slip his finger into, Cesario/Viola, in her famous soliloquy, suddenly realizes, “I am the man: if it be so, as 'tis, / Poor lady, she were better love a dream” (2.2.24-25). Viola is acknowledging that her performance as a man has out-manned every other suitor of Olivia in Illyria, but she also realizes that this performance has led to a homoerotic attraction more socially and legally untenable than an illusory dream. Olivia is not entirely to blame for this sudden attraction, as Traub has pointed out.45 Viola/Cesario, whose original inclination was to stay with the Countess, has gone out of her text in their first meeting, taking the liberty of lifting Olivia's veil, and playing the part of her wooer with more fervency than expected. “But if you were the devil,” Cesario exclaims upon seeing her face, “you are fair” (1.5.255).

In her soliloquy that follows their first meeting, Viola/Cesario unquestionably blames the wickedness of her disguise and the frail nature of women for this instigation of bi-gendered passion, but this retreat into essentialism is undermined by Viola's unnatural status as boy actor, female character, and male page, which demonstrates that although frailty may be the name of woman, the name of woman is applicable to both sexes in this play:

                                                  My master loves her dearly
And I, poor monster, fond as much on him,
And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me:
What will become of this? As I am a man,
My state is desperate for my master's love,
As I am a woman (now alas the day!)
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe?


Viola/Cesario is the poor hermaphroditical monster or, in another context, the master/mistress who has stirred the homoerotic passion of Olivia by incorporating the polarities of sexual and gender difference into the unity of her maddening disguise, thereby representing gender tropes in a manner that de-forms, de-naturalizes, and de-constructs their oppositional status. The dear fondness and doting, moreover, is not altogether gender specific; it occurs among all three in this love triangle. When Viola attempts to articulate the “knot” of her predicament, she finds that her gendered figures of speech are subject to ironies that unsettle the heterosexual bent of her identity as the lover of Orsino. Editors insist that “desperate” in this context means “hopeless,” but when Cesario tells us that as a man he is desperate for his master's love, the male homoerotic irony of such a statement again problematizes her desire to be sincere in her heterosexual identity. As a woman, she laments, even pities, the profitless sighs that Olivia must undergo both in her mistaken doting on a page and in her capacity as a woman in love with another woman in a world where such behavior was literally unheard of.

Despite Cesario's protestations, Olivia continues her amorous assault until the end of the play, unwilling to take no for an answer. In act 3, the haughty Olivia is willing to ask Cesario what he thinks of her:

Viola: That you do think you are not what you are.
Olivia: If I think so, I think the same of you.
Viola: Then think you right; I am not what I am.
Olivia: I would you were as I would have you be.
Viola: Would it be better, madam, than I am?
                                                  I wish it might, for now I am your fool.


In dramatic context, Viola is attempting to fend off Olivia by telling her that she is not really in love as she thinks she is because Cesario is not in fact a man; however, in textual isolation this witty repartee functions as a profound if unsystematic critique of gender identity as a boundary to licit love. Viola assumes that Olivia's love would vanish if she knew Cesario's true sex, but the persistent Countess reminds the heroic androgynene that s/he too thinks s/he is someone s/he is not, thinks s/he is not in love with Olivia when in fact the pity s/he shows her is a form of love. When Cesario almost steps out of his part and admits with Iago-esque frankness that he is not what he is, the text again shifts into its self-reflexive gear, reminding both audience and reader that subjectivity is constructed by epistemology; it does not exist in some pre-Cartesian substance that instantly assigns a bedrock of transcendent traits to either female or male. Mistaking Sebastian for Viola, Feste will later remind the audience of the fiction of gender identity: “Nothing that is so, is so,” he surmises, as he looks at Viola's identical male twin (4.1.8-9). His sly critique of what Butler calls the “metaphysics of gender substance” continues in his role as Sir Topas, the Pythagorean curate, in act 4. “‘That that is, is,’” the learned cross-dressing Sir Topas proclaims, “I, being Master Parson, am Master Parson” (4.1.14-15). Feste's mock tautology points to the performative nature of what we assume to be ontological essence. This jester turned sermonizer is who he is because he plays who he is; in the same way Viola can be the male Cesario by transvestite performance.

Similarly, who Viola/Cesario is or is not, as a subject, is as much a figure of Olivia's and Viola's imaginations as it is a stable, gendered identity, the revelation of which will undo some mistaken affection (4.2.15-16). The dialogue that Olivia and Cesario have in act 3 not only dramatizes the instability of the subject as a determinate entity that exists outside of social interaction but also shows how the performative self is further complicated by the fictions or fantasies played out in the imaginary mental constructions of those in love. When Olivia tells Cesario that she wishes he were the reciprocating lover she would like him to be, she is divulging the way in which lovers, by reason of their imaginary dreams, act as agents in the disruption of normative identity politics. Put simply, the lover, like Olivia, turns the object of her love into something more than he or she is.46 Olivia's amorous thinking reshapes this male servant into the gentleman of her dreams, while in fact that gentleman is a woman—a Viola whose anagrammatic name shapes the reverberate echoes that feed the Countess's narcissism. Cesario recognizes that Olivia's amorous strategy is turning him or her into a fool, that her narcissistic aggressivity is the consequence of an emotion that both disrupts determined notions of subjectivity while simultaneously transferring its own ideal notions of self on to the object of love.

Yet surely, critics have argued, the identity and gender trouble produced by Viola's disguise is largely undermined by her ultimately heterosexual aim; after all, the object of her desire is Orsino.47 Butler herself warns that heterosexuality can augment its hegemony through the denaturalization of cross-dressing, when those denaturalizing parodies work to “reidealize heterosexual norms without calling them into question.”48 Unlike Moll Cutpurse or even Portia, Viola, Jean Howard argues, does not use her disguise to gain power, but only to secure her position as a dutiful wife. She never actually challenges patriarchy.49 By privileging intentionality over action or what Butler calls performance, these important objections to my line of argument assume that the subversive effects of Viola's disguise are vitiated by the sexual orientation of the character Viola, while it is my position that the language of the play questions the metaphysics of orientation and intentionality, replacing them with a concept of performativity.

Even if Viola does not actively challenge patriarchy in her erotic goal, she nevertheless questions its validity in her disguised wooing of her master in act 2, scene 4. In discussing earlier scenes, both Bruce Smith and Pequigney have commented upon the homoerotic overtones of Orsino's sudden infatuation with his new domestic servant, to whom he “unclasps … the book even of [his] secret soul,” delighting in Cesario's “smooth and rubious” lips and “shrill and sound” voice, which he calls a “small pipe” comparable to a “maiden's organ” (1.4.31-33).50 This ambiguous affection for his male servant sets the stage for their discussion of the differing capacities of male and female amorous longing in act 2. When asked by Orsino, Viola/Cesario admits that she is in love with a “woman,” but one close to the Count in “years” and “complexion” (2.4.26-28). When Orsino complains that no woman's heart is capacious enough to hold the passion that a man feels, Viola/Cesario challenges him by passionately telling her own story in the third person: “My father had a daughter lov'd a man / As it might be perhaps, were I a woman, / I should your lordship” (2.4.107-9). The ironies of gender that inform the performative layers of this scene render Orsino's sexist construction of love highly suspect. As a servant, Cesario boldly challenges his master's complacent speculation even as Viola is reiterating the strength of her own passion under the risk of revealing her disguise. But this scene critiques Orsino's assumptions not merely by contrasting traditional female patience to male boasting; both those positions are thrown into question by the posture of Viola's performativity—by the very fact that she is commanding the discursive space of this scene. Her impersonation of herself in her autobiographical history, her objectification of herself as quiet, allegorical Patience on a monument is a verbal tour de force ironically iterated by a woman. Viola reveals her concealment, impatiently describes her patience and thereby points to the constructedness of both Orsino's and her own depictions of gender paradigms. Meanwhile, as the boy Cesario tells the story of his sister who is himself, Orsino continues to fall in love with his/her “masterly” speech (2.4.22). This scene thus challenges patriarchy not by reidealizing the heterosexual norms of passion-vowing males and patiently passive females, but by calling those constructions into question through portraying the cross-dressing female as a figure who deconstructs the categories of gender by ironically reiterating them in a context that depicts their reversal.


In counterpoint to the ironies and ambiguities that closet the lesbian subtext in the main courtship of Twelfth Night, the representation of male homoeroticism in this comedy is by contrast glaring and ultimately inexplicable. Metaphors of adoration, devotion, and passionate oblation saturate the heated but highly stylized rhetorical interactions between Sebastian, the twin brother of Viola, and Antonio, the erstwhile pirate, who redeems Sebastian “[f]rom the rude sea's enrag'd and foamy mouth” and gives his life back to him, adding thereto his “love, without retention or restraint / All his in dedication” (5.1.76-80). Neither the Ciceronian tradition of male friendship nor attention to the intensity of homosocial male bonding in the Renaissance can explain away Antonio's melancholia. He is prepared, we learn, to spend three months with his foundling after rescuing him, prepared to risk his life to follow Sebastian to Illyria (where he is wanted on criminal charges), prepared to give this young man his purse, and prepared finally to intercede on his behalf in the midst of a duel: “I do adore thee so,” Antonio states, “That danger shall seem sport, and I will go” (2.1.46-47; emphasis mine). Like Olivia, Antonio has “exposed himself pure for love”—an exposure doubly dangerous because its gendered object represents an unmentionable anathema to the religious and judicial laws that officially condemned such homoerotic behavior. To put this notable pirate's passion in perspective, we need turn no further than the pages of Billy Budd to find a trace of the sodomitical practices that traditionally have been ascribed to men at sea. In the seventeenth century, according to B. R. Burg, English sea rovers and buccaneers were renowned for their sodomitical behavior.51 Antonio may be a part of this historical tradition, while at the same time he may be another one of Shakespeare's male characters—Horatio, Enobarbus, Patroclus, Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, to name a few—who are devoted to other males.

Antonio disrupts normative constructions of gender by enacting his homoerotic passion in a character that is the most traditionally “masculine” in the play. He is aggressive, bold, eloquent, faithful, uncompromising—traits which are ironically alignable with his counterpart Olivia and also ironically employed in the service of a homoerotic rather than heterosexual compulsion. Some critics recently have argued that male homoerotics were not associated with effeminacy until later in the seventeenth century, Antonio's machismo being a case in point.52 Whatever the validity of this point of social history, Antonio exists as a direct foil to the hopelessly sycophantic but presumably heterosexual courtier, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Although Antonio's histrionic intensity is tempered by little or none of the gender irony ascribable to Viola, the play's dramatic representation of him as one of the most heroic and intense characters in the drama points to an alternative domain of cultural intelligibility in which the significations of heterosexual masculinity are repeated within a context that directly subverts the rigid codes of heterosexual practice.

The relationship between Antonio and Sebastian even subverts some of the accepted parameters of homoerotic practice in the Renaissance. Although Pequigney calls it “the classic relationship, wherein the mature lover serves as guide and mentor to the young beloved,” this facile reading overlooks a number of factors that make this homoerotic relation strangely unclassic, tellingly noncategorical.53 Alan Bray has tried recently to delineate the difference between the often-similar rhetoric of male friendship and sodomy in the English Renaissance. He concludes that the passionate discourse of male friendship did not imply sexual practices as long as the interlocutors were both assumed to be gentlemen, their relationship personal not mercenary, and their interaction not disruptive of the social order.54 Despite Orsino's epithets “notable pirate” and “salt-water thief” (5.1.66), Antonio denies his piracy, bears himself as a gentleman consistently, and is known for his fame, honor, and kindness. Antonio's loaning of his purse to Sebastian is an act of generosity, not payment. Although the sea-captain is presumably of lower social standing than Sebastian, the play does not provide sufficient evidence that their interaction is unnatural or disruptive of the social order. Antonio's homoerotic attraction contains few of the social clues of the sodomite that Bray outlines.55 What is unusual in this relationship is that Antonio, although of lower social status than Sebastian, is the more powerful and principled figure, a circumstance that places their connection outside the scope of the usual master/servant, teacher/student matrices that social historians indicate as potentially homoerotic.56 Similarly, though critics assume Antonio to be older and more experienced than Sebastian because of his sea-battle experience, the play does not make the age difference between the two so discernible that this relationship falls squarely within the man/boy paradigm often associated with homoeroticism in this period.57 Nor, finally, can this couple be subsumed under accepted categories of gender binarism. Although Antonio's more intense ardor and Sebastian's possibly homoerotic name might lead to assumptions about their masculinity and femininity, both are proven swordsmen; and, ironically, the resistant Sebastian is the character who readily adopts a heterosexual role when he accepts Olivia's marital offer.58 Even in its depiction of same-sex love, Twelfth Night departs from patterns that would subsume homoeroticism under entrenched gender stereotypes. The dramatization of the marginal erotic relationship of Antonio and Sebastian carefully avoids a rendition that reinstates the excluded outside of homoeroticism as a simplified reflection of heterosexual roles within a same-sex context.


Like Olivia's love for Cesario/Viola, Antonio's love for Sebastian partakes in a psychological enactment of fantasy that functions as an inward performance of gender trouble. Mistaking Viola for her twin brother in act 3, “even in a minute” Antonio has his faith undermined by the confused Cesario (3.4.370-72), who is unable to return Antonio's purse because he does not have it. In his crestfallen state, Antonio announces that he has done “devotion” to Sebastian's “image” with a “sanctity of love,” but that this “god” has proved a “vile idol” unworthy of Sebastian's handsome features (3.4.374-75). Antonio's passionate disenchantment—reminiscent of Othello's—is based on a mistaken interpretation of objective reality, and like the amorous image-making that preceded it, his recasting of Sebastian into the image of a deceiving “devil” partakes of the same process of transference that marked his process of falling in love. He turns his lover into something more than he is through a mentality that seeks finally the attention of the idol that he has created, fashioned, and enacted in the realm of his imaginary fantasy. Although his bitterness is played out within the comedic context of his mistaking a “girl” for his “boy,” his virulent disappointment stands in marked contrast to his unexplained silence in the play's final act, when his beloved Sebastian has cavalierly married and when, from a contemporary point of view, Antonio would seem to have more reason to protest. Silence is often the most telling form of disappointment.

Antonio and Olivia's transformation of their lovers into something more than they are is indicative of a larger pattern in Twelfth Night that employs the process of love as an agency in the disruption of gender binarism and social hierarchy. The internalized fantasy of the lover—whereby an Orsino turns Olivia into a Petrarchan goddess or a Malvolio turns her into a Duchess of Malfi—lays the foundation for the legitimization of a social and gender upheaval under the rubric of what Antonio calls the “witchcraft” of love (5.1.74). Orsino sets the stage for this disruption in his opening words:

O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,
That notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there
Of what validity and pitch so'er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute! So full of shapes is fancy,
That it alone is high fantastical.


At once capacious and enveloping, love is at the same time ephemeral and destined to disappointment, primarily because of its dependence on an internal fantasy for its sustenance. In Shakespeare's usage, “fancy” connotes both the operation of “love” and “fantasy” or imagination. The quick and giddy shapes that the lover's imagination generates and transfers on to the object of affection render that object vulnerable to the “abatement and low price” that the realities of compulsory heterosexuality and diverging desire reaffirm in the proverbial fifth act of Shakespeare's comedies. Yet the capacity to create and “perform” those “shapes”—the ability of Olivia to turn Cesario into the perfect lover, of Antonio to idolize Sebastian—remain the fragile but crucial catalysts for the promotion of gender trouble.

Few who read this final scene, upon which much criticism depends, are not troubled by the solutions to the erotic problems that the plot has engendered. For Traub, Twelfth Night's conclusion seems “only ambivalently invested in the ‘natural’ heterosexuality it imposes,” while Pequigney challenges the accepted interpretation that Sebastian has rejected his male lover because he has taken a wife.59 Olivia's ready acceptance of her beloved's twin as her husband and Orsino's equally mercurial capitulation to his male page who awaits her change of attire add to the delightful but troubling improbability. These unlikelihoods, whether explained as dramatic plot convention or a return to normalcy, expose “the failure of heterosexual regimes ever fully to legislate or contain their own ideals.”60

Twelfth Night attempts to resolve this trouble by playing on the concept of identity in so far as it means sameness as opposed to individuality. If the major portion of Shakespeare's plot employs the tropes of performance to show how gender is a melodramatic act rather than an inherent trait of the individuated ego, the ending of the play reaffirms this conclusion by producing a male that is, for all intents and purposes, the same or identical to a female.61 Viola/Cesario is not only a female successfully playing a male, but her success is confirmed by her fungibility with her twin brother. The reunion of Viola with Sebastian comes after he opportunely is betrothed to an Olivia who mistakes him for Cesario. Seeing Cesario and Sebastian on stage together for the first time, Orsino exclaims “one face, one voice, one habit, and two persons / A natural perspective that is, and is not!” (5.1.214-15). The identity of this twin brother and sister does more than provide a convenient Terencian plot device to untie the erotic knot that the play has created up to this point; this sameness also points to the way in which the essentialism of a “natural perspective” is not always divided into gendered binarism. Nature herself has produced an unnatural perspective that reveals the constructedness of essentialist notions of gender by depicting the collapse of difference. Echoing Troilus's famous speech during his eavesdropping of a Cressida that is and is not, Orsino sees a nature that is capable of copying itself exactly in spite of the natural sex difference between brother and sister that we expect. In the identity of Sebastian and Viola, the play's denouement stages a critique of binarism, a parodic subversion of the dichotomies between female and male, homo- and heterosexual.62 The result of the appearance of these identical twins in the final act is a decided disruption of the stability of sexual and gender difference and the sense of individuated identity it fosters. Sebastian tells Olivia that even though she would have been contracted to the maid Viola if he had not fortuitously appeared, she is now “betroth'd both to a maid and a man” (5.1.261). He is not only assuring her that he is himself a virgin, but he is also making wanton with the meaning of the word “maid” as a young woman. Sebastian is a character whose similar appearance to his sister gives him a decided resemblance to a maid, but whose identity with Cesario allows him to play the part of a man. Even in this concluding marriage scene, therefore, the play's language produces destabilizing configurations of gender.

The prosthetic nature of gender's supposed inherency is dramatized even further by the role that costume plays in this concluding scene. Once Cesario discloses herself as Sebastian's twin sister, Orsino decides he wants a share in the “happy wrack” of this collapse of gender identity by capitalizing on Cesario's previously proclaimed love for a woman like him; but he continues to address her as “boy” and “Cesario”:

For so you shall be while you are a man;
But when in other habits you are seen,
Orsino's mistress and his fancy's queen.


Like Clerimont in Jonson's Epicoene, who uses his “ingle” at home when his mistress is unattainable, Orsino settles for a marriage with his male page. For Orsino, Viola can only establish her true identity by recovering her maiden's weeds from the captain she left in act 1, who now for some reason is under arrest at the behest of Malvolio. Consistent with the import of Renaissance sumptuary laws that regulated dress among classes as well as sexes—laws championed by Malvolian moralists like Gosson and Stubbes—Orsino's final statement indicates, albeit playfully, that Viola will be a man until she adopts the “habit” of female attire, until her appearance conforms to the mundane trappings that are the foundations of gender identity. Her gender is dependent upon a factor as easily changeable as her weeds are pret-a-porter. Ironically, that attire is still unrecovered at the close of this final scene, as Orsino walks off stage with his Cesario.

While the wonderful discoveries of act 5 make for a tidy if contrived romance ending, below the surface of these marriage knots, with their diluted flavor of androgyny, lies an entanglement that transcends the freedom these characters may gain from a mild subversion of normative gender relations. What is particularly troubling about the ending of Twelfth Night—and particularly important from a perspective beyond the necessary upheaval of entrenched gender politics—are the ways in which gender performance in this play, although successful in questioning identity, does not necessarily give these characters what they want.63 The dismantling of the automatic collapse of sex and gender in this play, even when successful, does not bring the subject to a new metaphysical substance, to a new place of performative stability. Although Viola achieves her goal of marrying Orsino, the man she is betrothed to has, minutes before, agreed to sacrifice her for the love of Olivia. Arguably Sebastian is satisfied with his surprise catch of the Countess, but his reaction to the appearance of his friend Antonio on the scene gives the audience pause: “Antonio! O my dear Antonio, / How have the hours rack'd and tortur'd me / Since I have lost thee!” (5.1.216-18). How can Olivia have satisfied her desire by mistakenly marrying the enchanting Cesario's seeming copy, a stranger as passionately attached to a pirate as herself? The homoerotic element of the play, while troubling and disruptive in its dramatic development, may not have the power in this final scene to overcome fully the symbolic dictates of compulsory heterosexuality, at least from a perspective of formal kinship relations. Yet even if homoeroticism triumphed in Twelfth Night and Viola walked off stage arm-in-arm with Olivia and Sebastian with Antonio, the problems of the irrationality of desire and the instability of identity would not vanish. Desire is not erased by the successful disruption of gender boundaries; it continues to haunt the subject despite the performance of the most fantastic of love's imaginings. Yet the interminable nature of desire and the fantasies of love that are desire's dialectical counterpart serve as important catalysts for the subversion and displacement “of those naturalized and reified notions of gender that support masculine hegemony and heterosexist power” through strategies of gender trouble.64


  1. See for example, Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London: Gay Men's Press, 1982); Bruce R. Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); Gregory W. Bredbeck, Sodomy and Interpretation: Marlowe to Milton (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991); Jonathan Goldberg, Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992); Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety: The Circulation of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (New York: Routledge, 1992); Queering the Renaissance, ed. Jonathan Goldberg (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994).

  2. Some important scholars find the subversive elements of the play to be contained within patriarchal structures: see Stephen Greenblatt's conclusion in “Fiction and Friction,” in Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 66-93; Jean E. Howard, “Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 418-40; and most recently Michael Shapiro, Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines and Female Pages (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1994). Other scholars find the play more transgressive: see Catherine Belsey, “Disrupting Sexual Difference: Meaning and Gender in the Comedies,” in Alternative Shakespeares (New York: Methuen, 1985); and Phyliss Rackin, “Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage,” PMLA 102 (1987): 29-41.

  3. Joseph Pequigney, “The Two Antonios and Same-Sex Love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice,English Literary Renaissance 22 (1992): 201, 209.

  4. For a discussion of the implications of crossdressing see, Howard, “Crossdressing”; Rackin, “Androgyny”; Belsey, “Disrupting Sexual Difference”; and Lisa Jardine, “Twins and Transvestites: Gender, Dependency, and Sexual Availability in Twelfth Night,” in her Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage (New York: Routledge, 1992), 27-36, as well as her more complete study, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Brighton: Harvester, 1983).

  5. Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety, 130, 141.

  6. See C[esar] L[ombardi] Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959).

  7. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 7.

  8. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), 9-10.

  9. See Butler, Bodies That Matter, 12.

  10. Shakespeare, The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, ed. J[ohn] M[aule] Lothian and T[homas] W[allace] Craik (London: Routledge, 1975).

  11. In Gender in Play (221-23), Shapiro lists eighty-one English dramas during a period from 1570 to 1642 that portray heroines in male disguise.

  12. See Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Frank Wigham, “Interpretation at Court: Courtesy and the Performance-Audience Dialectic,” New Literary History 14 (1983): 623-39. For the concept of performativity in Shakespeare generally, see Emily C. Bartels, “Breaking the Illusion of Being: Shakespeare and the Performance of Self,” Theatre Journal 46 (1994): 171-85.

  13. My argument here and elsewhere is indebted to Catherine Belsey's discussion of the play's questioning of conventional models of gendered interaction in “Disrupting Sexual Difference,” 16-17.

  14. See Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, “Fetishizing Gender: Constructing the Hermaphrodite in Renaissance Europe,” in Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity, ed. Julian Epstein and Kristina Straub (New York: Routledge, 1991), 80-111.

  15. Thomas Lacquer, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 8-10.

  16. Weyer, Johann, Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance: De praestigii daemonum (Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1991), 345-46.

  17. Greenblatt, “Fiction and Friction,” 78.

  18. Jones and Stallybrass, “Fetishizing Gender,” 105-6.

  19. Greenblatt, “Fiction and Friction,” 92-93.

  20. Edward Coke, quoted in Randolph Trumbach, “London's Sapphists: From Three Sexes to Four Genders in the Making of Modern Culture,” in Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, ed. Gilbert Herdt (New York: Zone, 1994), 119.

  21. In her speech to the troops at Tilbury, Elizabeth states, “I have the body but of a weak and frail woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king” (The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume One, 6th ed. [New York: Norton, 1993], 999). James's romantic letters to his favorites Somerset and Villiers are evidence of his homoerotic tendencies; see his Letters of King James VI and I (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984). In this regard, note the Renaissance popularity of the story of Edward II and his fateful attachment to Gaveston in works such as Marlowe's Edward II and Michael Drayton's Piers Gaveston (1593).

  22. See Vern L. and Bonnie Bullough, Cross-Dressing, Sex, and Gender (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993); Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1992).

  23. See Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958), 212-14.

  24. Jardine, Still Harping; Stephen Orgel, “Nobody's Perfect: Or Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Women,” South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989): 26.

  25. Bullough, Crossdressing, 98.

  26. Stephen Gosson, The School of Abuse, quoted in Laura Levine, “Men in Women's Clothing: Antitheatricality and Effeminization from 1579-1642,” Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts 28 (1982): 131.

  27. John Rainoldes, Th' Overthrow of Stage-Playes (Middleburgh, 1599), quoted in Jardine, Still Harping, 9.

  28. William Prynne, Histrio-mastix: The Player's Scourge or Actor's Tragedy (New York: Garland, 1974), 75-76.

  29. See Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).

  30. For another dramatization of the controversy over theatrical cross-dressing, see the puppet show in the final act of Jonson's Bartholomew Fair.

  31. See Ambroise Paré, Of Monsters and Prodigies, in The Workes of Ambrose Parey, trans. Thomas Johnson (London, 1634). For the eunuch controversy, see Keir Elam, “The Fertile Eunuch: Twelfth Night, Early Modern Intercourse, and the Fruits of Castration,” Shakespeare Quarterly 47 (1996): 1-37.

  32. See Lothian and Craik's Introduction to the Arden Edition of Twelfth Night, 26-27.

  33. See Rackin, “Androgyny,” 58; Howard, “Crossdressing,” 439.

  34. Prynne, Histrio-mastix, 208-14.

  35. Monique Wittig, The Straight Mind and Other Essays (Boston: Beacon, 1992), 26; see also Butler, Gender Trouble, 115.

  36. Barber, Festive Comedy, 245.

  37. Alan Bray, Homosexuality, 74; Jardine, “Twins,” 28.

  38. See James M. Saslow, “Homosexuality in the Renaissance: Behavior, Identity, and Artistic Expression,” in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncy, Jr. (New York: Meridian, 1989), 95.

  39. See Judith C. Brown, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986); Louis Crompton, “The Myth of Lesbian Impunity: Capital Laws from 1270-1791,” in Historical Perspectives on Homosexuality, ed. Salvatore J. Licata and Robert P. Peterson (New York: Haworth, 1981), 11-25.

  40. For recent scholarship, see Brown, Immodest Acts; Lillian Faderman Surpassing the Love of Men (New York: Morrow, 1981) and Playing with Gender: A Renaissance Pursuit, ed. Jean R. Brink, Maryanne C. Horowitz, and Alison P. Condert (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991).

  41. For an even more developed lesbian subplot in La Diana than the analogue to Twelfth Night, see the story of Selvagia and Ismenia in Book One (Jorge de Montemayor, A Critical Edition of Yong's Translation of George of Montemayor's Diana and Gil Polo's Enamoured Diana, ed. Judith M. Kennedy [Oxford: Clarendon, 1968]).

  42. See Dale B. J. Randall, “The Troublesome and Hard Adventures in Love: An English Addition to the Bibliography of Diana,Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 38 (1961): 154-58.

  43. Traub, Desire and Anxiety, 121.

  44. Shapiro, Gender in Play, 151-54.

  45. Traub, Desire and Anxiety, 130.

  46. In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1981), Jacques Lacan remarks that narcissistic gratification is love's primary motivation. Comparing the processes of analysis to the interaction of lovers, he concludes that the lover turns the beloved into a subject supposed to know, someone who can answer all his questions about what he wants (267). This transference is actually undertaken by the lover as a strategy of narcissism, in which the beloved, flattered by the lover, eventually recognizes and pays attention to the beloved (253). This imaginary and narcissistic fantasy called love necessarily seeks to close off the unconscious and the lack that is desire. The motto of the lover in approaching the beloved is always “in you more than you,” a phrase that summarizes this process of imaginary over-estimation for purposes of avoiding desire (263).

  47. See Howard, “Crossdressing,” 431.

  48. Butler, Bodies, 231.

  49. “Despite her masculine attire and the confusion it causes in Illyria, Viola's is a properly feminine subjectivity; and this fact countervails the threat posed by her clothes and removes any possibility that she might permanently aspire to masculine privilege and prerogatives” (Howard, “Crossdressing,” 432). For Howard the truly transgressive female in the play is Olivia, but she is “punished, comically but unmistakably” by her love for Viola/Cesario (432). But what characters do not fall into “abatement and low price” because of their erotic attraction in this play? Howard's reading of Twelfth Night usefully illustrates one way in which the concerns of feminism can collide with the aims of gender studies, in so far as the latter attacks power through parodic deconstruction of its categories while the former seeks to work within those categories of power by searching for women who gain masculine “privilege.”

  50. See Smith, Homosexual Desire, 151; Pequigney, “The Two Antonios,” 207.

  51. B[arry] R[ichard] Bury, “Ho-Hum, Another Work of the Devil: Buggery and Sodomy in Early Stuart England,” in Historical Perspectives on Homosexuality, ed. Salvatore J. Licata and Robert P. Peterson (New York: Haworth, 1981), 69-78.

  52. See Trumbach, “London's Sapphists,” 133; Traub, Desire and Anxiety, 134.

  53. Pequigney, “The Two Antonios,” 204.

  54. Alan Bray, “Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England,” History Workshop Journal 29 (1990): 10-11.

  55. Admittedly, one of the historian's main points is that these clues were growing more and more ambiguous at the end of the sixteenth century.

  56. Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England, 74.

  57. See Saslow, “Homosexuality,” 94.

  58. The “homoeroticization” of St. Sebastian is evident in Renaissance art and carried forward in Derek Jarman's recent film. See, for example, Antonio and Piero de Pollaiuolo, The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (1496?), National Gallery, London.

  59. Traub, Desire and Anxiety, 138; Pequigney, “The Two Antonios,” 206.

  60. Butler, Bodies, 237.

  61. See Karen Grief, “Plays and Playing in Twelfth Night,Shakespeare Survey 34 (1981): 121-30.

  62. Although Greenblatt (“Fiction and Friction”) argues that the sameness is a maleness since both characters are dressed as men at the end of the play, Viola's central performance throughout the play has already shown that clothes do not necessarily make the man, that masculinity is a role played most successfully by a woman.

  63. See Barbara Freedman, “Separation and Fusion in Twelfth Night,” in Psychoanalytic Approaches to Literature and Film, ed. Maurice Charney and Joseph Reppen (Cranbury: Associated University Press, 1978), 96-119.

  64. Butler, Gender Trouble, 34.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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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 critics will apoplectically insist, how it does not relate—to that monolith of high cultural self-confidence, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. The point is to signal the sense of controversy that pervades most straight-identified critical material when addressing these topics, especially in relation to the sonnets, and the ways in which gay critics have therefore had to address such topics as though they were controversial indeed.

The sonnets are the centre of controversy, but we begin with the plays. It is not difficult to see which characters or which incidents in a play might be most likely to recommend themselves to a producer or actor as being available for plausible interpretation as relating to bi- or homosexuality. Every case I mention here will be more plausible in production than any of the anachronistic settings—Macbeth in the wild West, Romeo and Juliet in the American Civil War, The Merchant of Venice in Berlin, Henry V on the sands of Iwo Jima—one can see on some stage somewhere during virtually any month of a given year. And yet they are not treated as such by academic critics. (Audiences are always another matter.)

In Romeo and Juliet (which dates from the mid-1590s) the relationship between Romeo and Mercutio could be played as an erotic relation between post-adolescents who know that the future direction of their adulthood will involve marriage and the concurrent, perhaps consequent, weakening of such male-male bonds. As Paul Hammond has said of the two youths' easy badinage, ‘Homosocial play includes homo-erotic play.’1 To some readers, Henry IV Parts One (printed in 1598) and Two (printed in 1600) conjure up the spectre of a Hal, corrupted by low-life companions, ascending the throne as Henry V. It would not be merely fanciful to stage a production in which one source of this corruption would be an excessive sexual familiarity between the prince and his unsuitable friends: for, as Jonathan Goldberg has argued, ‘the plays forever transgress even as they seem to be producing the boundaries between illegitimate and legitimate male/male relations’. When it comes to Henry V (probably written in 1599, printed in 1600), Goldberg points out that Hal has a bedfellow (see II. ii, 8), but that we do not know who he is. (Falstaff himself, perhaps?) What matters here is not so much the sex of the bedfellow as his class: ‘For if, on the one hand it would be unremarkable for men to be sleeping with each other, it would be unspeakable if the wrong men were, if the sex between men was not conducive to maintaining social hierarchies and distinctions.’2

If there are characters in Shakespeare who could, without undue distortion, convince us as being predominantly ‘homosexual’, one of the first to come to mind would be Antonio in The Merchant of Venice (printed in 1600).3 Indeed, there might be good reason for raising the issue of Antonio's sexuality in a coherent production of a play that does, after all, take social prejudice as one of its central themes. A twentieth-century audience is likely to want to connect the various sources of oppression in the play, and to contextualise them within what we know of our own recent history. As Alan Sinfield very reasonably puts it, ‘Of course The Merchant of Venice doesn't anticipate the Holocaust, or, indeed, Nazi persecution of homosexuals, but we may find it hard to approach the text without such an issue coming to mind.’4 Who is to say that this is an illegitimate way of experiencing the relevance of drama in performance?

In Seymour Kleinberg's 1983 reading, The Merchant of Venice is not only about anti-Semitism, but also ‘about homosexual eroticism in conflict with heterosexual marriage, about the rivalry of romantic male friendship with the claims of conventional marriage’. Pairing Shylock and Antonio as ‘psychological counterparts’, Kleinberg writes of the latter:

Antonio is a virulently anti-Semitic homosexual and is melancholic to the point of despair because his lover, Bassanio, wishes to marry an immensely rich aristocratic beauty, to leave the diversions of the Rialto to return to his own class and to sexual conventionality. Antonio is also in despair because he despises himself for his homosexuality, which is romantic, obsessive, and exclusive, and fills him with sexual shame.5

Textually, there may be problems with certain details of this view, but one can see how it might easily be incorporated into the understanding of a staging of the play without violence having to be done to the script. Kleinberg continues:

What Antonio hates in Shylock is not Jewishness, which, like all Venetians[,] he merely holds in contempt. He hates himself in Shylock: the homosexual self that Antonio has come to identify symbolically as the Jew. It is the earliest portrait of the homophobic homosexual.6

This is, without doubt, a strongly post-Nazi (and post-Proustian) reading—as all of today's readings must be, unless they are merely complacent, or even ignorant. Kleinberg says that ‘The happy ending of the play is the triumph of heterosexual marriage and the promise of generation over the romantic but sterile infatuation of homoeroticism.’7

As such, this ending might be no less uncomfortable to a gay spectator than (say) the ending of The Taming of the Shrew to a conventional feminist. So many of Shakespeare's so-called ‘resolutions’ seem to flatten out the emotional complexities of what has preceded them with this kind of imposition of apparently incongruous, but undoubtedly tidy, institutional endings. (The institutions in question, to the values of which each play is shown to return, are usually those of matrimony and the divine right of kings.) John Clum has commented on the place of the homosexual character in such resolutions, as follows:

In Shakespeare, bisexuality, hinted at, seems to be happily, if cautiously, absorbed by society, but the characters who feel exclusively homosexual desire (the Antonios of Twelfth Night and, perhaps, The Merchant of Venice) suffer the typical stage homosexual's fate of isolation when the traditional finale of coupling is enacted. Yet Shakespeare's comedies can hover at the brink of polymorphous perversity.

This depends on the production. Clum goes on to mention John Caird's 1989 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company, in which the administering of the love potion almost resulted in Demetrius' falling in love with Lysander. Only Puck's officious intervention could literally turn Demetrius to face Helena at the appropriate moment. Clum comments:

Homosexual desire is barely averted. The moment got one of the production's biggest laughs, but it also reminded one of the possibility of homosexual desire lurking very near the surface in many of Shakespeare's comedies.8

It is difficult not to think of the Dream, in particular, as having as one of its central themes the sheer contingency of sexual object-choice.

The most prominent male ‘couple’ in Shakespeare, enjoying a lasting sexual relationship and resisting all pressure to part them, are, I suppose, Achilles and Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida (probably written in 1602 but not printed until 1609). Gregory Bredbeck reports the craven evasiveness of Kenneth Palmer's annotations to the 1982 Arden edition of the play. Famously, Thersites calls Patroclus ‘Achilles' brach’, ‘Achilles' male varlet’ and his ‘Masculine whore’. Commenting on the fact that the word ‘brach’ had a specific sexual meaning, Palmer writes that ‘it seems unlikely that Thersites meant (or was taken to mean) that Patroclus was a catamite’. And on ‘male varlet’, the meaning of which he can neither deny nor hide, Palmer says that, even if Thersites is accusing Patroclus of having sex with Achilles, ‘there is no certainty’ that his ‘imputation’ is ‘correct’. As Bredbeck correctly comments, these annotations are made to erase precisely what is the crux of Thersites' scurrilous remarks, ‘the political discourse of Renaissance sodomy’.9

Not only do Achilles and Patroclus absent themselves from war; but what particularly hurts the Greek old guard is the manner of their abstention. Withdrawn into the privacy of Achilles' tent, they are nevertheless regarded as ostentatious in their attention to the sufficiency of their own relationship. The nature of their offence, or its ostensible nature at least, is outlined at some length by Ulysses:

The great Achilles, whom opinion crowns
The sinew and the forehand of our host,
Having his ear full of his airy fame,
Grows dainty of his worth, and in his tent
Lies mocking our designs. With him, Patroclus,
Upon a lazy bed, the livelong day
Breaks scurril jests,
And with ridiculous and awkward action,
Which, slanderer, he imitation calls,
He pageants us

—‘us’ being, on this occasion, Agamemnon, Nestor, Menelaus and Ulysses himself, though Ulysses only specifies imitations of Agamemnon and Nestor (I. iii, 142-51). It appears that, in the opinion of Ulysses at least, Achilles has been disarmed by flattery: his fame as a hero has given him an inflated sense of his own worth, and this has had the effect not of spurring him on to further and greater deeds of heroism, but of allowing him to rest on his laurels. It is as though he had been effeminised overnight, his valour reduced by excessive praise to daintiness. He spends all day reclining on a bed with Patroclus, making not love but mischief. In its imitative theatricals, their idleness is creative but unproductive, a perversion of the way in which young warriors should respect and be influenced by their elders. By mimicking the older men ‘with ridiculous and awkward action’, Achilles becomes in their eyes as ‘ridiculous and awkward’ as he thinks them. After all, they may be old, but they are not sacrificing national pride to a childish pageant.

Ulysses gives examples of the two lovers' performances, in which Achilles plays spectator to Patroclus' performer; but in narrating these offences in such detail, offering plausible direct quotations from Achilles and a precise record of the tone of Patroclus' voice, Ulysses himself turns into a performer. The sheer extent of his indignation—this is a long speech—takes his mind as much off the war as he is claiming Achilles' has lately been. Indeed, there is not a little evidence that he actually relishes his account of the mocking of Agamemnon and Nestor. He sums up as follows:

                                                  And in this fashion,
All our abilities, gifts, natures, shapes,
Severals and generals of grace exact,
Achievements, plots, orders, preventions,
Excitements to the field or speech for truce,
Success or loss, what is or is not, serves
As stuff for these two to make paradoxes.

(lines 178-84)

This is not elegant—Shakespeare's Ulysses is very much the military man—but his list builds up to a splenetic ending in the dismissive, coupled anonymity of ‘these two’ and the horror of the paradox. We may be reminded of how scandalised by Oscar Wilde's use of ‘brilliant paradoxes and corrosive epigrams’ the leader-writer of London's Daily Telegraph claimed to be (6 April and 27 May 1895); but what resonances does the concept of paradox have when spoken by an exasperated Greek hero in front of an audience in early seventeenth-century England?

The 1957 Cambridge edition of the play glosses ‘to make paradoxes’, merely, as signifying to ‘turn into absurdities’, which is, indeed, part of the story. By making fun of their ageing seniors, Achilles and Patroclus are turning epic into farce, at the same time as their confining themselves to a comfortable tent is turning epic warfare into chamber theatre. Seeing absurdity in heroes past their best, they are making absurdities of them. Worse still, the habit is catching: for, as Nestor now reports:

                    in the imitation of these twain,
Who, as Ulysses says, opinion crowns
With an imperial voice, many are infect.


By imitating the lovers' imitations, others in the Greek army (Ajax and Thersites are named) are infected with their insubordination. The older heroes' authority is being threatened by an epidemic of satirical theatricality. There are connotations, here, of both contemporary Puritan objections to theatre itself and, of course, distrust of male love. Achilles and Patroclus are, at the very least, seeing too much of each other, homoerotically forsaking their homosocial obligations. So serious is this transgression that it could lose the Greeks the war. There is far more to paradox than mere absurdity of speech: it threatens to overturn the ‘natural’ order of the body politic (see chapter 32).10

Other plays have recently kept returning to the stage in partially ‘homosexual’ interpretations. One of these is Othello (performed at court in 1604 but not printed until 1622). Ever since Tyrone Guthrie's 1937 production at the Old Vic, with Ralph Richardson as Othello and Laurence Olivier as Iago, it has been blandly acceptable to suggest that Iago's hatred and envy of Othello arises from an unacknowledged and unreturned erotic attraction. The other main reading, also now common, is possibly best represented by one of its earliest adherents, Leslie Fiedler, who argues that, in what he regards as Iago's ambivalent feelings for Cassio, ‘there are equivocal hints of a repressed passion between males turned destructive, rather like the relationship more frankly treated by Herman Melville in Billy Budd’. Fiedler speaks of the ‘glimmerings of homosexuality’ in Iago's account of Cassio's dream.11 This is the key moment, because the most explicitly if misdirectedly erotic, in any homosexual reading of the play, whether critical or in production. In Iago's words to Othello:

                                                  I lay with Cassio lately,
And being troubled with a raging tooth
I could not sleep.
There are a kind of men so loose of soul
That in their sleeps will mutter their affairs:
One of this kind is Cassio.
In sleep I heard him say: ‘Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves’;
And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry ‘O sweet creature!’ and then kiss me hard,
As if he plucked up kisses by the roots,
That grew upon my lips; then laid his leg
Over my thigh, and sighed and kissed, and then
Cried ‘Cursèd fate that gave thee to the Moor!’

(III. iii, 410-23)

Sleeping together means little: beds were routinely shared, even by strangers, in Shakespeare's time. What is revealing, if the story is true, and even more revealing, whether or not it is true, insofar as Iago does not appear to notice that it reveals anything about himself, is Iago's submission to being made love to as Desdemona's surrogate. He does not push Cassio away, or shake him as one might a disturbing snorer; but silently submits, firstly to caresses, then to insistent kisses on the mouth (indeed, the image of uprooting them suggests these kisses are invasive: these men are kissing with tongues), and finally to the scandalous indignity of lying underneath another man.

There are productions which act out this incident at some point during the sleepy drunkenness of Act II, scene iii, thereby removing any doubt about the veracity of Iago's report. This seems regrettable, particularly since Iago's paradoxical and duplicitous nature (‘I am not what I am,’ he says at one point) is made manifest by his skills at ambiguous double-dealing, and doubt would seem to be one of the most useful intellectual and emotional conditions for a production to instil in its audience if they are productively to respond to Iago as his machinations take their toll. The problem is, though, that to make him a repressed, perhaps self-hating, homosexual is to attempt to explain away his bad behaviour pseudo-psychoanalytically, basing the explanation on the rather feeble notion that homosexuality itself is reason enough for a man to seek to destroy a heterosexual relationship. I am not objecting as much to the facile version of homosexuality that this represents—though it clearly is objectionable—as to the trivialisation of Shakespeare's complex portrayal of Iago. There is no doubt that a crass, simplistic production can destroy the play; and presenting Iago in this manner, with homosexuality itself as a bogus villain, would probably amount to such a production. No wonder Jonathan Dollimore has been so vehement in pressing his argument that, as one of the chapter subheadings in his book Sexual Dissidence puts it, we should ‘Forget Iago's “Homosexuality”’.12 Elsewhere, Dollimore has distinguished between the cliché of twentieth-century productions and a more plausibly sixteenth-century perspective, seen from which ‘Iago embodies not “sublimated” homosexuality but militant maleness and a virulent contempt for women’.13 Even this, though, may not set him apart from the masculinist institutions he serves to an extent that could begin to provide motivation for his extraordinary malice.

The more militaristic the context of the individual play, the more Shakespeare demonstrates his interest in passionate relations between men. As we have already seen, however, it was not possible serenely to wander into such dangerous territory without, at the very least, showing an awareness of potential risk. Jody Greene has argued that the ‘fragmentary qualities’ of Timon of Athens do not derive from an aesthetic failure on the author's part—a failure, that is, adequately to ‘polish’ or ‘finish’ the play—‘but rather from the impossibility of writing a play about the limits of male friendship in the Renaissance without recourse to the vocabulary of sodomy’.14 Greene claims that this play is eminently suited to the kind of critical scrutiny characteristic of such readers within gay studies as Bruce Smith, Gregory Bredbeck and Jonathan Goldberg, and is evidently perplexed by their never having addressed Timon: ‘it takes place in a world virtually absent of women, and treats such themes as male friendship, prodigality, usury, unnatural reproduction, and “diseased” sexuality’. It is ‘an all-male drama in which the boundaries of friendship and sodomy collapse’.15

Any of these remarks might be applied, also, to Coriolanus. Consider the sheer extravagance of Aufidius' words on meeting up with Coriolanus, hitherto his archenemy:

                                                  here I clip
The anvil of my sword, and do contest
As hotly, and as nobly with thy love,
As ever in ambitious strength, I did
Contend against thy valour. Know thou first,
I lov'd the maid I married: never man
Sigh'd truer breath. But that I see thee here
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart,
Than when I first my wedded Mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.

(IV. v, 110-19)

First and foremost, this is an expression of male privilege, in the face of which a mere wife is hardly visible at all. But it is also, undoubtedly, an avowal of love. Furthermore, Aufidius has been dreaming—or are these nightmares?—of Coriolanus.

                                                  Thou hast beat me out
Twelve several times, and I have nightly since
Dreamt of encounters ’twixt thyself and me:
We have been down together in my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throat,
And wak'd half dead with nothing.

(IV. v, 122-7)

When he immediately uses a sodomitic metaphor in reference to the business of waging war—he speaks of ‘pouring war / Into the bowels of ungrateful Rome’—one is inevitably inclined to refer it back to what has just been said. The two warriors' having been, as Aufidius puts it, ‘down together in my sleep’ makes deliberate play with the idea of two men in a bed, even though he is only speaking of himself, alone, dreaming of the other. Contrary to twentieth-century critics who do not wish to talk about such topics, intense homosocial relationships do, in Shakespeare, veer towards the topic of sodomy. It may be that the men involved resist sodomy with all the fear and loathing of the critics themselves. But the fact that the topic arises at all tells us a great deal about certain social attitudes. We are not dealing with what homophobic critics like to think of as a prelapsarian age, ‘innocent’ of ‘deviance’. And gay critics are not ‘reading things into’ texts which are so palpably interested in that heavily policed boundary between friendship and sexual love.


While Shakespeare's plays are interesting enough, to varying degrees, as gay literature, nothing in them can compare, quantitively or qualitatively, with the sonnets, either as pure text or as the site of an enduring controversy about sexual meaning. These poems date from the mid-1590s but were printed in 1609. There are 154 of them. They are love poems. According to the order in which they are almost invariably published, the first 126 are addressed to a young man, the rest to a woman, the so-called ‘Dark Lady’. They are either deeply emotional expressions of love or subtle imitations of such expressions. That is to say, they are either private love poems (albeit later put into publication) or flamboyant public exercises in literary expression. They either constitute the greatest of the gay texts in English literature—or they do not. If they were addressed to actual individuals, it should be possible for the curious literary historian to come up with the names of the individuals concerned. And if the young man is named (for the Dark Lady hardly matters), and if it can be proved that he was of a much higher rank than the poet, or that like the playwright he was happily married and had children, then his naming can be used to disprove the scandalous impression that the first 126 poems express same-sex(ual) desire. Hence much of the dreary research which has been done into the identity of the collection's supposed dedicatee, the famous but unnameable ‘Mr. W. H.’, who is possibly, in any case, a misprint for Shakespeare's own initials.

Simon Shepherd has pointed out that people have responded in significantly different ways to the suggestions that, on the one hand, any given character in one of the plays is homosexual and, on the other, that the sonnets to the young man represent homosexual desires. Shepherd writes:

Homosexuality in the plays has only been found in the last few years, and doesn't cause much worry. The Sonnets are different because, instead of showing a fictional world, they apparently depict [their author's] real feelings. It might be expected that a great artist can deal with all manner of unsavoury topics, but can a great artist be homosexual? Especially if that artist is the national poet, who represents all that's best in English writing.16

The debate on the sonnets has been vigorous and committed. Much is at stake. A national poet is at far greater risk of censorious distortion than any merely good writer who happens to work in a national language. In Shakespeare's case, the manhood of Englishness is at stake.

In the ‘literary and psychological essay’ with which he introduces his glossary of Shakespeare's Bawdy (1968), Eric Partridge takes a firm line against homosexual readings of Shakespeare.17 In his very first sentence on the topic he dismisses them all by invoking his own heterosexuality as a guarantee of authority: ‘Like most other heterosexual persons, I believe the charge against Shakespeare; that he was a homosexual; to be, in the legal sense, “trivial”: at worst, “the case is not proven”; at best—and in strict accordance with the so-called evidence, as I see it—it is ludicrous.’ Quite apart from the eccentric punctuation, there is a lot going on here. In the first place, there is a veiled threat to straight and closeted readers, that if they fail to reject gay readings, they will themselves be assumed to be homosexual. Secondly, of course, no reasonable person (which seems to mean, no heterosexual person) could be happy with such a ‘charge’ being laid ‘against’ them. Thirdly, Partridge is eliding gay readings of Shakespeare's sonnets with biographical claims that Shakespeare himself was ‘a homosexual’—though in what follows, he is unable to quote a critic who actually makes this claim. Fourthly, there is a discrepancy between the suggestion that only homosexual readers perform homosexual readings and the idea that such a reader is laying a ‘charge against Shakespeare’ rather than sympathetically identifying with him. Finally, for all his claims to (hetero) objectivity and, in a footnote, to ‘possessing an open mind’, Partridge is speaking in a tone which is itself distinctly unscholarly. Indeed, so intemperate is his approach to the subject of homosexuality that he has relinquished control over the logic of his language: ‘at worst’ and ‘at best’ appear to have been misplaced.

In his second sentence on the subject, Partridge outlines a brief history of homosexual readings: ‘The charge was first brought in 1889 by a homosexual (Oscar Wilde); it was renewed, exactly a decade later, by another [Samuel Butler]; it was again renewed, at a second interval of ten years, by yet a third; and, roughly three decades later still, the subject—if we ignore several unimportant intermediate attempts—was, not very convincingly, reopened.’ Partridge does not go on to name the author of the last case, presumably, because he was alive when Shakespeare's Bawdy was being compiled. However, most painful to Partridge is the fact he has to acknowledge next: that since the First World War ‘the theme has … been touched on by several notable writers whose heterosexuality is not in doubt’. These notables he neither quotes nor even names, for he feels he has a far more persuasive case in denouncing other critics' homosexual partiality. Not that he ever engages with the arguments of Wilde, Butler and so forth. On the contrary, he dismisses them out of hand. In an extraordinary sentence, he argues that ‘To re-examine the “evidence” adduced by the homosexuals … would be a waste of time’ (p. 12). If by any chance anyone should disagree with this approach and want to engage more fully with the debate, Partridge refers people whom he calls ‘my heterosexual readers’ to two firmly hetero biographies of Shakespeare, by Hugh Kingsmill and Hesketh Pearson respectively. He offers no help to his homosexual readers, either because to do so would be another waste of time, or because he knows they will already have scurried off to the library to waste their time consulting the likes of Oscar Wilde and Samuel Butler.

Partridge wastes the next page of his essay asserting that Shakespeare would have ‘subscribed in full to the sentiments expressed’ in Kenneth Walker's The Physiology of Sex (1940). He quotes one such sentiment—‘There, in the unfortunate intersexual whose method of expressing his urge disgusts us, walk ourselves, but for the grace of a more satisfactory complement of hormones’ (p. 13)—in the evident belief that attending to the minutiae of the history of medicine would be yet another waste of time. That Partridge is content to rely on Walker in 1968 says little, either, for his willingness to keep up to date with the debate on sexuality in the twentieth century, let alone that in the seventeenth.

In the case of Shakespeare's sonnets, about which, although they form the centre of his case, he has no ideas of his own, Partridge can only quote Hesketh Pearson: ‘Most of the sonnets can be read as literary exercises’—by which Pearson means that the emotions expressed in the poems are merely conventional, not sincere, and should not be taken at face value as apparently intense and obsessive expressions of passion. Partridge calls this a ‘no nonsense’ approach (p. 14). He then quotes Pearson's opinion that ‘Homosexualists have done their utmost to annex Shakespeare and use him as an advertisement of their own peculiarity. They have quoted Sonnet 20 to prove that he was one of themselves. But Sonnet 20 proves conclusively that he was sexually normal.’ Rather than actually quote Pearson's explanation of how the sonnet does any such thing, and rather than offer his own gloss on it, Partridge simply quotes Sonnet 20 in full, as if fully confident that ‘my heterosexual readers’ will only have to read it to agree. He says nothing further about it, but rushes on to sonnet 144 in a sentence beginning ‘As if that were not enough …’ (p. 15).

I am working with a copy of Shakespeare's Bawdy borrowed from my university library. A student has annotated this section of Partridge's introduction—in pencil, I am glad to say. In the margin next to the claim that Shakespeare would have ‘subscribed to’ the views of Kenneth Walker, the student has written: ‘One reader would be very dissatisfied if anyone touched his hormones.’ At the end of Partridge's essay, the student has added: ‘And if Shakespeare had been a homosexual, you my poor perverted & ignorant man, would never have had the opportunity of writing this silly little article because you would have written him off as an “unfortunate intersexual”.’ I mention these annotations because they strike me as being no less interesting than the essay itself. The student's anger is just as worthy of serious consideration as Partridge's. Neither is speaking from an objective position, but only Partridge is pretending to do so. For me, they symbolise opposite sides of a more general debate about gay culture and gay studies.

Of course, what Eric Partridge says about gay critics is correct: we represent, as it were, a vested interest, and the readings we perform are shaped accordingly. It was, indeed, homosexual readers who resisted the anti-homosexual tendency to read the sonnets as a mere fashionable exercise, and who read them instead as passionate love poems.18 It has to be said that, as literature, the sonnets were all the better for it. Neither the various identifications of ‘Mr. W. H.’ (William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke? Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton? Willy Hewes? A misprint?) nor speculation on the poet's own sexual identity or habits has any substantive effect on the sonnets' availability to gay readers and openness to gay readings; and only the most obdurate, even desperate, anti-homosexual reading strategies will allow the sonnets to be read as a formal exercise by a red-bloodedly heterosexual writer. It is the latter reading which is the more perverse.

Another version of the dismissal of gay readings of the sonnets occurs in a book by Alfred Harbage. It is briefer than Partridge's, but no less firmly opposed. Harbage mentions that the issue of ‘strange love’ (he uses a phrase which is Elizabethan, but which is not the only Elizabethan phrase available) ‘was at last brought into the open by Oscar Wilde and others who had a personal interest in establishing its presence’. Personal interest is, presumably, to be contrasted with the impersonal objectivity of the heterosexual. Harbage adds:

The consequence is that it is now impossible to say anything right about the emotional content of the sonnets. Homosexuals are inclined to share Wilde's view, and it would be inhumane to deny them its comfort, but since our humane impulses should be inclusive, we must recognise that endorsing the view will not contribute to the greatest comfort of the greatest number. Attacking the view is an equally dubious tactic. Needless defenses of Shakespeare's heterosexuality can only advertise that it has been questioned, while a notably vigorous defense might seem intended to advertise the speaker's own sexual normality.19

Far be it from me to suggest that such a standard example of homophobic liberalism, with its consistent references to homosexual readers as ‘them’ and everyone else as ‘us’, must have the effect of advertising Alfred Harbage's own ‘sexual normality’. That is not a matter of much interest here. Nor do I have time to debate whether it is really the task of literary criticism to ‘contribute to the greatest comfort of the greatest number’. (We have television and Prozac for that.) Harbage's regret that he can no longer ‘say anything right’ about the sonnets represents, in miniature, the growing unease among certain types of critic when confronted by any subcultural viewpoint that enables the universalising coercion of the mainstream to be challenged. Harbage appears to believe that our whole system of meaning has been demolished by the raising of the question of homosexuality in the same breath as the answer of Shakespeare.

The bottom line is always the sexual orientation of the so-called Bard. As Simon Shepherd suggested, it is not the sonnets themselves which are being so resolutely defended against scandalous imputations of sodomitic yearning so much as the reputation of the sonneteer. Indeed, by contrast, the sonnets are mere literature, a relatively trivial matter when national pride is at stake. As a chapter subtitle by Katharine Wilson succinctly and insistently puts it, ‘SHAKESPEARE NOT HOMOSEXUAL’.20 Of course not; but, as Alan Sinfield has said, ‘the early-modern organisation of sex and gender boundaries, simply, was different from ours. And therefore Shakespeare couldn't have been gay. However, that need not stem the panic, because, by the same token, he couldn't have been straight either.’21Ergo, SHAKESPEARE NOT HETEROSEXUAL. Commit it to memory.

The sonnets remain. And they are still ‘love poems’, still spoken by a male persona, and their two addressees are still respectively male and female. I was going to add that nothing can change these basic facts, but some efforts have been made in the past to do precisely that: as in Michelangelo the Younger's 1623 edition of his great-uncle's Rime, certain radical editorial changes could be made to render love poetry safe. John Benson famously published a heterosexualised version of Shakespeare's sonnets in 1640, leaving out altogether Sonnets 19, 56, 75, 76, 96 and 126. In 101 and 108 he changed ‘he’ and ‘him’ to ‘she’ and ‘her’; and in 108 ‘sweet boy’ became ‘sweet love’. In 14 ‘fair friend’ became ‘fair love’—clearly indicating that to Benson (and contrary to many anti-homosexual critics in the twentieth century) the word ‘friend’ was male but was not necessarily chaste. However, tellingly, Sonnet 20 survived intact, apart from an insignificant misprint. Benson was clearly one of those who read Sonnet 20 as an unambiguous disavowal of sexual intent.

Reading the sonnets addressed to the boy and those to the lady as having interconnected meanings, some readers take the logical step of relating the poet's affection for the boy to the misogyny which puts into doubt his affection for the lady. To Leslie Fiedler, ‘The point is that the poet confesses to sleeping with women and considering it filthy, while chastely (but passionately) embracing an idealised male.’22 Joseph Pequigney makes roughly the same point at a later date: ‘Fundamental and pervasive in Shakespeare's two-part sequence is the contrast between “two loves” in two senses of the word: two “loved ones” … the male and the female; and “two types of love,” the homoerotic true love and the heterosexual lust.’23 The latter distinction should not be confused with homosexuality and heterosexuality as we think of them nowadays. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick draws back to take a wider social view, in order to define the distinction between the two loves with greater precision. She writes:

there is not an equal opposition or a choice posited between two such institutions as homosexuality (under whatever name) and heterosexuality. The Sonnets present a male-male love that, like the love of the Greeks, is set firmly within a structure of institutionalised social relations that are carried out via women: marriage, name, family, loyalty to progenitors and to posterity, all depend on the youth's making a particular use of women that is not, in the abstract, seen as opposing, denying, or detracting from his bond with the speaker’.24

The necessary recourse to woman—but not for woman's sake—is virtually the first theme of the whole sequence. In Sonnets 1 to 17 the speaker urges his beloved friend to get married and have children, in order thus to preserve his beauty beyond its mortal span. The mood here is demoralised, partly because the lover is reflecting on the speed at which his loved one's beauty inevitably must fade, but also because the poet has not yet hit upon the glorious fact that the intensity of his own love can do physical reproduction's job far more efficiently: for the poet is a poet, which conventionally means that he can offer the young man a ticket to immortality. It is not until later in the sequence, though, that he will suggest this. For now, heterosexual intercourse looms.

In yet another attempt to establish that the sonnets cannot possibly have any queer connotations, Paul Ramsey has argued that ‘Sonnets 1-17 are not very apt to have been written by an active homosexual to his lover’.25 This appears to be an anachronistic view of the matter. In a world where beloved adolescent boys were simply assumed to be due to graduate to courting women at the moment of entry into manhood proper, the repeated sentiment of these opening poems would be read as routinely recommending, not a change in exclusionary ‘sexual orientation’ but the necessary next step into adulthood. It is an initiatory sentiment, proud of the boy's growth at the same time as it is, perhaps, quietly regretful of it.

Valerie Traub is referring to the move beyond these opening seventeen sonnets—whereby the speaker gives up the idea of children and, instead, privileges the poetic creativity of men above the reproductive creativity of women—when she writes: ‘The logic of the sonnet sequence is, I believe, thoroughly misogynistic, and its homoerotics seem utterly entwined with that misogyny: a debased female reproduction is excised, and its creative powers appropriated, by the male lover-poet who thereby celebrates and immortalises his male beloved.’26

If the sequence as a whole has always been controversial, all of its controversies have centred on a single poem, Sonnet 20. Twentieth-century readers in particular have tended to fight out the sexual issues raised by the whole sequence, mainly, on the scuffed and bloodied arena of number 20. Here the poet refers to the young man he loves as ‘the master mistress of my passion’, endowed with the face and heart of a woman, but without a woman's fickleness. The concluding six lines go as follows:

And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition thee of me defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
          But since she prick'd thee out for women's
          Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure.

The ‘one thing’ for which the poet has no use is, of course, the young man's prick—pricked out by Nature to provide women with the pleasures of penetration. Whether this last point is to be taken ironically or dead-pan is open to question. This is the only sonnet in the whole sequence with only ‘feminine’ line-endings (that is, lines which end on an unstressed, ‘weak’ syllable).27 Thus, in rather a literal sense, the body of the poem enacts a certain sexual flexibility: masculine language in a feminine structure, virility in drag. The boy is girlish—which is to say, he is desired by men—in a manner which reminds us of a literary convention going back at least as far as Homer. The poem certainly does not mean that he is effeminate.

Sonnet 20 has not always caused embarrassment: we have seen that John Benson kept it in the 1640 edition. But it soon began to do so; and the embarrassment has rarely faded since. In 1780 George Steevens said, ‘It is impossible to read this fulsome panegyrick, addressed to a male object, without an equal mixture of disgust and indignation.’ In 1840 D. L. Richardson said, ‘I could heartily wish that Shakespeare had never written it’.28 Samuel Taylor Coleridge felt the need, even in his private marginalia, to defend the whole sequence of the sonnets as Philip of Macedon had defended the Theban Band against ‘those, whose base, fleshly, & most calumnious Fancies had suspected their Love of Desires against Nature’. Coleridge went on:

This pure Love Shakespere appears to have felt—to have been no way ashamed of it—or even to have suspected that others could have suspected it / yet at the same time he knew that so strong a Love would have been made more compleatly a Thing of Permanence & Reality, & have been blessed more by Nature & taken under her more especial protection, if this Object of his Love had been at the same Time a possible Object of Desire / for Nature is not bad only—in this Feeling, he must have written the 20th Sonnet, but its possibility seems never to have entered even his Imagination. It is noticeable, that not even an Allusion to that very worst of all possible Vices (for it is wise to think of the Disposition, as a Vice, not of the absurd & despicable Act, as a crime) not even any allusion to it in all his numerous Plays—whereas Johnson, Beaumont & Fletcher, & Massinger are full of them. O my Son! I pray fervently that thou may'st know inwardly how impossible it was for a Shakespere not to have been in his heart's heart chaste.29

Coleridge's parenthetical distinction between the ‘Disposition’ and the ‘Act’ is interesting in itself. (Like so many other pieces of evidence, it puts paid to crude post-Foucauldian claims that before the invention of homosexuality as a state of being there were only individual homosexual acts.)

More recent critics have made every (often contortionate) effort to read this key sonnet as proving that the speaker has no physical interest in the young man. In his 1963 ‘psychosexual analysis’ of the sonnets, H. M. Young argues that Sonnet 20 ‘simply could not have been written by a homosexual’. He continues, ignoring strong precedents in classical literature: ‘“A woman's face” would add no charm in the eyes of a homosexual, and the one thing which nature so carelessly added would not have been to his purpose nothing. It would, so far from defeating him, have been the one thing absolutely essential.’ Young does concede, however, that Sonnet 20 is fiendishly ambiguous and proves nothing about the poet's sexual orientation: for the whole poem could be an elaborately contrived ‘smoke-screen, a haze expressly contrived to obscure that homosexual feeling which the poet's keen interest in his friend's physical beauty repeatedly suggests’.30 One cannot help adding that, if so, it is an extraordinarily inept piece of smoke-screenmanship. Surely Young believes Shakespeare is a better poet than that.

Hallet Smith is willing to acknowledge the presence of love, but not of sexual desire: ‘The attitude of the poet toward the friend is one of love and admiration, deference and possessiveness, but it is not at all a sexual passion. Sonnet 20 makes quite clear the difference between the platonic love of a man for a man, more often expressed in the sixteenth century than the twentieth, and any kind of homosexual attachment.’31 Paul Ramsey, on the other hand, acknowledges the presence of sexual desire, but not of sexual activity: ‘Shakespeare says that there is a sexual element in his feeling for the young man’ but that ‘the relation was not physically overt’; to argue that it was ‘is to call Shakespeare a liar’. He adds, with an implicit sideswipe at those who perform more explicitly gay readings of the sonnet, ‘It would be pleasant to accept the testimony of Sonnet 20 and consider the matter closed.’32 But unlike Ramsey, the sonnet is obdurately resistant to closure.

Peter Levi says that ‘In the sonnet (20) about [the Earl of] Southampton as a boy-girl or a girl-boy, Shakespeare makes it clear what kind of love he is talking about, but clearer still that this is sublimated, unconsummated love.’ In fact, the sonnet does not refer to the essentialist binaries boy-girl and girl-boy, but rather to a matter of sexual roles. The ‘master mistress’ might be understood as being, in terms of passion, both subject and object—by which I mean both lover and beloved—and, in sexual terms, both active and passive. At no point is sublimation ‘clearer still’ than desire itself. Levi also says, still apropos of the sonnets, that ‘homosexual love was to Elizabethans inevitably chaste’.33 This is actually no truer of Elizabethans than of Reaganites.

Robert Giroux, having referred to number 20 as the sonnet which is ‘most explicitly homosexual’, nevertheless concludes that such sentiments as are expressed in it ‘do not represent the feelings of an active homosexual’ and that, on the contrary, lines 13 and 14 are the poet's way of saying ‘that physical love between him and the young man is out of the question’.34 This compromise, at once acknowledging and dismissing the possibility of a gay reading, creates as many new problems as those it glosses over. In particular, one would want to ask Giroux whether he wishes to engage seriously with the possibility that either a latent or a chaste homosexual desire is operating in the poem. Either way, Giorgio Melchiori calls Sonnet 20 blatantly homosexual (‘schiettamente omosessuale’).35

A number of commentators attempt to distinguish between different types of homosexual desire in order to make some sense of this poem's ambiguity without rendering it down to banal unambiguity. For instance, Martin Seymour-Smith writes: ‘In the unique Sonnet 20 Shakespeare tries to come to terms with what is an extremely complex situation. The poem can be understood only as a declaration, by a person who has previously imagined himself to be heterosexual (and whose experience has been totally heterosexual), that he is experiencing homosexual feelings.’36 Elsewhere, Seymour-Smith extends this point to cover the sequence as a whole, which provides, he says, ‘a poetic insight into what may be described, paradoxically, as a heterosexual's homosexual experience’.37 But this is the critic's own paradox; it would not be comprehensible to anyone whom its key terms post-dated.

I myself once implied that the youth is ‘chiefly admired for the delightful promise of his backside’, and that in Sonnet 20, therefore, ‘Shakespeare is not interested in his boyfriend's penis’.38 Much remains to be made love to. There is, after all, a lot more to a boy than his penis. What about his arse? In this respect, I was suggesting a pederastic sexual relationship on the Greek model, where the man's pleasure was paramount, the boy's virtually unmentionable. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick reminds us that ‘here again as elsewhere in the Sonnets, “nothing” denotes, among other things, female genitals’.39 For the speaker's purposes, then, the boy's arsehole might prove to be ‘nothing’ indeed—a sexual organ lacking in intrinsic status, dedicated solely to the pleasures of its penetrator. By contrast, the boy's penis would be undesirably demanding.

Bruce Smith says that Sonnet 20 represents the moment at which ‘Homosocial desire changes by degrees into homosexual desire.’40 Claude Summers quotes this point and adds: ‘For all the speaker's temporising in the concluding couplet, what is most interesting in the sonnet as a whole is his genuine sense of bewilderment as he attempts to understand his newly awakened passion.’41 In these readings, the poem constitutes a reflexive statement of the poet's coming-out to himself: he is beginning to realise the enormity of the presence of a supernumerary penis in his consciousness. No mere ‘friendship’ poem would need to have raised this topic at all.

Rictor Norton uses his reading of Sonnet 20 to take issue with those critics who claim the sequence is merely conventional:

The sonnet reveals a man who is nearly obsessed by the fact that his lover has a penis. By expressing this awareness on paper, he has violated all the decorum proper to the missives between a faithful friend and his alter ipse. I can find no other example in Renaissance literature, either in England or on the Continent, in which a gentleman even hints at, much less so blatantly, his friend's genital endowment and its relation to his own pleasure. The tacky dismissal of its usefulness to him raises an issue that should otherwise have gone unnoticed.42

That last point is certainly persuasive. Having brought the beloved's penis into the account—and having thereby inadvertently kept it under phallocentric discussion for several centuries—the poet has effectively sexualised the young man, whether lover or friend, and has therefore sexualised the account of the relationship, whether actively physical or not. It has never been wrong for critics to bear the boy's penis in mind.

Once a decision has been made about Sonnet 20, or once the reader has opted for indecision, readings of the other sonnets follow in due order. Effectively, the struggle for ownership of the sonnets is won or lost in the fourteen lines of number 20. The love-or-friendship question resurfaces only occasionally in relation to the chastity or physicality of later poems. There are few surprises to come. So it is the expected critics who point out later moments of sexual ardour. For example, Martin Seymour-Smith writes that ‘It is not easy to explain [Sonnet] 36 [‘Let me confess that we two must be twain …’] by any other hypothesis than the physical one.’ Reading it in accordance with this hypothesis, he infers that ‘Shakespeare acknowledges that the sensual side of himself has won. Therefore they can never meet again.’43 And it is with familiar exasperation that Joseph Pequigney says of Sonnets 52 (‘So am I as the rich, whose blessèd key …’), 87 (‘Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing …’) and 75 (‘So are you to my thoughts as food to life …’) that they ‘can be perceived as chaste only at the cost of their considerable attenuation’.44

Reading the sonnets will always flush out the reader's attitudes to homosexuality. To that extent if no further, this sequence of poems is the key gay text in English literature. (And Sonnet 20 is the key individual poem.) For centuries the sequence has been testing the extent to which canonical English literature will ever be allowed to be ‘gay literature’ at all. The sonnets cannot easily be consigned to oblivion—as has effectively happened to Richard Barnfield's poems—so the queerness has to be sent there instead. Hence the importance of Mr W. H.'s identity. Once he can be proved to be a mere patron, whom Shakespeare is seeking to flatter and thank, then the heat of the passion in the words is proved satisfactorily temperate. Be that as it may, it seems that many critics would agree with D. L. Richardson in wishing these love poems from a man to a boy had never been written at all. Remember what the not-so-foolish Fool says in King Lear (, 19): ‘He's mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse's health, a boy's love or a whore's oath.’ The love of boys will lead to endless trouble. Perhaps only writing about it leads to worse.


  1. Paul Hammond, Love between Men in English Literature (London: Macmillan, 1996), p. 59. See also Joseph A. Porter, ‘Marlowe, Shakespeare, and the Canonization of Heterosexuality’, in Ronald R. Butters, John M. Clum and Michael Moon (eds), Displacing Homophobia: Gay Male Perspectives in Literature and Culture (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 1989), pp. 127-47.

  2. Jonathan Goldberg, Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992), pp. 161, 163.

  3. For an account of Bill Alexander's 1987 production of the Merchant for the Royal Shakespeare Company, see John M. Clum, Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama, revised edn. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), pp. 5-7.

  4. Alan Sinfield, Cultural Politics—Queer Reading (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 4. Needless to say, the Nazi persecution of homosexuals will never come to mind if the history of that persecution has been suppressed.

  5. Seymour Kleinberg, ‘The Merchant of Venice: The Homosexual as Anti-Semite in Nascent Capitalism’, in Stuart Kellogg (ed.), Essays on Gay Literature (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1983), pp. 113-26; p. 113.

  6. Kleinberg, p. 120.

  7. Ibid., p. 124.

  8. Clum, pp. 114-15.

  9. Gregory W. Bredbeck, Sodomy and Interpretation: Marlowe to Milton (Ithaca, New York and London: Cornell Univeristy Press, 1991), pp. 33-4. The notes in question are on pp. 156 and 263 of the Arden edition.

  10. I have seen Troilus and Cressida only twice, both times performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon, but at a distance of twenty years from each other. In 1970 Achilles was famously played by Alan Howard as a somewhat hysterical queen with his hair swept back in a bun. In 1990 he was played by Ciaran Hinds in full leather, all man but also every inch the queen.

  11. Leslie A. Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare (St Albans: Paladin, 1974), pp. 128-9.

  12. Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), p. 157.

  13. Jonathan Dollimore, ‘Shakespeare Understudies: The Sodomite, the Prostitute, the Transvestite and Their Critics’, in Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (eds), Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2nd ed., 1994), pp. 129-52; p. 134. At this point, Dollimore is paraphrasing a longer passage from Bruce R. Smith's Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 61-3.

  14. Jody Greene, ‘“You Must Eat Men”: The Sodomitic Economy of Renaissance Patronage’, GLQ 1, 2 (1994), pp. 163-97; p. 165.

  15. Ibid., pp. 178, 186.

  16. Simon Shepherd, ‘Shakespeare's Private Drawer: Shakespeare and Homosexuality’, in Graham Holderness (ed.), The Shakespeare Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), pp. 96-109; p. 97.

  17. Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy: A Literary and Psychological Essay and a Comprehensive Glossary (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, revised and enlarged edn 1968), pp. 11-12.

  18. But there were major homosexual exceptions: W. H. Auden, for instance. See his introduction to the Signet Classics edition of the Sonnets (New York, 1965).

  19. Alfred Harbage, Shakespeare Without Words, and Other Essays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 75.

  20. Katharine M. Wilson, Shakespeare's Sugared Sonnets (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1974), p. 355.

  21. Alan Sinfield, Cultural Politics—Queer Reading, p. 19.

  22. Fiedler, p. 32.

  23. Joseph Pequigney, Such Is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 186.

  24. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), p. 35.

  25. Paul Ramsey, The Fickle Glass: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets (New York: AMS Press, 1979), p. 32.

  26. Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), p. 143.

  27. Stephen Booth claims that Sonnet 87 also uses feminine rhymes throughout. This is not the case. In Sonnet 87, Booth misreads the ‘-ate’ syllables of ‘estimate’ and ‘determinate’ (lines 2 and 4) as being unstressed—Shakespeare's Sonnets (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), p. 163.

  28. Quoted in E. A. M. Colman, The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare (London: Longman, 1974), p. 163. Colman himself rather sensibly hedges his bets by saying that the addressee of the bulk of the sequence is ‘a male friend who is, in one sense or another, the poet's lover’ (p. 161).

  29. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol. 12: Marginalia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; London: Routledge, 1980), pp. 42-3. The marginal note appears in Coleridge's copy of Robert Anderson's The Works of British Poets (1792-5). It was written at 3.30 a.m. on 2 November 1803 at Greta Hall, Keswick. I am grateful to Tim Fulford for this reference.

  30. H. M. Young, The Sonnets of Shakespeare: A Psycho-Sexual Analysis (1963), p. 11. Quoted in Colman, pp. 163-4.

  31. Hallet Smith's introduction to the Sonnets in G. Blakemore Evans' edition of The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), Vol. II, pp. 232-9. Quoted in Purvis E. Boyette, ‘Shakespeare's Sonnets: Homosexuality and the Critics’, Tulane Studies in English 21 (1974), pp. 35-46; pp. 36-7.

  32. Ramsey, p. 29.

  33. Peter Levi, The Art of Poetry, The Oxford Lectures 1984-1989 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991), pp. 137 and 320, n. 4.

  34. Robert Giroux, The Book Known as Q: A Consideration of Shakespeare's Sonnets (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982), p. 20.

  35. ‘Introduzione’, William Shakespeare, Sonetti (Torino: Einaudi, 1974), p. c).

  36. Martin Seymour-Smith, ‘Shakespeare's Sonnets 1-42: A Psychological Reading’, in Hilton Landry (ed.), New Essays on Shakespeare's Sonnets (New York: AMS Press, 1976), p. 25.

  37. Martin Seymour-Smith (ed.) Shakespeare's Sonnets (London: Heinemann, 1963), p. 34.

  38. Gregory Woods, Articulate Flesh: Male Homoeroticism and Modern Poetry (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987), p. 9.

  39. Sedgwick, pp. 34-5. Martin Green made this point a few years before Sedgwick, but then elaborated on it in an idiosyncratic manner: ‘Shakespeare is saying … that Nature added to his friend one thing which was, for his purpose, a vulva. Obviously, a penis is not like a vulva to the extent that a vulva can receive a penis, but it could for a homosexual be like a vulva to the extent that it acts as a focal point for sexual desire. Thus this nothing added to the friend is in reality for Shakespeare a something’—The Labyrinth of Shakespeare's Sonnets: An Examination of Sexual Elements in Shakespeare's Language (London: Skilton, 1974), pp. 77-8.

  40. Smith, p. 248.

  41. Claude J. Summers, ‘Homosexuality and Renaissance Literature, or the Anxieties of Anachronism’, South Central Review 9 (Spring 1992), pp. 2-23; p. 15.

  42. Rictor Norton, The Homosexual Literary Tradition: An Interpretation (New York: Revisionist Press, 1974), p. 250.

  43. Seymour-Smith (ed.), Shakespeare's Sonnets, p. 130.

  44. Pequigney, p. 49.

Douglas E. Green (essay date 1998)

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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.]


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 informed by modern commentary on the play, including that of such notable feminist critics as Shirley Nelson Garner.4 This essay has its genesis in a particular aspect and effect of that production. In interludes between several scenes, accompanied by music and covered by enormous, beautiful gauze runners on a set solely of black, white, and red, some of the principal actors would join in a variety of pantomime sexual encounters—straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, single-partner, multiple-partner, etc. As the play proceeded, these comparatively random unions rose with the confusions of the lovers and gradually sorted themselves out as the “true lovers” found each other. What I experienced at this production was a metatheatrical illustration of the well-known way in which this and other Shakespearean comedies represent disruptions of social order—ones that at times for twentieth-century viewers and readers seem liberating—only to accommodate that order, usually by reasserting some slightly modified version of it at the end.

For me Ciulei's Dream exposed how “it is our cultures that imagine that when heterosexual relations occur beside homosexual relations, the straight relation must win out—as if a biological destiny were asserting itself.”5 The Guthrie production suggested simultaneously the erotic possibilities (officially) proscribed by the societies of Shakespearean Athens, Elizabethan England, and Reaganite America that the text temporarily brings into play and the naturalized reassertion of those proscriptions. In so doing, Ciulei exposed one likely aspect of Dream's ideological effect in our time, if not in early modern England: the play is designed to foreclose all erotic unions that do not lead to socially sanctioned (i.e., marital) procreation; in a time that had witnessed simultaneously radical feminism and the reassertion of “family values,” gay rights and the cruel effects of mass paranoia about HIV and AIDS, Ciulei's production had exposed how a bit of high humanist culture like A Midsummer Night's Dream, despite its seeming tolerance and expansiveness, contributes to the ideological work of contemporary conservatism. If finally the text curbs the willful exercise of paternal power by Egeus, it still ends with the erasure of Amazons, the paternal sanctioning by Theseus of desired unions to ensure or enhance procreation, and the curbing too of Puckish pleasures in “those things … / That befall prepost'rously” (3.2.120-21).6

What is suppressed or lost in the text's ideological shaping of delight in such comic resolutions is the subject of this essay. Drawing on the work of Valerie Traub, I have assumed what she demonstrates: that “once the hierarchy between homoerotic and heterosexual is dissolved within the critical enterprise, homoerotic significations are everywhere—both in their expansive, inclusive modes, and in their anxious and repressed forms.”7 This essay does not (seek to) re-write A Midsummer Night's Dream as a gay play but rather explores some of its “homoerotic significations”—what I see as moments of “queer”8 disruption and eruption in this Shakespearean comedy.


To assume that gender predicates eroticism is to ignore the contradictions that have historically existed between these two inextricably related yet independent systems. While they are always connected, there is no simple fit between them. Gender 1 sexuality.9

It is not, necessarily, that Shakespeare was a sexual radical; rather, the ordinary currency of his theater and society is sexy for us. Shakespeare may work with distinct force for gay men and lesbians, simply because he didn't think he had to sort out sexuality in modern terms.10

Since Frye and Barber,11 it's no secret that comedies like A Midsummer Night's Dream represent temporary holiday or topsy-turvy worlds through which the discontents of civilization are mediated or negotiated, if not resolved quite so neatly as the conventional marital endings suggest. Indeed a good deal of poststructuralist criticism, especially of the new historicist and feminist varieties, has debated the ideological import of Shakespearean comedies for the construction of gender, particularly in Anglo-American culture. Feminist criticism has been particularly instrumental in exposing the hidden sexist assumptions of structuralist analyses and classical psychoanalytic interpretations. It was not so much that various feminist critical approaches denied the carnival world or topsiturviness of Shakespearean comedy but rather that they revealed the oppressive constructions of gender re-established in the endings and/or exposed the limitations, slippages, and anxieties of the carnival itself in respect to gender differences. The latter were particularly striking, given the all-male mode of early modern English theatrical production, in the case of cross-dressed heroines like Portia, Rosalind, and Viola.12

Though this thumbnail sketch doesn't do justice to the variety and insight of either structuralist or poststructuralist approaches to Shakespearean comedy, it does convey in miniature the character of some major shifts that have occurred in the study of Shakespeare over the last thirty to forty years. But as poststructuralist notions of ideology have generally implied, we cannot think, analyze, or write our way out of the world in which we live and work and into a utopia; there are always “blind spots.”13 In this essay, undoubtedly with its own blind spots that others will unmask, I want to help build onto and into recent poststructuralist—primarily new historicist, cultural materialist, and feminist—critiques of Shakespeare a greater awareness of heterosexism and homophobia, not to reject those poststructuralist approaches but to help open them to the further possibilities for institutional and cultural analysis and change presented by recent queer theories.14 Just as feminist theorists, among others like postcolonial, class, and race theorists, politicize and thereby transform the methods and insights of poststructuralism in general and new historicism in particular, so I believe queer theorists can engage feminist, new historicist, and other theorists in a re-thinking at least of the terms and probably of the aims of their political commitments.15 thus Judith Butler, for instance, believes it now necessary “to muddle the lines between queer theory and feminism”: “The relation between sexual practice and gender is surely not a structurally determined one, but the destabilizing of the heterosexual presumption of that very structuralism still requires a way to think the two in a dynamic relation to one another.”16 My efforts here are necessarily tentative and introductory and do not pretend to be comprehensive, but focusing on A Midsummer Night's Dream—in which “the course of true love never did run smooth” (1.1.134)—allows us to re-examine a prime site of cultural production of gender and sexuality through the new lenses of queer theory.17


Male homoeroticism can be manipulated to reinforce and justify misogyny, or it can offer itself up as the means to deconstruct the binary structures upon which subordination of women depends.18

Bottom's journey in A Midsummer Night's Dream is the queer one; through him we can see the trajectory of queer performance.19

Bottom's famous description of his dream constitutes a striking example of the comic way A Midsummer Night's Dream employs—or rather alludes to—the unthinkable that is sodomy, which Foucault calls “that utterly confused category.”20 To the extent we have it, “Bottom's Dream” (4.1.200-19) recalls but cannot identify the dreamer as the butt (literally, zoologically, anatomically) of, an elaborate dramatic paranomasia. Bottom lacks even the simplest words for any of the potential meanings of his experience—his physical and erotic transformation—though we can fill in his lacunae in a variety of ways: he thought he was “an ass” and/or “consort of the fairy queen”; he thought he had “long ears and an ass's head” and/or “a beautiful woman.” But exactly what kind of ass Bottom is and even that he is one (not least of all for attempting “to expound this dream”) eludes him (4.1.207). What has almost eluded us is the text's allusion to sodomy. And here we may be treading shaky linguistic ground. The OED distinguishes between arse (the rectum) and ass (the beast of burden associated with stupidity) as they were used and pronounced at this time and suggests further that bottom did not refer denotatively to a person's “bum” until the eighteenth century despite the long-standing but problematic conjecture that bum, a well-worn word by the Renaissance though of uncertain origin, is itself a contraction of bottom. One still might argue that “bottom” figuratively suggests the arse and that the association between this Bottom and an ass is enough to encourage this multi-layered visual and aural pun.21

Yet beyond such scatological references and imagery, which are today virtually irrepressible, the well-known synesthetic confusions with which Bottom declares the inexpressibility of his “most rare vision” bespeak the unspeakable even as they obscure it: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was” (4.1.204-205, 211-214). Jonathan Goldberg points out that “among the categorical confusions of the confused category ‘sodomy’ is categorical confusion itself—… a denial of those socially constructed hierarchies that are taken to be natural, that social ordering that is thought to participate in and to replicate the order of being.”22 Certainly, Bottom the Weaver upsets the analogous social and natural orders in his liaison with the fairy queen, which is perhaps even more problematic once it becomes his “dream,” with the hint of transgressive desire and aspiration this speech implies. Rude mechanical that he is, Bottom unwittingly exposes the sodomitical desire and act that, as we shall see, Oberon misrecognizes in relation to the changeling boy and, by extension, the anxiety that Theseus both manifests and suppresses when faced with any desire not subject to his sanction.23

Bottom would offer his dream of an “ass” (in what sense?) to the Duke in the “latter end” of the play-within-the-play or “Peradventure, to make it [the woman's death? the play being put on for his own preferment? the ‘ballet of this dream’ itself? etc.] the more gracious, at her [presumably Thisby's] death” (4.1.214-19). It is no accident that the entire entertainment Bottom and his friends offer represents the final stage of Theseus's winning and wooing the Amazon queen, thereby making her his own.24 Moreover, it is at this moment that the representation of marriage, an institutional “deployment of alliance” that helps secure “homosocial” relations among men through an exchange of women,25 meets the image of theater in a travesty of the cross-dressed productions of Shakespeare's day. As with the much-remarked silence of Hermia and Helena in the latter part of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the all-male production of the rude mechanicals and the social exchange it effects—a mirror, however parodic, of the Shakespearean theatrical enterprise itself—mark a larger elision of women's voices—and hence their power—through (and at the moment of) marriage as well as in the theater. Theseus's male subjects offer a tragedy of Babylonian lovers, in which a woman figures but does not act, in order to promote their own interests; the wedding of the Duke both masks and permits a social and economic transaction between different classes of men. Bottom's option—to sing the “ballet of this dream” at Thisby's death—thus suggests or creates a problematic link between (in this case, displaced) homoeroticism and misogyny, in which unspoken, even misrecognized sodomitical relations foster, solidify, and/or enhance the homosocial priorities of early modern England.26

But who is to say that the social context of the rude mechanicals' performance before the court serves so exclusively established interests among men, albeit of different classes? The Pyramus and Thisby story Bottom and his friends enact is written against the rigid system of alliance that Egeus wanted upheld at the start of Shakespeare's play; like the corrective potion, this theatrical travesty exorcises the specter of impending tragedy for the lovers that the opening scene hinted at. Yet the play-within-the-play does so without neatly corroborating an ideology of romantic love that has never succeeded—we know from our own historical moment—in dislodging patriarchal interests served by the system of alliance, any more than the weddings in A Midsummer Night's Dream threaten the order and hierarchy of the society the play depicts.27 Romantic love, which can be seen as an early step in the “deployment of sexuality” that Foucault describes,28 has its part too in leading the Babylonian lovers to the grave. And thus—at least from our historical vantage point—Bottom and his friends have “critiqued” the ostensibly companionate marriages that Theseus and A Midsummer Night's Dream itself commend to us. But the burlesque elements of the “love” between Flute's Thisby and Bottom's Pyramus, the metatheatricality of a performance in which even the Wall and the Moon are in drag, and the possible difference between our delight in this “poor” performance and the grudging and/or mocking noblesse oblige of the on-stage courtiers—“Beshrew my heart, but I pity the man” (5.1.290)—hint at desires that exceed recuperation to dominant interests. Like Quince, Flute, et al., we are glad to have our “bully Bottom” back (5.2.19): such “working-class” solidarity bespeaks feelings and motivations beyond the ken of Theseus—“If we imagine no worse of them than they of themselves, they may pass for excellent men” (5.1.215-16)—that enter the play via the social back door of Bottom and his friends. Something treasonous, or at least “transgressive,” is released by Bottom's theatrical production, not to mention his encounter with Titania, that apparently for Shakespeare evokes the natural and social confusion associated in early modern England with sodomy even as the text suppresses its recognition as such.29


Marriage is the social institution whose regulatory functions ramify everywhere. Sodomy, as Bray suggests, fully negates the world, law, nature. Hence the unlikelihood that those sexual acts called sodomy, when performed, would be recognized as sodomy, especially if, in other social contexts, they could be called something else, or nothing at all.30

Sinistrari observes that although moralists who treat of “this filthy vice” declare that “real Sodomy is committed between [women],” yet he has seen no one offer a credible explanation “as to how this takes place.”31

What is it that so frightens and/or disgusts Oberon as he surveys the love-making of Titania and her Bottom? The scene enacts a crucial méconnaissance, really a complex series of misrecognitions by Oberon: of his own sodomitical intentions toward the changeling boy, of his own misogynistic fears of female power and desires, of the residence of his honor in Titania and of his resentment of its disposition outside himself, of Titania's “lesbianism” as bestiality and hence as sodomy, of his own desires to be desired (by Titania) and to control desires, of his own sadistic voyeurism, etc. It exposes analogically the justification for Theseus's abduction of the Amazon: what women do when not subject(ed) to men is beyond the pale. Metatheatrically, it may represent (masculine) Elizabethan incomprehension in the face of the queen, who has the power to dispose of herself and to act on her own desires—Elizabeth as sodomite, her imagined transgressiveness, whether seeking a husband or furtively fulfilling carnal desires with men (or women) not her equals.32

The full comic force of the scene derives precisely from the inexpressibility of the “undoings” of this moment where what is inconceivable finds its representation in what is proscribed: thus the scene may constitute from Oberon's voyeuristic position a reenactment of the unthinkable (lesbian) love of Titania for her votaress (mother of the disputed changeling boy), now displaced onto the manifest bestiality of Titania's embrace of an “ass,” whose name—Bottom—may well conjure the anatomical pun, which introduces the (other) “sodomy” that is never mentioned or recognized as such but implied in Oberon's obsession with the changeling boy.33 In this case, what Foucault says of power's masking itself in order to succeed applies as forcefully to the self-delusion of the ruler as it does to the blinding of the ruled: “power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms.”34 Interestingly, the scene's allusion to sodomy marks multiple social frontiers. Among others, it indicates and—from and through Oberon's perspective—castigates, even negates, the possibilities of unrestrained female desires of any sort and their enactment (“Be as thou wast wont to be; / See as thou wast wont to see” [4.1.71-72]); ignores the supposedly impossible aspirations of subordinate classes and their realization, reducing them to “the fierce vexation of a dream” (4.1.69); and misconstrues and/or displaces erotic desires and practices of his own—“And now I have the boy” (4.1.62)—that he does not or cannot recognize as sodomy.

Not surprisingly, this is one of those moments of disorder in which Oberon hauls out another potion, a theatrical deus ex machina, to contain the explosive representations that derive originally from his own intervention in the affairs of those around him: “But first I will release the Fairy Queen” (4.1.70). We might recognize here the tension between the play's expansiveness and its containment: the very system of power relations that enables a Theseus or Oberon to intervene in and arrange the affairs of others leads to situations that belie their attempts to maintain order; the solution to those situations in turn lies with changes in the rulers themselves—a proposition at once seemingly radical in identifying the source of the problem (the rulers' having ruled poorly) and yet hopelessly contained within and supportive of the status quo.

And yet the genie cannot quite be squeezed back into the bottle. As Oberon's agent, Puck represents that slippage between power and its exercise that affords some space, however minimal, for interests, desires, pleasures, and practices other than those consonant with dominant ideology. Thus Oberon scolds Puck: “Of thy misprision must perforce ensue / Some true love turn'd, and not a false turn'd true” (3.2.90-91). Though the OED glosses this usage as “a misunderstanding” or “a mistake,” both the legalistic sense, having to do with “a misdemeanor or failure of duty on the part of a public official,” and the wholly separate substantive meaning of “scorn” or “contempt” are possible and likely operative here. Such Puckish “misprision” embodies what Dollimore calls the “paradoxical perverse,” in which “the most extreme threat to the true form of something comes not so much from its absolute opposite or its direct negation, but in the form of its perversion; somehow the perverse threat is inextricably rooted in the true and the authentic, while being, in spite of (or rather because of) that connection, also the utter contradiction of the true and authentic.”35 Like Bottom, whose imagination is unfathomable and hence, if not threatening, still not ordered as Theseus would have it, Puck signals in the fairy world the possibility of disorder or, put another way, the un- or mis-recognized possibility of preposterous pleasures: “And those things do best please me / That befall prepost'rously” (3.2.120-21). If it is on such misrecognitions, on such blind spots, that the illusions of total order and control—of Oberon and, by extension, of Theseus—are constructed, it is nevertheless through the “perverse dynamic” of Puckish agency that these illusions are exposed.36

Nor is the space in which Titania loved her votaress so easily policed; Oberon seems to have had no more influence on their relations than on Titania's choice of love-object under the spell of the potion. If, as Bray, Goldberg, and others contend, sodomy is a category that expands to signify and contain almost every sort of disruption of natural, social, and political order, then Oberon's exercise of power through Puck bears its hybrid fruit in this scene: Oberon may succeed in degrading Titania, but his voyeurism implicates him in the bestiality he witnesses; he may have revenged himself on Titania for loving her votaress so deeply, but he can do so only by having her re-enact the supposed transgression.37 Moreover, Oberon may fail to recognize this scene as a displacement of his own sodomitical desires for the changeling boy, but the fact that Titania's desiring Bottom effects the exchange that Oberon desires suggests that the fairy king is getting the bottom he desires, the ass he wants: “And now I have the boy, I will undo / This hateful imperfection of her eyes” (4.1.62-63; see also 4.1.57-61). Though the scene represents the moment of the fairy king's decision to end the quarrel with Titania and thereby set nature aright, it confirms sodomy not only as the paradoxically perverse sign of pervasive disruption(s) in nature and thus society but also as an unrecognized constituent of natural and social order.38


Moreover, it was around and on the basis of the deployment of alliance that the deployment of sexuality was constructed.39

Whatever other affective or social ties may be involved in a lesbian relationship—ties that may also exist in other relations between and among women, from friendship to rivalry, political sisterhood to class or racial antagonism, ambivalence to love, and so on—the term lesbian refers to a sexual relation, for better or worse, and however broadly one may wish to define sexual. I use this term in its psychoanalytic acceptation to include centrally—beyond any performed or fantasized sexual act, whatever it may be—the conscious presence of desire in one woman for another. It is that desire, rather than woman identification or even the sexual act itself (which can obviously occur between women for reasons unrelated to desire), that specifies lesbian sexuality.40

There is of course one famous locus of “lesbian” interpretations of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the “double cherry” speech of Helena (3.2.192-219). The passage bespeaks the sort of emotional and physical closeness among women in early modern England and Europe that Lillian Faderman discusses. But the standard recuperation of what looks like a state of Donnean “ecstasy” between two girlfriends is afforded precisely by its location in the past. What we would call lesbianism or at least romantic friendship, which a poet like Katherine Phillips calls simply friendship,41 is attributed to a same-sex loyalty typical of youth or even childhood. The very fact that Helena and Hermia have come to the woods with the men they love and are fighting about and over those men has virtually determined the context in which this speech is understood—the passage from girlhood to womanhood.42 Whatever their current problems with their lovers and each other, most readers and critics, like Barber,43 assume that Helena and Hermia are on the path to maturity—marriage and procreation in Renaissance terms or “compulsory heterosexuality” in ours.44

And herein lies the problem with the text's location of lesbianism in the irretrievable realm of youth; female “confederacy”—to appropriate the term that Helena uses for the presumed alliance of Hermia with Lysander and Demetrius (3.2.192)—is always already to be dispensed with.45 Though Faderman notes that intense female friendships like those of Phillips in the seventeenth century were greatly admired, they were only thus regarded so long as they did not, as certain cases of female cross-dressing did, involve the assumption of male prerogative and status and thus threaten, interfere with, subvert, or replace male homosocial interests in matters like licit procreation.46 Indeed, the idea of two women living together and forming a household in the economic, social, and political senses, if not in the sexual as we understand it, seems to have been virtually unthinkable. It therefore comes as no surprise that the Amazons and the Athenian maidens of A Midsummer Night's Dream are obviously expected to marry and, in any event and less obviously, to die or at least to risk dying: the Amazons through war, the marriage-resisting Athenian maidens literally in execution or figuratively in “barren” chastity (1.1.72), and the married women figuratively in the procreative act (their husbands share this sign of mortality) and actually in childbirth. It is not surprising that prior to the Fairy King and Queen's nuptial blessing against “the blots of Nature's hand” in the “issue” of these “couples three” (5.1.405-10), Puck has already put us “In remembrance of a shroud” even as he presumably sweeps away the specter of death (5.1.378, 389-90). But in this coda, as the play approaches the juncture where theater dissolves into the lives of theater-goers, the care of fairies against the danger of death in childbirth seems indeed “No more yielding than a dream” (5.1.428).

Nevertheless, A Midsummer Night's Dream provides a catalog of ways in which women—really upper-class women in this play—not only comply with but also resist the mandate to marry that is designed to control their productive, particularly procreative activities (the only sex that matters), and to secure through this control the disposition of property. Thus, as is well known, Hermia's resistance to her father's will is ultimately an affair of state that calls forth the full weight of the dominant ideology: “Either to die the death, or to abjure / For ever the society of men” (1.1.65-66). But the credence Hermia gives a highly—almost ridiculously—conventionalized romantic love, “the course” of which, as Lysander states and she concurs, “never did run smooth” (1.1.134), and her naive belief that Lysander must be satisfied with adhering even in the forest to conventions of courtly honor (2.2.35-65) suggest that in throwing off one yoke she has in fact taken up another. For the conventions of romantic love between men and women are situated within other systems (familial, social, economic, political) that deploy, protect, and foster male privilege, including men's insistence on women's fulfilling male sexual desires if the situation permits; following this line, Lysander is prone to leave Hermia because she refuses to satisfy his sexual urges, while Helena can demand that Demetrius act on his male prerogative to “abuse” her.47 Moreover, the play may suggest in Hermia's putting Lysander farther off and in her dream (pace Holland)48 that her own (erotic) desires do not tend toward Lysander: is hers a coy demurral (whether maidenly or coquettish), a fear of (hetero-)sexual intercourse (of Lysander's desire, of her own, of the act itself, of its social proscription, of pregnancy as a possible consequence), or—less obvious then but more probable now49—a sexual disinclination to what we would call the heterosexual imperative?

For gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other “queer” readers and spectators, as well as for feminists (these categories may, of course, overlap) and perhaps others, Hermia's reluctance to sleep with or even next to the man with whom she is eloping bespeaks a lack of trust (well-founded, in light of the supernatural intervention) as well as a lack of desire. We find out that Hermia felt no reluctance about (sexual?) intimacy with her friend Helena. Moreover, a “queer” performance might build on a key sign of the depth of that relationship: her spilling the beans to Helena about her elopement with Lysander could be seen as an attempt to get Helena to stop her. But is it a test of Helena's love (an “out” reading) or just reliance on intimate knowledge that Helena's abject desire to please Demetrius will likely thwart Hermia's own acquiescence in Lysander's plan (a more traditional view of the latency of the women's intimacy)? The point is not that the text encourages these views but that the gaps in characterological motivation the text leaves for completion need not be filled as dominant ideologies then or now would fill them—with, in varying degrees and somewhat different senses, Hermia's naive reliance on female friendship and solidarity in the face of (heterosexual) love.

Flying in the face of dominant ideological probabilities, we might see in Helena's masochistic pursuit of a man who does not love or want her (sexually or maritally) an attempt simultaneously to comply with pervasive social expectations for adult women (their procreative function in the dominant ideology) and to thwart her role in a homosocial system of marital exchange. For feminists in particular, Helena's “spaniel” masochism (2.2.203-10) has been problematic if not downright offensive. But one possible queer reading might suggest that, in a world devoid of the requisite fairy magic, Helena's apparently self-frustrating choice and strategy—a clear case of “Love's mind” lacking “of any judgment taste” (1.1.236)—is most likely to keep her, if not satisfied, at least free from the constraints of marriage as well as from the risk of death for openly resisting or, given the procreative aim of marriage, for submitting. Even Hermia's choice—against her father's will—may similarly be seen as negotiating divers unsavory social demands. Needless to say, these isolated “queer” moments result from reading consciously and conscientiously against the grain of the text; filling its gaps in ways that counter dominant and—in the case of Helena, perhaps some feminist—ideological expectations; intervening, as Sinfield would say, precisely at the points where the text is silent.50

But there are also other scenes, where the text “speaks,” that in present circumstances may take on meanings originally unintended: the “catfight” between Helena and Hermia is notable among these. For one thing, as feminists, we might question why mutual betrayal and physical violence between women is, by convention, funny. Furthermore, I would suggest, the ostensible humor of the scene—one of the most physical up to this point in the play—is complicated by its homoerotic energy. After all, it was originally enacted by two presumably attractive boy-actors who probably disheveled or defaced their costumes and make-up—teasing audiences by foregrounding the tension between the theatrical illusion of female presence and the male bodies that produce the illusion. Though A Midsummer Night's Dream is not a transvestite comedy, it toys with the underpinnings of its theatrical illusion-making and attraction: that there is—for at least some members of some audiences—a homoerotic charge to a scene with two boys pretending to be women fighting seems likely, especially for those accustomed to the metatheatricality of drag.

Interestingly enough, however, this scene is one that the employment of female actors renders problematic in a variety of ways: Most obviously, the increased verisimilitude of the representation of women lends weight in our culture to the text's skepticism about the durability of female friendship as opposed to love (always assumed heterosexual). But less obviously the change in the mode of production converts the probable homoeroticism of the boy-cum-woman catfight, a representation with its own problematics of gender and sexuality, into a scene with some of the potentially pornographic effects of female mud-wrestling. Indeed, many modern productions of this scene not only presume the conventional comic view of violence between women but also rely on a sexual effect akin to the cinematic use of lesbian sex in pornography aimed at men. The implied shallowness of women's friendships, the suggestion that female bodies lack the power to do more than parody masculine combat (which, to be sure, is itself mocked later in the futility of the Lysander-Demetrius chase orchestrated by Puck), and the way in which the women depend on and/or are restrained by the men in the very moment of their confrontation—certainly such misogynistic effects constitute the conventional “joke” implicit in this scene, of which the women are the butt and the male spectators (and originally producers) are the sharers. But these effects cannot be separated from the physicality of the women in modern productions of the scene—of a Hermia being restrained by and a Helena cowering behind the men, of torn dresses that tease audiences with the revelation of the actors' female bodies, in some cases of out-and-out wrestling as part of the stage business.51 How and for whom such scenes are erotic as well as funny in the context of modern production has a good deal to do with how we evaluate their effects: a lesbian theatrical production might or might not play up potential erotic qualities of the scene for its audiences, but in any event the term “pornographic” as a pejorative would undoubtedly not apply to such a version in the way that it might to a Broadway performance aimed mainly at bringing in politically, as well as socially and sexually, moderate to conservative middle- and upper-class suburbanites, tourists, and conventioneers.

Who does the seeing, who does the acting, who does the paying, and why—all these affect the erotics of this scene: feminism has led many of us to question the presumed universality of its humor and the effects of its comic conventions for the representation of gender and women in particular; additionally, queer theory suggests that this questioning can too easily subsume the erotic or sexual under the category of gender or ignore it altogether, even though the scene's erotic potentialities necessarily inform such gender analyses—all too often unconsciously. If queer theories rely on the inflated currency of the Bard in academic (and theatrical) circles, these theories—like the plurality of feminisms—also provide strategies for thwarting the uses to which dominant ideologies would put and constrain the text and for reclaiming the text for other ends, however limited in scope. Like Foucault's characterization of modern homosexual responses to the pathologizing discourse of psychoanalysis, queer literary theory and criticism constitutes a conscious and conscientious “‘reverse’ discourse,” though hardly a monolothic one: “homosexuality began to speak on its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or ‘naturality’ be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified. There is not, on the one side, a discourse of power, and opposite it, another discourse that runs counter to it.”52 If some queer theory risks a facile recuperation of such a classic scene, indeed of so canonical a work as A Midsummer Night's Dream, it also enacts from within the discursive realms of theory/criticism and literature/theater the “re-visioning”—indeed multiple re-visionings—of the literary past that Adrienne Rich calls for.53


I thus put into play the following hypothesis: like all forms of desire, homoerotic desire is implicit within all psyches; whether and how it is given cultural expression, whether and how it is manifested as anxiety, is a matter of culturally contingent signifying practices. What is culturally specific is not the fact or presence of desire towards persons of the same gender, but the meanings that are attached to its expression, and the attendant anxieties generated by its repression.54

Sometimes I go to queer theatre and over-identify. I write myself into the plot. Or, I want to be Bottom. I want to play all the parts: “Let me play Thisby”; “Let me play the lion too.” I want to be in the representation, help produce or perform it, sometimes revise it.55

Anne Barton ends her introduction to the Riverside edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream by invoking Hippolyta's words that the lovers' story, as well as their “minds transfigur'd so together,”

More witnesseth than fancy's images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But howsoever, strange and admirable.


These words support Barton's view that “the play has created its own reality,” one “touching our own,” one beyond the “practicalities” of Theseus's common-sense view of the world.56 As a critique of the former glorification of Theseus by critics like Hunter, Barton's reliance on Hippolyta's words as a corrective to her husband's beautiful but dismissive speech on the powers of the imagination provides a first move in dismantling the play's gender hierarchy, though she does not present it as such.57 Hippolyta's words remind us that the tensions, the chill, of the opening scene have not disappeared entirely; marriage has transformed, perhaps even mitigated, the differences between Theseus and Hippolyta, but not eradicated them. A further problem, one might say contradiction, lies in the fact that Theseus seems better able than she to employ imagination in (mis)construing the good intentions of Bottom and his fellow-actors—albeit as a form of noblesse oblige that appropriates their play to his own ends as a “good” ruler. And these are just two among many “chinks” in the solidity of both the play's comic ending and the “world” it creates. If, as Barton recognizes, this is a play with more than one potential ending, what are the implications of Shakespeare's constructing “a fifth act which seems, in effect, to take place beyond the normal plot-defined boundaries of comedy”?58 Is this generic anomaly related to the slippage in Hippolyta's words, between that constant “something”—a blank variously filled in various places and times—and its strangeness and marvelousness?59 Why is there so much extraneous to the plot in “the latter end” of A Midsummer Night's Dream?

For me one answer lies in the centrality of two figures in act 5: Bottom and Puck. Though both characters are involved in the love and marriage plots, they have functioned in this regard primarily as pawns or agents in the desires of other characters. But in act 5 Bottom's exuberant imagination takes center-stage and cannot be contained by either the noblesse oblige of a Theseus or the mockery of other auditors; though aristocratic privilege is maintained in this scene through the interpretive practices of the elite, the “tedious brief scene” and the “very tragical mirth” of the play-within-the-play (5.1.56-57) nonetheless exceed the constraints of those practices on meaning. Furthermore, the rude mechanicals' reintroduction of tragedy and death into the final act of the play, however laughably executed, does ostensibly exorcise these elements from the play's happy marital resolution, but only at the cost of reminding us that the world is bigger than the play, that plays shape but a small part of experience through dramatic conventions and characters, and that comedy, like other genres, functions like a lens that sharpens the focus here on the social desirability and accommodation of marriage and procreation by filtering out other plots and perspectives. Quince's ill delivery of the Prologue—“All for your delight / We are not here” (5.1.114-15)—underscores the close connection between form and meaning: since “This fellow doth not stand upon points” (5.1.118), the prologue is garbled, unintentionally working against the aims of its speaker, even though both the onstage and the offstage audience can at times perceive his obscured but intended meaning. Quince's performance reveals just how slippery dramatic texts are.

The metatheater of Bottom and his friends—delivered by “many asses” (5.1.154)—reveals a textual “cranny” through which uncontainable meanings are whispered. It should remind us that if we see “sodomy,” “homoeroticism,” “lesbianism,” or “compulsory heterosexuality” in the “aery nothing” (5.1.16) of A Midsummer Night's Dream, whether, how, how much, and why the text bespeaks such concerns—intentionally or unintentionally, in its time or ours, to everyone or just to some—has much to do with the place(s) of this text in the culture of early modern England, with the intersections between this text and the multiple histories of our culture(s), and with our own various relations to the politics of the present moment. Too easily dismissed as merely scatalogical buffoonery, the sodomitical elements surrounding Bottom suggest that sodomy, as a key sign in Renaissance culture of chaos and disorder, could be employed to comic effect, could—or at least can—be deployed against the aesthetic rigidities of comic form and the political ideology of the prevailing order.

And Puck? His reappearance at the end, though it puts us “In remembrance of a shroud,” prepares “this hallowed house” for the entrance and procreative blessing of the fairy king and queen (5.1.378 and 388); hence it is not nearly so interestingly disruptive as his earlier appearances. But the fact that he and his words displace the fairy royals and theirs and the fact that his words bridge the space between actor and audience, calling attention to these theatrical “shadows” and “visions” (5.1.423 and 426), once again recall Puck's problematic function as the all too unreliable and often delightedly mischievous agent of Oberon. On numerous occasions, he exemplifies Dollimore's “paradoxical perverse,” the glitch in Oberon's exercise of power:60 “And so far am I glad it so did sort, / As this their jangling I esteem a sport” (3.2.352-53). Puck's proximity to Oberon, as the (in)effective agent of the latter's will, underscores the limitations of power and its practices—the quirks, the “chinks,” through which its aims can be disrupted, if not countered.

Granted, Puck takes a sometimes voyeuristic, sometimes sadistic pleasure in the folly and pain of others. But unlike Oberon, who also desires the folly and shame/shaming of Titania, Puck's desires are ends in themselves, not displacements of other desires or means of asserting his own prerogatives. His engagement in the love plots—both that of the Athenian lovers and that of Oberon, Titania, the Indian boy, and Bottom—reminds us that one satisfies one's own desires almost inevitably at others' expense. Hardly a model of sensitivity to the feelings of others, Puck's obvious pleasure in mischief is a good deal more honest than Oberon's “pity” (4.1.47) for Titania after having savored her degradation and obtained from her the other object of his desires and designs.

Puck is the energy of desire itself, whatever its content; though at Oberon's service, his is an energy that cannot be fully contained within power's totalizing aims. If Bottom, who would play all the parts, is the model of Miller and Román's engagement with queer theater, Puck is my “queer” hero because his pleasures work against or at least inflect ideological constraints on desire, the very constraints he has been sent to enforce. Puck enjoys “what fools these mortals be” (3.2.115), his mistaken interventions simply adding to the vicissitudes of their fate as mortals in love and mirroring the volatility of human desire itself (3.2.92-93).

Puck is the very possibility of the perverse operating within yet against constraints, of pleasures beyond such constraints. If, as Ciulei's production implied, the text of A Midsummer Night's Dream attempts to exile all desires inconsistent with procreative marriage, Puck's reappearance at the end, especially as speaker of the epilogue, reinscribes the impossibility of such a program by reminding us of the play's potential for theatrical as well as ideological failure. Today we might add that how or whether these “shadows have offended” is closely tied to who is watching and what engages them (5.1.423); thus the text's enforcement of compulsory heterosexuality and procreation might commend the play to the ascendant moralists of the religious right in the U.S. today if the scene between Titania and Bottom did not theatrically signify sexual desires quite beyond fundamentalist cognizance. But such are the scenes of desire that Puck delights in and delights in making. In my view, Puck represents the possibility of queering this play, Shakespeare, the English renaissance canon, and the culture of the theaters and classrooms in which they are daily revived.


  1. All references to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 217-49. The quotation is from act 1, scene 1, line 226; hereafter such passages are cited parenthetically in the text.

  2. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage/Random House, 1990), 48.

  3. Tim Miller and David Román, “‘Preaching to the Converted,’” Theatre Journal 47 (1995): 186.

  4. See Thomas Clayton's polemical review of this production, “Shakespeare at the Guthrie: A Midsummer Night's Dream,Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986): 229-36. Clayton praises Ciulei's Dream as “a major production by any measure and certainly one of the most systematically conceived,” but apparently regrets the vision of Shakespeare's play as “a dark comedy about patriarchal abuses of power in a reading Ciulei said was prescribed by the imperatives of our time” (230).

  5. Alan Sinfield, Cultural Politics—Queer Reading (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), 10.

  6. See, for instance, Shirley Nelson Garner, “A Midsummer Night's Dream: ‘Jack Shall Have Jill; / Nought Shall Go Ill,’” Women's Studies 9 (1981): 47-63. Garner holds the view “that the renewal at the end of the play affirms patriarchal order and hierarchy, insisting that the power of women must be circumscribed, and that it recognizes the tenuousness of heterosexuality,” which needs, therefore, to be enforced (47). I am indebted to Garner's essay throughout, particularly for its feminist analysis of homoerotic elements in the play and of what Adrienne Rich, in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Signs 5 (1980): 631-60, calls “compulsory heterosexuality.” The sodomitical import of “preposterousness” is discussed later in this essay; see Jonathan Goldberg, Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 180-81, on the meaning of “preposterous venus.”

  7. Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (London: Routledge, 1992), 113.

  8. The major pros and cons of this much-contested term are nicely outlined by Teresa de Lauretis in “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities: An Introduction,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3.2 (1991): iii-xviii. See also Sinfield, x-xi.

  9. Traub, Desire, 95.

  10. Sinfield, 19.

  11. See Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, (1957; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 169-71, and C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1959; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 3-15 and 119-62. For a problematizing counter-view of A Midsummer Night's Dream and “festive theory,” see Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 52-70 and 170-73.

  12. The question of the boy-player has been central to recent discussions of these issues: see, for example, Phyllis Rackin, “Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage,” PMLA 102 (1987): 29-41; Jean Howard, “Crossdressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 418-40, who provides a good summary of the scholarship on the issue; and Valery Traub, Desire, 117-44 and 171-75, who provides what might be called a ‘queer’ intervention in the feminist discussion. For bibliographies of feminist criticism on Shakespeare and his contemporaries, see Dorothea Kehler's “A Selective Bibliography of Feminist and Feminist-Related Shakespeare Criticism, 1979-88” and Susan Baker and Lorena L. Stookey's “Renaissance Drama: A Bibliography for Feminists,” in In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, eds. Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker (Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1991), 261-301 and 302-24.

  13. See, for instance, Jane Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 56-61, who deconstructs Irigaray's own “blind spot” in the French feminist's critique of Freud.

  14. Though often lumped together, Sinfield identifies one of the key distinctions between new historicism and cultural materialism as the former's Althusserian “preoccupation with … the ‘entrapment model’ of ideology” (24). Most of the critics cited throughout this essay are themselves feminists, cultural materialists, and/or (new) historicists who have incorporated and/or developed queer theories or perspectives in their work; in addition to those cited elsewhere, I owe a general debt to the following authors and works: John Boswell, “Revolutions, Universals, and Sexual Categories,” in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, eds. Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr. (New York: NAL/Penguin, 1989), 17-36 and 478-81; Judith C. Brown, “Lesbian Sexuality in Medieval and Early Modern Europe,” in Hidden from History, 67-75 and 495-500; James M. Saslow, “Homosexuality in the Renaissance: Behavior, Identity, and Artistic Expression,” in Hidden from History, 90-105 and 503-506; Stephen Orgel, “Nobody's Perfect: Or Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Women?” Displacing Homophobia, eds. Ronald R. Butters, John M. Clum, and Michael Moon (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1989); Joseph Pequigney, Such Is My Love (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985); Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carole S. Vance (Boston: Routledge, 1984), 267-319; Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); Bruce R. Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); and Bonnie Zimmerman, “Perverse Reading: The Lesbian Appropriation of Literature,” in Sexual Practice/Textual Theory: Lesbian Cultural Criticism, eds. Susan J. Wolfe and Julia Penelope (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993), 135-49.

  15. The ongoing and salutary, if still somewhat limited, effects of the debates and critiques within feminism about race and class have, I believe, also enabled the intervention and incorporation of queer theories into institutionalized critical practice—for example, in Jonathan Dollimore's call for the interplay of theory and history (Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault [Oxford: Clarendon, 1991], 24-25) and in Diana Fuss's analysis of the debate over essentialism/anti-essentialism, especially within gay and lesbian studies themselves (Essentially Speaking [New York: Routledge, 1989], 97-112 and 127-29). In Shakespeare studies the intervention of queer theory was evident in a recent seminar on “Problematic Alliances: Feminism and Queer Theory in Early Modern Studies,” organized and conducted by Jean Howard and Nicholas Radel, at the 1995 meeting of The Shakespeare Association of America in Chicago.

  16. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter (New York: Routledge, 1993), 239.

  17. Whatever the shortcomings of my own eclectic application of queer theory, my conviction about its significance owes much to my former student, Linda Parriott, whose undergraduate essay on A Midsummer Night's Dream and Othello first brought home to me the function and value of a lesbian criticism (“Understanding the Fury: Subtexts of Female Homoeroticism in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Othello” [unpublished honors thesis, Augsburg College, 1993]). The play's famous line, cited here, about the bumpy “course of true love” is itself a prime site for queer re-examination, to which Valerie Traub provides a key in her brief discussion of nature's “bias” in Twelfth Night (Desire, 137-38). Though her critique does not refer directly to Stephen Greenblatt's analysis of this term from bowls, which reveals nature as “an unbalancing act” or “swerving” (see Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988], 68), Traub's contention that the desires of both Sebastian and his boy-sister “obliterate the distinction between homoerotic and heterosexual—at least until the institution of marriage comes into (the) play” (Desire, 138)—implicitly throws into question Greenblatt's use of “bias” to describe the twist toward heterosexual object-choice as “something off-center … implanted in nature … that deflects men and women from their ostensible desires and toward the pairings for which they are destined” (Greenblatt, 68). There is in other words a presumption that the (heterosexual) object to which the lover swerves is somehow more natural than the homoerotic course or “swerving” that has led there. To be sure, the impending marital ending of this comedy ostensibly sorts out sanctioned from unsanctioned desires, but it cannot quite dispose of the homoerotic trajectories that have led to it—Antonio remains on stage and Viola is still Cesario (see Douglas E. Green, “Shakespeare's Violation: ‘One Face, One Voice, One Habit, and Two Persons,’” in Reconsidering the Renaissance: Papers from the 1987 CEMERS Conference on the Renaissance, ed. Mario di Cesare [Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies/SUNY Press, 1992], 336-38, especially nn. 32 and 34).

  18. Traub, Desire, 142-43.

  19. Miller and Román, 186.

  20. Foucault, 101.

  21. In contrast to the OED, Eric Patridge suggests that arse and ass are interchangeable, that the former reflects the pronunciation of the latter (Shakespeare's Bawdy, 3rd ed. [New York: Routledge, 1968], 59). Also, Puck's reference to the “bum” of the “wisest aunt,” who has mistaken the hobgoblin for a “three-foot stool” and thus “down topples,” supports the connection between bum and bottom (2.1.51-54).

  22. Goldberg, Sodometries, 122.

  23. Goldberg, citing Jonathan Crewe, makes explicit the sexual implications of Oberon's desire for the boy (Sodometries, 275, n. 8). James L. Calderwood discusses the analogy between the Theseus-Hippolyta sub-plot as anamorphically re-created and played out in the Oberon-Titania plot (“A Midsummer Night's Dream: Anamorphism and Theseus's Dream,” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 [1991]: 409-30). See Elizabeth Pittenger, “‘To Serve the Queere’: Nicholas Udall, Master of Revels,” in Queering the Renaissance, ed. Jonathan Goldberg, Queering the Renaissance (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), 162-89, on “misrecognition” in regard to the problem of historical and theoretical readings of the text as evidence of “real sexual identity” and/or “real sexual practice” (168).

  24. See Simon Shepherd on the contrasting images of the “warrior woman,” who represents an ideal of active womanhood, and of the Elizabethan “Amazon,” who is seen as lustful, disobedient, brutal (Amazons and Warrior Women [New York: St. Martin's, 1981], 5-17). Though his focus here is on Spenser, Shepherd's analysis suggests some of the tensions surrounding Hippolyta and her relationship with Theseus.

  25. On the “deployment of alliance,” see Foucault 106-11; on the term “homosocial,” see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 1-5.

  26. For the possible mechanisms behind such misrecognitions, see chapter 3 of Alan Bray's Homosexuality in Renaissance England, 2nd ed. (London: Gay Men's Press, 1982), 58-80. In his essay on “Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England,” History Workshop 29 (1990): 1-19, Bray discusses the ways in which the signs of desirable male friendship could be (con)fused with “the profoundly disturbing image of the sodomite” and the fearful chaos the latter represented and evoked (11). Aspiring to power and/or wealth beyond one's status or class was one of several contexts in which such confusion or deliberate accusation was likely to arise; indeed changes in the relations between masters and servingmen, which had clearly come under the notion of friendship so long as servingmen were also gentlemen, were subject to more suspicion once the retainers were not themselves “gentle” (10-15). Bottom's “dreams,” in this light, constitute a rather burlesque version of suspect preferment. As Gregory W. Bredbeck points out in his discussion of Ulysses' construction of Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida: “sodomy and related areas of homoerotic meaning, then, do not just delineate the division between high and low—do not just make the stuff of satire; rather, they also demarcate the point at which high and low meet and may be traversed” (Sodomy and Interpretation: Marlowe to Milton [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991], 47). On the problematic coincidence of homoeroticism and misogyny, especially in the sonnets, Traub emphasizes that exclusively homoerotic bonds could signal “anxiety about reproduction” (Desire, 138-43); in this light, Theseus's marriage to the Amazon queen represents a misogynistic normalization of her former autonomy. Likewise, Thisby's death suggests, among other possibilities, subtextual come-uppance for disobedience to parental will, under the guise of the tragic thwarting of true love. But it is in the “Bottom's Dream” soliloquy, as well as in the rude mechanicals' performance at the nuptial feast, that the homoerotic (Bottom's potentially sodomitical vision) and the misogynistic (the marriage of Hippolyta, which elicits a tragic play, the death of whose heroine is the occasion for a song about this dream-vision) coincide, in this case as the possible means of Bottom's elevation.

  27. This section depends heavily on Foucault's formulation of “a multiplicity of points of resistance” within “power relationships”: “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority to power. Should it be said that one is always ‘inside’ power, there is no ‘escaping’ it, there is no absolute outside where it is concerned, because one is subject to the law in any case? … This would be to misunderstand the strictly relational character of power relationships. Their existence depends on a multiplicity of points of resistance: these play the role of adversary, target, support, or handle in power relations. These points of resistance are present everywhere in the power network. … But this does not mean that they are only a reaction or rebound, forming with respect to the basic domination an underside that is in the end always passive, doomed to perpetual defeat” (Foucault, 95-96). See Sinfield on theoretical positions that counter the stultifying effects of the “entrapment-model of ideology and power,” deriving from Althusser and some readings of Foucault, and that posit a more dynamic relation between dissidence and containment (24-27).

  28. Foucault, 106-13.

  29. It is tempting to posit for Shakespeare—as for his characters Bottom and, even more, Oberon and Theseus—what Goldberg calls a “dehiscence” within early modern (male) subjects around the question of sodomy. Though Goldberg and others have criticized Alan Bray's anachronistic use of the term “homosexuality” (Goldberg, Sodometries, 70-71), Bray describes well this “cleavage” within the subject: “For when one looks at the circumstantial details of how homosexuality was conceived of and how it was expressed in concrete social forms, it becomes obvious how very easy it was in Renaissance England—far more so than today—for a cleavage of this kind to exist, between an individual's behaviour and his awareness of its significance” (Homosexuality in Renaissance England, 68). Dollimore describes “transgressive reinscription” as “the return of the repressed and/or the suppressed and/or the displaced via the proximate” (33).

  30. Goldberg, Sodometries, 19.

  31. Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: William Morrow, 1981), 35-36. See Valerie Traub, “The (In)significance of ‘Lesbian’ Desire in Early Modern England,” in Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage, ed. Susan Zimmerman (New York: Routledge, 1992), 150-69, for a counterargument to the usefulness of the category of sodomy for analysis of female same-sex relations, at least in England, where there were no women tried for sodomy (152). In the same article, Traub also illuminates the recuperation of “lesbian” desires and practices to the model of “heterosexual” intercourse, penetration of a woman by a man. This elision accounts for my sometimes placing the term “lesbian,” among others, within quotation marks or parentheses: given the discourses on female-female relations in early modern England, the term—like homosexual and heterosexual—cannot be used without somehow signaling the historical slippage in its application. In her essay “The Straight Mind,” Monique Wittig illuminates but does not resolve these problems in her analysis of the concept “woman,” which “has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems” (The Straight Mind and Other Essays [Boston: Beacon, 1992], 32).

  32. I am indebted in general here to Goldberg's discussion of Puttenham (Sodometries, 29-61), especially the subsidiary analysis of the Sieve Portrait of Elizabeth (43-47). Goldberg builds on but also raises questions about new historicist views of the anxiety elicited by the queen's sexuality and power (see, for example, Louis Adrian Montrose, “A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Shaping Fantasies of Elizabethan Culture: Gender, Power, Form,” in Rewriting the Renaissance, eds. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986], 65-87 and 329-34, and “‘Shaping Fantasies’: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” in Representing the English Renaissance, ed. Stephen Greenblatt [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988], 31-64). See Gregory W. Bredbeck's discussion of the monarch's “two bodies” and its implications for writing (about) Edward II (50-60), especially the implicit “recognition of a space between power and person that can be narrowed or widened depending on the circumstances” (53); this space has a good deal to do, I think, with the way that through Titania concerns about the English queen's political powers are shifted to the sexual appetites of the temporal woman. Equally significant is James L. Calderwood's discussion of the double meaning of Titania's lines about the moon's “lamenting some enforced chastity” (3.1.198-200), delivered as she prepares to have Bottom hauled off to her bower (Calderwood, 421-22); the phrase, at least in its secondary meaning as compulsory chastity, calls up both the nunnery to which Hermia would be sent and the ostensible condition of the Virgin Queen herself.

  33. As Bray stresses, social and economic context and power determined how sodomitical relationships were both perceived and conducted: “What determined the shared and recurring features of homosexual relationships [in Renaissance England] was the prevailing distribution of power, economic power and social power, not the fact of homosexuality itself” (Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England, 56). Traub sees a “maternal” bond between Titania and her devotee through the boy (“[In]significance,” 158-59), but I would suggest that the embrace of Titania and Bottom-the-ass is a “male” metaphor for female-female relations, exchanges, and bonds. If so, was the substitution of this human ass for another woman somehow a less threatening displacement (for Shakespeare) or a sadistic, misogynistic one—a sign of confusion in the face of “lesbian” sexuality or one of anxiety? Still, I agree with Traub about Oberon's feelings of superfluousness in the face of relations that simply do not require him (“[In]significance,” 159). To the extent that one does see tensions between an image of Oberon and Titania as squabbling over an adoptive son and those of the boy as embodiment of intersecting sexual relations (Titania-[votaress], Titania-boy, Oberon-boy), one might speculate also on incest as a key site of the contradiction between the family as a “deployment of alliance” and as “a hotbed of constant sexual incitement” (Foucault, 108-109) and what that might do, if not to likely Renaissance views of the dispute over the boy, then at least to some of ours: it might suggest, among other things, incest as a sign of “perverse” desire that cannot otherwise be represented.

  34. Foucault, 86.

  35. Dollimore, 121.

  36. According to Dollimore, “the perverse dynamic signifies the potential of those [perverse] paradoxes to destabilize, to provoke discoherence” (121).

  37. Calderwood offers a good summary on the debate as to whether or not Titania or Bottom “did it” (419-25). He argues that the relationship is one of “degrading but unconsummated desire” (422). But I am assuming the text implies that, at least off-stage, something was done; at any rate, for twentieth-century interpreters, a non-sexual encounter between Bottom and Titania is almost as inconceivable as a sexual one was for the nineteenth century (see, for instance, Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary [New York: Norton, 1966], 223-34). What kind of sexual act seems to me the (im)pertinent question, since for the Renaissance audience that would determine the magnitude of erotic transgression and shame the scene implies. Given the complex intertwining of gender and sexual roles in our own culture(s), the same question would have some bearing on our own categorization of the scene—as erotic, transgressive, degrading, bestial, (displaced) heterosexual, displaced homosexual, etc. One other interesting point that comes up in Calderwood's summary is the association of asses with compliant wives (419, n. 24): does Bottom then represent the wife Oberon wants, the wife Titania should be, or the wife she wants?

  38. See Dollimore on the construction of “nature” and the complex interrelations between “nature” and its perversion (108-13). On matters related to “bestiality” in this and subsequent sections, see Bruce Thomas Boehrer's “Bestial Buggery in A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in The Production of English Renaissance Culture, eds. David Lee Miller, Sharon O'Dair, and Harold Weber (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 123-50, an excellent article which appeared as I was completing this essay. A new historicist, Boehrer discusses the English Renaissance “rhetoric of bestiality” (132) and the manifestations of this discourse in Shakespeare's Dream. Though his focus is strictly on “bestial buggery” and its representation, Boehrer makes some of the same points I am making here about the proximity of order and perversion and even the ironic dependence of the former on the latter. Interestingly, much as I do here and in the last section of this essay, Boehrer sees Puck as central to the play's ideological contradictions surrounding the ‘perverse’ (145-47).

  39. Foucault, 107.

  40. Teresa de Lauretis, The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 284.

  41. See Faderman, 65-73, on the emotional and physical bonds between women in early modern England, which includes her discussion of Phillips.

  42. Traub rejects this infantilizing view of same-sex desires and friendships among women (“[In]significance,” 157-59).

  43. Barber, 129-30.

  44. Rich, passim.

  45. Traub, “(In)significance,” 158.

  46. Faderman, 67-72 and 47-54; Traub, “(In)significance,” 163-65.

  47. The sense that romantic love and even companionate marriage are in practice far from perfect is probably clearer and stronger for us, especially in light of modern feminist critiques, than this relative novelty, more common in fiction than in practice, was to a Renaissance audience. But Mary Astell, writing at the end of the seventeenth century, laid out early on some of the problems and pitfalls of those who marry solely for love. See Mary Astell, Selections from Some Reflections upon Marriage, in Vol. 1, Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. M. H. Abrams et al., 6th ed. (New York: Norton, 1993), 1971-75.

  48. Norman N. Holland, “Hermia's Dream,” Representing Shakespeare, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 1-20.

  49. See Julia Creet, “Daughter of the Movement: The Psychodynamics of Lesbian S/M Fantasy,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3.2 (1991): 135-59, on lesbianism as the “unimaginable,” especially within classic psychoanalysis (137).

  50. Sinfield, 36-38.

  51. Of the several professional, academic, and amateur productions I have seen since the early 1970s, most have involved some form of “striptease” as part of the fight between Helena and Hermia. Fewer have involved the intimate violence of wrestling.

  52. Foucault, 101.

  53. See Traub, Desire, 107; she employs the term “re-visioning” as defined by Adrienne Rich, in “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” College English 34.1 (1972): 18-25.

  54. Traub, Desire, 103.

  55. Miller and Román, 186.

  56. Anne Barton, introduction to A Midsummer Night's Dream, in The Riverside Shakespeare, 221 and 219.

  57. See G. K. Hunter, “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” in Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Leonard F. Dean, rev. ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 90-102 (especially 99-102), for a traditional glorification of Theseus and of the relationship between him and Hippolyta. In contrast, Skiles Howard, “Hands, Feet, and Bottoms: Decentering the Cosmic Dance in A Midsummer Night's Dream,Shakespeare Quarterly 44 (1993): 325-42, argues that even the play's deployment of courtly and popular dance conventions does not, as was formerly assumed, “create a timeless image of community, an imaginary unity based either on the cosmic dance or the medieval round” (342), that the tension between high and low forms here destabilizes the play's gender hierarchy, among others.

  58. Barton, 219-21.

  59. See the OED on “admirable.”

  60. Dollimore, 121.

Criticism: Histories

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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 invidiously by an equally transhistorical heterosexuality. Thus, to raise, as I will be doing here, questions around the history of sexuality might have consequences for how one understands the historicity of gender, and might lead, even by way of such unpromising texts as the Henry IV plays, to the prospect of a more fully inflected reading of gendered difference.

The history of sexuality is by no means a field that is so established that one can refer to it in an offhand fashion, however. For my purposes here, since it is his title that I am using, the name of Michel Foucault might be invoked (along with other historians who advocate social constructionist views, among whom Jeffrey Weeks (1981; 1990) might be cited as of particular importance), especially for a set of pronouncements in The History of Sexuality (Foucault 1978) which I take as guiding assumptions: that the regime of heterosexuality is a modern one, that it came into existence at the same time as (if not slightly later than) the identification of a sexual identity formation called homosexuality, and that the early modern period in which Shakespeare wrote did not know such distinctions. Rather, Foucault audaciously argues that sexuality per se is a modern phenomenon (the argument may be familiar by now, but it remains remarkably counter-intuitive to many); while the Renaissance and ages before had managed marriage relations between men and women as a means of conveying property, title, privilege—a host of social relations that Foucault calls alliance in The History of Sexuality—these socio-legal ties are not the site for sexuality if by that term one means a supposed personal core that defines individual desire and structures identity as a consequence of such desires. In the nineteenth century, Foucault argues, a vast sexual science was developed; from its panoply of sexual possibilities (masturbators, zoophiles, sadists, masochists and fetishists of every imaginable variety) emerged the dichotomy in which everyone is presumably straight or gay, and in which object choice alone defines sexuality. (The confusions around these suppositions, and the reasons to be sceptical about them, are a central subject of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's recent and immensely powerful Epistemology of the Closet (1990).)

What Foucault's argument implies in terms of a reading of the Henry IV plays within the history of sexuality is that the absence of women from the central drama of the play—which might, now, be recast as Hal's desire to arrive in his father's place—does not make the plays simply available for a reading of homosexuality in them. Such an alternative reading would be as deeply anachronistic as any that mistakes the management of gender relations in Shakespeare for an account of heterosexuality in the Elizabethan age. Gay readings of Shakespeare have been made, of course, particularly in relation to the sonnets, from Oscar Wilde's Portrait of Mr. W. H. (1889) on; however, the history of criticism on the sonnets (the academic formation being, as it happens, virtually coincident with the history we are considering here) has in large measure been characterized by massive evasions of the erotics of the poems or, more recently, as in Joseph Pequigney's Such Is My Love (1985), by dehistoricized banalizations of them. (Pequigney is to be credited, however, with pointing out that the ways in which the sonnets have been ‘universalized’ has involved treating them as the repository for timeless wisdom about love, the timeless and the universal always turning out to be nothing other than the heterosexual.) In reading male-male relations in the Henry IV plays I will be arguing that the syntax of relations mapped in the sonnets also can be found in the plays, not to argue (as Wilde does in The Portrait of Mr. W. H.) that these texts participate in some tranhistorical homosexuality, but to seek to understand how male-male relations in the plays—relations which are or which could be construed as sexual—are to be read before the modern regimes of sexual identities can be presumed as reference points.

Luckily, powerfully suggestive ways to address such questions have been provided before. Alan Bray's Homosexuality in Renaissance England (1982) and the reading of Shakespeare's sonnets in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (Sedgwick 1985) provide necessary analytic tools for this enterprise. Sedgwick's importation of the social scientists' term homosocial provides literary critics with a crucial lexical item to describe male-male social relations that can, but need not, be sexual. Bray's book is keenly attuned to the fact that its title advances an anachronism that its every page seeks to address. ‘To talk of an individual in this period as being or not being “a homosexual” is an anachronism and ruinously misleading’, Bray writes (Bray 1982: 16); rather, he focuses on terms available in the period, particularly on sodomy as the nearest word in the Renaissance lexicon for what moderns might call homosexuality. In doing so, he agrees with Foucault, who points to sodomy as that which ruins alliance, sodomy thereby comprising a range of sexual practices all bent on frustrating the marital tie and the presumption that marriage exists only to ensure legitimate sexual acts—those leading to procreation. Memorably, Foucault labels sodomy an ‘utterly confused category’ (Foucault 1978: 101), and one of Bray's aims is to show that the term includes a wide range of sexual practices. It would limit and confuse things to assume that the modern homo-hetero distinction gives one much analytic purchase in dealing with a socio-sexual order that found sodomy a term capacious enough to include bestiality, adultery, rape and prostitution, to name only some of the possible kinds of debaucheries that are not organized in terms of the distinction of gendered object choices. (This is not to imply that sodomy occupies an archaic register utterly unavailable to us now (the term and some of its ancient confusions survive into modernity in US law); nor is it to imply that something like an archaeology of the homo-hetero distinction cannot be traced in the Renaissance, a point to which I will be returning.) Even more to the point of a reading of the Henry IV plays—indeed, this is crucial—is Bray's insistence (fully congruent with Foucault's pitting of sodomy against alliance) that these sexual possibilities register only in particular social circumstances: sodomy names a crime, not a behaviour, and sodomites were those as likely to be accused as well of treason, atheism (or Roman Catholicism, virtually the same thing in Renaissance England), sedition and the like. If alliance is part of a social fabric, sodomy destroys it.

As Bray argues in the crucial third chapter of Homosexuality in Renaissance England, because sodomy was demonized it necessarily existed at some distance from actual socio-sexual relations (think of the work the word communists used to do, or that terrorists does). There is every reason to suppose that those accused of being sodomites did what others did as well. For, as Bray suggests, in a world that has not assumed that people make sexual choices on the basis of excluding one gender or the other, it seems likely that members of the same sex will be having sex with each other, and in ways so ordinary as to be virtually unperceived—necessarily unperceived, if the only label for such relations was sodomy and if sodomy was a world-destroying practice. Bray assumes, in fact, that the very structures that assured order and provided conduits for power in the Elizabethan age were the sites for practices that might be called sexual, that hierarchies and social differences were maintained or created by sexual relations. It is, to complicate Bray's point, perhaps more accurate to say that upon these sites something that retrospectively would be called sexuality fastened. In this culture, servants regularly slept together or with their masters, as did pupils with their teachers. Indeed, Bray argues, the hierarchies of public life (which, in effect, almost always means male-male relations of the sort featured in the Henry IV plays) were oiled with such sexual possibilities if not virtually requiring them as part of relationships of patronage; in fact, in a recent essay on ‘Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England’ (Bray 1990), Bray claims that as the social order swerved farther from the social ties summarized under the word friendship (ties that could include patronage relations, diplomatic bargaining, influence trading of all sorts), the acts that constituted evidence for sodomy came to be increasingly indistinguishable from those that maintained the normative ties. Bray argues that changes in the social structure in sixteenth-century England that marked the breakdown of an older social order are the largest context in which this crisis of definition occurred. The ties of friendship were no longer those uniting gentlemen. Thus, whereas Henry VIII had instituted the Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber as his bedfellows, and his companions were nominally aristocratic, by the end of the century, in The Arte of English Poesie (1589), Puttenham could imagine that a social climbing poet might claim such a position too. Henry VIII, he reports in the eighth chapter of the first book of that volume, made Sternhold groom of the Privy Chamber for versifying the Psalms, and what the king did, Puttenham holds up as an example for Queen Elizabeth I.2

It is in such a context that one can see how euphemized it is to speak of the sonnets to the young man as bids for patronage—as Arthur Marotti (1982) does—as if a desire for favours meant only money or position. One can also see that however sexualizable these social relations are—and the language of the sonnets is hardly desexualized—these are not poems about homosexual relations; nor are they about sodomy. The poems are not written with any assumption about exclusive identities, and in that respect it is useful to recall that the first group urges the young man to marry, an injunction that is not seen as an alternative to the young man's relations with the speaker of the poems. Nowhere are the suggestions of sexual relations between men taken to constitute the antisocial behaviour of the sodomite. If anything like sodomy does appear in the sonnets, it is in relation to the so-called dark lady of the final poems, a woman with whom promiscuous, non-marital sex occurs; this is seen as debauched and transgressive sex, not least because it threatens to destroy the relation between the sonneteer and his beloved young man. That conflict, seen in these terms, is not one between homo- and heterosexuality.

Sedgwick's reading of the sonnets, which seeks to vacate the modern lexicon of homo-hetero difference to describe far more labile desires that cannot be captured by those labels, begins to offer tools for further differentiating and relating male-male and male-female sexual relations. Like Bray, she sees that male-male sexual relations need not be read as outside the normative systems that promote male interests at the expense of women (the homosocial order can be the patriarchal one and can seek to erase women, allowing them no function beyond serving as conduits for relations between men); tellingly, she argues that as homosexuality becomes more visible and differentiated in the modern period, men who choose other men as sexual partners become subject to annihilative pressures congruent with those placed upon women. Misogyny and homophobia, while hardly reducible to each other, are also inevitably intertangled. But these relations will not be the same in different historical periods, nor is there an easy calculus to map these volatile relations; the history of sexuality provides necessary leverage for any understanding of the historicity of gender and of gender relations.

It is from this cautionary position that I would mention one final frame for reading the Henry IV plays, one way Renaissance critics recently have adduced ‘homosexuality’ in Shakespeare. I have in mind arguments about cross-dressing, where the presence of the boy actor beneath the woman's clothes has been taken to mean that the only sexual desire that exists in Shakespeare is homosexual desire. Despite major differences in their arguments and approaches, for instance, this is a point of agreement between Stephen Greenblatt, especially in the final pages of ‘Fiction and Friction’ (Greenblatt 1988: 66-93) and Lisa Jardine in Still Harping on Daughters (1989). When Jardine conveniently forgets that women formed a considerable portion of the audience for plays, she leaves out something that must complicate the circulation of desire in the theatre (antitheatricalists, in fact, worry more about promiscuous debauch among men and women than anything else). An account like Greenblatt's betrays a complicity between misogyny and male-male desire, since it assumes that male-male desire can only batten on, even as it opposes, male-female desire. In these accounts (and others as well), transvestism is taken to reveal a homosexuality that is claimed really to be a heterosexuality manqué; the assumption made (even by feminist and gay affirmative critics, who should have no interest in making such arguments) is that the only difference upon which desire moves is gender difference, a position ably dismantled in Michael Warner's ‘Homo-Narcissism; or, Heterosexuality’ (in Boone and Cadden 1990: 190-206). Against such claims, one would want to argue that in a culture like Shakespeare's that did not make the homo-hetero distinction, the availability of either gender as a sexual partner cannot be understood through our modern categories (themselves, it hardly needs to be said, suspect). Valuable at a theoretical level would be the point that Marjorie Garber argues in Vested Interests (1992), that the transvestite is a necessary and foundational third term—or third sex—that disrupts the more usual plotting of sexual difference in terms of binaries and dichotomies. (Their bankruptcy is further suggested by the structuring contradiction that treats men and women both as opposites and yet as ‘made for each other’.) Although Garber's third term may be questioned for its own normalizing and stabilizing effects—she allies it, for example, with the Lacanian Symbolic and, thus, implicitly with the law—she nevertheless points to a highly impoverished way of thinking about gender that is a consequence arguably of the simplification that the hetero-homo distinction makes. In the Elizabethan period, it is, I believe, arguable, just for starters, that boys are a different sex—neither men nor women—that there are at least three genders in the period, and a corresponding geometrically increased number of sexualities. These cut across the binarism of gender, but they also are structured by (or violate) other boundaries—of age and status, most notably. It is these crossings that provide much of the excitement in the sonnets, when the older, often abject sonneteer addresses the young man, whose youth may place him in the position of his pupil, but whose money and social status make him the older man's master; make him that unless, of course, the young man is, as Oscar Wilde in The Portrait of Mr. W. H. and others since have sometimes thought, a boy actor, pretending to more than he has—and also possessed of a beauty that seems to feminize him, casting him as the cross-dressed master-mistress; this is a cross-dressing that he seems virtually to embody, though one, as Sedgwick argues, which, however much it makes him a ‘dumb blonde’, also renders him ‘exaggeratedly phallic … He represents the masculine as pure object’ (Sedgwick 1985: 44). From such observations, Sedgwick delivers a sweeping summary that points the path for the enquiry that follows. ‘Gender and genitals we have always with us,’ she writes (perhaps a bit overconfidently, but one has to start somewhere), ‘but “family,” “sexuality,” “masculine,” “feminine,” “power,” “career,” “privacy,” “desire,” the meanings and substance of gender and genitals, are embodied in times and institutions, literature among them’ (Sedgwick 1985: 47).3

The opening scenes of 1 Henry IV locate Hal's career—his desire for the throne—in the context of others' desires for his arrival there. First, we catch the king in a narcoleptic moment, having virtually forgotten his wayward son and recalling him only as he spins out the fantasy of the son he desires—Hotspur. The king's wish—that ‘some night-tripping fairy had exchanged’ (I.i.86) children, so that Hotspur might be his Harry—conditions the plot of replacement brought to a close at Shrewsbury, when Hal steps into the place of this desired alter ego. How fantasmatic this desire is, both on the part of the king and his son—and therefore how much it might exceed the requirements of paternal succession and royal inheritance and bring the homosocial distribution of power between men on to a sexualizable terrain—is suggested by the degree to which the king's wish resonates with another royal plot of desire, the one in A Midsummer Night's Dream; there, Oberon defeats Titania in order to possess the Indian boy, a changeling like the desired son in Henry IV's fantasy; the fairy king desires him as a companion, not as a successor, however, and this begins to suggest that the paternal fantasy of producing mirror children (the imaginary terrain described by Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream as the paternal power of duplication, the ability to figure or disfigure the wax impression of the child4) may be as opposed to the maternal and to procreation within marriage as Oberon is. Such image production also conditions the reproduction of the figure of the fair young man in the sonnets from the moment when the possibility that the young man will marry and reproduce is abandoned.

In the second scene of 1 Henry IV, another voice is heard yearning for Hal's arrival, and it, too, offers a model for the legitimate heir based in a rebellious—and self-duplicating—alter ego. Falstaff, like the king, desires the prince's arrival, perhaps even more insistently, as is suggested by the refrain that punctuates the first words he addresses to Hal in the play: ‘I prithee sweet wag, when thou art king … Marry then sweet wag, when thou art king’ (I.ii.14-15, 22). Falstaff's desire for Hal to be a king of thieves is only a hair's breadth from the king's desire for his son to equal or to replace the rebel Hotspur, for him to legitimize the king's desire by being illegitimate, indeed for Hal to arrive in his father's place by being as illegitimate as his father, a usurper and a rebel himself, once was. Falstaff's longing and its echo of the royal desire baffles the commonplace critical distinction between good and bad fathers in the Henry IV plays, complexly intertwining legitimate and illegitimate desires—paternities and surrogate sonships, heirs and rebels. The territory of desire does not seem safely contained by the homosocial and patriarchal orders.

Not that Falstaff is presented in any direct way as a sexual partner for Hal. It remained for Gus Van Sant, in his cinematic translation of the relation between Hal and Falstaff into modern terms in My Own Private Idaho (1991), to realize these possibilities. There, Falstaff, now called Bob, is the leader of a gang of street kids, many of them hustlers, and including Scott, the mayor's son. This latter-day Hal affirms the supposition of his companion—his Poins, the narcoleptic Mike—that he has had a ‘thing’ with Bob; Bob, he says, loved him. Van Sant's film does not present this unequivocally as a sign of a homosexual relationship; rather, he explores the permeable borders between homo- and heterosexuality, and in ways that are suggestive for reading Shakespeare and the cultural situation in which he writes, one that has yet to invent these supposedly opposing forms of love and desire. While, to follow Bray, in Elizabethan culture sex could maintain male-male hierarchies and function as a site of exchange, in the film the cash nexus that defines prostitution allows for sexual crossings that need not testify to choices of identity. Thus, although Mike is a hustler, he also loves Scott and wants to have sex with him for that reason, while Scott claims that he only sleeps with men for money. Indeed, Scott's use of this claim functions as a site of refusal of homosexual identity even as it allows him to have homosexual sex. In this context, Scott's conversion to ‘normalcy’ is markedly different from Hal's in one respect: it involves the assumption of heterosexuality, acquiring a wife, and renouncing not merely Mike and Bob's company, but also, indeed more importantly, sex with men. It remains like Hal's conversion, however, in one respect: it is a site of betrayal.

No such renunciation, in fact, marks Hal's arrival, and no wife appears at the end of 2 Henry IV. This suggests that the Henry IV plays are far less direct in their depiction of sex and sexuality than Van Sant's film is, in part because the sexual domains that characterize modernity have yet to come into existence, and therefore will not define the transformation or self-realization of the prince. This means that what could be called sexual in the plays will not be represented along axes that correspond to modern definitions. It helps to recall Bray's argument at this point: that sodomy in the period always will be voiced through or alongside other charges, and that the possibility of making sodomy visible depends upon its being attached to a social disruption that cannot be ignored. The king sees ‘riot and dishonour stain’ (I.i.84) his son's face, sees Falstaff as the blot on his character, the mark made where the paternal impression should be. One sign of the ways in which this illegitimate mark gets connected to the paternal impression can be found in Hal's lines spoken at the moment of his arrival into his father's place, at the end of Part 2, for he can see no difference between the dead father and the companion he is about to cast off (Van Sant goes even further, allowing Scott to declare his Falstaff a better and more beloved father even as he rejects him, a declaration that therefore functions to mark Scott's ‘conversion’ to heterosexuality as a self-betrayal motivated by social regulation):

My father is gone wild into his grave,
For in his tomb lie my affections.
And with his spirits sadly I survive
To mock the expectation of the world,
To frustrate prophecies, and to raze out
Rotten opinion, who hath writ me down
After my seeming.

(2 Henry IV, V.ii.122-8)

Harry replaces Harry here (V.ii.49) as he had replaced another Harry at the end of Part 1 (‘Harry to Harry shall, hot horse to horse, / Meet’ (IV.i.123-4)), and the Lord Chief Justice, chosen as father now in place of both the king and Falstaff, is the father only of the newest self-simulation, the artificial paternity that the king first dreamed, the position that Falstaff assumed. Hal is still bent, as he was in his first soliloquy in Part 1, on the mockery of expectation and the falsifications that are coincident with his truth, and this double erasure and the announcement of a new father figure is one more suspect legitimizing gesture. The parallel between this moment of arrival and the defeat of Hotspur at the end of Part 1 is another. All of these suggest that the plays continually negotiate Hal's career in terms of relations between men.

In his first soliloquy in 1 Henry IV, and in the fulfilment of his promise to the king that he will prove himself the king's true son by taking upon himself the form of Hotspur's honour, Hal composes an image of himself in which he is at once both Harrys—Hotspur and his father, legitimate and illegitimate at the same time. Doing so, he makes himself the very simulacrum that the king sees in Act III, scene ii, when he reflects on how much alike they are (144-52). Hal's offer to redeem himself and prove himself the king's true son involves taking the form of Hotspur, the very shape of a royal desire that is all too like Falstaff's illegitimate desire for Hal. (In My Own Private Idaho, one further way in which such complexities are translated comes by having Scott appear for the reconciliation scene with his father dressed in his most outrageous street hustler guise—denim jacket, naked chest, slave collar. When he goes down on his knees and buries his head in his father's lap momentarily it looks as if a blow job is about to occur, thereby recalling the first scene in the film after the opening title sequence, which begins with Mike receiving a blow job and ends with him telling lies about his father.) Indeed, Hal's description of how he will replace Hotspur offers another version of the razing and replacement imaged when dead king and boon companion stand in for and erase one another to produce the final Harry at the end of the pair of plays:

I will redeem all this on Percy's head,
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son,
When I will wear a garment all of blood,
And stain my favours in a bloody mask,
Which, washed away, shall scour my shame with it.

(1 Henry IV, III.ii.132-7)

Hal's promised redemption involves a restaining and scouring that produces not exactly himself but, as he goes on to say, an exchange like the one his father dreamed: ‘I shall make this northern youth exchange / His glorious deeds for my indignities’ (145-6). This shameless deed rewrites Harry's brow as unspotted only by casting the northern youth as the locus of his glory; that the lines also promise to ‘engross’ (148) these deeds further implicates this rewriting in the one that Part 2 brings to a close, when Hal's gross companion is cast off, leaving engrossing Hal once again supposedly unstained.

The rewriting here—the staining and erasing—aims at legitimizing the illegitimate. This is a political project, to be sure, but that in no way guarantees—the opposite, in fact—that it will not be played out in a bodily register. Hal can engross, but unlike his fat companion, his body fails to serve as the register of what he has done. Falstaff's gross body is not Hal's engrossed one, and the ‘base contagious clouds’ (1 Henry IV, I.ii.186), ‘the foul and ugly mists / Of vapours’ (190-1) which figure Falstaff's flatulent body5 suggest a form of anality—sodomy—that Hal's anal economies seek to overcome.

Hal's arrival—easily exposed as calculating, and involving the defeat of Hotspur and, even more insupportably, the casting off of Falstaff—remains, for all that, something readers of the play may be expected to desire. How this is so depends on recognizing the mechanism the play produces to engage such desires, the way that the desire for arrival serves as an endless dissimulation of legitimate and illegitimate desires. In this context it is worth recalling arguments made by William Empson, some fifty years ago, in a few pages in Some Versions of Pastoral that have never received the critical attention that they deserve.6 Empson forthrightly notes the register of desire that I believe must be taken into account. The prince has been cast in the part of the fair young man of the sonnets, he writes, and ‘Harry has no qualities that are obviously not W. H.'s’ (Empson 1950: 108). Falstaff's desire, even what is made of the father's desire, is, in this light, not to be distinguished from the desire of the sonneteer, always ready to take upon himself the faults of the faultless young man.

Henry's soliloquy [at the end of Act I, scene ii] demands from us just the sonnets' mood of bitter complaisance; the young man must still be praised and loved, however he betrays his intimates, because we see him all shining with the virtues of success.

(Empson 1950: 104)

In his soliloquy Hal makes up to the audience by promising to cast off his bad company (by the end of Part 2, as we have seen, his father makes up part of that disreputable crew). As Empson observes, Hal gives one twist further to the dynamics upon which the male-male relations in the sonnets depend: it is the prince, speaking in the position of the young man, who proclaims his own perfection and dumps his faults upon those who love and desire him. Empson concludes: ‘We have the central theme of all the sonnets of apology; the only difference, though it is a big one, is that this man says it about himself’ (1950: 105).

How Hal's self-love and corruption get a saving translation is suggested, for instance, in Falstaff's repeated claims that the prince has corrupted him. For the truth he points to is that no one in these plays is innocent, that predation is endemic, increasingly and overtly so in Part 2. From the first scene in Part 1 in which they are together to the final repudiation, Falstaff stands to be abused. It is often said that we desire Falstaff's resurgence (given in his resurrection at the end of Part 1, half promised in the epilogue to Part 2), but, if so, it is because that is his condition throughout the plays; comebacks are his forte. Falstaff teaches us to see the prince as a sweet wag as well as a thousand ways to prevaricate, to keep believing in the prince as he keeps letting Falstaff down. Somewhere along the line, the abuse of Falstaff becomes the lure of the prince—or, at least, that is what the plays count on, and numerous readers who acclaim the prince's arrival in his father's place attest to this effect; the equation of good and bad fathers at the end of 2 Henry IV is supposed to work to secure our love for Hal. Ideally—ideologically—at least, that is how desire is being channelled to fulfil the play's legitimizing political project. This is more or less what Hal declares in his first soliloquy, positioning the audience to assume the stance of the sonneteer, to love him despite his faults. If this makes us Falstaff, it is the Falstaff of an exchange like this one:

Prince Henry: Sirrah, do I owe you a thousand pound?

Falstaff: A thousand pound, Hal? A million. Thy love is worth a million; thou owest me thy love.

(1 Henry IV, III.iii.130-2)

This declaration of love is protected from being read at face value: Falstaff is once again being shamed, caught out this time lying to the Hostess and defrauding her (Hal can even, for a moment, appear to be the protector of women, a stance given the lie in 2 Henry IV, Act V, scene iv, when the Hostess and Doll Tearsheet are sent off to prison). As Empson says, ‘the more serious Falstaff's expression of love becomes the more comic it is, whether as hopeless or as hypocrisy’ (1950: 109); his love can always look like a form of rapacity. Nevertheless, the complex trajectories of Falstaff's declaration of love cannot fail to remind one of the structure of the sonnets. Indeed, as I remarked earlier, the royal desire for simulation participates in that project too. For, from the moment (at sonnet 17) that the possibility is abandoned that the young man might, through marriage, be the source of an ever fresh supply of duplicate young men, the sonnets seek to propagate the young man through the writing of his perfected image—the image declared perfect despite all the faults and failures revealed. Henry IV never specifies what stains his son's brow; although he characterizes him as a ‘young, wanton and effeminate boy’ in Richard II (V.iii.10), little afterwards would suggest that Hal is spending himself in the company of women (no bawdy houses for him, nor does the king ever think about a marriage for his son). Hal's ‘loose companions’ (V.iii.7) even in Richard II are highway robbers and tavern companions, a lowlife that appears as exclusively male as the public world of court and battlefield. These are the sites of struggle for Hal and in them the plays seem to occupy the terrain of sonnets 18-126, with their production of an image of perfection and the tainted rebounds of that desire—the desire that I have suggested rebounds upon king, rebel, and tavern companion.

That criticism has not followed Empson is thus perfectly understandable, since it would require seeing how its celebrations of Prince Hal might come close to a love only Empson seems to have had no trouble naming. If one follows Empson and historicizes the connection he makes between the prince and the fair young man, one must see that what keeps the play from making more overt the love relation between Hal and his fat companion is the proximity of their relation to sodomy: the terms stain, riot and rebellion suggest as much. The scandal of the play lies in suggesting how close that illegitimate desire might be to the usual workings of male-male relations, patriarchy in the play written, as we have seen, within the register of the sonnets' fantasies of duplicative inscription.7 Hal, we know, is stained with riot, and the king fears he might join the rebels. His blot is embodied in Falstaff, his rebellion in Hotspur: they wear two of the faces of what the period calls sodomy. The very fact that Hal's misdeeds are never specified, and that his riots are allied to Hotspur's rebellion but supposed to be enacted in his relations with Falstaff, places his ‘shame’ on that unspeakable terrain. It is arguably that ‘shame’ that Hal scours when he dispatches Hotspur. Yet the defeat of Hotspur at the end of Part 1 importantly marks Hal's path towards becoming the son the king desires; it even points ahead to the end of Henry V, for it is a Hotspur-like Hal who woos a wife (like Hotspur's, named Kate) in the voice of a plain soldier. Around Hotspur the plays negotiate an image of masculinity that serves to define the boundaries of what is allowable in relationships between men and between men and women. Hotspur, I would argue, serves as the site for the production of a misogyny and an incipient homophobia—an incipient heterosexuality—that serves both purposes.

In this context, it is important to note the purposes that Lady Percy serves in the Henry IV plays. If she appears in Part 1 largely to be abused, and in Part 2 to memorialize her dead husband, she none the less functions between men, in Part 1 thereby legitimizing Hotspur's alliance with the rebel Mortimer by making it a family affair. (In Part 2 she is so much a part of the political atmosphere of the play that her fiction of an ideal Hotspur serves to encourage his father once again to betray the rebel cause.) Under the modern regimes of the supposed exclusiveness of male-male and male-female desire, it would seem as if Hotspur's wife guarantees his heterosexuality. Yet what she guarantees is alliance, and the figure of Hotspur is troubled—in his relations with women and with men—with the spectre of effeminization.

This is explicit in the narrative that Hotspur offers to explain his refusal to behave as a vassal should, why he has not given up his prisoners to the king; in making his excuse, Hotspur fastens on a courtier who arrived on the battlefield speaking ‘holiday and lady terms’ (I.iii.46), talking ‘like a waiting-gentlewoman’ (55), perfumed and taking snuff. Hotspur reports himself ‘pestered with a popinjay’ (50). How threateningly reversible this might be is suggested when Lady Percy calls her husband a paraquito (II.iii.82) when he refuses her embraces in the name of his love for his horse and the masculine camaraderie of the battlefield. This is Hotspur's relation to Kate throughout Part 1; his exactions rebound, however, echoing his father's when Northumberland chastens the ranting Hotspur for what he calls his ‘woman's mood’ (I.iii.236). In that mood Hotspur is as impoverished in his vocabulary as the Welsh woman Hotspur would have his wife echo; he would train a bird—a starling—to parrot nothing more than ‘Mortimer’ (I.iii.223-4); the Welsh woman, Owen Glendower's daughter, can presumably say no more English. What Hotspur's father attempts with his son, Hotspur exacts with his wife in that scene among the rebels in Wales. When she calls him a paraquito she speaks with his father's voice.

These representations of Hotspur serve at least two functions in 1 Henry IV. As the site of a contradiction in the production of ‘proper’ masculinity, Hotspur is, on the one hand, the locus of a normative misogyny defended against women and effeminization (a masculinity linked to that older order of aristocratic arms-bearing, founded in the exchange of women that solidifies ties between men); but, on the other hand, Hotspur also is a rebel; hence, the contradictory nature of the site he occupies, for what he achieves as a normative image is subject to the rebound accorded to him as rebel; thus, rebellion wears the face of femininity and theatricality. Hotspur's masculinity—emblematized by his devotion to his horse—is secured by the supplementary addition of a wife that assures that the all-male rebel world in which he thrives could not be tainted by the effeminacy of a perfumed courtier or of a man like Mortimer who loves his wife too much. But what secures him is also what threatens to make his heroism a sham and his masculinity a performance guarding against what it is always in danger of revealing.

In My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant translates the Welsh scene of 1 Henry IV and the wooing scene at the end of Henry V to Italy,8 and has Scott fall in love with a woman whose native language is not English. Carmela has been taught English by Mike's mother—the figure he seeks and never finds in the movie. This suggests that Scott replaces Mike by way of the mother and the mother tongue. The heterosexual object has been produced for him by the woman responsible for Mike's existence, too. At this juncture in Van Sant's film, Mike is as much Hotspur as he is Poins, and the killing of Hotspur, robbing him of his youth, is here, as it is with Falstaff/Bob, a matter of breaking a heart; in both cases, with Mike and with Bob, this is accomplished by making a heterosexual choice. (The conflation of Bob and Mike is suggested by our first glimpse of Mike in the film, wearing a shirt that has the name Bob on it, a crossing of identities that suggests how Shakespearian Van Sant's film is even when its text is not.) Carmela, like the Welsh woman Hotspur would have his wife be and yet whom he fears will emasculate him as she has Mortimer, further troubles Scott's assumption of heterosexual masculinity. Produced by Mike's mother and as a kind of Mike substitute, she suggests that Scott's assumption of heterosexuality obeys cultural compulsions, not necessarily incompatible desires. (The English in which they communicate is not Carmela's mother tongue.) This is conveyed, too, by the fact that the scene in which Carmela and Scott are shown having sex is shot in the same way as the earlier scene in which Scott and Mike have sex with Hans. By shooting these scenes as a series of stills, Van Sant refuses either of them the teleological narrativity associated with sexual identity as culminating in the ‘mature’ form of heterosexuality. It also suggests that the threeway—for money, supposedly—is another opportunity for Mike and Scott to have sex with each other, Scott having only once agreed to sleep with Mike without money being in question. But money is also in question with Carmela; when she appears with Scott in the funeral scene at the end of the movie, she forms part of his retinue as she had in the restaurant scene in which Scott finally rejects Bob. Carmela functions as an acquisition and as part of Scott's inheritance, a guarantee of his new-found respectability like the three-piece suit he wears; she has cash value. The film thereby suggests that compulsory heterosexuality is a form of self-prostitution for the sake of ‘normalcy’.

In the film Scott is not, as Hal is in Shakespeare's play, at the centre; Mike is, and what is plotted is not his arrival. Rather, this is a road movie whose path is recursive, a journey backwards to a mother who is never found, and forwards to a future that remains indefinite. Although Mike hopes to find his mother working at a hotel aptly named ‘The Family Tree’, the movie relentlessly works against the patriarchal plot; Mike's brother is also his father, and the incest relationship is thus as recursive as his journey on a road that he continually revisits and which has no end. That Mike is a narcoleptic has its Shakespearian resonances, for Van Sant is remembering what Shakespeare forgets, the mother of course, but also Poins, one of those Shakespeare characters who simply disappear; the movie remembers him, prompted, in part, by Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight (1966), to which Van Sant pays continual homage, and in which Hal is positioned repeatedly between Poins and Falstaff; if part of Van Sant's rewriting of Welles involves making explicit homosexual relations—which Welles tends to represent either phobically (for example, he represents Henry IV's desire for Hotspur as son as part of his ‘sick’ behaviour) or in euphemized ways (as free-for-all polymorphous perversity or as filial relationship)—through Mike, Van Sant offers a figure that holds up for scrutiny the lie that men cannot love men—a line Scott delivers—or that heterosexuality and homosexuality are necessarily mutually exclusive identities. Van Sant's ‘Poins’ thus also rewrites Welles's, who is cast as a dark angel and a rival to Falstaff; Welles ‘remembers’ him by having him point, at the end of Chimes, to the casket containing the body of Falstaff and to utter his name with utter indifference to his fate.

In his remembering, Van Sant recasts Mike/Poins as the good angel Scott abandons (another Bob, as the name on his shirt testifies); this rewriting of Welles insists on the homo-erotics that bind Scott and Mike, Hal and Poins/Hotspur. If we return now to the Henry IV plays and their plots of replacement to consider how Harry reproduces Harry—how Hal replaces Hotspur—we might note that the point of crossing is erotic attraction and rivalry. While Hotspur, in his woman's mood—playing out in the sexual sphere what counts as rebellion in the political sphere—suffers no womanish man to compromise his masculinity, it is in the throes of such hypermasculinity that he wishes to meet Harry on the battlefield, Harry to Harry, hot horse to horse (the slight asymmetry in Hotspur's phrase perhaps registers his attempt to maintain his advantage in the relation):

                                                  Come, let me taste my horse,
Who is to bear me like a thunderbolt
Against the bosom of the Prince of Wales.
Harry to Harry shall, hot horse to horse,
Meet and ne'er part till one drop down a corse.

(1 Henry IV, IV.i.120-4)

Hotspur responds here to Vernon's heavily eroticized depiction of Hal, vaulting ‘like feathered Mercury’ (107), his thighs tightly clenching the horse beneath, throned as Hotspur would be on his roan, the male horse he straddles. This is an image of Harry-as-Hotspur fully to be achieved when his rival lies dead at his feet. From Hotspur, Hal seeks a proper masculinity, a sexuality that will permit relations with men not tainted with effeminacy. But, as Empson suggests, some of this supposed achievement is marred immediately when Falstaff wounds the dead Hotspur in his thigh, delivering a counterfeit death blow that suggests that Hal cannot take from Hotspur what he most desires. The thigh wound is a sexual wound, Empson suggests, no doubt with a handbook like Jessie Weston's in mind, and that Falstaff can deliver it suggests what defeating Hotspur entails—and what was being resisted—and where the charge of male-male erotics lies. If in his defeat of Hotspur Hal becomes the Phallus, it is, to quote Judith Butler, to reveal that ‘the Phallus is always already plastic and transferable’ (Butler 1992: 164), which is to say that it is not in any way the natural consequence of having a penis, is no one's (and no one gender's) property, that as a construct it is movable and thereby contestable. How Hotspur's relation with Kate might redound upon Hal is suggested finally when he woos his Kate in Henry V; within the Henry IV plays, in which Hal is never seen involved with women, the moment closest to these occurs in an exchange with Poins in Part 2, the only other scene in the tetralogy in which a marriage is proposed for Hal, with Poins's sister, or so Falstaff claims. Hal's rejection of Nell constitutes a refusal to legitimize his relation with Poins through marriage with his sister: ‘Do you use me thus, Ned? Must I marry your sister?’ (II.ii.105-6)—such is the rebuff Hal delivers to the man he knows down to the peach stockings he wears.

The refusal to legitimize his male companion along the axis of alliance is not the same thing as the supposed differentiation of hetero- and homosexual object choice enacted when Scott chooses Carmela instead of Mike, although it is very likely that the scene between Hal and Poins conditions Van Sant's understanding of the relationship between Scott and Mike. In the Henry IV plays, the regimes of homo- and heterosexuality are only incipient, and more to the point is the remark the Hostess makes about Falstaff in 2 Henry IV, that ‘he will spare neither man, woman, nor child’ (II.i.12-13), that he is ‘a man-queller, and a woman-queller’ (39-40) hence Hal's gift to him of the page-boy who presciently promises to ‘tickle [the Hostess's] catastrophe’ (45-6—but hence, too, Falstaff's relations with Doll and the Hostess). Falstaff's sexual tastes are those possible for any man.9 Yet that these possibilities are not necessarily indifferent, but can be threatening, is suggested both by Hotspur's relation to his wife and the effeminate courtier, or by Hal's negotiation of his relations with men, particularly with Hotspur and with Falstaff. One place this is especially clear is a theatrical scene that Hal imagines in 1 Henry IV, in which his ‘damned brawn shall play Dame Mortimer’ (II.iv.106-7). Dame Mortimer is Hotspur's wife, but also the effeminized Mortimer, and for a moment Hal entertains the possibility that Falstaff might play Dame Mortimer, the woman, the feminized man to Hal's Hotspur. Hal imagines Hotspur and his wife in the same reductive mode that he does in his savage baiting of Francis—the show he does stage while awaiting Falstaff's arrival—all of them reduced to a trim reckoning. The scene participates in complex routings of identification and difference that exceed Hal's economizing, however, and we should note that Falstaff is made into a trial Kate only after Hal has (parrot-like) imitated her voice.

‘O my sweet Harry,’ says she, ‘how many hast thou killed today?’ ‘Give my roan horse a drench,’ says he, and answers, ‘Some fourteen,’ an hour after, ‘a trifle, a trifle.’ I prithee call in Falstaff. I'll play Percy, and that damned drawn shall play Dame Mortimer his wife.


This deflection of cross-gender identification has not been noticed by critics who have all too easily read Falstaff as a woman—on the basis of his ‘gross’ body, his corpulence, a reading first offered by W. H. Auden10 and more recently by Patricia Parker11. Not only would one want to caution against the potential misogyny and homophobia of this connection, one would also want to add that the size of the body is as much an index to class negotiations as it might be to gender and sexuality.12 Here it would be worth mentioning, of course, that the ambivalences around Hotspur as chivalric and effeminate mark a crucial moment in bourgeoisification. Hal's new regime of trim reckonings (the predations of the engrossing arriviste that write themselves as civilized restraint) would cut the body down to size; it is mobilized against decaying aristocratic corpulence—the fat body that will come to be the body of the malnourished poor—and the woman's body. As Empson brilliantly noted, the point at which the eulogies for Falstaff and Hotspur cross comes when Hal summons up the weight of their bodies. Critics who repeat Hal's agendas in Act II, scene iv, as the truth of Falstaff's ‘female’ body—rather than seeing it as a reflex against his own identification as a woman—or who associate Falstaff's loquacity with the female tongue, are like Hotspur in Act III, scene i, policing Kate's language and sexuality. Hal's imagined scenario with Falstaff is no more benign; he recoils from the possibility of crossing gender, and attempts to put Falstaff where he was a moment before. That recoil must be read if we are to interrupt the route from such grossness to femininity that has been understood as a ‘normal’ connection or even as one that psychoanalysis makes available as the truth (infantile Falstaff now seems to be the mother's body).13 It is true that Falstaff claims his womb undoes him, that he compares himself to a sow that has overwhelmed her children; true, too, that Falstaff is the sole adult male in any Shakespeare play to don drag. Feminization, as in Hal's fantasy play with the brawn as Dame Mortimer, may be part of the casting off of the character, the slurring together of an abjected femininity whether male or female, but it also represents the attempt to distinguish male and female as sexual objects. It is just that distinction belied by Falstaff when he fails to know the difference between men and women. Falstaff's ‘femininity’ is not written within the misogynist masculinity of a proto-heterosexuality and homophobia. I do not mean to idealize Falstaff's sexual capacities or to suggest that his relations to women can be shielded from misogyny—he makes both Doll and the Hostess sites of continued demands and repeated frauds. Only to be noted is that unlike Hotspur (or the ‘ideal’ Hal), Falstaff is no supporter of rigidified gender exclusivity. It is the presumed difference between sexualities that Falstaff's body breaches.

Hal first casts Falstaff as Dame Mortimer as part of his attempt to cast him off. When Falstaff arrives, Hal attempts to shame the cowardly liar, the monstrous bedpresser. Falstaff catches Hal out—his truth that he robbed Falstaff makes the difference between lying and truth-telling moot. And to the charge of bedpressing, the fat knight has a devastating response, pointing to skinny Hal's pitiful endowment: ‘you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stock-fish! … you tailor's yard, you sheath, you bow-case, you vile standing tuck’ (II.iv.237-40). His thinness, in these charges, as David Bevington (1987: 190) glosses these lines, carries the accusation of ‘genital emaciation’. Falstaff points to the phallus Hal lacks just as at the end of the play he will mock the one Hal has from Hotspur. The old bedpresser knows where to get the prince.

So much Hal all but testifies to in his first exchange with him. To Falstaff's irrelevant question about the time of day, Hal replies that the time would be of interest to his fat companion only were the ‘blessed sun himself’ to appear like a ‘fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta’ (I.ii.9-10). Hal, we know, thinks he is the blessed sun, and in this line the sun is male; Hal imagines himself as cross-dressed.14 Hal places this imaginary woman between himself and Falstaff, this imaginary locus of self-identification between them. It looks as if the only desire Hal can acknowledge is male-female desire. It looks as if that is how he acknowledges his relation with Falstaff. Yet the lines intimate the kind of sexual pleasure Hal does have, just as they further suggest why Hal's other alter ego, Hotspur, has a wife and protests against feminization. As with the master-mistress of Sonnet 20,15 this initial exchange with Falstaff suggests that the prince can be used elsewhere and otherwise, that if his prick is of no concern (as the sonneteer says of the fair young man in that sonnet), this does not exhaust the sexual possibilities. If this seems too crude a supposition, one can point to the ways in which their status difference, which should place Hal on top, is crossed by the age difference that has made Falstaff Hal's tutor and mentor. These crossings of age and status are the sexual locus for the rebound that Hal attempted in his reduction of Francis to a single parrot-like word (‘Anon, Anon,’ Hal's line too, in his economizing). In Part 2, Hal and Poins appear as Francis, and Falstaff has no trouble recognizing the two serving lads, and this is the last we see of Poins. When Gus Van Sant rewrites the taffeta wench into a hustler in black leather he is not very far, after all, from Shakespeare.

Are Hal and Falstaff bed companions? It is perfectly clear why the plays can never answer that question directly. For while the king could sleep with men, he could not be a sodomite. Hence, in Henry V when one of the king's betrayers turns out also to have been his bedfellow it was their physical intimacy that was supposed to have kept Scroop ever from turning traitor to the king. His crime is not what he did in bed. Although Hal is forever casting off his companions, it is not bedfellows per se that are called into question. There is no reason, therefore, not to suppose that Hal and Falstaff were bedfellows, too. In what situation, after all, does Falstaff ask his first question—‘Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?’ (1 Henry IV, I.ii.1)? If he is just waking up, what is Hal doing? What should be made of the fact that the next time we see Falstaff asleep (at the end of II.iv), Hal is in … his pockets? What is Hal talking about when he charges Falstaff with being an exorbitant ‘bed-presser’ (II.iv.235)?

There is no absolutely definitive way to answer such questions, but not because the plays give evidence for the modern supposition that a line can be drawn between homosocial and homosexual relations. That Hal has a bedfellow in Henry V is publicly announced as the scene opens (II.ii.8); with whom a man sleeps in the climb for power is not private knowledge, nor has sex been cordoned to the area of the private as in the modern fantasmatic.16 We do not know whether Hal sleeps with Falstaff, though, and this points to one way in which the plays police male-male sexual behaviour. For if, on the one hand, it would be unremarkable for men to be sleeping with each other, it would be unspeakable if the wrong men were, if the sex between men was not conducive to maintaining social hierarchies and distinctions. What is at stake comes as close to being made explicit as is possible in that scene in which Hal confronts Scroop as he casts off the treasonous ‘English monsters’ (Henry V, II.ii.85); the monstrosity of the treasonous bedfellow is a way of naming sodomy, and it must be to the point that in the next scene of Henry V Falstaff's death will be described in lines in which the Hostess has pilfered the final page of the Phaedo for her account of how Falstaff's body, like Socrates's, grew colder and colder as she moved her hand up his legs;17 the corrupter of Harry's youth is also the father of philosophy. What Hal's sexual relation with his bedfellows was is all but spelled out when Henry V declares that Scroop knew ‘the very bottom of my soul’ (97), and held the ‘key’ to Hal's treasure, ‘almost might have coin'd me into gold / Would'st thou have practis'd on me for thy use’ (98-9). The description returns us once more to the sonnets—

So am I as the rich whose blessèd key
Can bring him to his sweet up-lockèd treasure,
The which he will not every hour survey,
For blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure.
Therefore are feasts so solemn and so rare,
Since, seldom coming, in the long year set

(sonnet 52, ll.1-6)

—to the very lines that echo Hal's first soliloquy or his father's later ministrations on the economies of royal image production. In Henry V Hal attempts, Hotspur-like, to cast off the revolting male lover who makes the king a queen. One inheritance that critics and readers have from such moments is a resistance to seeing any possibility of male-male sexual relations in Shakespeare plays unless one man is wearing a dress. But what this account of the Henry IV plays might suggest is that, rather than continuing what is by now a zero-sum game of looking at cross-dressing in the comedies as the sole locus of male-male sex in Shakespeare, it is about time to follow the historical paths opened by Foucault and by Bray and the critical paths enunciated by Sedgwick and by Empson. There is no way of knowing in advance where they might lead.

Nor do I mean to suggest that such work has not begun; I would instance Joseph A. Porter's recent book on Mercutio (Porter 1988);18 it, along with Bray's recent essay, suggests that the representation of friendship in Shakespeare (Hamlet and Horatio, Macbeth and Banquo, Brutus and Cassius, and the list goes on) would be one site that needs to be rethought. One might look again at Antonio and Bassanio, and begin to take stock of how Portia's assumption of masculinity might be read as a response to the threat that relation poses rather than as a further instance of the slide from the homosocial into sexual territory (as if only a woman or femininity could guarantee the slide). One would want, in a similar vein, to look again at Sebastian and Antonio in Twelfth Night, and have more to say about the end of the play than Stephen Greenblatt does in Shakespearean Negotiations when he expresses pity for ‘poor Antonio … left out in the cold’, and to contemplate under what guise and at what cost ‘Orsino does in a sense get his Cesario’ (Greenblatt 1988: 93). It is a pleasure to record that such thoughts are now thinkable—I would instance Valerie Traub's ‘Desire and the Difference It Makes’ (in Traub 1992: 91-116), which articulates female desires in Shakespeare plays that cannot be read within the matrices of the compulsory heterosexuality that conditions much feminist Shakespeare criticism, as well as Elizabeth Pittenger's ‘Dispatch Quickly: The Mechanical Reproduction of Pages’ (Pittenger 1991), which allies the unruly woman—Quickly in Merry Wives—with the scandalous mating of males that ends that play.

The Henry IV plays are, undeniably, history plays, but mixed genre plays, too, and the lines of similarity to the comedies are not surprising. But it is not just the histories and comedies that require further investigation. One might want to think about the substitutive logic of a play about lieutenants that lands Cassio in bed with Iago, his leg flung across him; or about Shakespeare's play about the economies of empire and gender, to ponder not only Prospero's relation to the transvestite Ariel, but also his horror at, and inability to punish that conspiratorial pair separated in Twelfth Night but rejoined in The Tempest, Antonio and Sebastian. These are characters Shakespeare could not let go of—Antonio is a byword for the sonneteer. Male-male sexual relations were not an early phase in the playwright's development which he outgrew, nor were such relations the marginal tastes of his culture. Students of Shakespeare—at all levels—have to be reminded continually of ways in which Shakespeare is not our contemporary. In this context, it is important not to enlist him as an unquestioned supporter of the modern regimes—themselves highly imaginary—of hetero- and homosexual difference.


  1. For the purposes at hand, the most notable exception would be Findlay (1989). Findlay reads Hal as the locus of a homophobia inflicted upon the more or less sodomitical Falstaff, an argument which mine seeks to further by marking ways in which the play fails to deliver the exemplary Hal that Findlay's reading assumes. By so doing, I hope to move sodomy from the archaic and marginal position that it occupies in Findlay's essay, and to allow it the space of a recognition that would trouble received readings of the play of various critical stripes.

  2. ‘For the respectes aforesayd in all former ages and in the most civill countreys and commons wealthes, good Poets and Poesie were highly esteemed and much favoured of the greatest Princes … king Henry the 8, her Majesties father, for a few Psalmes of David turned into English meetre by Sternhold, made him groome of his privy chamber & gave him many other good gifts’ (Smith 1904, 2: 16-17).

  3. In ‘Fetishizing Gender: Constructing the Hermaphrodite in Renaissance Europe’ (Epstein and Straub 1991: 80-111), Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass have suggested that the biologistic bias in gender definition (the assumption that genitals are the physical bedrock upon which gender is founded) is questionable not only theoretically, as has often been argued, but also historically; the assumption is, they claim, a modern one and not to be found in Renaissance texts about the body which posit socio-legal definitions of gender as the bedrock of difference.

  4. These patriarchal fantasmatics are traced in Montrose (1983: 70-1). Although Montrose connects the lines that Theseus speaks in I.i.47-51 to the fight over the Indian boy, he is silent about the sexual connection that the child represents; for that point, one can turn to Crewe (1986: 148-51) for a somewhat pathologizing view of Oberon's desire for the boy as, in Crewe's terms, his ‘pathic’. Nevertheless, Crewe sees that the boy is written much as the young man is in the sonnets, and that as changeling he is the very locus for a series of crossings in the play.

  5. Hal's imagery answers his initial accusation that Falstaff is ‘fat-witted with drinking of old sack’ (I.ii.2-3); the connection between ‘vapors’ and flatulence is made over and again in Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair (1614, pub. 1631; in Jonson 1981-2). See especially IV.iv.45-98.

  6. See Empson (1950: 102-9), in the essay on ‘They that have power to hurt’.

  7. These are not unlike the terms of patriarchy described by Luce Irigaray in This Sex Which Is Not One (Irigaray 1985: 192-3). Where this critique parts company with Irigaray is in her supposition that such male-male relations (for example, the pederasty that lurks in father-son relations) mask homosexuality tout court as the secret of homosociality (this is the argument that her nonce word ‘hom[m]osexuality’ conveys), since it leaves no room for the recognition that the policing of homosexuality is complicit with the policing of women, and that there is a world of difference between homosexuality and homophobia. This is a point argued against Irigaray by Craig Owens in ‘Outlaws: Gay Men in Feminism’, in Jardine and Smith (1987: 223-4), which draws upon the exemplary discussions of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick such as the one in the introduction to Sedgwick (1985: 19-20).

  8. I am grateful to Jonathan Brody Kramnick for suggesting to me this crucial overlap.

  9. This is much less true for women given their position under patriarchy and their definitional status acquired through marriage. But it is not entirely untrue, as Valerie Traub begins to suggest in ‘Desire and the Difference It Makes’, in Wayne (1991: 81-114), an essay included in Traub (1992: 91-116).

  10. See W. H. Auden, ‘The Prince's Dog’, in Auden (1948), which does make some valuable connections between the sonnets and the relationship in the play, but which also insists on the fat knight's narcissism, infantilism, feminization and alcoholism.

  11. Patricia Parker (1987: 20) declares Falstaff an ‘obvious Shakespearean “fat lady”’ on the basis of his girth and his tongue; it is difficult to see in whose interest such an identification is made.

  12. Michael Moon and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1990-1) offer a sustained meditation on these questions. For the relationships between body size and social organization in the transition to capitalist social organization—towards the modernity incipient in Shakespeare's plays, see Mennell (1987), especially his discussion on p. 397 of the ways in which an older aristocratic corpulence becomes the body of the poor as the new regimes of civilization preach restraint. Falstaff's body is, in these terms, legible under both the old and new regimes.

  13. This is Valerie Traub's (1989) argument. ‘The homoerotics of the Henriad deserve fuller treatment’, Traub notes, only immediately to figure that sexuality as Hal's masculinity played in relation to Falstaff's femininity (p. 465).

  14. I owe this connection to Jonathan Brody Kramnick.

  15. For example:

    A woman's face, with Nature's own hand painted,
    Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
    A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
    With shifting change, as is false women's fashion; …


    See also Bruce Smith (1991: 248-52) for a reading which stresses the way that the homosocial becomes homosexual at this point.

  16. Fantasmatic since the mechanisms of repression are, as Foucault argued, productive, but fantasmatic, too, because the private is continually policed and regulated to this day, and the sanctioned forms of sexuality that are secured are the ones that ensure the perpetuation of procreative sex within a compulsory heterosexuality. The 1986 US Supreme Court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, denying any constitutional right to private consensual acts of what the Court termed ‘homosexual sodomy’, makes this all too clear.

  17. The man ‘who'd given him the poison, … pinched his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel it, and Socrates said not. After that he felt his shins once more; and moving upwards in this way, he showed us that he was becoming cold and numb’ (Plato 1975: 72). I am aware of the caveat offered by Gary Taylor in his note to the Oxford Henry V, II.iii.22-4, but the resemblance seems too striking to ignore.

  18. Porter (1988) reads Mercutio as a figure for Marlowe, and his relationship with Romeo in counterpoint to Romeo's relationship with Juliet.

This essay includes materials (mainly drawn from a chapter entitled ‘Desiring Hal’) reworked from my Sodometries (Goldberg 1992b). The earliest drafts of this essay profited from the advice and enthusiasm of Michael Moon and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, while its current state would not have been possible without Jonathan Brody Kramnick.


Unless otherise stated, place of publication is London.

Auden, W. H. (1948) The Dyer's Hand. New York.

Bevington, David (1987) Introduction, in David Bevington (ed.), Henry IV, Part 1. Oxford.

Boone, Joseph A. and Cadden, Michael (eds) (1990) Engendering Men: The Question of Male Feminist Criticism. New York.

Bray, Alan (1982) Homosexuality in Renaissance England.

Bray, Alan (1990) Homosexuality and the signs of male friendship in Elizabethan England, History Workshop, 29: 1-19.

Butler, Judith (1992) The lesbian phallus and the morphological imaginary, differences, 4: 133-75.

Crewe, Jonathan (1986) Hidden Designs: The Critical Profession and Renaissance Literature. New York.

Empson, William (1950) Some Versions of Pastoral. (1st edn 1935.)

Epstein, Julia and Straub, Kristina (eds) (1991) Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity. New York.

Findlay, Heather (1989) Renaissance pederasty and pedagogy: The ‘case’ of Shakespeare's Falstaff, Yale Journal of Criticism, 3: 229-38.

Foucault, Michel (1978) The History of Sexuality Vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley. (1st edn 1976.)

Garber, Marjorie (1992) Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York.

Greenblatt, Stephen (1988) Shakespearean Negotiations. Oxford.

Irigaray, Luce (1985) This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca, NY.

Jardine, Alice and Smith, Paul (eds) (1987) Men in Feminism.

Jardine, Lisa (1989) Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. New York (1st edn pub. in Brighton, 1983).

Jonson, Ben (1981-2) The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson, ed. G. A. Wilkes, 4 vols. Oxford.

Marotti, Arthur (1982) ‘Love is not love’: Elizabethan sonnet sequences and the social order, Journal of English Literary History, 49: 396-428.

Mennell, Stephen (1987), On the civilizing of appetite, Theory, Culture and Society, 4: 373-403.

Montrose, Louis Adrian (1983) ‘Shaping fantasies’: Figurations of gender and power in Elizabethan culture, Representations, 2: 61-94.

Moon, Michael and Sedgewick, Eve Kosovsky (1990-91) Divinity: A dossier/a performance piece/a little-understood emotion, Discourse, 13: 12-39.

Parker, Patricia (1987) Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property.

Pequigney, Joseph (1985) Such Is My Love. Chicago.

Pittenger, Elizabeth (1991) Dispatch quickly: The mechanical reproduction of pages, Shakespeare Quarterly, 42: 389-408.

Plato (1975) Phaeto, trans. David Gallop. Oxford.

Porter, Joseph A. (1988) Shakespeare's Mercutio: His History and Drama. Chapel Hill, NC.

Rackin, Phyllis (1990) Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles. Ithaca, NY.

Sedgewick, Eve Kosovsky (1985) Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York.

Sedgewick, Eve Kosovsky (1990) Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley, CA.

Smith, Bruce (1991) Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics. Chicago.

Smith, G. Gregory (ed.) (1904) Elizabethan Critical Essays, 2 vols. Oxford.

Traub, Valerie (1989) Prince Hal's Falstaff: Positioning psychoanalysis and the female reproductive body, Shakespeare Quarterly, 40: 456-74.

Traub, Valerie (1992) Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama.

Wayne, Valerie (ed.) (1991) The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Ithaca, NY.

Weeks, Jeffrey (1981) Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800.

Weeks, Jeffrey (1990) Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (1st edn 1977).

Further Reading

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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. 129-52. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Offers an overview of the commentary by late twentieth-century cultural materialist critics on the issue of homosexual desire in early modern England, with particular reference to the plays of Shakespeare.

Garner, Shirley Nelson. “A Midsummer Night's Dream: ‘Jack shall have Jill; / Nought shall go ill.’” Women's Studies 9, No. 1 (1981): 47-63.

Contends that the restoration of harmony at the close of A Midsummer Night's Dream is contingent on both the dissolution of bonds between women and the successful suppression of homoerotic desires. Garner focuses on Titania's love for the Indian queen, Oberon's attraction to the changeling boy, Theseus's homoerotic fantasies, and the relationship between Hermia and Helena.

Goldberg, Jonathan. “Desiring Hal.” In Sodometries, pp. 145-75. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Maintains that in the second tetralogy, regulating male/male relations is an integral part of the process of turning Hal into a paragon of kings. Goldberg argues that because such relations cannot be marked by any signs of effeminacy, the achievement of “proper” masculinity necessarily results in misogyny and incipient homophobia.

———. “Romeo and Juliet's Open Rs.” In Queering the Renaissance, edited by Jonathan Goldberg, pp. 218-35. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994.

Challenges orthodox views of Romeo and Juliet. Goldberg contends that, particularly through a series of substitutions of one love object for another and the instances of same-sex attraction, the play destabilizes the heterosexual order and shows that desire is not necessarily linked either to gender or to individual personality.

Johnson, Nora. “Ganymedes and Kings: Staging Male Homosexual Desire in The Winter's Tale.Shakespeare Studies XXVI (1998): 187-217.

Asserts that The Winter's Taleis profoundly concerned with the connection between the stigmatization of sodomy and early modern attacks on theatrical practices.

Pequigney, Joseph. “The Expressions of Homoeroticism.” In Such Is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets, pp. 42-80. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Highlights the erotic allusions of Shakespeare's sonnets—especially Sonnet 52, 75, and 87—to support the argument that the relationship between the poet and the fair friend is sexual in both orientation and experience. Pequigney also takes issue with twentieth-century commentators who read Sonnets 1-126 as expressions of asexual male friendship or disinterested love.

———. “The Two Antonios and Same-Sex Love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice.English Literary Renaissance 22, No. 2 (Spring 1992): 201-21

Characterizes the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian in Twelfth Night as homoerotic and the love between Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Veniceas non-libidinal. Pequigney also argues that bisexuality is an integral motif in Twelfth Night and that the ring episode in the final scene of The Merchant of Veniceunderscores that play's concern with the Christian principle of unsparing generosity.

Rackin, Phyllis. “Historical Difference/Sexual Difference.” In Privileging Gender in Early Modern England, edited by Jean R. Brink, pp. 37-63. Kirksville, Mo: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1993.

Points out some important distinctions between sixteenth- and late twentieth-century ideological notions of gender and sexuality. In the course of her discussion, Rackin remarks that Shakespeare's plays consistently associate a man's desire for a woman with effeminacy and repeatedly represent extreme virility—as evinced in strict self-denial and military courage—as wholly compatible with erotic desire for other men.

Reschke, Mark. “Historicizing Homophobia: Hamlet and the Anti-theatrical Tracts.” Hamlet Studies 19, Nos. 1/2 (Summer/Winter 1997): 47-63.

Evaluates Hamlet's misogyny, his obsession with role-playing, and his avoidance of intimacy with other men. Reschke relates these attributes to the charges leveled by Elizabethan anti-theatrical writers, who, he maintains, in their tirades against effeminacy and sodomy, provided the origins of the modern cultural phenomenon known as homophobia.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Swan in Love: The Example of Shakespeare's Sonnets.” In Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosexual Desire, pp. 28-48. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Discusses the sonnets' delineation of same-sex love vis-à-vis institutionalized social relations that can only be sustained by women's adherence to patriarchal conventions.

Shepherd, Simon. “Shakespeare's Private Drawer: Shakespeare and Homosexuality.” In The Shakespeare Myth, edited by Graham Holderness, pp. 96-109. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.

Argues that throughout the twentieth century, politics and ideology have permeated both academic debate about Shakespeare's sonnets and theatrical interpretations of his plays. For popular commentators and scholars alike, Shepherd contends, the issue of homosexuality in Shakespeare is dangerous because it threatens the “respectability” of England's preeminent literary icon.

Sinfield, Alan. “Shakespeare and Dissident Reading.” In Cultural Politics: Queer Reading, pp. 1-20. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

Provides a concise review of the current debate about same-sex love in early modern England. Sinfield concludes that a common theme among commentators on this issue is that Shakespeare's contemporaries drew different sexual distinctions than we do and, in particular, that they did not link male same-sex relations specifically with effeminacy.

———. “How to Read The Merchant of Venice without Being Heterosexist.” In Alternative Shakespeares, edited by Terence Hawkes, pp. 122-39. London: Routledge, 1996.

Finds that although Antonio is clearly in love with Bassanio, the play does not provide clear evidence that this love is sexual. Sinfield suggests this ambiguity may indicate that the notion of same-sex love was neither remarkable nor threatening in early modern England, yet he also notes that if Antonio is relegated to a position on the fringes of Belmont's society at the close of the play, the text supports the marginalization of men who love men.

Smith, Bruce R. “Combatants and Comrades.” In Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics, pp. 31-77. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Remarks on several of Shakespeare's plays about soldiering and courtship—including Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, and Love's Labor's Lost—and suggests that in these dramas homosexuality is only an implicit subject. Yet even in these works, Smith contends, the universal impulses in male bonding toward both violence and sexual desire frequently coincide, and often find expression in homoerotic language. Additionally, Smith provides an extended review of the legal, moral, and religious discourse on male friendship and love from classical antiquity through the early modern period.

———. “I, You, He, She, and We: On the Sexual Politics of Shakespeare's Sonnets.” In Shakespeare's Sonnets: Critical Essays, edited by James Schiffer, pp. 411-29. New York: Garland Publishing, 1999.

Assesses the complex transactions that take place between the speaker of Shakespeare's sonnets and the readers of these poems. While reading these poems, he asserts, we must recognize that early modern constructions of gender and sexual desire were much more fluid than the twentieth-century's rigid distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality.

Traub, Valerie. “Recent Studies in Homoeroticism.” English Literary Renaissance 30, No. 2 (Spring 2000): 284-329.

A bibliographical essay that puts into context the 1990s commentary on homoeroticism in literary works, and surveys recent critical developments in Shakespearean criticism regarding this topic.

Van Watson, William. “Shakespeare, Zeffirelli, and the Homosexual Gaze.” Literature/Film Quarterly 20, No. 4 (1992): 308-25.

Focuses on Zeffirelli's film adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. Though Watson regards both Shakespeare and Zeffirelli as social and political conservatives, he claims that their work sometimes exhibits a homosexual sensibility. The critic is principally concerned here with how Zeffirelli's selection of camera angles and focus, depth of shots, and lighting underscore what Watson sees as homoerotic undercurrents in the texts of the plays.


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