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...
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