Recent commentators on the issue of homosexual elements in Shakespeare's writings almost uniformly set their debates in the context of the differences between early modern and postmodern notions of sexuality and gender. Many argue that although we have a limited understanding of the sex and gender typologies of early modern England, it is apparent that Shakespeare's contemporaries viewed sexuality differently than we do. Scholars find no evidence in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century treatises of either the supposition that sexuality is binary—that a person is either homosexual or heterosexual—or the idea that sexual behavior constitutes individual identity. Indeed, commentators often assert that early modern notions of sexuality were flexible rather than categorical. They also point out that the word homosexual and its derivatives were not coined until the late nineteenth century, and that no one in Shakespeare's time would have described himself as a homosexual or herself as a lesbian. Additionally, in early modern England the word sodomy designated a broad range of practices, including witchcraft, sorcery, and rebellion as well as same-sex or anal intercourse. Persons were labeled sodomites if their behavior was seen as subversive: a threat to social, political, or natural order.
Many critics who address the question of sexuality in Shakespeare's writings regard gender and sexual differences as social constructs—not biological or behavioral imperatives—that reflected prevailing political and cultural mores. Bruce R. Smith (see Further Reading, 1999), who examines Shakespeare's sonnets, shares this viewpoint. Smith emphasizes the distinctions between early modern and postmodern ways of signifying gender and sexuality. The “I” of the sonnets cannot be made to conform to twentieth-century social constructs, he argues, and thus the transactions between the speaker and the readers of these poems become entangled in cultural and chronological disparities. Also looking at the issue of reader response to the sonnets, Gregory Woods (1998) contends that reading the sonnets inevitably exposes the reader's own way of thinking about homosexuality. Characterizing Sonnet 20 as the pivotal gay poem in English literature, Woods reviews how critics have historically created or emphasized its iconic stature. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (see Further Reading) maintains that the sonnets present male-male love in the context of institutionalized social relations that underlie male political and cultural hegemony. She points out, however, that the complex symmetry between the fair youth and the dark lady as objects of the speaker's desire images the central role of women in carrying out these relations: their bodies are the means by which patriarchal society is sustained through marriage, family name, and progeny.
The expression of this tension between same-sex desire and the social imperative of procreative union is often observed in Shakespeare's comedies. Valerie Traub (1992), for example, sees this synchronism of desire in As You Like It. She argues that it playfully transcends dichotomous sexual oppositions and explores the possibilities of a range of desires—though she describes its closing as ambiguous. By contrast, she characterizes the homoeroticism of Twelfth Night as nervous and strained. Traub maintains that although it seemingly allows for multiple objects of desire, the play ends by fixing the homoerotic energies of Viola, Olivia, and Orsino on the single persona of Antonio, a figure on the margins of society. Janet Adelman (see Further Reading) also regards Twelfth Night as an exploration of the notion that relationships can be simultaneously homosexual and heterosexual, that one need not choose between homosexual and heterosexual bonds; but, she argues, the play ultimately endorses the idea that sexual indeterminacy is a fantasy. By contrast, Charles Casey (1997) reads Twelfth Night as a subversive portrayal of the instability of sexual and gender difference. Identifying same-sex desire as a central motif, he asserts that the play represents erotic attraction and gender as fluid rather than fixed, exposing sexuality as a social construct. In comparison, Joseph Pequigney (see Further Reading, 1992) regards bisexuality as a recurring theme in Twelfth Night, arguing that both Orsino and Olivia have experiences that demonstrate their bisexuality. Pequigney proposes that Sebastian is the most striking example of the bisexuality motif, arguing that he is not only drawn to but is willing to have sexual relations with both Antonio and Olivia.
Pequigney also evaluates Shakespeare's other Antonio—the one in The Merchant of Venice. But while he asserts that Sebastian and the sea captain Antonio in Twelfth Night have a homoerotic liaison, he maintains that there is virtually nothing in this play's text to suggest a sexual relationship between Bassanio and the merchant Antonio. At the close of the comedy, Pequigney declares, Antonio is permanently united with his friend and drawn into the circle of reconciled and loving inhabitants of Belmont. Adelman, by contrast, maintains that The Merchant of Venice polarizes Antonio's love for Bassanio and Portia, making it clear that in order for Portia to win, Antonio must lose. In Adelman's judgment, the play ends with Antonio's defeat and exclusion. Recently Alan Sinfield (see Further Reading, 1996), addressing the question of whether Antonio is isolated at the close of The Merchant of Venice, notes that adopting this viewpoint means acknowledging that the text endorses the marginalization of men who love men. Douglas E. Green (1998) also takes up the question of conservative ideology in Shakespearean drama, but with regard to A Midsummer Night's Dream. He argues that despite its seeming tolerance and openness toward same-sex desire, the play supports the notion that the primary purpose of erotic union is procreation.
The question of generative sex is also addressed by Jonathan Goldberg (see Further Reading, 1994) as part of his analysis of gender and desire in Romeo and Juliet. He argues that the play portrays non-procreative as well as procreative desire as it moves back and forth through a series of sexual substitutions that minimize both the singularity of individuals and the distinctiveness of gender. Goldberg's evaluation of gender definition in 1 and 2 Henry IV (1995) focuses on the way Hal's relationships with other men—particularly Hotspur and Falstaff—contribute to his production of himself as the legitimate heir to the English throne. Did Hal sleep with Falstaff, with Poins, or with Scroop? According to Goldberg there is no definitive answer, but it is more important to note that in the early modern era such behavior would be reprehensible only if it blurred social hierarchies and distinctions, for this was the dominant factor in determining whether sexual relations between men would be condemned or allowed. In an evaluation of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida, Woods similarly considers the issue of what is permitted between men in Shakespeare's plays, and he describes the broad range of ways in which late twentieth-century theatrical productions have highlighted homoerotic or homosexual aspects of such relationships. Smith (see Further Reading, 1991) argues that both Troilus and Cressida and Coriolanus dramatize, in explicitly sexual terms, the ambiguities involved in male bonding. He sees the reconciliation of Coriolanus and Aufidius in Act IV, scene v as an exemplary expression of the volatile connection between male aggression and male sexual desire—the clash of violent and erotic impulses that, according to Smith, occurs regularly in Shakespeare's military plays.