William Shakespeare Homosexuality - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)


Recent commentators on the issue of homosexual elements in Shakespeare's writings almost uniformly set their debates in the context of the differences between early modern and postmodern notions of sexuality and gender. Many argue that although we have a limited understanding of the sex and gender typologies of early modern England, it is apparent that Shakespeare's contemporaries viewed sexuality differently than we do. Scholars find no evidence in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century treatises of either the supposition that sexuality is binary—that a person is either homosexual or heterosexual—or the idea that sexual behavior constitutes individual identity. Indeed, commentators often assert that early modern notions of sexuality were flexible rather than categorical. They also point out that the word homosexual and its derivatives were not coined until the late nineteenth century, and that no one in Shakespeare's time would have described himself as a homosexual or herself as a lesbian. Additionally, in early modern England the word sodomy designated a broad range of practices, including witchcraft, sorcery, and rebellion as well as same-sex or anal intercourse. Persons were labeled sodomites if their behavior was seen as subversive: a threat to social, political, or natural order.

Many critics who address the question of sexuality in Shakespeare's writings regard gender and sexual differences as social constructs—not biological or behavioral imperatives—that reflected prevailing political and cultural mores. Bruce R. Smith (see Further Reading, 1999), who examines Shakespeare's sonnets, shares this viewpoint. Smith emphasizes the distinctions between early modern and postmodern ways of signifying gender and sexuality. The “I” of the sonnets cannot be made to conform to twentieth-century social constructs, he argues, and thus the transactions between the speaker and the readers of these poems become entangled in cultural and chronological disparities. Also looking at the issue of reader response to the sonnets, Gregory Woods (1998) contends that reading the sonnets inevitably exposes the reader's own way of thinking about homosexuality. Characterizing Sonnet 20 as the pivotal gay poem in English literature, Woods reviews how critics have historically created or emphasized its iconic stature. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (see Further Reading) maintains that the sonnets present male-male love in the context of institutionalized social relations that underlie male political and cultural hegemony. She points out, however, that the complex symmetry between the fair youth and the dark lady as objects of the speaker's desire images the central role of women in carrying out these relations: their bodies are the means by which patriarchal society is sustained through marriage, family name, and progeny.

The expression of this tension between same-sex desire and the social imperative of procreative union is often observed in Shakespeare's comedies. Valerie Traub (1992), for example, sees this synchronism of desire in As You Like It. She argues that it playfully transcends dichotomous sexual oppositions and explores the possibilities of a range of desires—though she describes its closing as ambiguous. By contrast, she characterizes the homoeroticism of Twelfth Night as nervous and strained. Traub maintains that although it seemingly allows for multiple objects of desire, the play ends by fixing the homoerotic energies of Viola, Olivia, and Orsino on the single persona of Antonio, a figure on the margins of society. Janet Adelman (see Further Reading) also regards Twelfth Night as an exploration of the notion that relationships can be simultaneously homosexual and heterosexual, that one need not choose between homosexual and heterosexual bonds; but, she argues, the play ultimately endorses the idea that sexual indeterminacy is a fantasy. By contrast, Charles Casey (1997) reads Twelfth Night as a subversive portrayal of the instability of sexual and gender difference. Identifying same-sex desire as a central motif, he asserts that the play represents erotic attraction and gender as fluid rather than fixed, exposing sexuality as a social construct. In comparison, Joseph Pequigney (see Further Reading, 1992) regards bisexuality as a recurring theme in Twelfth Night, arguing that both Orsino and Olivia have experiences that demonstrate their bisexuality. Pequigney proposes that Sebastian is the most striking example of the bisexuality motif, arguing that he is not only drawn to but is willing to have sexual relations with both Antonio and Olivia.

Pequigney also evaluates Shakespeare's other Antonio—the one in The Merchant of Venice. But while he asserts that Sebastian and the sea captain Antonio in Twelfth Night have a homoerotic liaison, he maintains that there is virtually nothing in this play's text to suggest a sexual relationship between Bassanio and the merchant Antonio. At the close of the comedy, Pequigney declares, Antonio is permanently united with his friend and drawn into the circle of reconciled and loving inhabitants of Belmont. Adelman, by contrast, maintains that The Merchant of Venice polarizes Antonio's love for Bassanio and Portia, making it clear that in order for Portia to win, Antonio must lose. In Adelman's judgment, the play ends with Antonio's defeat and exclusion. Recently Alan Sinfield (see Further Reading, 1996), addressing the question of whether Antonio is isolated at the close of The Merchant of Venice, notes that adopting this viewpoint means acknowledging that the text endorses the marginalization of men who love men. Douglas E. Green (1998) also takes up the question of conservative ideology in Shakespearean drama, but with regard to A Midsummer Night's Dream. He argues that despite its seeming tolerance and openness toward same-sex desire, the play supports the notion that the primary purpose of erotic union is procreation.

The question of generative sex is also addressed by Jonathan Goldberg (see Further Reading, 1994) as part of his analysis of gender and desire in Romeo and Juliet. He argues that the play portrays non-procreative as well as procreative desire as it moves back and forth through a series of sexual substitutions that minimize both the singularity of individuals and the distinctiveness of gender. Goldberg's evaluation of gender definition in 1 and 2 Henry IV (1995) focuses on the way Hal's relationships with other men—particularly Hotspur and Falstaff—contribute to his production of himself as the legitimate heir to the English throne. Did Hal sleep with Falstaff, with Poins, or with Scroop? According to Goldberg there is no definitive answer, but it is more important to note that in the early modern era such behavior would be reprehensible only if it blurred social hierarchies and distinctions, for this was the dominant factor in determining whether sexual relations between men would be condemned or allowed. In an evaluation of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida, Woods similarly considers the issue of what is permitted between men in Shakespeare's plays, and he describes the broad range of ways in which late twentieth-century theatrical productions have highlighted homoerotic or homosexual aspects of such relationships. Smith (see Further Reading, 1991) argues that both Troilus and Cressida and Coriolanus dramatize, in explicitly sexual terms, the ambiguities involved in male bonding. He sees the reconciliation of Coriolanus and Aufidius in Act IV, scene v as an exemplary expression of the volatile connection between male aggression and male sexual desire—the clash of violent and erotic impulses that, according to Smith, occurs regularly in Shakespeare's military plays.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Valerie Traub (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 12438 words.)

Casey Charles (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11641 words.)

Douglas E. Green (essay date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Criticism: Histories

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 1362 words.)