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Sexuality in Shakespeare’s plays and poems

In Shakespeare’s comedies, sex is not only connected to marriage, but postdates it. Prospero in The Tempest insists to his prospective son-in-law that he not break the “virgin-knot” of his intended bride, Miranda, “before / All sanctimonious ceremonies may  / With full and holy rite be ministered,” lest “barren hate, / Sour-eyed disdain, and discord . . . bestrew / The union of your bed with weeds so loathly / That you shall hate it both” (4.1.15-22). Ferdinand and Miranda fervently agree, despite the fact that they are on a far-away island where dallying might seem to be safe from prying eyes.

Couples in the early romantic comedies are similarly disposed toward chaste conduct until they are married. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the two romantic couples, Lysander and Hermia, Demetrius and Helena, are found sleeping together on the ground after their night of adventure in the Forest of Arden, in a configuration so suggestively erotic that Duke Theseus, happening upon them during his morning hunt, jests, “Saint Valentine is past. / Begin these woodbirds but to couple now?” (4.1.138-9), but we know as audience they have been placed where they are by Puck’s magical control and are not even aware with whom they are lying. And so it is with Bassanio and Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Orlando and Rosalind in As You Like It, Orsino and Viola in Twelfth Night, and still others. Alfred Harbage argues in his As They Liked It (1947) that Shakespeare is acquiescing to the moral code of his popular London audiences. Not infrequently, he bowdlerizes his sources in this regard. In the source story for Twelfth Night, for instance, Silvio (the equivalent of Sebastian) impregnates Julina (Countess Olivia), leaving her and Silla (Viola) in a seemingly impossible quandary when it seems that Julina’s lover and the presumed father of the expected child is actually a woman. Shakespeare leaves out the pregnancy.

This is not to say, however, that romantic love proceeds smoothly among the young and well-behaved lovers in Shakespeare’s early comedies. As Lysander wisely observes in Midsummer, “The course of true love never did run smooth” (1.1.134). It is plagued, as Lysander explains, by discrepancies in hereditary rank or age, or enmities between families, or inflexible parental authority, or “War, death, and sickness” (135-42). These unfriendly hurdles are no less apparent in Romeo and Juliet, an early tragedy attuned to the vexations of the early romantic comedies.

Claudio, deceived by Don John, accuses Hero by Marcus C. Stone, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

An even more difficult hazard is the male psyche, which, as Shakespeare sees it, stands in serious need of assistance and repair. Petruchio, to be sure, in The Taming of the Shrew, flamboyantly embodies what appears to be a success story of masculine confidence in the dating game, but to such a degree that his triumph strikes many readers and audiences, especially today, as grotesque. Benedick, in Much Ado, is more ready to trade his machismo for a sincere attempt to learn truer ways of courtship from Beatrice. Elsewhere, young males in the comedies are apt to be clueless, uncertain, far less mature than the young ladies whom they woo. The four young men in Love’s Labor’s Lost are tricked by the clever young women into perjuring themselves unintentionally, whereupon the men must wait out a whole year of penitence before approaching their young woman again. Young women in these plays generally know who they are and where they are going, emotionally and practically. They need to instruct their male wooers in the art of courtship, impressing on them most of all the necessity of weaning themselves from romantic fantasies. The women insist they are women, not goddesses, capable of being waspish and moody at times, not to be won merely by sonnet writing and romantic flimflam. Rosalind is like that in As You Like It. She will have nothing to do with men who ”are April when the woo, December when they wed” (4.1.140-1). In her disguise as Ganymede, she hopes to cure Orlando of his clichés about dying for love and all that sort of romantic nonsense. Juliet in Romeo and Juliet is of a similar mind. She urges Romeo not to “swear by the moon, th’inconstant moon, / That monthly changes in her circles orb” (2.2.109-10). She is the one who insists that they talk about insistent practical problems like marriage in the face of parental opposition. She forswears overraught metaphors for the simplicity of “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” (33).

Beneath this upbeat vision of young love as healthily capable of emotional maturity, the darker spectre of jealous fear is never very far away. Claudio’s overly susceptible readiness in Much Ado to believe that Hero is capable of Don John’s malicious and unfounded accusations of infidelity leads to a nearly tragic conclusion. Men’s perverse inclination to suspect womanly infidelity is grounded in the men’s own fears that they are unlovable and that, conversely, women are inherently inclined toward choosing new partners in a way that threatens to emasculate the self-pitying male caught in a fantasy of betrayal. These are the fears that will ripen in Shakespeare’s later years into full-blown tragedy, in Troilus’s being deserted by Cressida (for compelling reasons), or Hamlet’s misogynistic obsession with the infidelities he sees in his mother and in Ophelia, or Othello’s fearful suspicions of Desdemona, or Macbeth’s falling under the baleful influence of his wife and the Weird Sisters. Controlling and betraying women are not unknown in Shakespeare’s earlier plays, to be sure, especially the history plays, where we encounter Joan of Arc and Margaret of Anjou, but unnerving portrayals like these are more visibly present in the later plays, as in Volumnia’s emasculating defeat of her son in Coriolanus and in Leontes’s paranoid accusations against his virtuous wife Hermione in The Winter’s Tale.

The absence of a wife for Prospero in The Tempest leaves us wondering what use Shakespeare is making of this motif in the years of his retirement to Stratford and a renewed habitation with his wife Anne whom he had left there when he moved to London for the bulk of his career. Does the enduring love of a father for his daughter in The Tempest appear to be a substitute for the marriage in Shakespeare’s own life that had begun with a premarital pregnancy and all that may have followed as a consequence of that unplanned complication? Who knows?

Whether homosexual attraction plays a large part in Shakespeare’s depiction of sexuality is a much-debated topic. Certainly the delightful business of young male actors playing the roles of women who then disguise themselves as men, sometimes adopting names like Ganymede, allows for erotic suggestion. Acting companies today generally see Antonio in Twelfth Night as sexually attracted to Sebastian, as when Antonio pleads to be allowed to accompany Sebastian in Illyria whatever dangers may accrue: “If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant,” Antonio insists (2.1.33-4). Another Antonio, in The Merchant of Venice, is quite often portrayed as amorously attached to Bassanio, as in Jeremy Iron’s realization of the role in Michael Radford’s generally excellent film of 2004. Joseph Pequigney’s Such Is My Love (1955) argues that Shakespeare’s sonnets describe a consummated homoerotic relationship. More cautious views see an undeniably strong expression of needful and at times troubling emotional bonding between the presumably male author and his aristocratic friend, while noting at the same time that the fiction of the sonnets, even if it is to be taken as partly autobiographical, does end in a narrative of the poet-speaker’s bitter disappointment at having been betrayed by his “dark lady” mistress and the aristocratic friend. Men in the Early Modern period spoke not uncommonly of their “love” for other males in ways that need not imply erotic entanglement.

Featured image credit: Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Edwin Landseer, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. M

    Joseph Pequigney’s book, Such Is My Love, was published in 1985 not 1955.

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