Sex was far from simple in 16th century England. Shakespeare himself wed a woman eight years his senior, a departure from the typical ages of both partners. While some of his characters follow the common conventions of Elizabethan culture (male courtship and the “transfer” of a woman from the care of her father to her husband), others show marked indifference toward appropriate gender roles and sexuality. His plays feature strong-willed and sexually-driven women, cross-dressing, and subtle homosexual relationships, most notably Coriolanus and Aufidius in Coriolanus and Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It. His narrative poetry, namely Venus and Adonis, and his Sonnets are at times highly erotic and involve homosexuality, desire, and sexual love. His work demonstrates that tradition is never as established or inflexible as we think.
Featured Image: “Olivia, Maria and Malvolio from “Twelfth Night,” Act III, Scene iv” by Johann Heinrich Ramberg (1789). Yale Center for British Art. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons