For the past several centuries, readers and theatergoers have been delighted, shocked, and awed by the masterful storytelling of playwright and poet William Shakespeare. The British literary giant has penned tales of powerful magic, complex family dynamics, scandalous political intrigue, and of course, epic love stories. While the most memorable couples in Shakespeare’s works have been heterosexual (Romeo and Juliet, Beatrice and Benedick, etc.), modern analyses of Shakespeare’s writings have revealed queer interpretations of his characters and plot devices.
Trigger Warning: This article contains mentions of murder, attempted suicide, and situations of questionable consent that may be triggering to some readers. Please practice self-care when reading.
The term ‘queer’ in this article is used to denote not only gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters and relationships, but also to recognize the fluidity of gender and sexuality. Considering the modern conceptions of heterosexuality and homosexuality were only developed in the 19th century, expressions of gender and sexuality were more ambiguous in Shakespeare’s day. In this sense, ‘queer’ is anything that defies or diverges from hegemonic heteronormativity and the gender binary.
While this is not a comprehensive list, in honor of Pride Month, here are some elements of Shakespeare’s work and life that, when read through a queer lens, reveal his work and characters to be more inclusive than initially believed.
Horatio and Hamlet
In a play where nearly everyone is in conflict with the titular Danish Prince Hamlet, Horatio certainly wins the prize for most loyal friend. Having befriended Hamlet at the University of Wittenberg, Horatio is a key player for most of the major plot events in the nearly four-hour play. Horatio is one of the first people to see the ghost of Hamlet’s father, is privy to Hamlet’s revenge scheme, and is a witness to most of the royal intrigue, including the mass murder at the play’s conclusion. Hamlet and Horatio have a close friendship, as Horatio is the only character Hamlet trusts implicitly. Horatio is concerned about Hamlet’s mental state throughout the piece, but always speaks fondly about his “friend.”
Within the past century, many analysts of Hamlet have come to the conclusion that Horatio is in love with Hamlet. This theory makes sense given how in the final scene as Hamlet lays dying, Horatio attempts to commit suicide so he does not have to live without his “sweet prince.” Hamlet stops him and requests that Horatio tell everyone Hamlet’s story so the truth of King Claudius’s crimes and Hamlet’s revenge may be revealed. When Hamlet dies, Horatio kisses his friend goodbye and protects Hamlet’s reputation by telling his story. Whether or not Horatio’s love was reciprocated by Hamlet, it is an interesting read on the text that offers additional complexity into Hamlet and Horatio’s relationship.
Polyamory in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
In a comedy filled with passionate lovers, magic, and the logic of fever dreams, there is also a great deal of implied polyamory. Of course, the main plot centers on Lysander, Hermia, Helena, and Demetrius, the mismatched lovers who, after an accidental encounter with a fairy love potion, become even more confused.
Lysander, who was originally in love with Hermia, falls in love with Helena while under the influence of a love potion. Demetrius, who was originally in love with Helena but is betrothed to Hermia, falls for Helena once more while under the spell of the potion. This magically manufactured love triangle causes tension between the four lovers and hilarity ensues.
These four mortals are not the only ones whose love lives are impacted by the love potion. Oberon, King of the Fairies, wishes to punish his wife, Titania, for not acquiescing to his demands by using the love potion on her. As a result, Titania falls in love with an actor named Nick Bottom, who was recently cursed to have a donkey’s head. While Oberon eventually feels bad for the way he treated his wife, he seems to enjoy watching his wife with another man. Assuming that everyone is doing what they want of their own free will, Oberon and Titania seem content with an open relationship.
The mechanics of the love potion are unclear regarding whether the magic has the power to compel someone to fall in love without their consent, or if it simply amplifies existing attraction as a sort of fairy aphrodisiac. However, if a theatre company wishes to play up the (consensual) polyamory in their production, there is ample textual support for that artistic interpretation.
Master-servant relationships in Twelfth Night
It is not always clear if a servant speaks with reverence and tenderness out of love for their employer or as a reflection of their social station, but Twelfth Night likes to blur those lines. Viola, a woman who pretends to be a male servant named Cesario after believing her twin brother to be dead, falls in love with Orsino, a duke she serves. As she is dressed as a man, she finds it difficult to express her feelings for Orsino. To further complicate matters, a countess named Olivia also falls in love with Cesario, convinced that she is a he.
While Viola fends off the advances of Olivia and navigates her feelings for Orsino, her twin Sebastian is alive and also maintains a close relationship with his servant, Antonio. Sebastian and Antonio openly adore one another, and considering Sebastian and Olivia marry under the pretense that Olivia believes Sebastian to be Cesario/Viola, their relationship would serve as just another instance of throwing gender and sexuality norms out the window in this play. Also, considering Orsino is so quick to propose to Viola as soon as he learns of her true identity, it is possible that he was already attracted to her when he thought she was Cesario.
However these relationships are viewed by critics and theatre attendees, Twelfth Night is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s best comedies and arguably his most queer play.
Cross-dressing or drag has always been a major part of Shakespearean theatre. When his plays were first performed in Elizabethan England, women were not allowed to be actors, so all the roles were played by men. Audiences would suspend their disbelief and separate the character from the actor as men played women or men played women who were pretending to be men. This casting reinforced the notion of gender as a construct that could be taken on or off as easily as a coat. Recently, modern theatrical Shakespeare productions have returned to the original practice of casting only male actors, such as the 2002 production of Twelfth Night at Shakespeare’s Globe.
There have been many debates in recent decades over the sexual orientation of the Bard himself. While he was married to a woman named Anne Hathaway and had three children, many of his love sonnets are addressed to “a Fair Youth” or “sweet boy,” including the series of poems following the famous Sonnet 18.
In his poetry, Shakespeare expresses romantic or even sexual love for another man, and the narrative of the poetry has the narrator caught between the “fair youth” and a “dark lady,” implying an affair might be taking place. Unfortunately, editors had started censoring the homosexual undertones of Shakespeare’s sonnets as early as 1640 by changing all the masculine pronouns to feminine ones.
While we don’t know what Shakespeare would have identified as (since the terms regarding sexual orientation we use today weren’t around at the time), we can still enjoy his uncensored poetry as it celebrates love of all kinds.
No matter who you are or who you love, we can all appreciate the multifaceted interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays, as they never cease to be relevant in every age, on every stage.
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