(Originally aired 2021/08/21 - listen here)
Same-Sex Themes in Shakespeare
I think that in the hearts of most queer girls, there is a cherished memory of some particular performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night when you thought, “Say yes, Viola! Just say yes to Olivia and change the story!”
Because of Shakespeare’s ubiquity in Western Anglophone culture, we tend to be more familiar with the brief glimpses of female homoeroticism in his works than in those of his contemporaries. But was the Bard of Avon revolutionary and cutting-edge in his depictions of the possibilities of love between women? Or was he reflecting themes that were common in late 16th and early 17th century English culture? Or was he presenting staid and safely conservative versions of homoerotic tropes that would titillate his audience without challenging them? Was he queer-baiting the groundlings with a wink and a nudge and the image of two women together only to deflect the possibility at the last minute?
Valerie Traub asserts that early modern England saw a renaissance of representations of desire between women in the 16th and 17th centuries, including a gradual increase over that period in depictions of women’s same-sex physical and emotional relations across a wide variety of genres. These representations existed within a social context that believed women to have a stronger sex drive than men, and that considered same-sex desire to be an expected manifestation of that drive. But did those understandings lead naturally to an acceptance of those desires and a positive attitude toward them?
There were two major themes in the depiction of women’s same-sex desire during that era—themes that have chased each other across the landscape of history. One theme came from the philosophical tradition of amicitia—friendship—in which like was expected to be drawn to like, and the passionate expression of that attraction, and the love that resulted from it was treated as expected and normal. The second theme was based on a theory that erotic desire was driven by difference, and specifically from the contrast of masculine and feminine. In this model, female couples were attracted via an analog of heterosexuality, one being more masculine in nature (and sometimes thought to have masculine physiology) and one not simply more feminine, but an ordinary feminine woman who was attracted to masculinity regardless of the body it inhabited.
These themes drove two significant tropes used in early modern drama, but the conventions of the stage added other layers. Was the desire set up to be sympathetic or condemned? Did the characters know they desired someone of the same sex or was that information only available to the audience? Was the love between them allowed to persist at the end of the play or did it need to be contradicted or redirected?
In this podcast, I’m setting aside the complication that in the English theater of Shakespeare’s day, all female parts were played by male actors. This was, in some ways, an English peculiarity limited to a specific period. The Italian theater from which Shakespeare, um, “borrowed” some of his plots (including Twelfth Night) included women in acting troupes by the mid 16th century, and France embraced actresses by a similar era. Besides which, the fashion for homoerotic plots continued to be popular in England even as female actors took their place on stage in the later 17th century. So I’m not going to focus on this aspect of performance and the layers it added to interpretation.
As You Like It
Let’s take a look at a couple of characteristic examples from Shakespeare. As You Like It contains both of our primary motifs: passionate friendship based on similarity, and erotic desire based on apparent gender difference. Rosalind and Celia are cousins whose fathers have become enemies. Their love for each other is stronger than all other familial bonds: when Rosalind is banished on pain of death, Celia refuses to be parted from her and accompanies her into exile. Both will eventually be courted and won in marriage by men (conveniently, by a pair of brothers). This overarching marriage plot allays the anxiety that same-sex devotion might otherwise cause.
Here is the scene where Rosalind is banished and Celia cleaves to her. It begins with Celia imploring her father, the duke, to relent, and then the subsequent conversation between the two women.
I did not then entreat to have her stay;
It was your pleasure and your own remorse:
I was too young that time to value her;
But now I know her: if she be a traitor,
Why so am I; we still have slept together,
Rose at an instant, learn’d, play’d, eat together,
And wheresoever we went, like Juno’s swans,
Still we went coupled and inseparable.
She is too subtle for thee; and her smoothness,
Her very silence and her patience
Speak to the people, and they pity her.
Thou art a fool: she robs thee of thy name;
And thou wilt show more bright and seem more virtuous
When she is gone. Then open not thy lips:
Firm and irrevocable is my doom
Which I have pass’d upon her; she is banish’d.
Pronounce that sentence then on me, my liege:
I cannot live out of her company.
You are a fool. You, niece, provide yourself:
If you outstay the time, upon mine honour,
And in the greatness of my word, you die.
Exeunt DUKE FREDERICK and Lords
O my poor Rosalind, whither wilt thou go?
Wilt thou change fathers? I will give thee mine.
I charge thee, be not thou more grieved than I am.
I have more cause.
Thou hast not, cousin;
Prithee be cheerful: know’st thou not, the duke
Hath banish’d me, his daughter?
That he hath not.
No, hath not? Rosalind lacks then the love
Which teacheth thee that thou and I am one:
Shall we be sunder’d? shall we part, sweet girl?
No: let my father seek another heir.
Therefore devise with me how we may fly,
Whither to go and what to bear with us;
And do not seek to take your change upon you,
To bear your griefs yourself and leave me out;
For, by this heaven, now at our sorrows pale,
Say what thou canst, I’ll go along with thee.
The language of devotion here may seem fairly tame and conventional, but it is unambiguous. When Celia says they “went like Juno’s swans, coupled and inseparable” she is invoking the goddess of marriage and the motif that swans mate for life. When Celia notes that they “slept together and rose at an instant,” this is neither a salacious reference to “sleeping together” in a sexual sense, nor a meaningless co-location in the same bed. Sharing a bed was both ordinary and accepted and indicated a significant bond of friendship, intimacy, and trust between the bedfellows. It is an act infused with erotic potential while being free of any suggestion of immorality. When Celia says “let my father seek another heir…I’ll go along with thee,” there is an inevitable parallel with how marriage removes women from the family of their birth to partner with another.
But As You Like It also brings in the theme of desire arising from difference, via the popular stage motif of gender disguise and mis-directed heterosexual attraction. For greater safety after the two women flee to the Forest of Arden for a pastoral interlude, Rosalind puts on men’s clothing and adopts the name of Ganymede. If the homoerotic implications had not been clear enough, Ganymede was the name of Jupiter’s cup-bearer, abducted to be his sexual companion. Ganymede was slang for the younger or passive partner in a male homosexual couple. We now enter a world of gender play and gender confusion, as the shepherdess Phebe falls in love with Ganymede, despite—or perhaps because of—Ganymede’s scornful dismissal of her.
At the same time, Rosalind (as Ganymede) torments her would-be suitor Orlando by coaching him in courtship having him practice his wooing of Rosalind on Ganymede. This is something of a reversal of the trope that erotic play between women is harmless “practice” for heterosexual marriage.
Thus Orlando goes through the superficial form of a same-sex courtship, believing it to be make-believe, while actually participating in a heterosexual courtship; while Phebe throws herself into what she believes is a heterosexual pursuit, that in truth has a woman as its object. Rosalind declines to engage fully in either courtship: repeatedly rejecting Phebe’s attentions (and thus defusing the possibility of overt same-sex eroticism), and treating her interactions with Orlando as play-acting (again defusing the threat of the appearance of homosexuality).
But homoeroticism is not only present via disguise and pretend. When Phebe praises Ganymede in the following passage, it’s in terms of an androgynous and even feminine beauty.
Think not I love him, though I ask for him:
‘Tis but a peevish boy; yet he talks well;
But what care I for words? yet words do well
When he that speaks them pleases those that hear.
It is a pretty youth: not very pretty:
But, sure, he’s proud, and yet his pride becomes him:
He’ll make a proper man: the best thing in him
Is his complexion; and faster than his tongue
Did make offence his eye did heal it up.
He is not very tall; yet for his years he’s tall:
His leg is but so so; and yet ’tis well:
There was a pretty redness in his lip,
A little riper and more lusty red
Than that mix’d in his cheek; ’twas just the difference
Between the constant red and mingled damask.
There be some women, Silvius, had they mark’d him
In parcels as I did, would have gone near
To fall in love with him; but, for my part,
I love him not nor hate him not; and yet
I have more cause to hate him than to love him:
For what had he to do to chide at me?
He said mine eyes were black and my hair black:
And, now I am remember’d, scorn’d at me:
I marvel why I answer’d not again:
But that’s all one; omittance is no quittance.
I’ll write to him a very taunting letter,
And thou shalt bear it: wilt thou, Silvius?
As the resolution of all the disguises nears, the script once more flirts with images of same-sex love and marriage while leaving a secret escape valve. Rosalind, as Ganymede, tells Phebe:
I would love you, if I could. To-morrow meet me all together.
I will marry you, if ever I marry woman, and I’ll be
Meaning, in truth, that she will marry her male suitor Orlando, but teasing both the unknowing Phebe and the knowing audience with the idea of two women being wed.
The Wider Context of Female Homoeroticism in Early Modern Drama
There is a wide diversity of representations of female same-sex relations in early modern drama, ranging from the overtly sexual, through devoted platonic friendship, to a generalized female solidarity against patriarchal society. Shakespeare has available an audience that considers same-sex relations to be possible and familiar and he plays with those possibilities for dramatic effect. But Shakespeare’s plays include a relatively narrow range of those representations, when considered in context.
Popular culture viewed women’s same-sex erotic possibilities simultaneously as suspect and threatening, and as tolerable and pleasurable, particularly if viewed through the lens of friendship and homosociality rather than strictly in terms of sexual activity. In general, expressions of explicit sexual desire are presented negatively while depictions of romantic love are the most accepted. And it must be noted that depictions of gender disguise on stage are taken largely as harmless, while real-life cross-dressing was a significant point of anxiety and treated as sexually charged.
Scenarios of homoeroticism on stage or in literature could be used as social criticism, but often tangentially, to address entirely different areas of social, religious, or political concern. Yet an overarching theme was that homoerotic desire must be addressed and resolved in some fashion within the story. Idealized, romantic, non-sexual attachment may be presented as praiseworthy and simply diverted into a heterosexual resolution, but predatory, anxiety-provoking sexual scenarios tend to end in tragedy. Direct sexual transgression (and the need for its punishment) can be avoided by misdirection (for example, in cross-dressing plots) or by sidelining the desire in a deniable subtext via innuendo or allusion. The homoerotic presence may be created by the act of denying its possibility, or may exist only by the way in which that possibility disrupts a more central heterosexual plot. A character who protests the impossibility of desire between women acts to raise it as a possibility in the audience’s imagination. A potential heterosexual romance that is disrupted by a gender-disguised woman suggests that a woman could be a more attractive partner for a woman than the man she’s expected to marry.
Fictional treatments of female homoeroticism tended to focus on desire, and to treat it neutrally or sympathetically, while non-fictional evidence focused on actual sexual activity and condemned it. Between those two poles, the assumptions and models through which female homoeroticism was presented followed certain principles.
“Innocent” intimate friendships between women in such stories typically exist in parallel with heterosexual plots and are abandoned, or at least set aside, at marriage. But rather than framing women’s intimate friendships as being entirely non-erotic, literature regularly draws explicit parallels between same-sex affections and the heterosexual bonds and interactions that are purportedly the ultimate goal of the narrative.
It is a general pattern in comedic works of the early modern period that anxieties are raised explicitly only to be resolved. Femme-femme couples in this literature become significant only when they challenge the patriarchal and marital imperatives of society--when they threaten to become exclusive--at which point they must be dismantled.
Valerie Traub identifies this motif exclusively with courtship plots, but Denise Walen’s study of female homoeroticisim in early modern theater shows the motif occurring more generally. And, by the way, if you are intrigued to the slightest degree by the topic of sapphic themes in early modern drama, do check out Walen’s book: Constructions of Female Homoeroticism in Early Modern Drama.
Shakespeare Plays it Safe
Femme-femme couples were not viewed as disruptive to the social structure unless they went beyond using the language of marriage to trying to appropriate the social function of marriage. Shakespeare’s women never go quite that far, but various interpretations of Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe, including John Lyly’s Gallathea directly raise the image of marriage between women, only to nullify it with a magical physical transformation of one of the women to a man.
Shakespeare’s plays are, in many ways, more “innocent” in their depictions of female same-sex erotics than some of the works of his contemporaries. Unlike Lyly’s Gallathea his gender-mistaken women do not continue in their desire once the disguise has been revealed. Unlike several of Thomas Middleton’s plays, his characters don’t engage in ribald jokes that take it as a given that women can engage in sex together. None of Shakespeare’s women knowingly kiss and fondle another woman as in Shirley’s The Bird in a Cage. Unlike Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl, his cross-dressing women are not seen as advertising their underlying desires by their clothing.
When Shakespeare’s cross-dressing women are desired by another woman, the misdirected love is unambiguously redirected, not simply into a heterosexual relationship, but into marriage. Olivia transfers her affections rather abruptly and without much motivation onto Viola’s twin brother. Rosalind sends Phebe off with her shepherd suitor and marries the man she’s been teasing as Ganymede.
In romantic comedies, desire for a cross-dressed woman can be treated humorously rather than creating anxiety. In many of these works, the characteristics of the cross-dressed woman that provoke desire are traditionally feminine ones, such as beauty, courtesy, and kindness. Thus, although the desire that the femme-presenting women feel occurs within a superficial framework of heterosexuality, their motivation supports the validity of female-female desire, even though those same characteristics would not provoke female desire if displayed by one known to be a woman. That is, on stage, women can desire female-coded personal traits, but they only perceive this desire as erotic when those traits are overlaid on an apparently male body.
Let’s return to the topic of Twelfth Night to see how this “safe” same-sex desire plays out. Viola (in disguise as Cesario) does take an active role in provoking Olivia’s desire, largely in her role as spokesperson for Duke Orsino, but also in the playful bantering between them. In spite of this, Viola herself is unshakable in directing her own desire toward Orsino. Here Viola tries to divert Olivia’s desire:
I pity you.
That’s a degree to love.
No, not a grize; for ’tis a vulgar proof,
That very oft we pity enemies.
Why, then, methinks ’tis time to smile again.
O, world, how apt the poor are to be proud!
If one should be a prey, how much the better
To fall before the lion than the wolf!
The clock upbraids me with the waste of time.
Be not afraid, good youth, I will not have you:
And yet, when wit and youth is come to harvest,
Your were is alike to reap a proper man:
There lies your way, due west.
Then westward-ho! Grace and good disposition
Attend your ladyship!
You’ll nothing, madam, to my lord by me?
I prithee, tell me what thou thinkest of me.
That you do think you are not what you are.
If I think so, I think the same of you.
Then think you right: I am not what I am.
I would you were as I would have you be!
Would it be better, madam, than I am?
I wish it might, for now I am your fool.
O, what a deal of scorn looks beautiful
In the contempt and anger of his lip!
A murderous guilt shows not itself more soon
Than love that would seem hid: love’s night is noon.
Cesario, by the roses of the spring,
By maidhood, honour, truth and every thing,
I love thee so, that, maugre all thy pride,
Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.
Do not extort thy reasons from this clause,
For that I woo, thou therefore hast no cause,
But rather reason thus with reason fetter,
Love sought is good, but given unsought better.
By innocence I swear, and by my youth
I have one heart, one bosom and one truth,
And that no woman has; nor never none
Shall mistress be of it, save I alone.
And so adieu, good madam: never more
Will I my master’s tears to you deplore.
Of course, not all of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing women attract female desire. Portia, in The Merchant of Venice has the practical purpose of needing to act as a lawyer. Innogen in Cymbeline and Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona both cross-dress for safety in traveling (and to avoid recognition by the man they are seeking). Though one possible source for Two Gentlemen did include the Julia character attracting a woman’s desire.
So even in employing the trope of desire within gender disguise, Shakespeare sticks to only the most inoffensive manifestations of the concept.
Given this tendency to dodge around the most sexually charged possibilities, it’s interesting that there is one brief scene where Shakespeare touches on the trope of a sexually-experienced older woman “training” a young woman in the arts of love (or at least sex) in preparation for heterosexual relations. We saw a very tame, gender-flipped version in As You Like It when Ganymede teaches Orlando how to court a woman. But in Pericles, that most trope-tastic jumble of a play, we get the version where the proprietor of a whorehouse purchases a maiden to work in her establishment and explains how best to excite a customer, saying:
Pray you, come hither awhile. You
have fortunes coming upon you. Mark me: you
must seem to do that fearfully which you commit
willingly, despise profit where you have most gain.
To weep that you live as you do makes pity in your
lovers. Seldom but that pity begets you a good
opinion, and that opinion a mere profit.
[When the maiden is confused, the madam’s servant suggests:]
O, take her home, mistress, take her home!
These blushes of hers must be quenched with
some present practice.
Once again, Shakespeare’s use of this trope is fairly tame—especially as the maiden’s virtue proves invincible. The motif is far more prominent in Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London or James Mabbe’s The Spanish Bawd.
There’s a greater range of potential within the depiction of femme-femme love. Characters can express extremes of affection because the absence of a gender contrast doesn’t challenge the social expectations. Without the superficial appearance of a male-female couple, the language of romance is more easily dismissed as non-erotic.
We previously discussed the expressions of passionate friendship between Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It, but the evidence is more fleeting in other cases. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia and Helena make reference to an established intimate friendship. Hermia reminds her friend how:
in the wood, where often you and I
Upon faint primrose-beds were wont to lie,
Emptying our bosoms of their counsel sweet,
But almost from the start of the play, that closeness is disrupted by their competition for the affections of a man.
A more drastic way to deflect the transgressive potential of women’s passionate friendships is the dead girlfriend approach. Shakespeare allows women to get really intense about the love they felt for someone who’s already dead at the start of the play. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the domestic conflict between Titania and Oberon that underlies almost everything else that happens is sparked by Oberon’s greed to take possession of a young boy whose mother was beloved by Titania. “A votaress of my order” Titania describes her, which is to say a sworn devotee. A human servant of a fairy queen. But the scenario that Titania paints for us indicates a level of intimacy that justifies Titania’s stubborn refusal to part with the boy.
Set your heart at rest:
The fairy land buys not the child of me.
His mother was a votaress of my order:
And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip’d by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking the embarked traders on the flood,
When we have laugh’d to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
Following,–her womb then rich with my young squire,–
Would imitate, and sail upon the land,
To fetch me trifles, and return again,
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
And for her sake I will not part with him.
In the end, of course, Titania surrenders and becomes a good obedient wife once more. The resolution by marriage is much more obviously forced in the case of Two Noble Kinsmen. Since this play isn’t as well-known as some, a brief plot summary may be in order.
Emilia is an Amazon, the sister of Queen Hippolyta who has just married Theseus. That is, just married within Two Noble Kinsmen, though also in the just aforementioned A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by coincidence. Emilia is disinterested in marriage and is mourning the death of her friend Flavina. Emilia’s description of how she loved the dead Flavina is charged with passion. The conversation starts with Hippolyta.
…[that] which he loves best.
There is a best, and reason has no manners
To say it is not you. I was acquainted
Once with a time when I enjoyed a playfellow;
You were at wars when she the grave enriched,
Who made too proud the bed; took leave o’ th’ moon,
Which then looked pale at parting, when our count
Was each eleven.
You talk of Pirithous’ and Theseus’ love.
Theirs has more ground, is more maturely seasoned,
More buckled with strong judgment, and their needs
The one of th’ other may be said to water
Their intertangled roots of love. But I,
And she I sigh and spoke of, were things innocent,
Loved for we did, and like the elements
That know not what nor why, yet do effect
Rare issues by their operance, our souls
Did so to one another. What she liked
Was then of me approved, what not, condemned,
No more arraignment. The flower that I would pluck
And put between my breasts—O, then but beginning
To swell about the blossom—she would long
Till she had such another, and commit it
To the like innocent cradle, where, Phoenix-like,
They died in perfume. On my head no toy
But was her pattern; her affections—pretty,
Though haply hers careless were—I followed
For my most serious decking. Had mine ear
Stol’n some new air, or at adventure hummed one
From musical coinage, why, it was a note
Whereon her spirits would sojourn—rather, dwell
And sing it in her slumbers. This rehearsal—
Which fury-innocent wots well comes in
Like old importment’s bastard—has this end,
That the true love ’tween maid and maid may be
More than in sex individual.
As a consequence of war, two kinsmen become Theseus’s prisoners. Theseus decides (without input from Emilia) that the two will fight with the victor marrying Emilia and the loser being executed. Don’t worry, it sort of makes sense in context. Emilia spends the whole play saying, “Look, this is stupid. I don’t want to marry at all and I certainly don’t want someone to be executed in my name.” When the rules of the duel are set, Emilia goes to the altar of Diana—goddess of those who refuse marriage—and prays to her.
O sacred, shadowy, cold, and constant queen,
Abandoner of revels, mute contemplative,
Sweet, solitary, white as chaste, and pure
As wind-fanned snow, who to thy female knights
Allow’st no more blood than will make a blush,
Which is their order’s robe, I here, thy priest,
Am humbled ’fore thine altar. O, vouchsafe
With that thy rare green eye, which never yet
Beheld thing maculate, look on thy virgin,
And, sacred silver mistress, lend thine ear—
Which ne’er heard scurrile term, into whose port
Ne’er entered wanton sound—to my petition,
Seasoned with holy fear. This is my last
Of vestal office. I am bride-habited
But maiden-hearted. A husband I have ’pointed,
But do not know him. Out of two I should
Choose one, and pray for his success, but I
Am guiltless of election. Of mine eyes,
Were I to lose one—they are equal precious—
I could doom neither; that which perished should
Go to ’t unsentenced. Therefore, most modest queen,
He of the two pretenders that best loves me
And has the truest title in ’t, let him
Take off my wheaten garland, or else grant
The file and quality I hold I may
Continue in thy band.
Emilia is loathe to be the prize in this contest and refuses to watch the fight. In the end she is resigned to her fate, not eager to embrace it. This clearly isn’t one of the romantic comedies with eager lovers. But although Emilia puts up the strongest resistance of any of Shakespeare’s heroines to having her love hijacked from a woman and turned toward heterosexual marriage, in the final analysis, Flavina can’t compete because she’s safely dead.
So is it fair to characterize what Shakespeare is doing in these plays as “queer-baiting” in the sense of teasing the audience with hints and promises of a same-sex relationship only balk at the fence? I think it is. The context is different from the present day. He didn’t have an audience that actively and openly longed to see a story resolve with two women together. But he did have an audience that accepted such a pairing as within the scope of imagination. And if he didn’t think they would enjoy being presented with that possibility on stage, he wouldn’t have included the motifs in his plays.
Not that the early modern theater audience was ready to have two female-presenting people officially paired off at the final curtain. Even Lyly’s Gallathea dodges that possibility with a magical sex-change. But even within the limitations of the time, Shakespeare is coy and timid with his homoerotic tropes. Viola may whet our appetites but comes nowhere near to sating them. For that, we must write our own stories.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online