Shakespeare and sexuality
Ann Thompson
Sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of natural given which
power tries to hold in check, or as an obscure domain which knowl-
edge tries gradually to uncover. It is the name that can be given to a
historical construct: not a furtive reality that is difficult to grasp, but
a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the in-
tensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse, the formation
of special knowledges, the strengthening of controls and resistances,
are linked to one another, in
accordance with a few major strategies
of knowledge and power.
The history of sexuality supposes two ruptures if one tries to center
it on mechanisms of repression. The first, occurring in the course of
the seventeenth century, was characterized by the advent of the great
prohibitions, the exclusive promotion of adult marital sexuality, the
imperatives of decency, the obligatory concealment of the body,
the reduction to silence and mandatory reticences of language. The
second, a twentieth-century phenomenon, was really less a rupture
than an inflexion of the curve: this was the moment when the mech-
anisms of repression were seen as beginning to loosen their grip; one
passed from insistent sexual taboos to a relative tolerance with re-
gard to prenuptial or extra-marital relations; the disqualification of
‘perverts’ diminished, their condemnation by law was in part elim-
inated; a good many of the taboos that weighed on the sexuality of
children were lifted.
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, volume I (1976),
translated by Robert Hurley (Penguin, 1990),
pp. 1056 and p. 115.
‘Sexuality’ is a fashionable and controversial topic today, not just in lit-
erary studies but throughout the whole range of the humanities and
social and behavioural sciences. It is both a new topic and an interdi-
sciplinary one. This is explicitly recognized by the University of Chicago
Press which publishes a periodical called the Journal of the History of Sex-
uality, which claims to cover relevant areas ‘from incest to infanticide,
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from breast-feeding and women’s sexuality to female prostitution, from
pornography to reproductive politics, and from the first homosexual
rights movement to AIDS’. Advertising for the journal stresses the
marked increase in scholarship in the history of sexuality in the past
decade, and points out that publications have been widely scattered
across traditional subject boundaries in social, political and cultural stud-
ies. It is evident from the list of topics cited that this explosion of inter-
est relates to the coming together of three current modes of academic
discourse: feminism, post-Freudian psychoanalysis, and homosexual or
gay studies. A modest amount of time spent browsing in any bookstore,
library or even publisher’s catalogue will demonstrate how much work
is being done in all of these fields.
In Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Thomas Laqueur
claims that ‘Sometime in the eighteenth century, sex as we know it was
but he argues that this ‘invention depended on the cultural
reorientation that went on during the Renaissance period when there
occurred a shift in perception from a one-sex model of humanity to
a two-sex model: that is, instead of seeing the female body as a lesser
(inverted) version of the male body, people began to see it as its incom-
mensurable opposite. The early modern period does seem to feature
heavily in histories of sexuality. As my second quotation from Foucault
suggests, our twentieth-century focus on sexuality can perhaps be seen
as a result of the loosening of the mechanisms of repression, while our
interest in the seventeenth century can be seen as an attempt to inves-
tigate the supposed point of the imposition of those mechanisms. The
strong influence of Foucault on literary critics (especially new historicists)
has made it seem inevitable that the debate about sexuality is conducted
primarily in terms of knowledge and power; despite Laqueur’s investi-
gation of the history of the disappearing female orgasm, it seems almost
quaint these days to associate sexuality with pleasure.
Shakespeare studies have of course been affected by these debates.
‘Shakespeare and Sexuality’ was the topic of the twenty-fifth Interna-
tional Shakespeare conference at Stratford-upon-Avon in August 1992 ,
and this volume includes several of the papers delivered at the confer-
ence. It also includes relevant essays from other volumes of Shakespeare
Survey and other periodicals and two specially commissioned essays. A
great deal of further work in this area has been published since 1 992
and it is not practicable to attempt a complete retrospect of such schol-
arship; rather, I propose to draw out what seem to me to be a number
of key concerns of the past two decades under some fairly broad general
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Shakespeare and sexuality 3
headings: ‘Feminism’, ‘Men in Feminism and Gay Studies’, ‘The Boy
Actor and Performance Studies’ and ‘Language’.
In the preface to Making Sex Thomas Laqueur says that he could not have
written the book ‘without the intellectual revolution wrought by feminism
since World War II and especially during the last twenty years’. Certainly
in Shakespeare studies there can be no doubt that feminist criticism has
been enormously influential in putting issues of sexuality and sexual dif-
ference on to the critical agenda. In his 1991 annotated bibliography of
Shakespeare and Feminist Criticism, Philip C. Kolin covers four hundred and
thirty-nine items from the publication of Juliet Dusinber
’s Shakespeare
and the Nature of Women in 1975 to his cut-off point in 1988.
While all
these books and essays could be seen to relate to the question of sexuality
in the broadest sense, Kolin lists just thirty-eight items under ‘sexuality
(female)’ in his subject index and eighteen under ‘sexuality (male)’, of
which only thirteen are different from those listed under ‘sexuality (fe-
male)’. A quite surprisingly high proportion of these, in fact about half,
authored by both men and women, deal with the topic of male anxiety
about female sexuality. Other topics which recur, but less frequently, are
sexual stereotyping, sexuality (and sexism) in the reproduction and read-
ing of Shakespeare, and ambivalence about male sexuality and the issue
of homoeroticism.
The focus on male anxiety testifies to the prevalence of psychoana-
lytical approaches, especially in feminist criticism from North America.
A strong tradition can be traced from Representing Shakespeare: New Psy-
choanalytic Essays edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Copp´elia Kahn in
through Kahn’s own Mans Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare,
Majorie Garber’s Coming of Age in Shakespeare,
David Sundelson’s Shake-
speare’s Restoration of the Father
and Kay Stockholder’s Dream Works: Lovers
and Families in Shakespeare’s Plays
to Janet Adelman’s Suffocating Mothers
and Valerie Traub’s Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean
(both published in 1 992 ). At times earlier contributions to this ap-
proach have been attacked for exhibiting an ahistorical essentialism (see,
for example, Kathleen McLuskie’s essay ‘The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist
Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure’),
but it has
provided us with many valuable insights into Shakespeare’s treatment of
infantile sexuality, female relationships, the formation of sexual identity,
male bonding, misogyny, the fear of cuckoldry and other related issues.
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The subtitle of Valerie Traub’s book, Circulations of Sexuality in Shake-
spearean Drama, is, as she explains, a deliberate allusion to Stephen Green-
blatt’s Shakespearean Negotiations which was subtitled The Circulation of Social
Energy in Renaissance England.
Greenblatt’s work in that book as well as
in his earlier Renaissance Self-Fashioning
has been an important influence
on all critics who have examined the issue of individual identity in the
early modern period, but there has been some tension between femi-
nist critics and new historicist critics with the former accusing the latter
of treating issues of sexuality almost entirely in terms of power to the
exclusion of gender: see Lynda E. Boose, ‘The Family in Shakespeare
Studies; or – Studies in the Family of Shakespeareans; or – The Politics
of Politics’,
Carol Thomas Neely, ‘Constructing the Subject: Feminist
Practice and the New Renaissance Discourses’
and my own Are There
Any Women in King Lear?’
In this respect, the work of Michel Foucault,
in The History of Sexuality and especially in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of
the Prison,
has perhaps had an overly negative effect on our definitions
of early modern sexuality. At the same time one should in fairness record
that feminists have been accused of introducing a new kind of Puritanism
into the discourse of sexuality.
Feminist critics have often objected to negative views of Shake-
speare’s female characters. They have argued that the plays are less
sexist than the theatrical and critical traditions which continually re-
produce them. Barbara Mowat pointed out in 1977 the discrepancy
between Shakespeare’s women and the way they are perceived by male
and other feminist critics have shown that male directors
and critics are all too likely to agree with male characters to take
as it were Hamlet’s view of Gertrude rather than Shakespeare’s. Irene
Dash has used stage history to demonstrate, in Wooing, Wedding and Power:
Women in Shakespeare’s Plays,
how regularly womens roles have been
distorted and limited in productions, often with the effect of reducing a
robust interest in sexuality to the more coy attitudes thought of as fem-
inine by later ages. As long ago as 1957 Carolyn Heilbrun argued that
Gertrude had been misunderstood and wrongly condemned by male
Linda T. Fitz explored a similar phenomenon in ‘Egyptian
Queens and Male Reviewers: Sexist Attitudes in Antony and Cleopatra’,
and Jacqueline Rose has argued in ‘Sexuality in the Reading of Shake-
speare: Hamlet and Measure for Measure that the ‘problems’ in those plays
relate to the sexual anxieties of male critics and their determination to
hold female desire responsible for any breakdown in moral or aesthetic
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Shakespeare and sexuality 5
Paradoxically, as Celia R. Daileader notes in her essay in this volume,
‘Shakespeare needs feminism’
: despite attacks on ‘the patriarchal bard’
and revelations of the comparative misogyny of early modern culture,
female readers and audience members as well as feminist students and
critics have shown no desire to write him off; rather they have con-
tributed to and enjoyed a lively and very much ongoing debate. Many
of the most significant essays of the last twenty years have been col-
lected in anthologies such as Shakespeare and Gender edited by Deborah H.
Barker and Ivo Kamps
and Shakespeare, Feminism and Gender edited by
Kate Chedgzoy.
Recent books have included the genre-based studies
in Routledge’s ‘Feminist Readings of Shakespeare’ series (I should de-
clare an interest as General Editor of this series). Volumes published so
far are Philippa Berry’s Shakespeare’s Feminine Endings: Disfiguring Death in
the Tragedies,
Copp´elia Kahn’s Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds and
and Jean E. Howard and Phyllis Rackins Engendering a Nation:
A Feminist Account of Shakespeare’s English Histories.
All these books make
use of current debates about gender and sexuality while displaying a
scholarly awareness of the social and historical contexts of Shakespeare’s
work. Such a dual focus is also evident in Catherine Belsey’s Shakespeare
and the Loss of Eden,
whose subtitle, ‘The Construction of Family Values
in Early Modern Culture’, hints at the book’s slightly ironic take on how
we re-read the past.
Men in feminism and gay studies
There has clearly been a male response to feminist criticism in the pub-
lication of a number of books dealing directly with men’s relationship
to it: see for example Men in Feminism edited by Alice Jardine and Paul
and Engendering Men: The Question of Male Feminist Criticism edited
by Joseph Boone and Michael Cadden.
The work of many male crit-
ics is listed in Kolins annotated bibliography of Shakespeare and Feminist
Criticism though not all of them would necessarily describe themselves
as feminists. One critic who has explicitly engaged with what it means
to write as a male feminist is Peter Erickson whose Patriarchal Structures
in Shakespeare’s Drama provides a clear and at times grim analysis of the
sexual politics of the plays.
In his recent Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewrit-
ing Ourselves Erickson discusses in an afterword his own project which
‘involves undoing the automatic, apparently given, equation between
Shakespeare as white male author and myself as white male critic’.
his essay in this volume, Michael Hattaway addresses his own discomfort
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in being a man ‘reading as a woman and attempting to analyse misogyny
in Shakespearian texts.
At the same time, there has been a growing interest in the history and
construction of homosexuality and lesbianism. Did they even exist in the
modern sense in the Renaissance period? The issue has been explored
by James M. Saslow in ‘Homosexuality in the Renaissance: Behavior,
Identity, and Artistic Expression’
and by Alan Bray in Homosexuality
in Renaissance England.
Literary scholars have also been contributing to
this debate: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and
Male Homosocial Desire
invigorated discussion by distinguishing between
homosociality and homosexuality and locating male homoerotic desire
in the specific social context of patriarchal heterosexuality. She discussed
Shakespeare’s Sonnets which are an inevitable focus of attention in this
context, despite Margreta de Grazia’s brave attempt in her paper in this
volume to locate the ‘scandal’ elsewhere.
While the eighteenth century
did its best to eliminate the tricky question of Shakespeare’s own sexuality
altogether, a twentieth-century scholar like Joseph Pequigney in Such is
My Love: A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets tries to put it back, claiming a
specifically homosexual identity for the author and deploring the way
that most commentators neglect or dispose of the issue.
Such an identity
today (or, more precisely, such an implied commitment to specific erotic
practices) is of course overshadowed by the history of AIDS which makes
the association between desire and death grimly literal.
Other related areas of debate have been the differences between
Marlowe and Shakespeare in this respect (see Marilyn J. Thorssen,
‘Varieties of Amorous Experience: Homosexual and Heterosexual
Relationships in Marlowe and Shakespeare’,
and Joseph A. Porter,
‘Marlowe, Shakespeare, and the Canonization of Heterosexuality’
and the question of homoeroticism in The Merchant of Venice where the
Antonio/Bassanio/Portia triangle has been read as a struggle between
homosexual and heterosexual love (see Seymour Kleinberg The Mer-
chant of Venice: The Homosexual as Anti-Semite in Nascent Capitalism’,
Keith Geary, ‘The Nature of Portia’s Victory: Turning to Men in The Mer-
chant of Venice
and Karen Newman, ‘Portia’s Ring: Unruly Women and
Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice’.
) Catherine Belsey’s
essay in this volume puts this debate into the context of the perceived
distance between early modern culture and our own over the meaning
of sexuality, noting how difficult it is for us to determine the meaning of
terms like ‘love’ and ‘desire’ in relation to either heterosexual or homo-
sexual relationships.
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Shakespeare and sexuality 7
There has been far less written about lesbianism, though Valerie Traub
has explored the question of homoerotic desire from a lesbian angle, es-
pecially in her chapters on ‘Desire and the Differences it Makes’ and ‘The
Homoerotics of Shakespearean Comedy’ in Desire and Anxiety.
use of feminist film criticism on the ‘male gaze’ and the positioning of
the audience in relation to screen representations, she argues eloquently
for an eroticism which does not flow directly from gender identity and
is not limited to the binary homosexual/heterosexual opposition. (See
also her more recent essay on ‘The (In)Significance of “Lesbian” Desire
in Early Modern England’.
Recent contributions to the area of gay studies include Kate
Chedgzoy’s Shakespeare’s Queer Children,
which sees Shakespeare as an
enabling and empowering force for a range of ‘other’ voices, includ-
ing those of Oscar Wilde and Derek Jarman. Jeffrey Mastens Textual
explores the homoerotics of collaborative authorship in the
drama of Shakespeare’s time, and the anthology Queering the Renaissance
edited by Jonathan Goldberg provides a wider context for homosexual,
homoerotic and homosocial phenomena.
Male homosexual desire in the Renaissance period is often represented
as something which involves an age difference if not a sex difference: it
is seen as the desire of adult men for ‘boys’, and the use of such terms
for the younger partner as ‘ganymede’, ‘catamite’ and ‘ingle’ all testify
to this. The boy actor of women’s parts has been the focus of consider-
able interest to gay critics as well as to feminist critics in recent years. At
the same time a more general interest in transvestism as a widespread
social phenomenon not exclusive to the Renaissance is shown in two re-
cent books by prominent Shakespearian critics: Marjorie Garber’s Vested
Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety,
and Jonathan Dollimore’s
Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault,
which has a chapter
on ‘Cross-Dressing in Early Modern England’. In fact we still know ex-
traordinarily little about the actual performers, their lives and careers,
but we can argue, both from the texts themselves and from secondary
material (notably the attacks on the immorality of the stage), that this
particular dramatic convention gave rise to a number of debates about
sexual identity, sexual difference and sexual transgression.
Several scholars working in this area have discussed cross-dressing
as a real-life social phenomenon in Renaissance England as well as
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a theatrical practice. They have investigated the social and religious
background and the possible relationships between women wearing
men’s clothes on the streets and men wearing women’s clothes on the
stage. Such work includes Juliet Dusinberre’s section on ‘Disguise and
the Boy Actor’ in chapter 4 of Shakespeare and the Nature of Women,
Jardine’s chapter on ‘Female Roles and Elizabethan Eroticism’ in Still
Harping on Daughters,
Mary Beth Rose’s essay on ‘Women in Men’s
Clothing: Apparel and Social Stability in The Roaring Girl ’,
Levine’s ‘Men in Women’s Clothing: Anti-theatricality and Effeminiza-
tion from 1579 to 1642’,
Jonathan Dollimore’s ‘Subjectivity, Sexuality
and Transgression’,
Stephen Orgel’s ‘Nobody’s Perfect: Or Why Did
the English Renaissance Stage Take Boys for Women?’
and Jean E.
Howard’s ‘Crossdressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early
Modern England’.
Others have concentrated more specifically on the immediate dra-
matic effects of the convention: such work includes Paula S. Berggren’s
‘The Woman’s Part: Female Sexuality as Power in Shakespeare’s Plays’,
Kathleen McLuskie’s ‘The Act, the Role, and the Actor: Boy Actresses on
the Elizabethan Stage’,
Mary Free’s ‘Shakespeare’s Comedic Heroines:
Protofeminists or Conformers to Patriarchy?’,
Matthew H. Wikan-
der’s As secret as maidenhead”: The Profession of the Boy-Actress
in Twelfth Night’,
Phyllis Rackins Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Mar-
riage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage’
Lorraine Helms’s ‘Playing the Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism and
Shakespearean Performance’.
A central issue of debate about the boy actor has been over whether
the convention empowers women, by allowing female characters to
adopt freedoms denied them in a patriarchal culture, or whether in the
end the disguises serve only to reaffirm the sexual hierarchy. On the more
positive side, critics such as Dusinberre, Berggren, and Rackin (as well
as Catherine Belsey in ‘Disrupting Gender Difference: Meaning and
Gender in the Comedies’
) see at least the possibility for an escape from
the constraints of femininity, an opening up of rigid gender distinctions,
a playfulness with ideas of androgyny. On the negative side, critics
such as Free and Howard reject the view of Shakespeare’s heroines as
proto-feminists and argue that cross-dressing on the stage was not in fact
a strong site of resistance to traditional assumptions about gender. In this
context, more than one critic has contrasted Shakespeare’s use of the
boy-disguised-as-a-girl-disguised-as-a-boy in As You Like It and Twelfth
Night, usually arguing that Rosalind is empowered by her disguise while
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Shakespeare and sexuality 9
Viola is trapped by hers: see Nancy K. Hales’ ‘Sexual Disguise in As You
Like It and Twelfth Night
and Valerie Traub’s chapter on ‘The Homo-
erotics of Shakespearean Comedy’ in Desire and Anxiety’.
Peter Erickson
on the other hand has interpreted both the ending and the epilogue in As
You Like It as means of containing and even eliminating female power.
The mid-1990s saw the appearance of some major studies in this field,
notably Michael Shapiro’s Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage,
Levine’s Men in Womens Clothing (a book incorporating her earlier essay,
and Stephen Orgel’s Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s
More generally, studies of Shakespeare’s plays in performance, on
stage and increasingly on film, are directly addressing issues of sexual-
ity, as is evident in the essays by Celia R. Daileader and John Russell
Brown in this volume.
Recent collections of essays such as Shakespeare,
Theory and Performance edited by James C. Bulman
and Shakespeare the
Movie edited by Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt
contain several rel-
evant contributions, and there has been a focus on the sexual politics of
particular companies and productions in books like Elizabeth Schafer’s
Ms-Directing Shakespeare
and Penny Gay’s As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s
Unruly Women.
If sexuality is socially constructed, it is also, and necessarily on the English
Renaissance stage, verbally constructed. Language itself, as feminist lin-
guistics has shown, is far from being gender-neutral. Male/female stereo-
types are built into everyday language use as well as into more elaborated
literary contexts. In Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property
Parker explores the sexual politics of Shakespeare’s plays through an
analysis of their rhetorical structures, arguing that the ‘women are words,
men deeds’ clich´e gave rise to an anxiety about effeminization associ-
ated with linguistic excess or ‘fatness’: Hamlet associates impotence with
talking like a drab. Specific tropes such as hysteron proteron, dilation and
delation, are seen as moulding the gender hierarchy in King Lear and the
destruction of Desdemona in Othello respectively. Women’s supposed lack
of verbal self-control is associated with other kinds of ‘fluency’ or ‘leaki-
ness’ by Gail Kern Paster in ‘Leaky Vessels: The Incontinent Women of
City Comedy’.
Men arguably control language, in the plays as in real life. In “The
Blazon of Sweet Beauty’s Best”: Shakespeare’s Lucrece’, Nancy Vickers
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shows how female characters such as Lucrece, Desdemona and Innogen
can become victims of the blazon, the elaborated verbal description of
a woman’s beauty, a trope which originates in the male imagination
and functions in situations of male rivalry.
To somewhat similar effect,
though in relation to a very different text, Carol Cook claims in ‘The
Sign and Semblance of Her Honor: Reading Gender Difference in Much
Ado About Nothing that ‘what is at stake is a masculine prerogative in
language, which the play itself sustains’.
The contest in ‘phallic wit’
between Beatrice and Benedick contributes in the end to the survival of
the masculine ethos. Women can play with words but men own them.
Some critics have been more optimistic about the possibility of a more
positive feminine use of language. Deborah T. Curren-Aquino argues
in ‘Toward a Star that Danced: Woman as Survivor in Shakespeare’s
Early Comedies’ that the women in these plays have more adaptable
verbal skills than the men.
Taking a comparable line on Isabella and
Helena in ‘Speaking Sensibly: Feminine Rhetoric in Measure for Measure
and All’s Well That Ends Well’, Christy Desmet nevertheless concedes
that the women are finally consigned to silence in a male world.
doxically, as Philip C. Kolin notes in the Introduction to his annotated
bibliography of Shakespeare and Feminist Criticism, many studies of womens
distinctive language in the plays have in fact focused on their silence.
Sometimes, however, Shakespeares women speak when male critics
and directors would prefer them to be silent, and this is especially evident
when they talk about sexuality. George Bernard Shaw revealed himself
to be a true Victorian when he remarked of Beatrice that ‘In her char-
acter of professed wit she has only one subject, and that is the subject
which a really witty woman never jests about, because it is too serious a
matter to a woman to be made light of without indelicacy.’
In Wooing,
Wedding and Power Irene Dash points out that the part of the sexually
outspoken Princess in Love’s Labour’s Lost has often been severely abbre-
viated, both on stage and in expurgated editions, in a series of attempts
to save her from ‘vulgarity’ and to make her speech more ‘ladylike’ by
post-Renaissance standards.
In his paper in this volume William C.
Carroll discusses the issue of female sexuality and linguistic obscenity
an area which still poses problems for editors
– while Mary Bly exam-
ines the ‘bawdy puns’ of Romeo and Juliet and their transformation in the
subsequent dramatic tradition from lyric to burlesque.
There has been
a renewal of interest in the glossing and annotating of sexual language:
Eric Partridge’s 1947 classic Shakespeare’s Bawdy was followed by Frankie
Rubinstein’s A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns and Their Significance.
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