Shakesqueer – A Queer, Feminist Reading

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Written by Josh Orlando

Image credit: Shakespeare in the Park production of Twelfth Night, starring Anne Hathaway, Audra McDonald, Julie White and Raul Esparza (2009)

For hundreds of years Shakespeare’s plays have dominated the theater industry. Scholars, conspiracy theorists, and flat out fanatics have speculated on the playwrights identity for quite some time now. But was Shakespeare really queer? And does it even matter? It is nearly impossible to say for sure. Given how little historians have been able to document on the life of William Shakespeare, we are not even sure of his exact date of birth. But what we have for sure are countless dirty jokes, a fury of queer desire, and gender-fluid romance strung between 37 plays and 154 sonnets, half of which are explicitly addressed to men (Arden Shakespeare Complete Works). It’s all things lude, crude, and lascivious. This article will provide a queer reading of Shakespeare’s most popular plays and fan favorite characters. Who is the gayest in the canon? And what does this say about the man himself?

In Romeo and Juliet, the male protagonist Romeo is continually ridiculed by the other men in the play for being emasculated by love. An original hopeless romantic, he’s compared to his hyper-masculine counterpart and rival, Tybalt. Tybalt is “the very butcher of a silk button… the pox of antic, lisping, affecting, fantasticoes.” (R&J 2.4.24-25). While Romeo is mocked by his best friend Mercutio as, “Humors! Madman! Passion! Lover”. Despite Romeo’s blatant heterosexuality for Juliet, everyone see’s him as emasculated by the indulgent way he falls in love. “Too great oppression for a tender thing.” (R&J 1.4.24-25).

Romeo + Juliet. Dir. Baz Luhrmann (1996)

And then there’s Hamlet. Much like Romeo, Hamlet has been described as an unmanly character who basically facilitates his own demise. Maybe he’s born with it? Maybe it’s the age-old crisis of toxic masculinity that Shakespeare himself could barely identify. Throughout the play we see Hamlet designating himself to that of boy and woman rather than to man or king. “Am I a coward? Who calls me a villain? Breaks my pate across? Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face?”. (Hamlet 2.2.531-533). And later on he casually compares himself to a female sex worker, “Must I like a whore unpack my heart with words and fall a-cursing like a very drab, a stallion!”. (Hamlet 2.2. 547-548). Consistently we see Hamlet exposing to the audience the unattainability of manhood. And we don’t blame him! After all that family drama, the last thing anyone wants to do is feign big dick energy. The real tragedy of Hamlet is one of failed masculinity.

Twelfth Night and As You Like It feature some of Shakespeare’s famous gender benders. English Elizabethan women were born and raised to be subservient to men. Disobedience was a category crime against religion.  There were countless structural obstacles in place designed to hold women back. In these plays, the characters Viola and Rosalind have to practically transcend gender just to get close to what they want. In Twelfth Night and As You Like It, the women disguise themselves as boys and end up wooing their love interests. And given the labor laws of the time, which banned women from performing on stage, this made for some interesting gender politics. For example, Rosalind was played by a male actor, who was performing the character as a woman, who was then technically cross-dressing as a man… Talk about gender euphoria. Overall these plays have demonstrated gender as a product of social construction rather than a fixed identity governed by the laws of nature. Through emphasizing costumes, crossdressing, and fluidity, Twelfth Night and As You Like It showcase society’s conception of gender as semiotically influenced.

Shakespeare in the Park production of Twelfth Night, starring Anne Hathaway, Audra McDonald, and Raul Esparza (2009)

None of this suggests definitively that Shakespeare was in fact of LGBTQ+ identity. But we know from his plays that he struggled intimately with the social conditions that produce identity in the first place. A queer reading of Shakespeare dwells not on the orientation of the man, but rather of the works. And Shakespeare’s works are queer AF. It is less useful to wonder about Shakespeare’s sexual orientation though. After all, bisexuality was extremely common among Elizabethans. Shakespeare was talking about class and gender. He was deeply concerned with the roles that we play in order to conform with our world’s expectation of us. Most of his plays feature male protagonists who are able to acknowledge the constructed role of masculinity and how unattainable it is. They are also usually controlled by women behind the scenes. Go figure. Overall, Elizabethans in general were obsessed with binary gender roles. They were so afraid of women’s untapped potential that they barred them from performing on stage, a job reserved for men. When we read Shakespeare we’re offered something similar to that of what people of queer experience are able to offer today… a critical point of view of the world in which we inhabit. Shakespeare was probably bi though. I mean… we can dream.

Josh Orlando

Josh Orlando

Josh Orlando (he/she/they) is a gender nonconforming artist, activist, educator based out of Los Angeles, CA. They have a masters degree in Theater Arts from the University of California Santa Cruz. Josh is where performance art meets gender politics.