One cannot help but notice when reading many, if not most, of Shakespeare’s plays, that homoeroticism, cross-dressing, and various other forms of queerness can be found with abundance. Was Shakespeare criticizing heteronormative sexuality and the roles it forced people into? Why does it seem like Shakespeare starts his plays with the premise of “straightness” and then transgresses into “gayness” only to return back heteronormativity?
One conclusion the reader could come to is that perhaps Shakespeare uses this “sandwiching” technique, if you will, in order to demonstrate just how utterly ridiculous these gender roles truly are. By placing the societal expectations of the time period and the “deviance” alongside one another, Shakespeare is able to demonstrate, in a comedic way, the ways in which the characters must contort themselves in order to accommodate these predetermined roles that society has set for them.
Not only does Shakespeare accomplish making heterosexuality seem strange, but he also normalizes homosexuality. More specifically, through rhetorical techniques and the characterization of the protagonists in both The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It, Shakespeare demonstrates in both of these plays that heterosexuality functions as a representation of “otherness”.
Taking a closer look at The Merchant of Venice , something rather noticeable is the blatant homoeroticism between Antonio and Bassanio. The play begins with a distraught Antonio:“In truth, I know not why I am so sad: It wearies me; you say it wearies you; But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, What it’s made of, I am yet to learn; And such a dolt this sadness makes of me, That I can hardly recognize myself,” (The Merchant of Venice 1.1. 1-7).
This opening expression of sadness is vital to the reader’s interpretation of this play. Some readers might argue that Antonio, who the reader later finds out is a ship merchant, is concerned over the loss of his assets and not over the fact that Bassanio is in love with another. However, this interpretation has obvious flaws. Why would a financial dilemma cause Antonio to “hardly recognize” himself?
One answer is that Antonio is not concerned with money in this moment at all, in fact, Antonio suggests that life is, ‘“A stage where every man must play a part/ and mine a sad one.’” (1.1. 82-83).” The incredibly ambiguous and sensuous language repeatedly used in the interactions between Antonio and Bassanio may not be enough to convince the reader that queerness is commonplace in The Merchant of Venice.
Continuing to analyze the relationships between characters in this play, one might look to Portia. Portia, who has turned down numerous marriage proposals for varying reasons, seems to finally give into heteronormativity when Antonio wins her hand. However, that is not the case when reading further.
When Antonio is put on trial for his debts, Portia is the one who saves his life. She and her lady in waiting, Nerissa, dress as men to impersonate legal experts, “Why, shall we turn to men?” (3.4. 1812). This response to the notion that Portia and Nerissa will dress in men’s clothing seems to suggest much more than masculine dress. In fact, Nerissa seems to suggest that the two will transform into men. The idea that gender markers are so powerful was no stranger to Shakespeare’s England.
Historical context in this instance is important to understand because of the reaction to cross dressing at the end of the play. Had these two women impersonated men in real life, the consequences would have been severe. However, the reader can take note that this is not the reaction received. Antonio says in response to the revelations, “Sweet lady, you have given me life and living; For here I read for certain that my ships Are safely come to road,” (5.1. 2714-15).
Both Antonio and Bassanio react in good humor to the idea that the two women have cross-dressed. The only way Shakespeare can disguise his blatant normalization of homosexuality is through this sandwiching technique. Although the characters all end the play in heterosexual relationships, the queerness of their previous interactions is never mentioned nor is it criticized. Thus allowing Shakespeare to normalize homosexuality and thereby framing heterosexuality as the “other”.
Continuing onto the play, As You Like It, it will come as no surprise to the reader that instances of homoeroticism and cross dressing are frequent. The protagonist, Rosalind, disguises herself as a man named Ganymede for the majority of this play, which carries significance for contemporary and Renaissance readers alike. “Ganymede” was a beautiful prince of Troy kidnapped by Zeus to be a cupbearer.
This Greek mythology has had homosexual connotations starting as early as the sixteenth century (1558) according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “ A boy or young man who is made use of as a (typically passive) sexual partner by an older man. More generally: a (younger) passive partner in homosexual anal intercourse. Also: a young male prostitute. Cf. catamite n.,” (OED “Ganymede, n.”).
This connotation of femininity and homosexuality was well known in Shakespeare’s time and surely carries the same meaning within this work. There are multiple instances of intimate female relationships in this play, such as the relationship between Rosalind and Celia. This relationship is described as, “never two ladies loved as they do,” (As You Like It 1.1. 11). Once again, ambiguous language is used here allowing for multiple interpretations. The reader may be seemingly perplexed; however, further inspection of the text reveals more instances of homoeroticism.
“He was to imagine me his love, his mistress, and I set him every day to woo me; at which time would I, being but a moonish youth, grieve, be effeminate, changeable, longing and liking, proud, fantastical, apish, shallow, inconstant, full of tears, full of smiles; for every passion something,” (3.3. 1602-1608).
Rosalind is telling Orlando, as Ganymede, that she will cure him of his love for Rosalind. Once again, the reader can note the idea that taking on the role of the opposite gender is far more powerful than the character being male/female-identifying, embracing gender markers is transformative. Rosalind, dressed as a man, will now impersonate a woman and through this impersonation she is transforming.
This poignant description of her transformation goes on for many lines and although this is interesting in and of itself, Orlando’s reaction is noteworthy as well: “Now, by the faith of my love, I will. Tell me where it is…with all my heart,” (3.3. 1624-29). Orlando is more than eager to role play with Ganymede, which although the ambiguity of the language is ever present, all instances of homoeroticism make a compelling argument to the meaning of these textual examples.
Orlando and Celia are not the only instances of homoerotic relationships Rosalind engages in while taking on the identity of Ganymede. Phoebe, another presumably straight character, lusts after the feminine characteristics of Ganymede, “The best thing in him Is his complexion; He is not very tall…There was a pretty redness in his lip, A little riper and more lusty red,” (3.5. 1921-27). The reader might even pose the question of whether or not Phoebe is attracted to men, considering the only man she is attracted to is described solely by his effeminate characteristics.
Thinking about how As You Like It uses these instances of homoeroticism to normalize homosexuality, it also contains the same sandwiching technique that is observed in The Merchant of Venice. Just as in The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It concludes with the characters in heterosexual relationships with little commentary on any of the homoerotic behavior that previously dominated the substance of the plot.
Hymen, the God of Marriage, in response to the revelation that Rosalind, and numerous other characters, engaging in homosexual behavior decrees, “Peace, ho! I bar confusion. ’Tis I must make conclusion Of these most strange events. Here’s eight that must take hands To join in Hymen’s bands, If truth holds true contents,” (5.4. 2762-67). In essence, the God of Marriage approves of these interactions and makes no more mention of what has previously occurred. This idea, that in this alternate reality, homoeroticism not only happens but is normalized, is strikingly vivid to the reader.
Through the use of countless examples within both The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It, the reader can clearly see blatant homoeroticism described. Shakespeare successfully frames these instances as “no big deal” by neither drawing attention to them nor isolating them. The “sandwiching” technique allows homoeroticism to effortlessly blend into the seams of the plot in a way that not only normalizes homosexuality but also makes heteronormativity the plot twist, thus, making heteronormativity the “other”.