Reading for Representation: Shakespeare’s Lost Audience

Kaye McLelland explores LGBTQIA+ issues in Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was a married father who wrote love poems to men. He lived in a time when modern ideas about sexual identity didn’t exist and anyone was considered capable of being tempted into same-sex activity, or the ‘Greek vice’ as it was often called. Yet all too often Shakespeare is understood, and therefore taught, without any recognition of the multitude of possible readings that this historical context brings. Even for teachers who are aware of LGBT issues, mainstream pressure to maintain Shakespeare’s image as the national poet (reinforced by governmental drives to return to Shakespeare as some kind of literary paragon of Britishness), together with the pressure to teach to exams, means that sadly, when a student says, ‘But Miss, Shakespeare’s gay’, this isn’t what they mean.

Why is this important? Shakespeare is raised up by many as the pinnacle of culture in the English language. Many of his words are used in everyday speech to talk about our loving relationships. ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ is Shakespeare; ‘If music be the food of love’ is Shakespeare; and so on. The play that is most frequently taught for GCSE, and has been for many years, is Romeo and Juliet, the quintessential heteronormative pairing (and a terrible lesson, regardless of your sexuality, unless you believe the best romantic relationships should be rashly entered, lacking in effective communication, and ultimately deadly). There are possibilities for queerer interpretations, but there is not necessarily support or time for exploring them, even when in Baz Luhrmann’s film version, which is widely used as a teaching resource, Mercutio delivers his highly sexual Queen Mab speech in drag (Act 1, scene 4). The GCSE bitesize website just says that Mercutio links lots of things to sex, whereas in many adults’ heads there is a quite discernible erotic tension between Mercutio and Romeo in the text as well as in the film.

Shakespeare is culturally set up to be an ‘everyman’, but to many he becomes a no-man’s (or everybody-else’s) land.  Over the last few years, I have been running ‘Queering Shakespeare’ drama workshops at community events, predominantly at BiCon, the annual gathering for bisexuals and their allies in the UK. The overwhelming response there is that people are amazed that they’re ‘allowed’ to reinterpret Shakespeare for their own purposes. They talk about how stuffy they thought he was or how shocked their teachers would be (this is probably especially true of those, like me, who were unfortunate enough to have been educated under the regime of Section 28). Yes, some of the interpretations they produce are pretty graphic, but probably no more extreme than the insinuations and double or triple meanings that would have come across from the Renaissance stage at the Globe or elsewhere. These plays had to appeal to all groups of society and their seemingly endless appetite for smut and filth, regardless of the genders of the audiences, or the fact that all women’s roles were played by adolescent boy actors who the anti-theatricals and puritans feared were being lured into sodomy.

In the past people have emerged from the English school system thinking that Shakespeare is outdated and boring, or they recognise that his work is considered important and worthy but they feel there is nothing there for them, no reflection of themselves or relevance to their experience. This is true for a great number of minority groups and that needs to be addressed. In the case of those with marginalised sexualities it exhibits itself in particular with regard to Shakespeare’s language of love and relationships, which is so pervasive that even a seminal work of bisexual literature, Bi Any Other Name, takes its title from a Shakespeare quote from a love scene (the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene).[1]

I have a friend who organises weekend read-throughs of Shakespeare and other plays. ‘Shakespeare does a pretty good job of queering himself’, she says, and she’s right. For a lot of people I know, who are fortunate enough to feel quite at home with reading Shakespeare, it is taken as read, for example, that Aufidius is expressing homoerotic desire when he compares Coriolanus’ arrival to the arrival of his bride over his threshold, or describes dreaming of them unbuckling their helmets and ‘fisting each other’s throats’ and waking ‘half dead with nothing’.[2] A lot of people are aware of all the rude jokes about penises in Shakespeare’s sonnets and don’t bat an eyelid at the suggestion that the old sailor in Twelfth Night is in love with the young Sebastian. Even The Merchant of Venice, an alternative but much more rarely taught GCSE text, has opportunities for exploring the possibility of a same-gender relationship between Bassanio and Antonio or the erotic possibilities of the cross-dressed Portia. But for many people there are systemic barriers to these kinds of readings.

In the Queering Shakespeare workshops I also explicitly encourage queering of more traditionally heteronormative passages. I always include the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, for example, and so far I don’t think I’ve seen the same combination of genders more than once. Time and again all people need to produce the most imaginative of reinterpretations is permission, but if you have no idea that the historical evidence for queering exists, or you come from a background where you don’t feel entitled to reinterpret established texts for your own purposes, then Shakespeare doesn’t necessarily queer himself and some empowerment is needed. Yes, says Chedgzoy, in her excellent essay on bisexuality in Shakespeare’s sonnets, we will be re-creating the works in our own image, but ‘Shakespeare’s cultural power means that there are good reasons for doing this’.[3]

Of course there is a place for rigorous scholarly investigations that plumb the depths of what we can realistically discern about early modern sexuality. There is a place, also, for lengthy and in-depth debate about whether the poems of Shakespeare are indeed homoerotic or whether they form part of a ‘homosocial’ relationship model that flourished in the early modern period and which we can’t fully understand.[4] But when people are being excluded from the work of the figure set up as the literary figurehead of their own culture, those academic concerns cannot deter us from ever discussing Shakespeare and sex in more inclusive ways. It is arguably unwise to hold Romeo and Juliet up as a relationship model to anyone, but even more so when there will be people in the room who already know that this priveleging of the boy-girl relationship is not for them, as well as those who are unsure and for whom the implication that this is the only way can be damaging and exclusionary.

Even for those in academia, the treatment of homoeroticism can still be problematic. All too often Shakespeare and other early modern texts which appear to concern same-gender attraction are ruthlessly explored by academics for evidence of consummation or ‘genital realisation’. This creates a double standard. We don’t interrogate other-gender love poetry in this way, we don’t consider it to only be legitimate if we have some evidence that the people concerned were sexually active with the person they’re writing about (or people with the same gender as that person). We take them at face value and we should be prepared to do the same with same-gender love poetry or poetry like sonnet 144, which speaks of having ‘two loves’ of different genders.

The status of Shakespeare as cultural icon still means that many find it unpalatable to suggest that he is anything other than mainstream and heteronormative. But if we are to retain him as our national poet he needs to be large and contradictory and ‘contain multitudes’.[5] It seems often that it is more acceptable to talk of other early modern writers as potentially queer but that Shakespeare has to remain sacrosanct. In her introduction to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Katherine Duncan-Jones (2010) quotes A. L. Rowse describing contemporary playwright Christopher Marlowe as a “raving homo” while still making a case for Shakespeare as a red-bloodied heterosexual.[6] But it is the very thing that makes people resist ‘messing’ with Shakespeare that makes it simultaneously essential to do so. We don’t have to put aside historicism always and forever, but we certainly need to facilitate queer readings from young people before it is too late and they have already rejected Shakespeare as an irrelevance.

Over and above a general awareness of the multiplicity of sexualities and gender identities that will be present in any classroom, there are two approaches to the problem of heteronormativity in students’ encounters with Shakespeare. One is to provide students at an earlier age (perhaps as early as Key Stage 3 in the UK, when GCSE teaching constraints are less pressing) with historical information that might destabilise their view of Shakespeare as only applying to white middle class heterosexual people. The other is to give permission to reinterpret Shakespeare’s words even in ways that aren’t supported by the historical opinions about early modern desire, not as a replacement for historical readings, but as part of an engagement with ‘Shakespeare’ as a body of work that has to include everyone.

Kaye McLelland is a fourth year PhD candidate at UCL and an associate researcher for BiUK. She writes about violence and liminality in Spenser and Shakespeare from a bisexual perspective. Kaye has designed and delivered Queering Shakespeare workshops for BiCon (2010 – 2013) and as part of Queer Week at Wadham College, Oxford (2014). Before returning to academia Kaye was a teacher of English in a state secondary school.

[1] Bi Any Other Name : Bisexual People Speak Out, ed. Loraine Hutchins and Lani Kaahumanu (Boston: Alyson Pub., 1991).
[2] William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, Act 4, scene 5, lines 108-125. ‘Nothing’ was also early modern slang for the vagina. Is Aufidius comparing his dream homoeroticism with his waking heterosexuality?
[3] Kate Chedgzoy, ‘“Two Loves I Have”: Shakespeare and Bisexuality’, in The Bisexual Imaginary : Representation, Identity and Desire, ed. Phoebe Davidson and Bi Academic Intervention (Organization) (London: Cassell, 1997) 106-119, p. 112.
[4] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick popularised this term, see Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, revised (Chichester: Columbia University Press, 1985).
[5] Words taken from Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’, Section 51.
[6] William Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones, Arden Third Series (London: Methuen Drama, A&C Black Publishers Ltd, 2010), pp. 50–1.