Shakespeare, William (1564–1616)
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On several fronts-as an actor, as a poet/playwright, as a cultural icon-William Shakespeare stands in a complicated relationship to homosexuality. “Homosexual” may not have existed as a concept in early-modern England, but Shakespeare’s contemporaries associated theater in general with the one word they did have for aberrant sexual behavior: sodomy. Philip Stubbes speaks for a host of antitheatrical controversialists when he imagines that members of the audience, inflamed by “bawdy speeches” and “wanton gestures,” leave the theater and take each other home, where “in their secret conclaves (covertly) they play the Sodomites, or worse.” In sixteenth-and seventeenth-century usage, sodomy could refer to outrageous behavior of all kinds (including bestiality, heresy, and treason), but Stubbes and his ilk clearly have in mind sexual acts between males. Citing Deuteronomy’s warning about men putting on women’s apparel (22:5), John Rainolds finds the real abomination in early-modern theater to be, at bottom, boy actors who assume women’s parts. Shakespeare’s scripts, true to the Puritans’ charges, seem to play up the homoerotic possibilities whenever a boy playing a girl is asked by the fiction to play a boy-as, for example, when Rosalind in As You Like It disguises himself/herself as “Ganymede” or Viola in Twelfth Night as “Cesario.” There may have been something subversive and sodomitical about the whole theatrical enterprise, but Shakespeare as playwright and poet goes far beyond the specific situation of boy actors playing women’s parts. One effect of casting boys in women’s roles was to separate gender from anatomy. Gender roles and sexual roles may or may not coincide; erotic desire can operate within gender as well as across gender.