Shakespeare’s Life and Times

Shakespeare, Sexuality, and Identity

World Pride is June 20-29th in Toronto! To celebrate, we look at the ways in which Shakespeare has dealt with sexuality and identity in the Elizabethan era.

As a society, we’ve come a long way in regards to the acceptance of those who identify as LGBQ or T. Consider that in the 16th and 17th centuries, coming out would have been detrimental to one’s social status, and that any person caught participating in a sexual act deemed unacceptable would be punished by law, often execution. There is some speculation as to Shakespeare’s own sexual orientation, particularly when examined in relation to some of his works. It can be argued that Shakespeare was able to work through his own concerns, frustrations, and sexual desires by writing them into his work.

Ben Arogundade offers a brief examination of Iago’s sexual orientation, and how it is supported by possible motives and his actions within the play, Othello. Arogundade considers that Iago may be jealous of Othello’s love and devotion to his wife, Desdemona. Arogundade also states that “Iago’s supposed gay attraction to both Othello and Cassio is given additional weight by the indifference and contempt with which he regards his wife Emilia, and indeed women in general — a component of Iago’s psychologically twisted personality and dark cynicism.”  Read the full article:

Antonio’s melancholic demeanor, and his devotion to Bassanio offer us another of Shakespeare’s works in which homosexual discourse is explored. At the top of the play, Antonio’s sadness can be attributed to Bassanio’s affections towards women. Over the course of the play Antonio makes significant sacrifices for Bassanio’s benefit including draining his financial funds to support Bassanio, and risking his life. These sacrifices offer support to the idea that Antonio and Bassanio share a bond that runs deeper than friendship alone.

A few of Shakespeare’s works play with gender identity in the form of cross-dressing. A few examples include As You Like It when Rosalind disguises herself as Ganymede, Twelfth Night with Viola disguised as Cesario, and The Merchant of Venice when Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as a young male doctor and his clerk.

This is only a brief exploration of gender and sexual orientation within the context of Shakespeare’s works. There are numerous texts that address these issues, some of which I have provided a link below.

Additional scholarly texts that address gender, sexual orientation and Shakespeare:

Wishing everyone a very Happy Pride!

Celebrating Birthdays in Elizabethan England

On April 23, it will be the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, and will be celebrated all over the world! The question I had when I found out was the following: How would Shakespeare have celebrated his birthday when he was alive? Turns out most people didn’t celebrate their birthday in Shakespeare’s day, especially the poor, and there’s no indication that even monarchs celebrated their birthdays. There are very few records of birthdays being celebrated. Everyone had a saint associated with their birthday, and sometimes people would pay respects to that saint on their birthday.

When I researched birthdays in Elizabethan England, I found one mention of an Elizabethan birthday party, that of thirteen-year-old Mall Sidney, who, when she grew up, became a famous writer known as Lady Mary Wroth, Duchess of Pembroke. Lady Mary was the first woman to write a sustained work of prose fiction that came from a high-ranking family. There are records of her birthday being celebrated, however, no one knows for sure how Birthdays were celebrated in Elizabethan England.

In Shakespeare’s work, there are very few mentions of birthdays. Anthony and Cleopatra casually mentions that fact that it’s Cleopatra’s birthday, and they celebrate with a night of drinking, despite Cleopatra’s assumption that she’d be holding her birthday poor, meaning that she doesn’t expect anything at all. In Julius Caesar, there’s a casual reference to it being Cassius’ birthday shortly before he dies, although this is mentioned out of the blue.

What I never expected was how contemporary the popular beliefs regarding birthdays are. Since there is no clear answer in terms of how birthdays were celebrated in Shakespeare’s day, no one really knows how to celebrate theirs in a genuinely Shakespearean style!

How do you plan to mark the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth? Feel free to share your way of celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday in the comment section!

Marriage in the Elizabethan Era

A friend of mine is soon to be married! I am excited to have the honor of attending and celebrating this special occasion with her, her fiance, their family and friends.

The upcoming wedding led me to wonder if any traditions or customs from the Elizabethan era are currently practiced in Western culture.

In Elizabethan times, marriages were frequently arranged to benefit both families with greater prestige and wealth. In some cases, the couple would meet for the first time on the day of the wedding!

In order for a couple to marry, they had to announce their intention to marry. The Elizabethan custom was to announce it in church three times on three consecutive Sundays or holy days, to allow for any objections. This is called “crying the banns”. Our modern day announcements include obtaining a banns from the church, or a marriage licence from the local government.

A significant part of the wedding day included the signing of the wedding contract, which set out the terms of the dowry, jointure, and other elements for the financial security of both parties. The dowry is an amount of money, goods, and property the bride brings to the marriage. It can also be called her marriage portion. The jointure is an agreement by the groom ‘s family to guarantee specific money, property and goods to the bride if her husband dies before she does, aside from or in addition to what is in his will. Sometimes this agreement is assured by promises from the family’s friends.

In today’s culture, the wedding licence is signed by the bride and groom on the wedding day, usually during or immediately after the ceremony. Agreements and contracts that are similar to jointure include pre-nuptial agreements, cohabitation agreements, and marriage contracts. These agreements and contracts can be drafted and signed before, during or after the marriage itself takes place.

The bride’s dress was not necessarily white; it could be any color or cut. Often times, the bride would choose the best dress from her existing wardrobe, and have it freshened up with new ribbons or flowers. The groom also wore his best garments. In today’s culture, some couples may choose to do this. It depends on the nature of the wedding the bride and groom choose to have. To my knowledge, the groom often rents a tuxedo or suit for the day of his wedding.

One thing that came up a few times that I find amusing is that single women were considered to be witches! However, since I have yet to discover a reason for such a statement, more research must be done.

As marital customs vary depending on cultural beliefs and religious beliefs, this blog post offers a glimpse of some of the similarities and differences between marriage in the Elizabethan era as compared to marriage today.