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!