Getting Between the Sheets: Homoerotic Tendencies in Play and Production

*An essay written while studying abroad for my Shakespeare and His World class.*

People have always been curious about the unspeakables, topics of conversation that are never to be mentioned, and yet are constantly brought up in hushed tones. Probably because people were interested in the dirtier ways of life, the thrill of gossiping. One prime example of this is the topic of sexuality and particularly homosexuality, especially in the Early Modern Period. Roger Thompson’s article “Attitudes Towards Homosexuality in the Seventeenth-Century New England Colonies” expresses the idea that “sodomy was literally unspeakable. It was customarily described as ‘a sinne not once to be named’” (31), although there were clearly people discussing this subject and even partaking in the act, or else there would not be these theories today. Everyone was interested in the things they were told to turn away from either by their family, government, or church; but censoring only made the curious strive for outlets to learn and discover these tainted topics.

The Early Modern Period was witness to plays and stories highly charged with eroticism, specifically homoeroticism. Charles Forker explains that the “Restoration comedy…[was] often thought of as obsessed with sex and dominated by lubricity” (1). The authors and playwrights in this time capitalized on the sexual comedies that their audience wanted to read and see; one of the authors leading this trend was William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s characters Iago and Rosalind can be read untraditionally as having homoerotic tendencies that add interest and help explain the storyline better, therefore these tendencies should be shown in productions. Shakespeare’s plays contain many layers and are capable of being read on many different levels, such as the homoerotic. In this essay, I will focus on the plays As You Like It and Othello, and using a video production of each, discerning whether or not the production succeeds in showing this other, “unspeakable” side of the play.

Shakespeare’s time may have seen a rise in plays and stories that depicted curious interactions with two men, however according to Robert Matz and his article “Slander, Renaissance Discourses of Sodomy, and Othello,” “the early modern period recognized no distinct homosexual, or therefore heterosexual, identity” (261-62). Forker agrees with Matz and adds on the “notion of sexual orientation or preference as implying a gay subculture within the predominantly heterosexual one would probably have been unrecognizable to Marlow and his contemporaries” (1). Simply put, the time period did not have the terminology used today, and obviously, that topic was quite delicate and therefore not mentioned enough to have required its own terms. Nonetheless, Shakespeare still experimented with this genre of sexuality. Shakespeare’s Division of Experience, written by Marilyn French, argues this by saying: “Shakespeare…attempted to synthesize the gender principles in more earthly locales…[such as the] male figures assimilating, absorbing the qualities of the feminine principle through education and…suffering” (30). And Valerie Traub’s article “Gender and Sexuality in Shakespeare” even further backs up French’s argument idea: “Masculinity, for instance, is typically associated with sexual aggression in our own time, whereas during Shakespeare’s life, women were considered to be more lustful than men” (129). Shakespeare, as seen in Othello and As You Like It, manipulates the gender roles in his plays, deciding for himself who can be more lustful or feminine and who cannot.

The play As You Like It contains one of Shakespeare’s most iconic characters: Rosalind. Traditionally read, Rosalind disguises herself as a man named Ganymede and retreats to the woods to find her father, the Duke Senior, and have her family restored to their original power back in the city. There are romantic interests involved, the wrestler Orlando and Rosalind have a blossoming relationship while she is disguised and it truly flourishes in the conclusion of the play when her father becomes the rightful duke and she can remove her disguise. This is the traditional read of the play and how it is generally performed on stage or in movies.

There are, however, many other ways of reading into the character of Rosalind and her interactions with others. As Catherine Belsey explains in her article “Disrupting Sexual Difference: Meaning and Gender in the Comedies”: “[Shakespeare’s comedies call into] question a set of relations between terms which purposes as inevitable an antithesis between masculine and feminine, men and women” (171). In As You Like It, Rosalind impersonates a man and completely succeeds. When she finally removes her disguise, no one is embarrassed or chastises her, which is how one would assume that, as a woman, she would have been reprimanded for her actions. Belsey also reminds that the “place of the woman in the dynastic family is clear and well known” during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and it is clear that Rosalind is stepping out of her intended place by dressing herself as a boy, which allows for her to “escape the constraints and the vulnerability of the feminine” (176, 182), “perform heroic actions that were generally reserved for men” (Rackin 74-75). Women were held down during this time, and Rosalind is definitely no exception. Her father was banished from the city and she now lives under her uncle’s roof, only to be banished as well. It is reasonable that she despises being a woman, which is shown when she tells Orlando, while dressed up as Ganymede: “I thank God I am / not a woman” (Shakespeare 3.2.337-38). Perhaps Rosalind is simply boosting her masculinity by appealing to something many men would have agreed upon, but she describes it as being too “giddy” (3.2.338) which in turn has ruined the whole female sex for her. Valerie Traub’s other article about homoeroticism states: “Of all the male names available to her, [Rosalind] chooses that of the young lover of Zeus” otherwise known as Ganymede. Traub also explains that this male name “was used from medieval times well into the seventeenth century to mean an object of homosexual desire” (137). Shakespeare must have been aware of this knowledge when picking Rosalind’s new persona, therefore creating her to have homoerotic tendencies.

There are two separate characters that intertwine with Rosalind/Ganymede. First, there is Rosalind’s cousin and childhood friend, Celia, who gives up her royal life to disappear into the forest alongside Rosalind. She too changes her identity, but to that of a lowly farm girl since her stature is smaller than Rosalind’s. In the traditional read of the play, Celia/Aliena is being an understanding cousin and friend by helping Rosalind find her father and restore her rightful place in the kingdom, even though that means removing herself from royalty. To Celia, nothing is stronger than friendship, other than love. An un-traditional read brings forth the idea that Celia is actually in love with Rosalind, who does not return this romantic love. The one-sided relationship is clear from the first act when Celia claims that she can “see [Rosalind] lovest [her] not with the full weight that [she] love [Rosalind]” (1.2.7-8) and the way in which she addresses her cousin: “my sweet Rose, my dear Rose” (1.2.21). Familial love is very present in this society and Celia and Rosalind had been friends since early childhood, however, Celia’s love for Rosalind is vastly different than Rosalind’s love for Celia.

When Duke Frederick, Celia’s father, and Rosalind’s uncle, banishes Rosalind, Celia does not think twice about running away with her cousin, whereas Rosalind does not think of anyone but herself and allows her innocent cousin to leave the safety of her home to follow her. Celia demands that she be banished by her own father, and with a simple argument from Rosalind, Celia is determined to flee to the forest with her cousin, saying: “Rosalind, lack’st thou then the love / Which teacheth thee that thou and I am one?” (1.3.95-96). Rosalind not only does not persist any further that Celia should stay where she belongs, but she is also oblivious that her cousin and dearest friend has romantic feelings for her.

Another example of Celia being in love with Rosalind is when Rosalind, disguised as Ganymede, demands to be married to Orlando in the woods:

Rosalind: Why then, can one desire too much of a good

thing? (To Celia) Come, sister, you shall be the priest

and marry us.–Give me your hand, Orlando.–What

do you say, sister?

Orlando: (To Celia) Pray thee, marry us.

Celia: I cannot say the words. (4.1.115-20)

Celia is aware of the game Rosalind is playing on Orlando, so why would she be so uncomfortable with helping in this childish marriage? Celia does not want to bear witness to her love being married to someone else, even if it is not a real wedding. Seeing Rosalind leave her for someone else is heartbreaking and she cannot even to joke around; and the audience only hears from Celia one more time after this wedding scene, as if she has been silenced from this scene.

This scene is also very important for the other relationship that intertwines with Rosalind/Ganymede. Orlando, son of Sir Rowland de Bois, falls in love with Rosalind in the first act, seeing her as a gorgeous and rich duchess at his wrestling match. When he flees to the woods from his murderous older brother, Oliver, he brings with his infatuation and defaces many trees with Rosalind’s name. He ends up meeting Ganymede and Aliena, where Rosalind/Ganymede convinces him to play in a love game in order to cure Orlando of his love for Rosalind, which is to make him dote on Ganymede as his love. This love cure means that Orlando must come “every day to woo [Ganymede]” (3.2.393-94), and oddly enough Orlando complies. The main question the audience has is does Orlando know that Ganymede really is Rosalind and is that why he plays along with her little game? Or does he in fact harbor some homoerotic tendencies? In the wedding scene, Orlando immediately jumps up to marry Ganymede. He does not question that he is about to “marry” another man, something known to be not allowed during this time.

The Globe Theatre put on As You Like It and filmed it to make it accessible to everyone. In this adaptation, there are definitely some homoerotic tendencies shown between Orlando and Ganymede. When Orlando first meets Ganymede in the woods, he is slightly perturbed by the young lad asking him questions, but does not immediately dismiss him and is instead curious about Ganymede. He tells Rosalind/Ganymede that his “accent is something finer than [he] could purchase in so removed a dwelling” (Shakespeare 1.2.331-32). Orlando, played by Jack Laskey, is questioning where Ganymede comes from, but Orlando’s words come out flustered and he hesitates frequently as if he is trying to understand who this person is in front of him. Perhaps this is because he recognizes his love Rosalind behind the short hair and men’s clothing, or perhaps he is discovering something within himself.

The ultimate scene that differs from the original text is the fake wedding scene. Once the two men speak their vows, they share in a kiss, which is not stated in the original text. The producer, James Whitbourn, definitely paid attention to the multiple layers that this play can be read. Once again, one could argue that Orlando does know that Ganymede is really Rosalind in disguise, and is, in fact, kissing Rosalind. However, if he really did know, then why wouldn’t he simply tell her, instead of playing along with the game? Instead, he steps willingly and excitingly into a homosexual marriage and kisses his new love before him.

This production was fantastic at portraying the homoerotic relationship between Orlando and Ganymede/Rosalind, however, it does fall short of portraying Celia’s relationship with Rosalind. In fact, Laura Rogers, the actress playing Celia/Aliena, is a stronger and more powerful character than how Naomi Frederick portrays Rosalind. Their relationship, and the two actresses who play them, is the only aspect of the production that disappointed me, other than those few scenes, the Globe did put on a great show and accurately stayed with the original text, even adding new and different stage actions.

Neely discusses in her article: “Othello, like the other problem plays, has generated passionate and radically conflicting responses–responses that are invariably tied to the critics’ emotional responses to the characters and to the gender relations in the play” (79). The play Othello features a Moor who is the general of the Venetian army. He has just married a beautiful woman, Desdemona, and has appointed Cassio to a higher up position in the army. All of these actions anger what I presume to be considered the main character of Iago. “[Iago] experiences himself doubly rejected when Othello…[marries] Desdemona and [chooses] Cassio as his most intimate professional associate” (Stockholder 95). Iago, much like Rosalind in As You Like It, can be read and interpreted on many different levels. Traditionally and simply put, he is jealous of Othello’s success and wants what he cannot have. However, I believe that there is more to this character that Shakespeare wants us to see.

Iago is upset because he wants both what Othello has possession of, and Othello himself. As Ronald Draper phrases it: “Iago’s feeling towards Othello seems to be a contradictory mixture of envy and resentment” (108). This interpretation can be seen in Act 3 Scene 3 where Othello discovers the handkerchief he gifted his new bride has been found in Cassio’s bedchamber, therefore insinuating an affair. Iago, the mastermind behind this false accusation, is present to comfort and console Othello by taking vows of homage that, as Matz describes,  recalls a marriage ceremony (264). The scene even ends with Othello telling Iago that he is now his lieutenant (3.3.481) and Iago replies: “I am your own for ever” (3.3.482). Matz also argues, however that “[the term] ‘friend’ (or ‘lover’) was a term that in the Renaissance included and frequently overlayed political and effective alliance: to be a powerful man’s ‘bedfellow’ was to have a most valuable political access–and honor” (262). Othello very clearly is gaining more and more trust in Iago, because Iago is making himself available whenever something negative happens that sets Othello off, and his trust shines through in this scene. Othello could very well be “marrying” a great friend who has brought forth some truth to his life, but perhaps while he is saying his own brotherhood-type vows, Iago is giving himself over to Othello. The scene ends with a very intimate sentence from Iago, and nothing from Othello, almost as if what Iago has said was under his breath or did not warrant a response from the angered Othello.

Iago will do anything for love–even kill. In the introduction to his casebook on Othello, John Wain argues that “Unaware of the power of love, [Iago] cannot imagine the suffering into which he will plunge Othello by plausibly slandering Desdemona” (12). Iago knows perfectly well about the power of love because he is controlling it. Even if one takes away the notion of Iago having homosexual feelings for Othello, Iago certainly still loves himself and will do anything to move himself up the social ladder to ultimately be successful like Othello. He knows that by framing Desdemona, he is setting her up for death because if she does not die at the end of the play, his secret of planting the handkerchief in her room will come out eventually and then Othello would come after him. Because of this, he has to be aware that Othello will be sorely upset about his bride supposedly cuckolding him, leading him to think irrationally. Randolph Splitter goes even farther saying: “Iago’s ‘love” for Othello, Cassio, Desdemona or anyone else is buried in a general mistrust of human relations” (193). Perhaps the only human Iago trusts is himself and his own actions, hence why he is always thinking of himself and his desires.

Using a modern adaptation of Othello titled “O”, I will describe how the movie portrays or does not portray any homoerotic tendencies from Iago. This movie, starring Julia Stiles, Josh Hartnett and more, is a teenage drama that takes place in a high school setting. Odin, or Othello, is the only black student at a prestigious boarding school and is the star basketball player, winning awards like Most Valuable Player of the year from his coach, who also happens to be Hugo, or Iago’s, father. Hugo and Michael, or Cassio, are both on the basketball team with Odin and when Odin wins his MVP award, he shares it with Michael instead of Hugo, which starts Hugo’s plotting to make himself succeed more than Odin.

Overall, the movie does excel at keeping with the overall plotline of the play all while keeping it in a modern setting and interesting. Almost all events from the play happen in some way or another, despite all of the murderings. However, what is left out is the homoerotic tendencies that Iago possesses in the play. It is clear that Iago obsesses over Othello and Othello’s actions, which is evident in this adaptation. The camera is always cutting towards Hugo’s reaction to something Odin does, for example during the basketball games when Odin only seems to pass to Michael, the camera will cut to Hugo’s expression of anger. Hugo accurately portrays Iago’s jealousy towards Michael/Cassio, but falls short when it comes to the intimate male-male scenes. There are small interactions between Hugo and Michael where Hugo says phrases such as: “I love you man, but you’re a momma’s boy” or “Mike, am I your boy?” Taking out of certain context, these sentences can be portrayed slightly homoerotic, however, in the movie, Josh Hartnett (Hugo) does not indicate any romantic feelings towards Michael, but instead says these phrases towards him with a brotherly love.

Because the movie leaves out these homoerotic scenes that take place with Iago and Cassio and Iago and Othello, the movie loses what makes Iago so interesting. Since this movie is newer, having been filmed in 2001, I assumed that there would have been more tolerance and willingness to include such things. The setting, a private school with connected dormitories, would have fit extremely well with having one of the characters be gay. But instead, the director decided to stick with the traditional and in turn lost the many-layered Iago from the play. If the movie accurately portrayed these scenes, they could have earned a better following of younger fans and ultimately portrayed Iago how Shakespeare wanted.

Both Rosalind and Iago are complex characters, to say the least. They leave many things up to the interpretation of the audience and reader, but what is important is that all of the facts are presented when reading and/or watching Shakespeare’s works. When a production leaves out the necessary details, whether they be homoerotic or not, they are leaving out key points that Shakespeare originally intended to be seen. Forker agrees by saying:

“Shakespeare, as usual, provides the healthiest and most humane view of sexuality in the period by refusing to isolate sex from a more comprehensive view of the human condition, from those moral and spiritual values in the light of which he invites us to assess all aspects of human experience.” (10-11)

Shakespeare wanted to make his audience think. He could have come up with any simple storyline or character and create a normal play that entertained but does not stick with the audience. Instead, he toyed with his audience’s emotions and thoughts, making them see things they were curious about, but not brave enough to think about. He helped the people of the early modern period realize how closely their sexuality connected with their everyday lives (6-7). And to create a production that does not include any of these aspects is to offend and disregard the play and Shakespeare’s original meaning.

Works Cited

Belsey, Catherine. “Disrupting Sexual Difference: Meaning and Gender in the Comedies.” Alternative Shakespeares. By John Drakakis. London: Routledge, 2002. 170-94. Print.

Draper, Ronald. “Unholy Alliance: Othello and Iago.” Othello. Ed. Linda Cookson. London: Longman Group, 1991. 106-26. Print.

Forker, Charles R. “Sexuality and Eroticism on the Renaissance Stage.” South Central Review 7.4 (1990): 1-22. JSTOR. Web. 05 Apr. 2015.

French, Marilyn. Shakespeare’s Division of Experience. New York: Summit, 1981. Print.

Matz, Robert. “Slander, Renaissance Discourses of Sodomy, and Othello.” ELH 66.2 (1999): 261-76. JSTOR. Web. 05 Apr. 2015.

Neely, Carol T. “Women and Men in Othello.” William Shakespeare’s Othello. By Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 79-104. Print.

  1. Dir. Tim B. Nelson. Perf. Mekhi Phifer, Julia Stiles, and Martin Sheen. Chickie the Cop, 2001. Amazon Instant Video. Web. 7 Apr. 2015.

Rackin, Phyllis. “Boys Will Be Girls.” Shakespeare and Women. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. 72-94. Print.

Shakespeare, William. “As You Like It.” The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. 655-80. Print.

Shakespeare, William. “Othello.” The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. 873-907. Print.

Splitter, Randolph. “Language, Sexual Conflict and Symbiosis Anxiety in Othello.” Iago. By Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1992. 191-200. Print.

Stockholder, Kay. Dream Works: Lovers and Families in Shakespeare’s Plays. Toronto: U of Toronto, 1987. Print.

Thompson, Roger. “Attitudes towards Homosexuality in the Seventeenth-Century New England Colonies.” Journal of American Studies 23.1, Sex and Gender in American Culture (1989): 27-40. JSTOR. Web. 05 Apr. 2015.

Traub, Valerie. “Gender and Sexuality in Shakespeare.” The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. By Margreta De Grazia and Stanley Wells. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. 129-46. Print.

Traub, Valerie. “The Homoerotics of Shakespearean Comedy.” Shakespeare, Feminism and Gender. By Kate Chedgzoy. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001. 135-57. Print.

Wain, John. “Introduction.” Shakespeare, Othello: A Casebook. By John Wain. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1994. 186-208. Print.

William Shakespeare: As You Like It. Screenplay by William Shakespeare. Prod. James Whitbourn. Perf. Jack Laskey and Naomi Frederick. Opus Arte, 2012. ITunes. Web. 8 Apr. 2015

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