Homosexuality in the plays by William Shakespeare

Bachelor Thesis, 2017

40 Pages, Grade: 74















I Arzoo Singh wish to express my sincere gratitude to my guide Mr. Anil Adagale for his help and guidance in carrying out this study. Without his keen and acute supervision and continuous encouragement, this study would not have been completed.

I am also grateful to my parents, for their continuous encouragement and inspiration which helped me to complete this work.

I wish to express my deep sincere gratitude to my family members for continuous encouragement and support.

I wish to record my sincere thanks to the Co-Coordinator and all the staff members of Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce, especially Mr. Anil Adagale who helped us to complete all formalities of research work.

I also wish to express my sincere indebtedness to my relatives and my friends who helped and encouraged me to complete this study.

Date: 20th April 2017


This Research paper aims at highlighting various homo sexual instances in four of Shakespeare’s Comedies - A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night. When I discuss “levels” of relationships, I refer to one of three levels: the first is the playhouse level, which denotes the Early Modern theatrical world and assumes the use of boy actors. The second level is the true-character level, which signifies the “true plot” that lies under the exterior plot where characters do not yet know that Cesario is actually Viola or that Ganymede is actually Rosalind. The third and final level is the plot level, or what is currently occurring in the story line at that moment without invoking the playhouse level or citing the use of boy actors.

I also refer to other works of Shakespeare like his sonnets and his plays (Romeo and Juliet, Henry IV and V, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, Timon of Athens and Tragedy of Coriolanus) and try to determine the disruption of hetero-normative Renaissance England by homo-erotic characters developed by Shakespeare.

In this paper, I also shed light on the Playwright’s life and the socio-cultural environment of Elizabethan England. The difference between the societies of then and now is highlighted and are accordingly used to interpret the plays.



Homosexuality is a sexual orientation. A homosexual person is romantically or sexually attracted to people of their own gender. Men who are romantically or sexually attracted to other men are called gay. Women who are romantically or sexually attracted to other women can be called gay but are usually called lesbians. People who are romantically or sexually attracted to both the genders are called bisexual.

Together homosexual, bisexual, transgender and queer people make up the LGBTQ community, which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer. The term Gay was used to describe the LGBTQ community before 1980s. LGB was used to replace Gay in 1980s which was further replaced by LGBTQ in the 1990s.

It is difficult to say how many people are homosexual. Homosexuality is known to exist in all cultures and countries.

Homosexuality during 17th Century

The people of the 17th century found no difficulty in describing body parts and it was fairly easy for them to use vulgar academic terminology. By modern standards, a surprisingly high portion of literary discourse, particularly when the discourse was either satirical or polemic, would be considered obscene or scatological. Obscenity[1] at the time was far less clearly defined than blasphemy.[2] They were thought to belong in the same category.

A fair number of the theological and secular writings on the theory of sexuality in the same era expressed a heartfelt wish that this situation was not such[3] but that did not prevent them from acknowledging it as an assumed fact.

In the general consensus of 17th century law and theology, sex was supposed to be, at least generally, procreative. The treatment of homosexuality by theologians of the era largely depended on the various Biblical mentions, in which it was no more severely condemned than adultery and had far less frequent allusions.[4]

In England, acts of “sodomy” carried the death penalty—but, then, so did just about all crimes defined as “felonies” under the common law, the great majority of which did not involve sexual acts. Additionally, “sodomy” aka “buggery” or anal intercourse or bestiality was as much an “unnatural act,” and therefore a crime, when it occurred between a man and a woman as it was between a man and a man, which makes deciphering exactly what was being discussed in abbreviated court entries difficult sometimes. In 1533, “An Acte for the punysshement of the vice of Buggerie”[5] (Bray 15) was in acted in which the punishment for homosexuality or sodomy was “hanging”.

Sexual attraction to members of the same gender was not considered by most to be an issue of exclusivity and certainly not a “lifestyle.”[6]

Mostly known and identified European “homosexuals” of the era (admittedly, due to the nature of surviving records, almost all were members of the upper classes), whether male or female, were married and had families. Indeed, one role of a powerful patron in regard to his “favourites” was often to locate brides for them.

While considering male homosexuality, there was a wide variance in attitude from place to place.[7] It is also often difficult to sort out from the records whether the relationships of affection among men, such as the issue of male “favourites” at the court of James I (1603-1625) in England, was more than just emotional attachments.[8] Certainly, James I and his wife Anne of Denmark had several children but that doesn’t clear anything. The homosexuals at that time usually “procreated” to keep up with the societal approval. In other cases, the documents make the situation indisputable, such as the 1631 trial of the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven (who had six children by his first wife) for sodomy with one of his male servants.[9] The display of affection was different than in today’s time: it was not unlikely for men to sleep together in the same bed or display physical affections towards each other publicly. This made it difficult to distinguish between close friends and “sodomite”.

At the French royal court of Louis XIII (1610-1643), there was the same kind of ambivalence as in England. Louis XIII, certainly, had male favourites to whom he was emotionally attached. He also had a wife, Anne of Austria, who became pregnant several times early in their marriage, and, probably, a couple of mistresses. There was a comparative tolerance among the French upper classes, although the Counter-Reformation Catholic church did bring a few cases into court for trial.[10]

In the case of the Piarist[11] teaching order in Italy, for example, the issue was not simply homosexuality. There were certainly romantic emotional attachments between women, as in the case of Henri, duke of Rohan’s sister Henriette and the duchess of Nevers. Here, though, as with the male nobility, the sources are almost entirely literary – in this instance, poetry by Henriette’s sister Anne de Rohan.[12]

Overall, the insistence of the authors who published in the 1980s that 17th century homosexuality was essential an “upper class” phenomenon arose from the fact that they didn’t have the slightest idea whether such activity occurred among ordinary people, or to what extent. Little is known about the unmarried servant class of Renaissance England. The male and female servant class were segregated and as a result they had to find alternate ways of “sexual outlets”. “There was considerable pressure on an unmarried servant to find alternative sexual outlets; homosexuality was one of these, an alternative made easier by the common practice of male servants sleeping together”5 (Bray 47).

Timeline for LGBT culture in 17th century:-

1606 – King James I of England began a relationship with Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset.[13] Carr happened to break his leg at a tilting match, at which the king was present. The king instantly fell in love with the young man, even helping nurse him back to health all the while teaching him Latin. Entirely devoid of all high intellectual qualities, Carr was endowed with good looks, excellent spirits, and considerable personal accomplishments. These advantages were sufficient for James, who knighted the young man and at once took him into favour. James made his lover Viscount of Rochester (1611), Knight of the Garter and Earl of Somerset (1613).[14]

1614 – King James I of England met the last of his three close male lovers, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, the son of a Leicestershire knight. George Villiers could dance well, fence well, and speak a little French. In August, Villiers, reputedly "the handsomest-bodied man in all of England",[15] was brought before the king, in the hope that the king would take a fancy to him, diminishing the power at court of then favourite Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset. Villiers gained support as the king's preferred lover from those who opposed Carr.

1615 – King James knighted his male lover George Villiers as a Gentleman of the Bedchamber. Restoration of Apethorpe Hall, undertaken 2004–2008, revealed a previously unknown passage linking the bedchambers of King James I of England and Villiers.[16]

1617 – King James made his male lover George Villiers Earl of Buckingham

1618 – King James made his male lover George Villiers Marquess of Buckingham.

1623 – King James made his male lover George Villiers Earl of Coventry and Duke of Buckingham. Villiers was now the highest-ranking subject outside the royal family.[17]

1680 – A same-sex marriage was annulled. Arabella Hunt married "James Howard"; in 1682 the marriage was annulled on the ground that Howard was in fact Amy Poulter, a 'perfect woman in all her parts', and two women could not validly marry.[18]

1690 – King William III of England had several close, male associates, including two Dutch courtiers to whom he granted English titles: Hans Willem Bentinck became Earl of Portland, and Arnold Joost van Keppel was created Earl of Albemarle. These relationships with male friends, and his apparent lack of more than one female mistress, led William's enemies to suggest that he might prefer homosexual relationships. Keppel was 20 years William's junior, described as strikingly handsome, and rose from being a royal page to an earldom with some ease.[19]

1697 – The Earl of Portland wrote to King William III of England that "the kindness which your Majesty has for a young man, and the way in which you seem to authorise his liberties... make the world say things I am ashamed to hear".[20] This, he said, was "tarnishing a reputation which has never before been subject to such accusations". William tersely dismissed these suggestions, however, saying, "It seems to me very extraordinary that it should be impossible to have esteem and regard for a young man without it being criminal."20

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, in Stratford-on-Avon. The son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, he was probably educated at the King Edward VI Grammar School in Stratford, where he learnt Latin and a little Greek and read the Roman dramatists. At eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior. Together they raised two daughters: Susanna, who was born in 1583, and Judith (whose twin brother Hamnet died at the age of 11), born in 1585.

Little is known about Shakespeare’s activities between 1585 and 1592.This period is termed as the “Dark Years” by the biographers. Robert Greene’s “A Groatsworth of Wit” alludes to him as an actor and playwright. Shakespeare may have taught at school during this period, but it seems more probable that shortly after 1585 he went to London to begin his apprenticeship as an actor. Little is known about him during this period. Only assumptions can be made. Due to the plague, the London theatres were often closed between June 1592 and April 1594. During that period, Shakespeare probably had some income from his patron, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated his first two poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). The former was a long narrative poem depicting the rejection of Venus by Adonis, his death, and the consequent disappearance of beauty from the world. Despite conservative objections to the poem’s glorification of sensuality, it was immensely popular and was reprinted six times during the nine years following its publication.

In 1594, Shakespeare joined the Lord Chamberlain’s company of actors, the most popular of the companies acting at Court. In 1599 Shakespeare joined a group of Chamberlain’s Men that would form a syndicate to build and operate a new playhouse: The Globe, which became the most famous theatre of its time. With his share of income from the Globe, Shakespeare was able to purchase New Place, his home in Stratford.

While Shakespeare was regarded as the foremost dramatist of his time, evidence indicates that both he and his contemporaries looked to poetry, not playwriting, for enduring fame. Shakespeare’s sonnets were composed between 1593 and 1601, though not published until 1609. That edition, The Sonnets of Shakespeare, consists of 154 sonnets, all written in the form of three quatrains and a couplet that is now recognized as Shakespearean. The sonnets fall into two groups: sonnets 1-126, addressed to a beloved friend, a handsome and noble young man often called the “Fair Youth” , and sonnets 127-152, to a malignant but fascinating “Dark Lady," who the poet loves in spite of himself. Nearly all of Shakespeare’s sonnets examine the inevitable decay of time and the immortalization of beauty and love in poetry.

In his poems and plays, Shakespeare invented thousands of words, often combining or contorting Latin, French, and native roots. His impressive expansion of the English language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, includes words such as: arch-villain, birthplace, bloodsucking, courtship, dewdrop, downstairs, fanged, heartsore, hunchbacked, leapfrog, misquote, pageantry, radiance, schoolboy, stillborn, watchdog, and zany.

Shakespeare wrote thirty seven plays. These are usually divided into four categories: histories, comedies, tragedies, and romances. His earliest plays were primarily comedies and histories such as Henry VI and The Comedy of Errors, but in 1596, Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, his second tragedy, and over the next dozen years he would return to the form, writing the plays for which he is now best known: Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. In his final years, Shakespeare turned to the romantics with Cymbeline, A Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest.

Only eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays were published separately in quarto editions during his lifetime; a complete collection of his works did not appear until the publication of the First Folio in 1623, several years after his death. Nonetheless, his contemporaries recognized Shakespeare’s achievements. Francis Meres cited “honey-tongued” Shakespeare for his plays and poems in 1598, and the Chamberlain’s Men rose to become the leading dramatic company in London, installed as members of the royal household in 1603.

Sometime after 1612, Shakespeare retired from the stage and returned to his home in Stratford. He drew up his will in January of 1616, which included his famous bequest to his wife of his “second best bed.” He died on April 23, 1616, and was buried two days later at Stratford Church.


Various critics who address sexuality in Shakespeare’s writings regard gender and sexual differences not as biological or behavioural imperatives but as social constructs. The sexual tension and same-sex desire is often observed in Shakespeare’s comedies.

Valerie Traub (1992)[21] notes a hint of desire in “As You Like It”. She suggests that it explores the possibility of a range of desires though often they were dichotomous and ambiguous. While the sexual tension is playful in “As You Like It” she regards the homosexual desire in “Twelfth Night” as strained and nervous. She says towards the end, the homoerotic energies of Viola, Olivia and Orsino are fixed on the persona of Antonio.

Charles Casey (1997)[22] highlights the subversive portrayal of the instability of sexual and gender differences in “Twelfth Night”. He says that the homoerotic attraction and genders are fluid rather than fixed in the play, thus sexuality is a social construct.

Joseph Pequigney (1992)[23] remarks bisexuality is a recurring theme in “Twelfth Night”. He says that both Orsino and Olivia have experiences that demonstrate their bisexuality. He uses Sebastian to highlight the bisexuality motif, proposing that he is drawn to both Antonio and Olivia sexually and is willing to be in a sexual relationship with both of them.

Pequigney also assesses Shakespeare’s other Antonio- the one in “The Merchant of Venice”. He asserts that Sebastian and Antonio (the sea captain) had an erotic liaison but there is nothing remotely sexual between Bassanio and Antonio (the merchant). At the close of the comedy, Pequigney reflects, Antonio is united with his friend permanently and drawn into the circle of reconciled and loving inhabitants of Belmont.

Janet Adelman (1985)[24] explores the notion that relationships can be both homosexual and heterosexual simultaneously in “Twelfth Night”. Sexual indeterminacy according to her is not a fantasy. While in “The Merchant of Venice” she maintains that there is a tug of war between Antonio and Portia for Bassanio’s love. For Portia to win, Antonio has to lose.


The significance of the study is as follows:-

- Provides a better and universal understanding of his plays.
- Helps in interpreting the plays differently.
- Establishes relevance in today’s society.


The important limitations are as follows:-

- The study of the research is limited to three plays – “Twelfth Night”, “As You Like It” and “The Merchant of Venice”.
- No conversations between actors or any performance is studied. It is purely based on textual evidence.



Homosexuality is a sexual orientation. A homosexual person is romantically or sexually attracted to people of their own gender. Men who are romantically or sexually attracted to other men are called gay. Women who are romantically or sexually attracted to other women can be called gay but are usually called lesbians. People who are romantically or sexually attracted to both the genders are called bisexual.


[1] Turner, James Grantham. Schooling Sex: Libertine Literature and Erotic Education in Italy, France, and England 1534-1685 (Oxford University Press, 2003).

[2] Roberts, Hugh. Obscenity in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century France. French Studies, v. 67, no. 4 (2013), pp. 535-542.

[3] Wiesner, Merry E. Disembodied theory. Discourses of sex in early modern Germany. In: Rublack, Ulinka, ed. Gender in Early Modern German History (Cambridge University Press, Past and Present Publications, 2002

[4] Thompson, Roger. Attitudes towards Homosexuality in the Seventeenth-Century New England Colonies. Journal of American Studies, v.23, no. 1, Sex and Gender in American Culture (Apr., 1989), pp. 27-40.

[5] Homosexuality in Renaissance England

[6] A different conclusion is reached in Borris, Kenneth. Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470-1650. (Taylor & Francis, 2003)

[7] https://meansandmatters.wordpress.com/2009/05/20/same-sex-sexuality-in-17th-


[8] Hill, Christopher. Male Homosexuality in 17th Century England.

[9] Herrup, Cynthia. A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[10] Crawford, Katherine. Sexual Culture of the French Renaissance. (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[11] Liebrich, Karen. Fallen Order: A History (Grove Press, 2005).

[12] Castle, Terry. The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology From Ariosto To Stonewall

[13] Homosexuality & Civilization By Louis Crompton; p.386

[14] A History of England By James Franck Bright; p.597

[15] Godfrey Goodman, Bishop of Gloucester, quoted in Gregg, Pauline (1984). King Charles I. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. p. 49.

[16] Graham, Fiona (2008-06-05). "To the manor bought". BBC News. BBC. Retrieved 2008-09-24

[17] There was no Duke of Norfolk at the time; the Duchy was "restored" in 1660.

[18] Mendelson, Sara H. (Jan 2008). Hunt, Arabella (1662–1705). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 14 March 2012.

[19] Van der Kiste, 201

[20] Van der Kiste, 202–203

[21] Desire and Anxiety: The Circulation of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama

[22] Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night

[23] The Two Antonios and Same-Sex Love

[24] Male Bonding in Shakespeare's Comedies

Excerpt out of 40 pages


Homosexuality in the plays by William Shakespeare
B A (Hons) with English
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homosexuality, william, shakespeare
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Arzoo Singh (Author), 2017, Homosexuality in the plays by William Shakespeare, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/416717


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