It could be argued that a retrograde psychoanalysis of the sexuality of fictional characters is flawed, bearing in mind the strictures of the 16-17th Century and the relative sexual freedom experienced today. In particular, attitudes to Homosexuality were obviously vastly different in the Renaissance. There is evidence of prosecution for “sodomy” in the period but that really tended to be for upsetting the “social applecart”.
Homosexuality was certainly prevalent as far back as Ancient Greece. Various writers of antiquity (and it is likely Shakespeare would have been aware of most of them) clearly discuss, debate or openly express this. Sapho is the most famous one that always springs to mind, as well as the erotic poems of Catullus, two of which have homosexual leanings. The idea of homosexuality in women also appears in historical work – in particular Lesbia (the pseudonym for Catallus’ real lover Clodia) – but lesbianism itself was viewed incredibly differently then. It was seen as more ‘erotic’ than ‘explicit’ and didn’t seem to carry the same negative attitudes that were given to “sodomites”.
The landscapes and attitudes changed incredibly over the hundreds of years from Ancient Greece to the end of the 16th Century and many people see Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo as the most notable names portraying homoeroticism in Renaissance works.
Interestingly, attitudes to prostitution during the renaissance can be seen as arguably more liberal than attitudes today. Brothels in London were based on the South Bank, outside of the Mayor’s jurisdiction in the City but prostitution was regulated and health checks were given by various Governments throughout Europe, mainly because of the fear of the spread of syphilis. Brothels were closed and re-opened time and again throughout Shakespeare’s life and in fact two of his company owned Brothels as did the notorious writer with whom he collaborated on the play Pericles, featuring a superb brothel scene (one of the few scenes in the play written by Shakespeare).
One thing of significance that we know about the 16-17th Century is that, in the Theatre, up until the Caroline era all female roles were played by boys. This itself gives us yet another layer of sexuality to possibly explore. Viola in Twelfth Night – a girl dressed as a boy in love with a man – played by a man, holds many layers of subtext, but I want to look at these roles as they are, as women, rather than looking at them as a boy playing a girl playing a boy in love with a man. It may be worth however, bearing this point it in mind from time to time in the context of the period the plays were written. Certainly the argument meted out from people in the renaissance, when looking at all the same-sex bed sharing and poetic affection in poetry and plays, was that it was platonic love rather than anything else.
Sexuality in Shakespeare has been written about tenfold and I do not intend to argue whether Shakespeare himself was gay or bisexual, but to look at sexuality within his characters.
Being an actor or director, one gets fascinated by traits found in characters that piques one’s interest and asks the question, “am I bringing along my own sexuality to each role?” and inevitably that will be true, but I think we can look closer and put characters under the microscope when it comes to the text itself.
Many of these articles I’m sure will contain thoughts already known to some, so I’m hoping to discover and examine a few plays and specific characters briefly and in a way that may not be new, but will hopefully be interesting.
We will start next week looking at “Romeo and Juliet” – a melting pot of passion and teenage sexual desire in the heat of Verona.
Andrew Venning is an actor, writer and general Shakespeare aficionado based in London. He is also one half of the UK podcast duo Thespodyssey. You can find Andrew online at www.andrewvenning.co.uk or on Twitter @AndrewVenning.