Shakespeare, William 1564–1616

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Shakespeare, William

William Shakespeare, who was born in April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, and died in the same town on April 23, 1616, is among the most celebrated of English poets and playwrights. At eighteen Shakespeare married twenty-six-year-old Anne Hathaway, who was already pregnant; they had three children together. Nevertheless, Shakespeare's impassioned expressions of desire for a fair youth in the Sonnets (published 1609) have led to much speculation about his possibly homoerotic inclinations.

Although nothing is known for certain about Shakespeare's own sexual desires or practices, his work complexly engages contemporary issues of gender and sexuality. Renaissance England was a patriarchal society, and the subordination of women to men was justified through theology and biology: the apostle Paul's description of woman as the weaker vessel in his Letter to the Ephesians was corroborated by theories of women's biological inferiority derived from classical philosophy and medicine. According to the ancient anatomical theories still in place during Shakespeare's era, the natural coldness of women's bodies made them mentally as well as physically weaker than men. In Shakespeare's cross-dressing comedies, intelligent young women do successfully pass as men, thus suggesting that gender is not simply biological but cultural, a matter of learned behavior rather than innate traits. Nonetheless, these cross-dressed women betray typically feminine characteristics under stress: In As You Like It (1599), Rosalind faints at the sight of blood, and in Twelfth Night (1601), the prospect of dueling terrifies Viola.

The purportedly natural differences between men and women justified the radical exclusion of most women from public life. Although women worked in nursing, midwifery, or various manual trades and a handful even earned recognition as writers or patrons, they were barred from universities, thereby excluding them from careers as theologians, lawyers, scholars, doctors, or politicians—with the notable exception of Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England from 1558 to 1603. The queens in Shakespeare's early historical plays such as Henry VI (1589–1592) and Richard III (1592) acquire power by manipulating and controlling the kings who desire them. Shakespeare's later historical plays Henry IV (1597) and Henry V (1599) associate the political success of Henry V with his lack of interest in women as a young prince and with his strategic marriage to the French princess, Catherine, which authorizes his conquest of France.

Shakespeare's culture placed enormous emphasis on the sexual purity of women as vehicles of family lineage and the orderly transfer of property through inheritance. The ideal woman was defined as chaste, silent, and obedient: A woman who was free with her tongue, it was thought, was likely to be free with her body. The importance of preserving female modesty in public explains why the female roles in English Renaissance plays were played by boys who were sometimes regarded as effeminate in appearance and behavior. In The Taming of the Shrew (1593), Katherine is considered unmarriageable not only because she is disobedient and outspoken but also because her rejection of feminine norms implies a lack of chastity. Many of Shakespeare's works register anxiety about the threat posed to men by the supposedly voracious and uncontrollable sexual appetite of women. In the narrative poem Venus and Adonis (1593), the lusty goddess Venus aggressively pursues the innocent Adonis, who prefers to go hunting with his friends. Shakespeare's Sonnets contrast the speaker's temperate love for a young man with his destructive lust for a promiscuous mistress whom he associates with disease, death, and hell.

As in the Sonnets same-sex relationships in Shakespeare's plays are often characterized by physical intimacy and emotional devotion. The process of courtship can disrupt affectionate same-sex friendships between men (Mercutio and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet [1594], Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice [1596]) or between women (Helena and Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream [1595], Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It). Nonetheless, certain plays suggest that same-sex bonds are more deeply rooted than are marital bonds: In Twelfth Night, Sebastian marries Olivia for status and property but demonstrates an enduring affection for the masculine Antonio.

A married man's reputation was dependent on his wife's behavior. The pervasive jokes about cuckoldry (female infidelity) in Shakespeare's comedies express anxiety about a wife's power to undermine her husband's masculinity. The comedies benevolently explore temporary transgressions of gender roles, allowing virtuous, chaste, and intelligent women either to instruct or to aid men by adopting masculine roles, as when Portia plays a lawyer in The Merchant of Venice. Generally, wives did not enjoy independent legal or property rights, but they had considerable authority in running the household. The judicious wives of The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600) vigorously defend their chastity and domestic property from the courtly predator Falstaff. In the tragedies, however, gender difference becomes a source of mistrust, betrayal, and terrible suffering. Othello murders his wife in the mistaken belief that she has cuckolded him, Antony blames his military and political losses on Cleopatra's sexual looseness, and Lady Macbeth goads her husband into regicide by questioning his manhood.

Certain of Shakespeare's plays seem more overtly to challenge cultural norms of female gender and sexuality. Isabella in Measure for Measure (1604) and Joan of Arc in Henry VI, Part 1 (1592) reject the cultural expectation of marriage and motherhood by determining to live as virgins—Isabella as a nun and Joan as a warrior. As a metaphorical Amazon Joan is particularly compelling, although the play finally demonizes her by revealing her to be a witch and a whore. Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night's Dream is literally an Amazon, but a conquered one who marries her captor, Duke Theseus. The witches in Macbeth (1605) influence national politics by prophesying Macbeth's future as king. In The Winter's Tale (1610) the fiercely independent noblewoman Paulina bravely defends Queen Hermione's chastity against King Leontes's jealous suspicions. Accused by Leontes of being a witch, a bawd, and a scold, Paulina redeems these stereotypes of transgressive femininity through her loyalty and judgment, which finally serve to reunite the royal family at the end of the play. In Paulina's case the refusal to be silent and obedient constitutes female virtue.

see also Literature: I. Overview; Romeo and Juliet.


Fletcher, Anthony. 1995. Gender, Sex, and Subordination in England, 1500–1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Goldberg, Jonathan, ed. 1994. Queering the Renaissance. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Orgel, Stephen. 1996. Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Schiffer, James, ed. 1999. Shakespeare's Sonnets: Critical Essays. New York: Garland.

Smith, Bruce R. 1991. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Traub, Valerie. 1992. Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama. London: Routledge.

                                              Mario DiGangi