Was Shakespeare Gay?

William Shakespeare – the son of a glover, grandson of an affluent farmer in Stratford-upon-Avon, prolific playwright, husband, father, respectable businessman – is a lie, a myth based on a loose collection of historical data points that are bickered over by historians to this day.

Much in the same way that the Bard based one of his most famous works, Hamlet, on the Ur-Hamlet, a precursor of unknown authorship lost to history, itself likely based on a legion of myths and legends, Shakespeare’s life is a story we’ve built up, written. Anyone who tells Shakespeare’s story has an agenda.

Say, for example, capitalist, white, heterosexual men who have an interest in how the greatest writer in the English language is understood.

Or, say, an older, Canadian drag queen named Jane standing in front of the Globe Theatre in London with a sign that says, “Was Shakespeare gay?”

This moment, catalyzed by a lifetime love for Hamlet’s author, was the genesis of a new piece by Sky Gilbert – said drag queen, prolific playwright and writer, professor, and Buddies’ co-founder.

“We have myths about Shakespeare already,” says Gilbert. “He’s like the guy next door who happens to be a genius, and everyone wants to think he’s just like that. He’s heterosexual, he’s completely capitalist, and he writes genius plays in his spare time. We love that myth, every one of us in a capitalist society; all the straight, white men who could be geniuses in their spare time, they love that.”

“But artists, I would suggest, are different from that quite often,” he continues. “Great artists are very screwed up, very dark.”

Shakespeare’s Criminal finds the titular Bard as an old, conservative, allegedly heterosexual farmer discovered by a young, HIV-positive gay man who attempts a seduction. This is complicated by the transformative powers of a female academic who enters the scene. The piece was developed from a one-act play performed by Gilbert (as Shakespeare) and queer theatre-maker ted witzel.

Gilbert feels the production is very much about the closet.   As gay men in Western countries have found a level of respectability, their culture has developed in the same way that straight culture has. There’s a trajectory: get a job, get some money, get monogamous, get married, get some kids, die – the seven ages of gay man.

“In my view, the closet is very relevant in that sense,” he explains. “A lot of people are still closeted about being gay, but they’re also closeted about being good gays and bad gays.”

Shakespeare, in a similar fashion, is a paradox: the basest, most violent, sexual, primal human emotions, performed for the groundlings by men and boys in drag – believed by puritanical moralizers to encourage homosexual lust – now the pinnacle of Western culture. Shakespeare is rife with sex and innuendo, but Gilbert believes sex in modern Shakespearean works doesn’t land because it’s either ignored or taken to a crotch-grabbing, absurd extreme. Shakespeare’s Criminal sets out to explore what happens at the confluence of this stodgy, aged, heterosexual culture and the essence of uninhibited, wild youth that just wants to fuck.

All this set to music, as the production is a cantata, a collaboration between Gilbert, composer Dustin Peters, and mezzo-soprano Marion Newman. Gilbert has attempted opera before, but Shakespeare’s Criminal is the first time it’s taken. He says that Peters’ take on the work syncs with his own. “Both of us are pretty camp in our approach.”

When opera first arose as an art form, women’s singing voices were heard as uncontrollable, hysterical, wounded, and as the Renaissance moved into the Romantic era, composers began to write music for these voices. Men had to subscribe to the order of masculinity, but women were free to reach new octaves. Gilbert plays with this idea in his piece.

“I’m interested in expressing what I see as the wonderful dynamic between women and gay men, and how women are very important to gay men, and how our relationships with them are not less because we don’t produce children with them,” he says. “As opposed to that heterosexual model, there is a queer thing that happens between gay men and women, sometimes straight, sometimes lesbian, where the women are able to liberate the men, because men are very fucked up by our culture.”

One reason Shakespeare’s men are so interesting to watch is that they are often plagued by qualities associated with emasculation. Gilbert says that of all Shakespeare’s characters he identifies most with Hamlet, the Dane of Denmark afflicted by three acts of inaction. “His perpetual adolescence – in some ways I feel like a perpetual adolescent,” Gilbert says. “Somebody once said of me – it was supposed to be this damning thing; it was one of the founders of Buddies, actually – ‘Sky’s just always going to be trying to shock his parents.’”

“To some degree that’s true. That’s sort of what Hamlet is” – a perpetual student, just returned from Wittenberg, not quite able to graduate into adulthood, trying to reveal a terrible truth through artifice, through words, words, words.

“That’s the problem with Shakespeare,” says Gilbert. “We have to see Shakespeare as an ordinary, good man, and that’s the mythology. Part of breaking this down is suggesting his sexuality is conflicted – perhaps a different kind of person, and not a perfect person.”

Shakespeare’s Criminal is like Hamlet’s castigations, perhaps with respectable gay men taking the place of Queen Gertrude, with Gilbert’s accusatory cruelty his means for being kind as he cries, “Nay, but to live/ In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,/ Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love/ Over the nasty sty.”

Respectability be damned. “It’s Shakespeare as you’ve never seen him before,” says Gilbert. “Shakespeare with his pants down. Shakespeare doing the dirty.”

photo by Tanja-Tiziana

Michael Lyons

You can catch Michael Lyons in his regular column, History Boys, in each issue of Xtra along with his historical coconspirator Jeremy Willard. Follow him on twitter at @queer_mikey

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