Is Shakespeare queerbaiting/-coding in his works?

William Shakespeare (baptised 26. April 1564 and died 23. April 1616) is a very famous English playwright, lyricist and actor. His comedies and tragedies are among the most important stage plays in world literature and among the most frequently performed works. There are also many retellings, as with many other classic works, that include queer characters and themes. For example, „The Last True Poets of the Sea“ by Julia Drake, which is a YA sapphic romance retelling of Twelfth Night with a bisexual main character, or „That Way Madness Lies“ by Dahlia Adler, which is an entire anthology of Shakespeare’s retellings, many of whom are queer. Reading such books today, one can ask how much they are based on the originals and whether there are already references to queer characters or relationships in those as well. One can therefore ask to what extent Shakespeare is queerbaiting or queer-coding in his works. To do this, the two terms „queerbaiting“ and „queer-coding“ must first be clarified.

First of all, it is important to point out that these terms do not have fixed definitions, but go according to individual understanding. However, there are definitions that are used by most and therefore have a certain generality. Queerbaiting is a marketing technique for fiction and entertainment in which same-sex romance or LGBTQIAP+ representations are implied but never actually portrayed. The goal here is to attract queer audiences („bait“) while preventing other consumers from being driven away. To achieve these implied representations, stereotypes are used that are often not accurate and can also be hurtful. By only implying it, the relationship involved is also usually portrayed as shameful and one that must be kept secret. Representation is thus hoped for, but not received. A very well-known example of queerbaiting is the BBC series „Sherlock“.

Queer-coding is about a subtextual coding of a character as queer, where sexual identity or gender identity is not explicitly affirmed. So it is very similar to queerbaiting, but it is more neutral and belongs to the work.

However, queer-coding often affects villains, which can still create a negative perception of queerness. In order to maintain this subtextual coding, it draws on the collective history of the queer community, where subtle and silent communication has developed, due to oppression.

This can be clothing, coded language, eye contact or gut feeling. The characters communicate, but not with the other characters, but with the audience, through style, behaviour, speech or other subtle forms. Overall, queer coding is about positive representation.

So looking at Shakespeare’s works from a queer perspective, questions need to be asked – such as whether queerness was portrayed as something positive or something negative. Or whether the characters knew they desired someone of the same sex? So was this information available to everyone or only to the audience? Also whether the love was allowed to remain at the end of the play or whether the characters ended up in a heterosexual relationship.

The terms and definitions used here are all modern terms that did not exist at the time of the Renaissance, for example, the term „homosexual“ only came into being in the 19th century. There was also a different understanding in society of queer relationships at that time, because people were not categorised according to their sexual orientation. So it is difficult to explore history for queer history when the terms of today are not necessarily transferable to the context of that time.

In order to analyse Shakespeare’s works for queer representations, one must be aware that in England at the time, all roles were played by men without exception, and also consider how queerness is generally represented in early modern drama. It is noticeable that there is a great diversity in the portrayal of women’s same-sex relationships: open sexuality, devoted platonic friendship, general female solidarity against patriarchal society. An overarching theme, however, is that homoerotic desire must be addressed and resolved in the story, with idealised, romantic, non-sexual attachments portrayed as praiseworthy and simply redirected to a heterosexual solution, but predatory and sexual ones usually ending in tragedy. To avoid such punishment, there is the possibility of direct sexual transgression through cross-dressing. Female same-sex eroticism is always something that belongs to the past, e.g. in classical antiquity, an earlier phase of the story or an earlier period of life. „Innocent“ intimate friendships between women could exist in parallel with heterosexual acts, but were abandoned at marriage. If same-sex relationships threatened to become exclusive and challenge the patriarchal and marital imperative of society, they had to be dissolved. Femme-femme couples were therefore not seen as disrupting social structures as long as they did not become exclusive. In Shakespeare’s plays, however, women never went that far. His works are more „innocent“ in their depictions of same-sex eroticism than some of the works of his contemporaries. In Shakespeare’s plays, desire never continued after the disguise was revealed. Additionally, the misguided love was not only channelled into a heterosexual relationship, but even turned into a marriage. This is the case, for example, in Twelfth Night, where Olivia transfers her affection to Viola’s twin brother rather abruptly and without much motivation at the end.

Twelfth Night is about Duke Orsino’s unhappy love affair with Countess Olivia and the twins Viola and Sebastian. Due to a shipwreck, everyone assumes that Sebastian has died and only Viola has survived. Viola then decides to enter the service of Duke Orsino disguised as a boy and transmits love messages of Duke Orsino to the Countess. The Countess falls in love with Cesario, as Viola now calls herself, but Viola has fallen in love with the Duke. Viola takes an active role in provoking Olivia’s desire, especially in her role as the bearer of the love messages. Sebastian, however, who has been declared dead by everyone, reappears and is first mistaken for Cesario and Olivia subsequently falls in love with him. Viola, who reveals herself to be Sebastian’s twin sister, ends up engaged to the Duke. Countess Olivia is unaware during the play that Cesario is actually Viola – the information is only available to the audience. Viola, meanwhile, is not interested in her and tries to divert the interest from Olivia away from her. So to call Countess Olivia queer is difficult. But it is possible to speak of queerbaiting or queer-coding, since there is an implied relationship between two women.

Another work that is queerbaiting or queer-coding is „A Midsummer Night’s Dream“. One of the storylines is about a conflict between Titania and Oberon, who rule over the elves. Oberon wants to take possession of a little boy whose mother was a servant of Titania, „a votaress of my order“, meaning a human servant of the fairy queen. The servant died giving birth to the boy and Titania refuses to part with the boy. The term „a votaress of my order“, which means a sworn follower, indicates a certain familiarity between Titania and the dead mother.

Set your heart at rest:
The fairy land buys not the child of me.
His mother was a votaress of my order:
And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip’d by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking the embarked traders on the flood,
When we have laugh’d to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
Following,–her womb then rich with my young squire,–
Would imitate, and sail upon the land,
To fetch me trifles, and return again,
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
And for her sake I will not part with him.

At the end of the play, however, Queen Titania becomes an obedient wife again. Shakespeare thus allows women to show their love for another woman, who is already dead at the beginning of the play, very intensely. This approach in plays is also called „Dead Girlfriends“.

This concept can also be found in the play „Two Noble Kinsmen“. It is about Emilia, an Amazon who is not interested in marriage and mourns her dead girlfriend Flavina. This becomes clear in the conversation with her sister, Queen Hyppolyta, who is married to Theseus.

…[that] which he loves best.
There is a best, and reason has no manners
To say it is not you. I was acquainted
Once with a time when I enjoyed a playfellow;
You were at wars when she the grave enriched,
Who made too proud the bed; took leave o’ th’ moon,
Which then looked pale at parting, when our count
Was each eleven.
’Twas Flavina.
You talk of Pirithous’ and Theseus’ love.
Theirs has more ground, is more maturely seasoned,
More buckled with strong judgment, and their needs
The one of th’ other may be said to water
Their intertangled roots of love. But I,
And she I sigh and spoke of, were things innocent,
Loved for we did, and like the elements
That know not what nor why, yet do effect
Rare issues by their operance, our souls
Did so to one another. What she liked
Was then of me approved, what not, condemned,
No more arraignment. The flower that I would pluck
And put between my breasts—O, then but beginning
To swell about the blossom—she would long
Till she had such another, and commit it
To the like innocent cradle, where, Phoenix-like,
They died in perfume. On my head no toy
But was her pattern; her affections—pretty,
Though haply hers careless were—I followed
For my most serious decking. Had mine ear
Stol’n some new air, or at adventure hummed one
From musical coinage, why, it was a note
Whereon her spirits would sojourn—rather, dwell
And sing it in her slumbers. This rehearsal—
Which fury-innocent wots well comes in
Like old importment’s bastard—has this end,
That the true love ’tween maid and maid may be
More than in sex individual.

In the course of the play, two kinsmen are captured by Theseus as a result of the war and Theseus then decides that the two should fight each other and the winner may marry Emilia. Emilia, however, thinks little of it: „Look, this is stupid. I don’t want to marry at all and I certainly don’t want someone to be executed in my name.“ She then prays to Diana, the goddess of marriage refusers, but in the end resigns herself to her fate, which she is not happy about. And the inexplicable death of Flavina puts a symbolic end to the relationship between the two. Since Emilia refuses to marry at the beginning, her love is a disruption of social structures and threatens to overshadow the reputation of marriage. Emilia, however, cannot persist in not marrying, or she will condemn both Kinsmen to death. Emilia and Flavina’s love is transformed, then, into a heterosexual marriage. It is also clear here that the same-sex eroticism between two women is set in the past, as the relationship between the two was before the play began and in Emilia’s past. Flavina and Emilia’s relationship can be seen as a typical elegiac representation of same-sex love between two women in this period.

Shakespeare did not have an audience that openly craved a story with a relationship between two women, but he did have an audience that accepted such a pairing as being within the realm of the imagination. So if Shakespeare had not known that his audience would accept such relationships, he would not have included these motifs and allusions in his plays. There are works from this period by other authors who are even more open about queer representations, such as in „Gallathea“ by John Lyly, where it still concludes in a heterosexual marriage, but one of the two girls is supposed to be turned into a boy for it. Shakespeare has a few homoerotic tropes that can be described as queerbaiting or queer-coding, but overall he is more restrained than other authors of his time. Only actions and feelings are hinted at, but this provides a good basis for queer retellings like „The Last True Poets of the Sea“.

Daja-Aliena Kunitz (3/22)

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