Sunday, June 19, 2011

Lesbians in Shakespeare

I find myself skeptical of this article about Shakespeare having multiple lesbian characters.  Or rather, the assumption that many of his female characters mentioned in this article were intended to be gay.
Using the colloquial definition of a lesbian, and not the one put forth by Adrienne Rich, the only characters who might actually be lesbians are Viola and Olivia.  And even there it's hard to determine how much of Olivia's affections was based on Viola or her made-up persona, one that was meant to be a man.  And then, of course, the question becomes one what that says about lesbian desires.  It would be easy to conclude that Olivia likes the male persona but wouldn't want the female body that comes along with it, which could be interpreted to mean that lesbians secretly desire masculinity, which is problematic.  
Hermione from A Winter's Tale, Cleopatra from Antony and Cleopatra, and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing could be involved with their female servants or friends, but the evidence that they were is circumstantial at best.  I would be more convinced if there was some evidence that Shakespeare was inspired by historical events that involved women loving women or stories of women loving women, since so much of what Shakespeare wrote was based on other sources.  
This is not to say that modern stagings of Shakespeare's plays cannot choose to make characters explicitly lesbians, just that the text itself doesn't give such easy answers.  Given Shakespeare's time, where women and women's sexuality was always under male control, it's hard to see Shakespeare allowing such a marginalized group the true voice they deserved.  (And, one could easily argue that really giving lesbians a voice means allowing them to tell the stories they want to tell, and not a coded-as-straight white man.)  Choosing to stage certain characters as lesbians is a wonderful idea, especially in protest to how various marginalized groups were marginalized within literature.  What Jankowski, the scholar in question doing much of the work, says is correct, that there is a "lesbian void" in literature.  Lesbians were ignored by male writers, and lesbians who wrote were often ignored by readers.  
The Renaissance play that actually has one of the most interesting depictions of a woman who hangs out with other women is The Roaring Girl.  This play, too, has a problematic set of ideas about gender and women's place in the world. 

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