To attempt to mould William Shakespeare into the image of what Evelyn Waugh called “our own deplorable epoch” is not merely absurd, it disqualifies those endeavouring to do so from being taken seriously as scholars or critics…
There are few things more onerous in the field of literary criticism than the constant abuse of Shakespeare by those who know nothing of the man or his times. One such manifestation of Shakespeare-abuse is the miasmic misreading of the works of the Bard by those who adhere to the prejudiced pride of so-called “queer theory,” which is ubiquitous in the deconstructed quagmire of the secular academy. Take, for instance, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the rambunctious innocence of which has been dragged through the mire by those intent on seeing hints of homosexuality in the good-natured farce. Needless to say, no critic of Shakespeare’s plays saw any such hints until they were “discovered” in the twentieth century by those intent of making Shakespeare in their own deplorable image.
The problem is that these deplorable moderns find it difficult to distinguish between love and lust, or between eros and caritas. Thus Antonio’s friendship for Sebastian is seen as being sexual when it is nothing of the sort.
Given the deplorable and diabolical dabblings of such “theorists” this might be a good time to discuss the alleged homosexual references in Shakespeare’s work.
Let’s begin with the words of Shakespeare scholar, Ian Wilson:
Everything about [Shakespeare’s] work…conveys that he was genuinely God-fearing, at a time when sodomy was a capital offence and religious people of all persuasions regarded it as an instant passport to hell. As we have already seen, he bedded and wedded an older woman while still in his teens, quickly having three children by her. His fellow-actors were likewise mostly God-fearing married men with large families, who…are most unlikely to have tolerated an active homosexual in their midst… Venus and Adonis, the poem that Shakespeare undoubtedly wrote for Southampton, is no work for sharing between gays… [It] is the full-blooded story of a highly sexed older woman’s seduction of a handsome young man. In line with the Sonnets’ exhortation of their young man to marry, it is a poetic equivalent of a Titian painting, positively provoking man-woman desire.[i]
In spite of such evidence, and presumably oblivious to it, the “theorists” continue to fantasize about homosexuality in the plays. Thus, for instance, Antonio’s love for Sebastian in Twelfth Night and the other Antonio’s love for Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice are seen as being homosexual. The absurdity of the latter was addressed with incisive insight, and with admirable constraint, by the Shakespearian scholar, Craig Bernthal:
It is a measure of the critical influence of gender politics that a homosexual crush rather than close male friendship has become for many critics the most convincing explanation of Antonio’s behavior throughout the play. Yet nothing in the play suggests that the bond of friendship between them needs to be sexualized to make Antonio’s devotion to Bassanio credible. Certainly an Elizabethan audience, accepting biblical strictures about sex between men, would have avoided the play en masse had they thought Shakespeare was implying that Antonio was sexually attracted to Bassanio. The Merchant of Venice, however, was a very popular play, revived many times, and this is the best evidence for what Shakespeare had in mind and what his audience must have understood.[ii]
Reminding his readers that in Elizabethan culture “heterosexual men stated very openly that they loved each other” without any suggestion of an erotic connotation, Bernthal elucidates what is clearly the true nature of Antonio’s love for Bassanio:
Antonio’s love expresses itself not just for Bassanio, but to others whose debts he has paid or to whom he has lent money gratis. Thus, Antonio is established at the beginning of the play as a figure of one aspect of Christian love, generosity. Later in the play, when he is prepared to lay down his life for Bassanio, Antonio will become the allegorical form of love in its most perfect form, sacrifice: ‘I am a tainted wether of the flock, / meetest for death,’ he will say, as Shylock prepares to collect the pound of flesh nearest Antonio’s heart. Antonio will rise to Christianity’s highest ideal of love: ‘Greater love than this hath no man, that any man bestoweth his life for his friend’s life.’[iii]
By becoming “the allegorical form of love in its most perfect form, sacrifice,” Antonio is transfigured allegorically into a figure of Christ Himself, the Perfect Love who offers the Perfect Sacrifice. This is clearly Shakespeare’s deepest meaning, steeped as he must have been in Catholic doctrine and typology, and it is a meaning that takes Antonio as far from the sex-obsessed slandering of him by modern critics as Christ is from the scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites of the Gospel.
As for Shakespeare himself, his personal virtue is evident in the testimony offered by William Beeston, who as the son of Christopher Beeston, an actor in Shakespeare’s company and no doubt his personal friend, is one of the most reliable sources of information on the real Shakespeare that we have. Beeston told the antiquary, John Aubrey, that Shakespeare was “the more to be admired [because] he was not a company keeper [and] wouldn’t be debauched.”[iv]
The abyss that separates Shakespeare from many of his modern critics is rooted in “love” and its meaning. In Shakespeare’s time, love was understood in strictly Christian terms, and could encompass, to employ the terminology used by C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves, “affection,” “friendship,” “eros” and “charity.” One could love affectionately one’s parents or one’s children; one could love one’s friends; one could have the love of eros when one “falls in love” or in one’s relationship with one’s spouse; and one could love in caritas, or charity, in the pure and sacrificial love that God has for us and we are meant to have for Him. And the word “love” was employed freely in Elizabethan England whenever any of these loves were being evoked.
Ian Wilson makes this point very well in Shakespeare: The Evidence: “All too seldom realized is that in Shakespeare’s time the word ‘love’ had not taken on its heavily sexual connotations of our own era.” Wilson then quotes a contemporary of Shakespeare, Thomas Arundel, asking a favour from Lord Burghley’s son Robert Cecil: “I do truly love you and therefore wish that every man should love you, which love in these troublesome discontented times is sooner won by clemency… I am wholly yours.”
Wilson adds that “[n]o one would seriously suggest that Arundel meant those words in the way they would be taken today, and innumerable similar examples can be quoted, not least family-man Ben Jonson addressing Shakespeare as ‘my beloved’ in the First Folio.”[v]
In this context, and this was the context in which Shakespeare wrote, Antonio’s love for Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice and the other Antonio’s love for Sebastian in Twelfth Night are clearly that of friendship expressed in charity. It should be added that the very idea that either Antonio could have had an erotic love for their male friends would have been seen as not only perverse but impossible. Erotic love was bound up with marriage and procreation. It was, like all love, a virtue. It was not furtive but fertile. It had nothing to do with fornication or sodomy, which were vices, and to which the word “love” would be wholly inapplicable in Shakespeare’s lexicon and that of the time in which he lived. This might make uncomfortable reading for our modern critic but it is true nonetheless. The fact is that the Elizabethans were very “politically incorrect” by today’s standards, and Shakespeare, as a religiously conservative Elizabethan, was more “politically incorrect” than most of his contemporaries. To attempt to mould Shakespeare into the image of what Evelyn Waugh called “our own deplorable epoch” is not merely absurd, it disqualifies those endeavouring to do so from being taken seriously as scholars or critics. If these critics were able to empathise with the past, even if they could not bring themselves to sympathise with it, they would see that all of these alleged homosexual allusions are really nothing but prideful illusions. They would then be able to see and understand the works of Shakespeare as Shakespeare himself understood them. They would see them as they truly are, as the inspired work of a Catholic genius musing upon the human condition and man’s place within the cosmos.
In the light of these facts, it would seem that the obvious truth is staring any open-eyed scholar in the face. The trouble is, however, and to resort to the bawdy level of Shakespearean innuendo, which refers to lust and not to love, the eye with which they are looking is not to be located in their face. Led by their disordered loins rather than by their ordered reason, “queer theorists” and other gossip and gutter oriented “scholars” have wasted their time, and ours, following huge red herrings, or, perhaps, given the context, ill-bred codpieces!
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[ii] Craig Bernthal, The Trial of Man: Christianity and Judgment in the World of Shakespeare, Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2003, pp. 92-3
[iii] Ibid., p. 92
[iv] Aubrey MS in the Bodleian Library, Oxford; cited in Ian Wilson, op. cit., p. 410
[v] Ian Wilson, op. cit., p. 147