Why Are Critics Laughing Off the Queer in Shakespeare?

Mark Rylance in Twelfth Night as Viola.
Mark Rylance  in Twelfth Night as Olivia.* 

Courtesy of Joan Marcus/Facebook

Picture this: An actor with his face powdered white and chest cinched tightly in a corset flirts with another man. They kiss and quickly fall in love. In 2014, such queer scenes in theater still aren’t extremely common, but in Shakespeare’s time, laws prohibiting women from acting ensured that men courting each other onstage were part of every romantic scene. Juliet? Think less Claire Danes and more a young James Franco.

This cross-dressing revelry thrives once again in Tim Carroll’s all-male productions of Richard III and Twelfth Night, both currently finishing up their runs on Broadway. These two plays see Carroll reviving the single-gender Elizabethan stage practice, and audiences can’t stop raving about his attention to historical detail. But in this fetish for authenticity, what’s going unnoticed is how, in our modern context, these shows are hardly conservative—rather, they are the queerest things happening in the world of theater.  

It’s sad, then, that the critics, so enamored with illusions of dramatic “purity,” seem to regard men engaging in amorous trysts as merely fodder for laughs. This is a shallow view, and one that ignores a number of invitations for a richer—and queerer—reception.

For example, the productions make blatantly clear the absence of women even before anyone utters a word. Upon entering the theater, “the Shakespearean pre-show rituals of [actors] dressing and preparing their makeup onstage” (as described in the productions’ website) immediately draws one’s attention.

And then, of course, there are the plots themselves. While having a male Lady Anne fall prey to Richard III’s seduction is deliciously queer, Twelfth Night simply overflows with homoerotic energy. At the start, the countess Olivia rejects the advances of Duke Orsino in favor of Cesario, who is actually Viola, a woman recently separated by shipwreck from her twin brother and now disguised as Orsino’s eunuch servant. Later, Sebastian, Viola’s twin, arrives at court and is mistaken for Cesario/Viola by Olivia, who throws herself on this supposedly identical copy of his sister. (Almost finished!) Eventually, all identities are revealed, and the play ends with Viola declaring her love for Orsino, who quickly reciprocates, as if he never loved anyone else.

Making matters more confusing, Carroll’s production features a man dressed as a woman falling in love with a man dressed as a woman disguised as a castrated man. I challenge anyone to try pigeonholing that relationship as definitively heterosexual or homosexual (a task that should have been made even more impossible had Carroll been truly authentic by casting pre-pubescent boys in the female roles). And as if this weren’t gender-bending enough: Before Orsino exits with Viola, he explicitly requests she remain in men’s clothing. That Shakespeare closes with a man declaring he finds androgyny more scintillating than gowns, girdles, and other aspects of “femininity” suggests that we aren’t being totally anachronistic when reading a little queerness into English Renaissance theater.

But what do our critics do instead? They laugh. Rather than seriously engage the possibility of men genuinely flirting with one another, today’s audiences prefer concealing a subtle homophobia behind the veil of “authenticity.” Delighting in the inherent queerness of the dramaturgy simply seems out of the question. This response suggests that our supposedly “liberal” era may not be as progressive as it seems—when it comes to queerness, Shakespeare was far more advanced than we are today.

*Correction, Feb. 18, 2014: The photo caption originally misstated Mark Rylance’s character in Twelfth Night. He played Olivia, not Viola.