This paper explores how Shakespeare
included the issues of gender and sexuality in many of his plays and sonnets,
showing how these topics can be fluid. Shakespeare went against how people of
the Elizabethan era though about gender and sexuality, taking a revolutionary
stance on the issues. He took the stance he did because he either supported and
accepted people who were fluid, or he was fluid in his sexuality. He showed how
gender could be fluid by using stories with women pretending to be men, and
showed how sexuality could be fluid having his characters, both male and
female, fall in love with one of the women who is presenting as a man. These topics
are explored using sources such as Shakespeare’s books and sonnets, such as As
You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Sonnet 108; articles regarding the laws and
expectations on gender and sexuality of the period; and books and articles
specializing in gender and sexuality found in Shakespeare’s writings and his


The Issue
of Gender and Sexuality in Shakespeare

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shall I call thee when thou art a man?” (Shakespeare, 1975, p. 28) is a
question Celia asks Rosalind in As You
Like It, to which Rosalind, in short, says her name will be Ganymede. This
is one of many parts where Shakespeare brings up the issue of gender. Gender is
an abundant focal point in many of Shakespeare’s plays. Sexuality is as well,
since the two are interrelated. Shakespeare tends to blur the lines between
genders when he writes, having many plot points about one gender disguising
themselves as the other. He blurs the lines of sexuality as well, showcasing
fluidity of who is attracted to who. This was monumental for his time, since
there were a considerable amount of rigid laws and societal expectations on
gender and sexuality. Today, the majority has come to think how Shakespeare
thought, that gender and sexuality are fluid and ever-changing, but some are
still fixed in the mindset of this period. Shakespeare shows how sexuality and
gender are fluid in his plays and sonnets, influenced from how he viewed those
topics based on society and his personal history. He changed how people saw
these issues, and many people today agree with Shakespeare’s stance.

Shakespeare’s History with Gender and

Shakespeare’s Marriage

            According to an
article by Bevington and Spencer, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in 1582 at
age 18, possibly due to an unplanned pregnancy. They had their first child,
Susanna, six months after, and then had a set of twins, Hamnet and Judith
approximately 21 months following. Shakespeare and Hathaway remained married
until his death (2017). However, much of their marriage was spent apart. He
moved to London for many years, leaving his wife and children back in Stratford.
He returned to Stratford in 1612, only to live separate from them, with few
visits. He mentioned Anne in his will only once, saying to give her the second-best

Shakespeare’s Sexuality

            Since Shakespeare
had a wife, it is generally assumed he was heterosexual. However, there is some
evidence that shows that he could be bisexual or homosexual. The majority of
the evidence lies in his sonnets, where most of them are addressed to a man
known as Mr. W.H. Mr. W.H.’s identity had been continuously debated. It is
believed he could either be William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke,
or Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (Dautch, 2017).

Society’s Views and Laws in Elizabethan Era

Laws Regarding Homosexuality. The
Elizabethan Era had strict laws concerning homosexuality. According to an essay
by Michael Kirby, sodomy was outlawed through the Buggery Act of 1533 (2013, p.
63). The act was punishable by death. It was shortly repealed, but was
re-enacted by Queen Elisabeth I in 1563, a year before Shakespeare was born.
This act lasted until 1863, so sodomy would have been outlawed during
Shakespeare’s life.

Gender Roles. In the Elizabethan era,
it was common practice to have an all-male cast for plays, meaning that even
the female parts were played by men. Men often cross-dressed to portray the
women correctly. Those who opposed theatre believed that the practice of
cross-dressing would “corrupt its audience and destroy the distinction of the
sexes” (McManus, 2016).

Sexuality and Gender in the Plays and

The Sonnets

sonnets tell of love, beauty, and time. The first 126 sonnets are addressed to
a young man, while the remaining 28 sonnets are addressed to a woman. The first
126 are thought to be addressed to a man known by Mr. W.H, frequently penned as
“The Fair Youth”. These sonnets addressed to him describe an almost obsessed
and intense love with the man mentioned. Sonnet 108, addressed to a “sweet
boy”, describes just this:

What’s in the brain that ink may character
Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit?
What’s new to speak, what now to register,
That may express my love or my dear merit?
Nothing, sweet boy; but yet like prayers divine
I must each day say o’er the very same,
Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,
Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name.
So that eternal love in love’s fresh case
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page,
Finding the first conceit of love there bred
Where time and outward form would show it dead. (Shakespeare
& Grazia, 2011, p. 245)

This sonnet describes a passionate,
everlasting love. A love that is not affected by age or appearance, even though
the love should have died long ago. It is unknown if this sonnet or any of the
sonnets are complete fiction or not, but many believe that the sonnets are
indeed autobiographical, that they are from Shakespeare’s point of view. If
this were the case, it would give substantial evidence for Shakespeare not
being heterosexual. If it is, in fact, not autobiographical, it still is
monumental, because it shows that Shakespeare was comfortable with

The Plays

            Many of
Shakespeare’s plays- predominantly comedies- comment on gender and sexuality. Many
comedies have plot points that deal with females disguising themselves as men, people
falling in love with the wrong people (or the right people at the wrong time),
and even allude to men having feelings for other men (in the case of
cross-dressing, men falling in love with what they think is a man).

As You Like It. As You Like It deals
with predominately gender fluidity, and some sexuality issues. The name
Rosalind took when she assumed the role of a man, Ganymede, is a name from
Greek mythology. Ganymede was the most beautiful mortal on earth, and became
known as a symbol for love between two men. This name holds some significance
in the play, possibly meaning that Rosalind/Ganymede can be seen as attractive
by both sexes. Orlando, the man in love with Rosalind, has some allusions to
fluid sexuality. He is perfectly willing to use Ganymede as an alternative to
Rosalind, and even at one point, says, “Where dwell you, pretty youth?” (Shakespeare
& Latham, 1975, p. 76). Orlando, when he says this, has no idea that
Ganymede is Rosalind, a woman. He says this only seeing Ganymede, implying some
attraction on Orlando’s side. Phoebe is another character who shows some fluid
sexuality. She ends up falling in love with Ganymede, not knowing that “he” is
actually a woman. While she thought she was in love with a man, it shows just
how Rosalind/Ganymede attracts both genders equally.

Twelfth Night, or What You Will. Twelfth
Night deals with gender fluidity and sexuality, the main character Viola
assuming the identity of a man, Cesario. Viola has a twin brother named
Sebastian who happens to be nearly identical when Viola is Cesario. This causes
many identity mishaps and misunderstandings. Olivia falls in love with
Cesario/Viola, and marries Sebastian, thinking he is Cesario. Antonio, a sea
captain with unrequited love for Sebastian, mistakes Viola/Cesario for
Sebastian and ends up feeling betrayed. The most prominent aspect of sexuality
in this play deals with Antonio and Sebastian. Antonio rescues Sebastian at
sea, and falls in love with him. Sebastian fails to realize this, mistaking his
acts of love as acts of friendship. He ends up imprisoned and betrayed by whom
he thinks is Sebastian. Another example of fluid sexuality occurs at the end,
after Cesario is revealed to be Viola. Orsino, after becoming engaged to Viola,
says this, “Cesario come-/ For so you shall be while you are a man,/ But when
in other habits you are seen,/ Orsino’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen,”
(Shakespeare, Raffel, & Bloom, 2007, p. 143). What is peculiar about these
lines is that Orsino referred to Viola as Cesario, even though he knew that
Viola was a female. This exchange raises the question asking if Orsino is only
attracted to Viola, or if he was attracted to Cesario as well.

Modern Day Views

            Modern day views
of gender and sexuality have certainly transformed. People are much more tolerant
on how people present themselves. These days, gender roles are less strict, and
people do not think that men in drag will corrupt any audiences. There are also
no acts outlawing homosexuality. In fact, same-sex marriage is legal in 26
countries. Those who are homosexual are no longer sentenced to death by the
government, and there are laws put in place to protect them from hate crimes.
However, there are still some people who do not accept those who are fluid in
their gender or sexuality. Many people believe that there are only two genders,
and that it is impossible to present or feel differently than the rigid binary.
Others believe that those other than heterosexuals are an abomination, who
should be treated to become heterosexual. These people are in the minority when
it comes to their views, and the percentage of people who think this way is
getting smaller and smaller every day.










created a narrative which showed how gender and sexuality were flexible,
written in his sonnets and comedies. These ideas were vastly different from how
people in his age viewed these issues, and are similar to how people view them
today. His views on these issues were significant because society in the
Elizabethan era had strict ideas as to how gender and sexuality were supposed
to be. Shakespeare mainly wrote the ideas of fluidity in his sonnets and comedies.
As You Like It and Twelfth Night provide commentaries on gender and sexuality,
narrating the stories of young women pretending to be men, with both men and
women falling in love/appearing attracted to them. The sonnets are more
personal to Shakespeare, and describe an intense love for a man. In modern day
society, the views are similar to Shakespeare’s, that gender and sexuality are
fluid. Shakespeare’s views of sexuality and gender counteracted the era’s
views, and helped people become more tolerant and accepting of those different
than themselves.


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