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Shakespeare, William (1564-1616)  
 
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We may begin to suspect also that same-sex relationships were positioned vis-à-vis marriage in rather different ways than they are today. Finally, we should confront the fact that erotic attachments between people of the same gender constituted a major "faultline" in the culture of early modern England.

On the one hand, 5 Elizabeth, chapter 17, proclaims an intense homophobia; on the other hand, speeches like Aufidius's imply an equally intense homoeroticism. Shakespeare's works are situated along this crack in the social edifice.

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Aufidius's language bespeaks a social structure that privileged the bonds of men with men over all other social ties. In political terms, all the key social institutions in early modern England were male. Sir William Segar's Honor Military, and Civill (1602) distinguishes two "arenas of action" open to men, "business" and "honor":

The principall markes whereat every mans endevour in this life aimeth, are either Profit, or Honor, Th'one proper to vulgar people, and men of inferior Fortune; The other due to persons of better birth, and generous disposition. For as the former by paines, and parsimony do onely labour to become rich; so th'other by Military skil, or knowledge in Civill government, aspire to Honor, and humane glory.

A boy who was thrust by his parents into the arena of "honor" would start off in an all-male school. He then might proceed to one of the all-male colleges of Oxford or Cambridge or take up the study of law at one of the all-male inns-of-court in London. This was the course pursued by Christopher Marlowe.

A boy who entered the arena of "business" might also start off in an all-male school. He then would join a group of other adolescent males as an apprentice to a craftsman or a merchant. In effect, this was the course pursued by William Shakespeare.

Professional acting companies in London may not have enjoyed the same social status as the guilds of goldsmiths, tailors, grocers, and other trades, but troupes like the one Shakespeare joined were set up as joint-stock ventures and operated like trade guilds, with boy actors in the position of apprentices.

Since putting on plays was not a recognized way of making a living, a legal fiction was maintained that actors were "servants" attached to a member of the nobility. Hence the successive names by which Shakespeare's troupe was known: first the Lord Chamberlain's Men, later the King's Men.

The problematic status of professional theater--it professed to be an arena of "honor" but in fact functioned as an arena of "business"--made it a perfect setting for playing out the problematic place of homoeroticism in early modern culture. In the theater, it was possible to act out conflicts and contradictions that would have been glossed over elsewhere.

Like Oxford and Cambridge colleges, like the inns of court, like trade guilds, professional acting companies were all-male institutions. Some witnesses, not all of them hostile Puritans, imply that homosexual behavior was fostered by these economic and social circumstances.

In Ben Jonson's play Poetaster (acted by the Children of the Chapel Royal, 1600) a father hears that his son has decided to become an actor and exclaims, "What? Shall I have my son a stager now? An ingle for players?" (1.2.13-14). (Through the eighteenth century, "ingle" remained a slang term for what the The Oxford English Dictionary terms "a boy-favourite (in bad sense).")

If Puritan extremists can be trusted, actions that were rumored to go on in the tiring house among the players went on also among the audience after they had left the theater. In the Anatomie of Abuses (1583), Philip Stubbes fulminates over

the flocking and running to Theaters and curtens, daylie and hourely, night and daye, tyme and tyde, to see Playes and Enterludes; where such wanton gestures, such bawdie speaches, such laughing and fleering, such kissing and bussing, such clipping and culling, Suche winckinge and glancinge of wanton eyes, and the like, is used, as is wonderfull to behold. Than, these goodly pageants being done, every mate sorts to his mate, every one bringes another homeward of their way verye freendly, and in their secret conclaves (covertly) they play the Sodomits, or worse. And these be the fruits of Playes and Enterluds for the most part.

The primary focus of erotic attention in Shakespeare's theater, or so Stubbes and other detractors imply, was boy actors dressed up as women. Certainly there are instances in Shakespeare's plays where boy actors are scripted to tease the audience about their gender.

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