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Shakespeare, William (1564-1616)  
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In The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594), for example, Julia decides to disguise herself as a page and follow her lover Proteus, who is leaving her behind while he travels with his friend Valentine. "What fashion, madam, shall I make your breeches?" asks the boy actor playing Julia's maid. Whatever you like, replies the boy actor playing Julia. "You must needs have them with a cod-piece, madam," warns the boy/maid. "Out, out, Lucetta," exclaims the boy/lady. "That will be ill-favoured" (2.6.49-54).

Even before "Julia" puts on "her" male disguise, "Lucetta" calls attention to the very thing that makes "Julia" no more than a theatrical illusion.

The Epilogue to As You Like It (1598), scripted to be spoken by the boy actor who has played Rosalind, is perhaps the most famous occasion in Shakespeare's scripts when illusion cancels illusion to reveal the boy's body beneath. Since "Rosalind" has spent much of the play disguised as "Ganymede" (in early modern English, a slang term synonymous with "ingle"), it is not clear just who is speaking--"Rosalind," "Ganymede," or the boy actor who has played them both--when the speaker of the Epilogue offers to kiss the male members of the audience:

If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I defied not. And I am sure, as many as have good beards, or good faces, or sweet breaths will for my kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell (Epi. 16-21).

In Twelfth Night (1601), probably the latest of Shakespeare's comedies, the confusions about gender are greatest of all. When shipwrecked Viola disguises herself as "Cesario," he/she/he manages to excite the desires of both Duke Orsino and Lady Olivia. Orsino prolongs the confusion to the very end by insisting on calling Viola "Cesario" until he/she/he changes back into female clothes and becomes his wife.

Against the suggestiveness of such situations, we must weigh the evidence, scanty though it may be, of eyewitnesses who saw Shakespeare's plays in their original performances. Not a single one of these eyewitnesses registers any erotic interest whatsoever in the boy actors he saw perform. Instead, each witness writes about the fictional female characters he saw on stage as if they were actual female persons.

In Shakespeare's scripts at least, erotic teasing about cross-dressing seems to be confined to comedy and specifically to those episodes in which a boy playing a girl dresses up as a boy.

Cross-dressing, as Marjorie Garber argues in Vested Interests, may in fact be the basis of all theatrical illusion making. Instead of trying to decide whether a cross-dressed figure in a Shakespeare play is "really" male or "really" female, we should perhaps try to see him/her/it as both.

In any event, boy actors in female garb are far from being the only focus of homoerotic attention in Shakespeare's scripts. Achilles and Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida (1603) are the most blatantly sexual in a series of male companions who populate Shakespeare's plays from beginning to end and who express their bonds with one another in erotic terms.

As with Achilles and Patroclus, it is often war that brings out the erotic subtext in male friendship. In Henry V (1599), for example, Suffolk and York die in the embrace of man and wife. After kissing Suffolk's wounds, York, a witness reports, turned

          and over Suffolk's neck
He threw his wounded arm, and kissed his lips,
And so espoused to death, with blood he sealed
A testament of noble-ending love. (4.5.24-27)

Moments like this, when love finds its consummation on the battlefield, helps explain why Iago should be so jealous of Othello after Othello has married Desdemona, or why Mercutio should thrust such crude sexual jokes at Romeo after his friend has fallen in love with Juliet--and then rush off to a violent death.

Aufidius and Coriolanus, Achilles and Patroclus, Suffolk and York, Iago and Othello, Mercutio and Romeo: In every case, the erotic charge is generated, not by differences in gender, not by differences in age, but by differences in power. In different ways, each of these scripts is set amid political circumstances that compel men to be, simultaneously, each other's comrade and each other's enemy.

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