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Shakespeare, William (1564-1616)  
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When Helena and Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1594-1595) have fallen out with one another over men, Helena reminds her friend how they once enjoyed such intimacy that they seemed joined in body:

We, Hermia, like two artificial gods
Have with our needles created one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key,
As if our hands, our sides, voices, and minds
Had been incorporate. So we grew together,
Like to a double cherry: seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition,
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem. (3.2.204-212)

If the corporeal images here seem merely sentimental, the erotic implications are much stronger when Titania explains to Oberon why she insists on keeping her Indian page and so provokes the quarrel that occasions all the midsummer night confusions.

The Indian page sounds very much like a child conceived without the intervention of men:

His mother was a vot'ress of my order,
And in the spicèd Indian air by night
Full often hath she gossiped by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune's yellow sands,
Marking th'embarkèd traders on the flood,
When we have laughed to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind,
Which she with pretty and with swimming gait
Following, her womb then rich with my young squire,
Would imitate.... (2.1.122-132)

The celebrations of female separateness spoken by Helena and by Titania seem all the more resonant in a play that opens with the forced marriage of the queen of the Amazons.

Similar mutualities couple Portia and Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice (1596-1597), Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It (1598), Desdemona and Emilia in Othello (1603-1604), Cleopatra and Iris in Antony and Cleopatra (1606), Hermione and Paulina in The Winter's Tale (1609-1610), and Emilia and Flavina in The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613).

To all these female pairs, relationships with men come as interruptions, often as violent interruptions. As Emilia says of Flavina, "The true love 'tween maid and maid may be / More than in sex dividual" (TNK 1.3.81-82).

Male Couples

The same scenario is played out among men. Again and again, the plots in Shakespeare's plays turn on the situation of two male friends set apart by a woman. At the end of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Valentine entertains the hope that he and his friend Proteus, both now betrothed to be married, will nonetheless enjoy "One feast, one house, one mutual happiness" (5.4.171).

That likelihood seems slight, if we take into account Shakespeare's later experiments with the same situation. Mercutio's death in Romeo and Juliet poses a brusque reply to Valentine's optimism. So does Othello's self-destruction. So do Macbeth's murder of Banquo, Antony's political suicide, Leontes's falling out with Polixines in The Winter's Tale, and Palemon and Arcite's disastrous rivalry over Emilia in The Two Noble Kinsmen.

Even in comedy, even short of death, the results are never entirely happy. The strange melancholy that plagues Antonio in The Merchant of Venice seems to be explained when Bassanio, the friend for whom Antonio has risked all, tells Antonio in front of the Venetian court, in front of Shylock--and in front of his disguised wife:

Antonio, I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself,
But life itself, my wife, and all the world
Are not with me esteemed above thy life.
I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you. (4.1.279-284)

Nonetheless, at the end of the play, Antonio is left standing alone amid the newly married couples.

If "homosexual" and "heterosexual" were not separate categories in early modern England, if male privilege took precedence over moral scruples about marital fidelity, The Merchant of Venice may in fact be depicting not an either/or choice but a both/and compromise. For Bassanio, if not for Antonio, there may have been no contradiction in being married to a woman and enjoying erotic friendship with a man at the same time.

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