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Shakespeare, William (1564-1616)  
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The situation of Shakespeare's other homoerotic Antonio, the ship's captain who saves Sebastian's life in Twelfth Night, looks much less auspicious. Far from suffering from an inarticulate melancholy, this Antonio is Shakespeare's most forthright character in speaking about his homoerotic desires. When Sebastian tries to thank Antonio for all the pains he has taken in rescuing him, Antonio cuts him short:

I could not stay behind you. My desire,
More sharp than filèd steel, did spur me forth,
And not all love to see you--though so much
As might have drawn one to a longer voyage--
But jealousy might befall your travel.... (3.4.4-8)

The reward for such forthrightness, however, is isolation. In the play's final scene, once Sebastian has been betrothed to Lady Olivia, Antonio is scripted to say not a word. In a society that both nurtured homoerotic bonds and yet denied them, what indeed could he say?

Nondramatic Works

From different perspectives, Shakespeare addresses the same erotic conflicts in his nondramatic works. Unlike the plays, which were acted before large and diverse audiences, Shakespeare's narrative poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) were directed at a distinct coterie of readers.

Unlike the plays, which failed to qualify as serious literature by Renaissance standards, both of these narrative poems boast classical pedigrees. Unlike the plays, which were marketed as capitalist commodities, both poems are set forth in the trappings of aristocratic patronage. Dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, both Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece are witty retellings of classical myths, a literary genre that had special in-group appeal to the university-educated young gentlemen of the inns of court.

With other exercises in the genre like Marlowe's Hero and Leander (printed 1598) and Francis Beaumont's Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (1602), Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis shares a homoerotic interest that this particular coterie of male readers clearly found appealing.

That interest shows up not in the plot situation (it is, after all, the goddess Venus who falls in love with the adolescent Adonis) but in the perspective that male readers are invited to take toward that situation. Erotic desire in the poem is all on Venus's side; the center of erotic attention is not Venus's body but Adonis's.

Looking at Adonis through Venus's eyes, the reader discovers a charm not unlike that radiated by the cross-dressed heroines of Shakespeare's comedies. Wooed by Venus, Adonis blushes like a maiden (l.50). His voice is like a mermaid's (l.429). His face is hairless (l.487).

When, in desperation, Venus wrestles this paragon of beauty to the ground, the reader joins Venus in the active role of ravishing him:

Now quick desire hath caught the yielding prey,
And glutton-like she feeds, yet never filleth.
Her lips are conquerors, his lips obey,
Paying what ransom the insulter willeth,
Whose vulture thought doth pitch the price so high
That she will draw his lips' rich treasure dry. (ll.547-552)

Adonis, alas, is not interested. He would rather go hunting with his friends.

Seen from the perspective shared by Venus and the reader, the goring of Adonis by a wild boar looks very much like an act of rape:

'Tis true, 'tis true; thus was Adonis slain;
He ran upon the boar with his sharp spear,
Who did not whet his teeth at him again,
But by a kiss thought to persuade him there,
And, nuzzling in his flank, the loving swine
Sheathed unaware the tusk in his soft groin. (ll.1111--1116)

Published the next year, dedicated to the same noble patron, and addressed to the same coterie readership, The Rape of Lucrece reenacts the archetypal plot, familiar from Shakespeare's plays, of two male allies set apart by a woman.

Tarquin's rape of his friend's wife Lucrece may occasion some brilliant speeches from Lucrece, but ultimately it serves the political end of changing Rome from a monarchy that harbors such peremptory power as Tarquin's to a republic that honors the integrity of such patriots as Tarquin's betrayed friend Collatine. In effect, Lucrece figures as a token of erotic exchange in the political alliances that men make with men.

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