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Straight Acting by Will Tosh review – out on stage

Straight Acting by Will Tosh review – out on stage

When a classy line is needed for a modern wedding, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments” is often pressed into service. Most members of the congregation won’t know that Sonnet 116 was originally addressed by Shakespeare to a young man. Chances are that they won’t care either, especially if the marriage happens to be between people of the same sex. Still, explains Will Tosh in this fluent and witty book, such equanimity is long in the making. He argues that for centuries Shakespeare, our national poet, has been anxiously de-queered in order to make him fit for polite society. This was going on as late as 1977 when AL Rowse, himself discreetly gay, took care in his account of “homosexuals in history” to remind his readers on five separate occasions that Shakespeare was “even more than normally heterosexual”.

Well, was he or wasn’t he? Tosh teasingly frames his readers’ curiosity in this reductive way yet is confident enough to shoot back quickly that it is impossible to say. The evidence of Shakespeare’s lived loves simply isn’t there. What Tosh does know, as a longtime dramaturg and head of research at the Globe theatre, is that Shakespeare’s work is chock full of desire that “was dissident, unusual, or athwart the erotic mainstream”.

It’s not just the exquisite sonnets, written mostly in the 1590s, but the plays that at times resemble a non-binary Eden. Most obviously, there are all those girls dressed as boys who would, originally, have been played by boys. It starts early in The Merchant of Venice (1596-97), which has no fewer than three young “women”, Portia, Nerissa and Jessica, all adopting “the lovely garnish of a boy”, as Jessica’s lover Lorenzo approvingly puts it. Crucially, though, Shakespeare isn’t just pandering to the male gaze here. While deep in cosplay, both Portia and Nerissa find themselves relishing the male sexual organs that their disguises imply. It will be thought “we are accomplished / With what we lack”, says Portia, who sounds as though she is enjoying the whole experience enormously.

A few years later, Shakespeare was embedding a queer couple in the gender-fluid plot of Twelfth Night. On this occasion the shipwrecked Viola transforms herself into the young man Cesario with whom Duke Orsino swiftly falls in love. The Duke loses no time in sending Cesario to woo Countess Olivia on his behalf (she is deep in mourning for her brother, and Orsino hopes that sending love letters by an intermediary will do the trick). But Olivia, in turn, falls for the young servant, unaware that she has, in fact, fallen for Viola in disguise.

That is not forgetting all those places where queer desire raises its head without anyone having to go to the bother of changing clothes. Mercutio, Romeo’s kinsman, takes an extraordinary interest in his best friend’s sexual prowess, not to mention his actual penis. Or what about evil Iago who weaponises queer desire by winding up an already jealous Othello by fabricating an episode in which Cassio, the man Othello suspects of sleeping with his wife, makes somnambulant love to Iago while they are bunking up together, under the impression that the muscly soldier is Desdemona.

While staying true to his argument that there is no evidence for Shakespeare’s personal preferences, Tosh does an excellent job of showing us that his formative years were spent in an environment that was socially and institutionally queer. At Stratford grammar school the boy would have learned the classical languages that allowed him to read Cicero’s canonical De Amicitia (On Friendship), a guide to the passionate intimacies between elite men that, for ancient Romans, and male Elizabethans, represented the apogee of human relationships. Also available to adolescent scholars was Ovid’s Metamorphoses with its arrestingly pansexual and shapeshifting gods and monsters.

From here, Will hotfoots it to London, specifically that tangle of streets between the city and Westminster where young barristers, scholars and writers drank, preened and bunked up together, a common enough sleeping arrangement that opened the way to all sorts of delightful encounters and plausible deniabilities. Will, though technically a married man, had left behind his significantly older wife, Anne Hathaway, in Stratford, an arrangement that Tosh declares to be “refreshingly peculiar”.

As Tosh is quick to point out, none of this is new. Over the past 30 years an industry of academics has been busy queering Shakespeare, and it is their work that provides the building blocks for this highly readable book. Tosh’s ambition is to present this rich material to a general readership, imagined here as consisting of the thousands of passionate enthusiasts who flock to the Globe each year, expecting to be educated and entertained in equal measure. It’s an expectation that he meets magnificently.

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Source: theguardian.com