"Dost Know This Water-fly?" – Effeminacy in Shakespeare

by David P. Gontar (March 2014)

1.  Introduction

Unlike his predecessor, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), many of whose works reflect affirmative interest in male sexual irregularity, the writings attributed to William Shakespeare are consistently orthosexual, treating deviations as unsalutary and symptomatic of social necrosis. In an age in which sexual “ambiguity” is celebrated and promoted by a veritable orgy of sensationalist journalists, psycho-babbling critics, and “queer theorists,” it's not surprising that many are anxious to enlist the prestigious “William Shakespeare” in the cause. Unfortunately, such efforts are vain and doomed to failure, for they must always be conducted at the expense of content. In what follows we examine several Shakespeare plays to reveal his negative assessment of effeminacy and male intimacy.1 We will find that readings of Shakespeare which allege same-sex promotion are doctrinaire and intellectually transgressive. 

2.  A Sparrow Falls, Look Out Below!

A few notes snatched from the rising chorus should suffice. In a recent essay, “A Sparrow Falls: Olivier's Feminine Hamlet,” Prof. Sky Gilbert announces that Prince Hamlet is an “effeminate” character: “A close reading of the text of Hamlet, and also an examination of the text in performance, reveals [sic] that . . . issues of effeminacy and sexuality are and have always been central to our perception of one of Shakespeare's most famous plays.” (240) Critics “often discuss his effeminacy.” (241) “I would suggest that Hamlet is effeminate – by both early modern and contemporary standards – and that the transhistorical link between homosexuality and effeminacy makes any discussion of Hamlet's characteristics necessarily a discussion of his sexuality.” (241)

“O this learning, what a thing it is!” (The Taming of the Shrew, I, ii, 157)

Hamlet criticizes himself for being more womanly than manly, and is clearly not secure in his identity as an adult male. Indeed there are moments in the play where Hamlet points to his own effeminacy, characterizing himself as more like a boy or a woman than a man. One of the essential distinctions made between men and boys in Shakespeare's day was facial hair, and when Hamlet discourses on his own cowardice in his second soliloquy, he imagines himself beardless: “Am I a coward? Who calls me villain? Breaks my pate across? Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face?” (Gilbert, 242)

How might this show or tend to show him to be “effeminate”? Keep in mind that one advancing the novel and significant thesis bears the burdens of proof and persuasion. These are forensic obligations of the affirmative position occupied by Dr. Gilbert. Let the standard be a mere preponderance of the evidence. Are those burdens successfully discharged? Unfortunately not. We are reminded that Hamlet, a university student at Wittenberg, sports a beard, certainly not the rule for male undergrads. According to Dr. Gilbert, a beard is – none too surprisingly – a token of masculinity. Hence, the evidence adduced supports the contrary proposition. Hamlet is manly, not feminine. 

What actions or features of Prince Hamlet are consistent with “effeminacy”? Does he lisp? Exhibit a mincing gait? A limp wrist? No? There must be something else, then – but what? 

Yes, he is certainly beset by self-doubt. This may be the result of his inability to fulfill his pledge to the ghost in Act 1, scene 5 to avenge the King's death by slaying Claudius. But is murder a stroll in the park? How many young men among us could plunge a deadly blade into the bowels of the reigning monarch? If a scholar is reluctant to return his books to the library and rush out to publicly butcher a family member and sovereign on the asseverations of a “ghost,” does that suggest he is “effeminate”? Non sequitur. Or, looked at subjectively, if he laments privately the fact of his inability to become a bloody regicide, and frets about his puissance in the process, do those perfectly understandable doubts entail “effeminacy”? Not at all. To think that way is to give the word a new wrinkle indeed. But the plain fact is that Hamlet's malaise commences not in the second soliloquy (II, ii, 551-607) but the first (I, ii, 129-159), at which point he has not yet been apprised of the late King's assassination. Yet here he already contemplates suicide (“self-slaughter”) (II, ii, 132) That's pretty serious. What's ailing him? Many wish they knew. Though T.S. Eliot is correct to have observed that a mere hasty remarriage on the part of his mother is insufficient to account for the Prince's anguish, he is wrong to contend that there is no reasonable explanation. First of all, it is plain that Hamlet expected to inherit the throne from his father, but arrives in Elsinore to discover his amiable uncle's derrière resting on it. (Gontar, 399-401) Second, there is a not-so-subtle implication in those hasty nuptials, namely, that they may be a mere rubber-stamp placed on a pre-existing misalliance of some vintage.  And that in turn raises the uncomfortable question of Hamlet's own provenance and legitimacy. These issues are never squarely faced, however, either by Hamlet himself or by our incisive pundits. As a result, he has continued to be an enigma. Psychologically speaking, it is easier for him to seek refuge in doubts about his resolve to commit murder (colorfully repackaged by Dr. Gilbert as “effeminacy”) than it is to face the deeper and more imposing issues of lost crown and illegitimacy, which would undermine his very identity, and suggest the loathsome “uncle” is none other than his biological father.

Utterly insensible of these considerations, then, textual tourists must either throw up their hands in blank despair with Eliot, and set down the world's greatest tragedy as an artistic “failure,” or, with A.C. Bradley, seek out a psychological syndrome to account for Hamlet's self-hatred. When that is done, tragedy shrivels to melodrama. It is not difficult for a critic preoccupied as is Dr. Gilbert with same-sex relations to attribute to Prince Hamlet an uninviting quality such as “effeminacy.” It's a cinch to throw mud, especially if you think your target looks better wearing it. But such an offhand rubric constitutes nothing less than a disinclination to think, an abdication of critical responsibility. If one wanted to contend that Hamlet is “effeminate,” the most forthright way to do it would be to cite with particularity aspects of his activity, deportment and demeanor which have been acknowledged by critical consensus to be so. There is no such consensus. Above all, one would want to be quite sure one possessed the most cogent and up-to-date exegesis of the material. Do we?

Alas, at this point, Dr. Gilbert's golden words are spent. The argument begins to circle the drain.

A few lines later, Hamlet criticizes himself for his lack of action and obsession with talk by comparing himself to a female prostitute: “Must I like a whore unpack my heart with words, And fall a-cursing like a drab, a stallion?” Shakespeare could not be clearer that Hamlet is emasculated by his own lack of action.” (242)

Not at all.

To doubt one's solvency is not necessarily bankruptcy. To play the valetudinarian is not to be ill, nor is stewing about one's measure of manhood the same thing as effeminacy. More plausibly, what is at stake in this context is Hamlet's personal identity and unwillingness to face the possibility that he might be a court bastard who never had a chance to take the throne.

Near the end of the play, Hamlet again compares his misgivings about the upcoming duel with Laertes as womanish: “It is but foolery, but it is such a kind of gainsgiving as would perhaps trouble a woman.” (242)

Hamlet has an eerie premonition he may not survive a sporting match with blunted weapons. And he does not. When the shadow of death gives a man concern, shall we say his apprehensions of mortality are symptoms of “effeminacy”? To pose such a question is to have our answer: no.

Dr. Gilbert tries to argue that Laertes exceeds Hamlet in masculinity, but is brought up short by the fact that Laertes sheds tears while “effeminate” Hamlet does not. (242-243) He then falls back into the worst position of all, clinging desperately to Eliot's strained contention that there is no “objective correlative” and that Hamlet is deeply yet gratuitously neurotic in relation to his mother. (245) This ground has been trodden to death and has rarely if ever been thought to yield “effeminacy.” That was certainly not Eliot's conclusion.

In short, Dr. Gilbert doesn't even come close to demonstrating an effeminate protagonist in Hamletfact adduced is his beard, a masculine property. His putative argument begs the question.

Other points may be examined.

i.  While crossing the ocean Hamlet's vessel is attacked by pirates. (IV, vi, 15) In the ensuing fracas, the Danish prince leaps boisterously onto the pirate deck to give armed resistance. (IV, vi, 17) Typically effeminate behavior? One might expect a truly girlish passenger to expose an alluring ankle or daring dècolletage, not to confront the adversary with drawn sword. Hamlet's conduct at sea is super-masculine, the sort of swashbuckling derring-do that might set feminine hearts a-flutter. 

ii.  When the ghost beckons, Hamlet is determined to follow, heedless of the danger. His companions try to restrain him. There follows this exchange:


It wafts me still. (to the Ghost) Go on, I'll follow thee.


You shall not go, my lord.


Hold off your hand.


Be ruled. You shall not go.


My fate cries out,
And makes each petty artere in this body
As hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve

         The Ghost beckons Hamlet

Still am I called. Unhand me, gentlemen.
By heav'n, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me.
I say, away!  (to the Ghost) I'll follow thee.

         (Exeunt the Ghost and Hamlet
(I, iv, 57-63)

Effeminacy should be made of softer stuff. Hamlet struggles hardily with his comrades, threatening to destroy them unless they let him sojourn with an ominous and unknown spirit. Is this guy a sissy? Dr. Gilbert thinks so. 

iii.  The people would prefer to be ruled by Hamlet, not Claudius.

                                 The other motive
Why to a public count I might not go
Is the great love the general gender bear him,
Who, dipping all his faults in their affection,
Would, like the spring that turneth wood to stone,
Convert his guilts to graces; so that my arrows,
Too slightly timbered for so loud a wind,
Would have reverted to my bow again,
And not where I had aimed them.
(IV, vii, 16-24

Why do the people want Prince Hamlet as their King, to succeed the redoubtable King Hamlet the Dane? Because they perceive him as “effeminate“? That strikes us as a tad counterintuitive. To the contrary, Claudius finds him politically invulnerable, an Über-candidate against whose flinty figure slanderous arrows bounce back to their sender.

iv.  Hamlet leaps into Ophelia's grave and grapples with Laertes. When the duel is proposed, though his adversary is a consummate swordsman, Hamlet accepts the challenge with alacrity. 


You will lose this wager, my lord.


I do not think so. Since he [Laertes] went into France, I
have been in continual practice. I shall win at the odds.
(V, ii, 155-157)

Words spoken by an effeminate fellow? We may want to recall Viola as Cesario in Twelfth Night for contrast. She shivers when tricked by Sir Toby Belch into a duel with Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who also quakes in his boots. Cesario is seen as 'effeminate' because he is actually a woman in disguise. 


I will return again into the house and desire some
onduct of the lady. I am no fighter.
(III, iv, 235-236)

Pray God defend me. A little thing would make
make me tell them how much I lack of a man.
(III, iv, 293-294)

Here Viola's mock effeminacy (i.e., femininity) is apt and used to marvelous comic effect. Prince Hamlet on the other hand possesses an intact manhood, battling with pirates and enraged siblings, with his life in jeopardy on both occasions.

v.  In the not-too-distant past, Ophelia was courted by the young prince with poetry, gifts and true affection. At that time, were there noted in him any defects of masculine character that might support the claims of Dr. Gilbert? No, there weren't. Courtiers and ladies in the circle of King Claudius do not comment that in his moodiness, sulking and petulant manner, Hamlet is just continuing to act as he always did. Instead, surprise and disappointment show in their reaction to his scandalous words and sullen countenance. So as the curtain rises and Hamlet unpacks his heart, it must be that he has almost overnight and without cause become 'effeminate', as preposterous a notion as any one might devise. The so-called 'effeminate' Hamlet speaks of his alleged father thus:

[He] was a man. Take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.
(I, ii, 186-187)

Hamlet, too, is a man among men. He knows the value of manhood and that is one of the reasons we value him. 

vi.  Interestingly, Shakespeare underscores Hamlet's virile temperament by introducing near the climax a manifestly effeminate character. Claudius selects the fop Osric to deliver Laertes' challenge and terms of wager. Though Dr. Gilbert can find in Osric nothing more than a “flatterer” (247), his language is not gross fawning. The effeminate lord was a stock character on the London stage in Elizabethan England, instantly recognized by the audience. Thus, when he greets the Prince, welcoming him back to Denmark, Hamlet nudges Horatio and whispers, “Dost know this water-fly?” (V, ii, 83-84) What does this import? No words of flattery have yet passed Osric's lips, yet Hamlet instantly sets him down in disparaging locution. Osric is a flamboyant fussbudget with a mincing gait, or, to use Dr. Gilbert's enchanting lexicon, a “queer.” Viewers will automatically recall Hotspur's conversation with Bolingbroke in King Henry IV, Part One, in which a Hotspur seeks to rationalize his failure to surrender his prisoners to the King.  


My liege, I did deny no prisoners;
But I remember, when the fight was done,
When I was dry with rage and extreme toil,
Breathless and faint, leaning upon my sword,
Came a certain lord, neat and trimly dressed,
Fresh as a bridegroom, and his chin, new-reaped,
Showed like a stubble-land at harvest-home.
He was perfumèd like a milliner,
And 'twixt his finger and his thumb he held
A  pouncet-box, which ever and anon
He gave his nose and took't away again –
Who therewith angry, when it next came there,
Took it in snuff – and he smiled and talked;
And as the soldiers bore dead bodies by,
He called them untaught knaves, unmannerly
To bring a slovenly unhandsome corpse
Betwixt the wind and his nobility.
With many holiday and lady terms
He questioned me; amongst the rest demanded
My prisoners in your majesty's behalf.
I then, all smarting with my wounds being cold –
To be so pestered with a popinjay! –
Out of my grief and my impatience
Answered neglectingly, I know not what –
He should, or should not – for he made me mad
To see him shine so brisk, and smell so sweet,
And talk so like a waiting gentlewoman
Of guns, and drums, and wounds, God save the mark!
And telling me the sovereign'st thing on earth
Was parmacity for an inward bruise,
And that it was a great pity, so it was,
This villainous saltpetre should be digged
Out of the bowels of the harmless earth,
Which many a good tall fellow had destroyed
So cowardly, and but for these vile guns
He would have himself been a soldier.
(I, iii, 28-63)

Reading this account by Hotspur in Henry IV helps us to situate Hamlet's Osric, a later specimen of the same stamp. It is plain that not only are Hotspur's feelings about this namby-pamby more than a little condemnatory, so too are the playwright's. Hotspur and Prince Hamlet are both touched with nobility of spirit, though of course in different ways, and both spurn open and notorious effeminacy.  

vii.  What Hamlet prizes above all is friendship. And by this he does not intend the baser variety of Platonic eros. (See, e.g., Phaedrus 253d, ff.) Despite being emotionally distraught, in a moment of dramatic lucidity and frank self-revelation, Hamlet details his ideal relations with members of his own sex. It is as far from effeminacy as one might get.


Horatio, thou art e'en as just a man
As e'er my conversation coped withal.


O my dear lord –


                                  Nay, do not think I flatter;
For what advancement may I hope from thee,
That no revenue hast but thy good spirits
To feed and clothe thee? Why should the poor be flattered?
No, let candied tongue lick absurd pomp,
And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
Where thrift may follow feigning. Dost thou hear? –
Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish, her election
Hath sealed thee for herself; for thou hast been
As one in suff'ring all that suffers nothing,
A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards
Hath ta'en with equal thanks; and blest are those
Whose blood and judgement are so well commingled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.
(III, ii, 52-72)

Here is a frank statement of Shakespeare's ethical ideal. It is derived from such thinkers as Epicurus, Lucretius and Castiglione. The classic ethos looks to friendship amongst noble men as the very pinnacle of virtue. Precisely repudiated here are the mutability and instability which render men mere feathers of passion, swept up by every passing impulse, fickle and capricious. Horatio is the prototype of manliness, thoughtful, faithful and autonomous, one who could never be “a pipe for Fortune's finger, to sound what stop she please.” By contrast, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, dwelling in the “privates” of Fortune (II, ii, 235), in their deviousness and lack of integrity, are incapable of such proud friendship. Has anyone asked what their relationship is? Returning to the same trope he employed in his encomium to Horatio, Hamlet accuses R&G of treating him like a pipe made to sound what notes others may please to produce in him.


Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you
make of me! You would play upon me, you would
seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart
of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest
note to the top of my compass; and there is much
music, excellent voice in this little organ, yet cannot
you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier
To be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument
you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play
upon me.
(III, ii, 351-360)

But Hamlet is not a pipe for others to blow on. There isn't a shred of evidence that he is – or should be considered to be – effeminate. Quite the contrary.

If we now ask how it is that someone might wish to persuade us that Hamlet is a girly man, a glance in Dr. Gilbert's direction will do. Information available online informs us he is a professor of theater and drama at the University of Guelph in Canada, and also a “drag performer” whose alter ego is “Jane.” This transvestite gentleman has devoted considerable energies to staging and promoting “LGBT drama.” He is a practitioner of something called “queer theory.” On his website one finds an ode written to former President Bill Clinton praising him (tongue-in-cheek?) for his effeminate proclivities. It is one of the more discouraging aspects of “homo” sapiens that we often tend to project our own profile onto others. Long ago this was observed by the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes (c. 570 – c. 480 BC) who quipped, “If animals worshiped the gods, horses would portray them as horses, oxen as oxen.” And so it is in literary studies.  

Having examined Hamlet and King Henry IV, Part One, it may be well to turn to other moments in Shakespeare in which there are instances of effeminacy and its concomitants. We continue with Antony and Cleopatra.

3.  My Man of Men

In his histories, Shakespeare often drops us into the midst of the broil, the thickest part of the tumult. We are there at Agincourt, hearing the cries of the soldiers, we are blood bedecked in the clashes of Shrewsbury, at Bosworth Field we witness Richard's desperate predicament. We behold Talbot's incomparable bravery, see Margaret place the paper crown on York's still unbowed head. But in the tragedies, it seems the dramatis personae have often beheld the best of their time. When we meet him, Othello has put up his bright sword, and recollects his victories as the old warrior, famousèd for worth. His glories are burnished by a setting sun. The triumphs of Titus Andronicus lie behind him, as do those of the distinguished Thane of Cawdor. So is it, too, for Marcus Antonius. What has happened to him? Where is he when he's needed?

From Alexandria this is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes
The lamps of night in revel; is not more manlike
Than Cleopatra, nor the Queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he . . . .
(I, iv, 1-7)            

He is now “a man who is the abstract of all faults / That all men follow.” (I, iv, 8-9) This is especially painful for those can remember the deeds that made magical the very name Antony, the Triple pillar of the world.  Caesar in particular looks back in anger.

Leave thy lascivious wassails. When thou once
Was beaten from Modena, where thou slew'st
Hirtius and Pansa, consuls, at thy heel
Did famine follow, whom thou fought'st against –
Though daintily brought up – with patience more
Than savages could suffer. Thou dids't drink
The stale of horses, and the gilded puddle
Which beasts would cough at. Thy palate then did deign
The roughest berry on the rudest hedge.
Yea, like the stag when snow the pasture sheets,
The barks of trees thou browsed. On the Alps
It is reported thou didst eat strange flesh,
Which some did die to look on; and all this –
It wounds thine honour that I speak it now –
Was borne so like a soldier that thy cheek
So much as lanked not.
(I, iv, 55-71)

And that is not the worst of it. Anyone who reads in succession the tragedies of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra must be struck by the fact that, in phenomenological terms, the “Mark Antony” of the latter is a completely different person from the Mark Antony of the first. As we saw in the relationship of Prince Hamlet and Horatio, what defines the Mark Antony in Julius Caesar is his unshakable bond of friendship with Caesar. It is this friendship which gives the character of Antony its gravitas, its credibility. In his great encomium after the faction has done its awful deed, Antony installs that friendship with Caesar as the keystone in his arch of virtue: “He was my friend, faithful and just to me.” (III, ii, 86) That friendship is central to the earlier soliloquy, in which we can almost hear the beating of Antony's heart; in fact, it's hard to think of any dramatic performance which can rival Marlon Brando's (1956) rendition of these astonishing lines:  

O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers.
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever livèd in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!
Over thy wounds now do I prophesy –
Which like dumb mouths do ope their ruby lips
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue –
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war,
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds;
And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice,
Cry 'havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.
(III, i, 257-278)

For Shakespeare, then, virtue is not an abstraction, but has its roots in noble comradeship, as we see exemplified in the relations of Hamlet and Horatio, Antony and Caesar, Theseus and Pirithous, Pericles and Helicanus and other male pairs. What so bitterly disappoints Octavius in Antony and Cleopatra, then, is not the general's debauchery and revels as much as his unwillingness or inability to honor his friendship with Octavius, as he had with Julius Caesar. The American philosopher Josiah Royce in his ethical writings and lectures used to urge the maxim of being “loyal to loyalty.” And it is the failure to live up to such a maxim which lies at the root of Antony's fall from grace. He has so lost his way that he is no longer capable of philia

Though Cleopatra is Antony's obsession, he is constantly beset by the feeling of drowning emotionally; he must flee before he is altogether sucked in and consumed. As he is being absorbed by his arachnoid love object, he is progressively unmanned. It's as though he were a swishy fan of a “gay icon” like Judy Garland or Bette Midler who finally gets to meet the queen – and become her roommate. It's all too much. Antony refuses to attend to business; instead he wants to plot each evening's concupiscent diversion: “Tonight we'll wander through the streets and note / The qualities of people. Come, my queen. Last night you did desire it.” (I, i, 55-57) Cleopatra, for her part, sensing his frantic wish to break free, redoubles her efforts to hold him fast by any means possible. When he finally escapes her clutches and wafts back to Rome, she amuses herself by teasing the “unseminar'd eunuch” Mardian, an emblem of Antony's own evaporating masculinity. “Hast thou affections?” she challenges.


Yes, gracious madam.




Not in deed, madam, for I can do nothing
But what is honest to be done.
Yet I have fierce affections, and think
What Venus did with Mars.
(I, v, 12-18)

Cleopatra may salivate over the brute but always seems to prepare the castrato for her entrée. She could no more accept a non-emasculated lover than she could dine on an uncooked fish. And Antony is the poor fish for which she is forever angling. (II, v, 10-18) Who knows? There might be a spark of life in him she's overlooked and needs to snuff out.

What Venus did with her bellicose god, of course, is conquer him, as Cleopatra is intent on conquering her man of war. This is boldly illustrated by Sandro Botticelli in his 1483 canvas, Venus and Mars, in which the hero is depicted post coitum, sufficiently sated to have lost consciousness, appearing nothing short of dead, as mock cherubs try in vain to revive him. Botticelli's Mars is a soft, beardless youth, not the tough veteran stained with blood and sweat. Venus gazes at her captive in satisfaction and triumph. (It is more than likely that Oxford, the actual author, was familiar with the painting as a result of his 1575 tour of Italy.) Shakespeare's Cleopatra is a tragic figure because the greater her efforts to squeeze the last drop of titillation from Antony, the smaller, weaker and less appetizing he becomes. Psychologically castrating this aging soldier is the only way she knows to keep him. She is an emotional vampire, a cousin of the serpents she so lovingly employs to extinguish herself when what is left of Antony expires in her arms. 

O, see, my women,
The crown o'th' earth doth melt. My lord!
O, withered is the garland of the war.
The soldier's pole is fall'n. Young boys and girls
Are level now with men. The odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon.
(V, 16, 64-70)

Thus croweth the femme fatale of Egypt over her prize. As she dons her finest robes and tiara to keep her long awaited date with death (V, ii, 223-275) it isn't likely that Cleopatra will recall the night

I drunk him to his bed,
Then put my tires and mantles on him whilst
I wore his sword Philippan.
(II, v, 21-23)

Indeed, in one early scene, when Cleopatra rushes onstage clad in Antony's helmet and breastplate,  Enobarbus thinks she is Antony, and has to be corrected by handmaid Charmian. (I, ii, 70-71)

Cleopatra's fetid penumbra of luxury, ennui and erotic whimsy soon takes its toll on Antony, whose last vestiges of drive and determination fade just as the advancing shadow of Roman legions brings him to his senses. Too late. With testosterone tank on “empty,” and still under his unfair lady's spell, Antony is a mere caricature of his former self. Rome declares war on Cleopatra, and responsibility for Egypt's defense falls on his now slumping shoulders. To make matters worse, Cleopatra insists on participating in the war personally. 


Your presence needs must puzzle Antony,
Take from his heart, take from his brain, from's time
What should not then be spared. He is already
Traduced for levity; and 'tis said in Rome
That Photinus, an eunuch, and your maids
Manage this war.


                                Sink Rome, and their tongues rot
That speak against us! A charge we bear i' th' war,
And as the president of my kingdom will
Appear there for a man. Speak not against it.
I will not stay behind.
(III, vii, 10-19)

The problem is, Cleopatra is not a martial woman, on a par with real fighters like Joan of Arc and Queen Margaret. She knows combat only as a game played with the now enervated Antony. Enobarbus is therefore correct: her presence in the fray can serve as a distraction only. More gravely, “Cleopatra [is] unintentionally fighting on Octavius Caesar's side . . . .  As a foreign queen, she [is] no more popular with Antony's soldiers than with the enemy.” (Asimov, 367) Her admiralty is therefore little better than an illusion; her legions will change sides at the slightest provocation. Undeterred, she bungles her way into strategy, where her bad ideas impose themselves on her man of wax. As a general, he always excelled in land engagements. But Cleopatra has her own fleet, including the flagship Antoniad, from whose incensed pavilions she plans to observe Antony confound the Roman navy as though a naval engagement were a child's cartoon. And as Asimov observes, “a sea victory . . . would include the Egyptian fleet and entitle her to a share in the glory and the profits.” (Asimov, 369) She insists he fight on sea, not land. “I have sixty sails, Caesar none better.” (III, vii, 49) That settles it. 

The Battle of Actium is launched, with predictable results. Confronted directly by Caesar's squadrons,  Cleopatra, turns and flees, as though she'd left a cake in the oven. She is followed by most of her sixty sail, with the dazed Mark Antony bringing up the rear.


                             She once being luffed,
The noble ruin of her magic, Antony,
Claps on his sea-wing and, like a doting mallard,
Leaving the fight in height, flies after her.
I never saw an action of such shame.
Experience, manhood, honour, ne'er before
Did violate so itself.
(III, 10, 18-23)

Antony's leave-taking from Actium is not a retreat; it is the desertion by a leader of his own forces. History provides no other instance of such betrayal. Would the Antony of Philippi have ever dreamed of such disgrace? This has happened because that Antony is no more. He has been replaced by a neutered pod stripped to the root. Though Plato argues theoretically in the Politeia for the inclusion of women in the guardian class of citizens (that is, the army), the lesson of history is plain. Shakespeare follows Plutarch on this point. The fag hag has no business in battle. 

One must go beyond the quadrangle to obtain a sensible view of this. Even Camille Paglia in Sexual Personae celebrates the “sexual ambiguity” which generates what is arguably the most unseemly moment in western civilization. That genocidal maniac Captain George Custer appears more admirable at Little Big Horn than Antony at Actium. Let us listen to Mr. Asimov's brief for common sense.

This is the point at which the world is lost and Antony is forever disgraced. There might be reasons for Cleopatra running away; the only reason for Antony is an impulse of love. This impulse might be understandable, even admirable, to romantics, and surely there is nothing so worth a sigh as to witness some great game tossed away for love.

Yet we must admit that however admirable it may be to ruin oneself for love, however noble to go down to personal death for love, it is not noble to cast away the lives and fortunes of thousands of others for love. Antony abandoned a fleet that was fighting bravely on his behalf, and in the confusion and disheartenment that followed his flight, many men died who might have lived had he remained. What's more, he abandoned thousands of officers and men on the nearby mainland, who had been prepared to die for him, leaving them only the alternative of useless resistance or ignoble surrender. We may understand Antony, but we cannot excuse him. (Asimov 1, 371)

But it may be doubted whether Mr. Asimov, for all his historical erudition, actually does understand Antony.   He thinks that Antony runs from Actium on account of “love.” But the affective state in which Antony subsists is uncertain at the outset and poorly characterized by a generic term such as “love.” Go back to the first words spoken by Cleopatra in the play: “If it be love indeed, tell me how much.” (I, i, 14) IF it be love. Why does Shakespeare write “if”? That has clearly been a sticking point  between these two in their mad affair. And nothing in the text convinces us in the end, not even Cleopatra's fantasy of meeting Antony in the world-to-come, that Antony was motivated by what is commonly called “love.” In his response to Schleiermacher's hypothesis that religion is best defined as the “feeling of dependence,” Hegel is said to have caustically remarked that if religion is the feeling of dependence then a dog is the best Christian. To push the metaphor, Antony in Shakespeare's play is not a man but a mere cur. And can a dog really love a cat? We find the same model in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which emasculated alcoholic Brick, recovering from his fixation on his chum Skipper, conceives of himself as in love with “Maggie the cat.”  Limping on crutches and obviously impotent, there is no foundation for the view that Brick has ever actually loved Maggie. And it should not be overlooked that Hollywood chose actress Elizabeth Taylor (the raptor who seized the feckless Eddie Fisher in her talons) to play both Cleopatra and  Maggie the cat.  

It is näive in the extreme, then, to suggest that Antony deserts his troops on account of anything as sane as love. Hotspur loves his wife Kate. Does he take her to Shrewsbury? (See, King Henry IV Part One, II, iv, 1-115) Does Brutus on the Ides of March take Portia to the Senate house? If a man loves his wife he would certainly not expose her to the hazards of armed combat. Antony should never have permitted Cleopatra to intrude into the battle, and seeing her depart to presumed safety should have uplifted his spirits. Instead of relief at her withdrawal, Antony does the absurdly unaccountable thing and follows her.


                            O my lord, my lord,
Forgive my fearful sails! I little thought
You would have followed.


                           Egypt, thou knew'st too well
My heart was to thy rudder tied by th' strings,
And thou shouldst tow me after. O'er my spirit
Thy full supremacy thou knew'st, and that
Thy beck might from the bidding of the gods
Command me.
(III, xi, 54-61)

But this is most inadequate, for even if it is true that Antony was under her thumb (and it is), there was no call, no beck from her. This is no soldier obedient to command. We thought to find:

                . . . some Hercules,
A second Hector, for his grim aspect
And large proportion of his strong-knit limbs.
Alas, this is a child, a seely dwarf.
It cannot be this weak and writheled shrimp
Should strike such terror to his enemies.
(King Henry VI, II, iii, 18-23)

The words are apt.  Antony is not “a lover, that kills himself most gallant for love,” (A Midsummer Night's Dream, I, ii, 20) but by his own admission a child tied to his mother's apron's strings, and is nothing more than a miniaturized version of her, an extension of herself. That is ultimately the problem with “sexual ambiguity.” By whittling down the full dimensions of the masculine we lose those greater aspects of manhood which we admired and which promised our comfort and protection in the first place. In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare returns to the image of the dominant female which was strongly adumbrated in Romeo and Juliet. (Gontar, 51-63) Antony does not “love” Cleopatra, he is engulfed by her, swallowed whole and spat out. And Shakespeare is at pains to show that the loss of Antony's “inches” is nothing to celebrate.

4.  The Men Who Love to Hate and the Woman Who Hates to Love

Roman general Caius Martius Coriolanus is up to the gills with plebians and tribunes. But the Volsces are in arms under their hero Tullus Aufidius, and plan to strike at Rome. It is left to Coriolanus to mount a defense, and skirmishes ensue. (I, iv, 20-29) Tullus and Caius are old adversaries: “If we and Caius Martius chance to meet, / 'Tis sworn between us we shall ever strike / Till one can do no more.” (I, ii, 34-36) Martius is enthusiastic.


                                They have a leader, 
Tullus Aufidius, that will put you to't. 
I sin in envying his nobility,
And were I anything but what I am,
I would wish me only he.


You have fought together!


Were half to half the world by th' ears and he
Upon my party, I'd revolt to make
only my wars upon him. He is a lion
I am proud to hunt.
(I, i, 228-236)

What have we here? At the furthest verge of manhood and combat a different scent is in the air. The feelings of Martius for the enemy of Rome are curiously enticing. Aufidius's nobility is of such a degree that it is envied, a sin against hate. The truth is that Martius is so drawn to Tullus Aufidius that he would have no metaphysical objection to being that very person! He is “a lion” that Martius is “proud” to hunt. With a slight adjustment, could we say that Martius loves to hunt this beast? Yet, Aufidius remains “the man of my soul's hate.” (I, vi, 10) How does love square with hate?

At the gates of the city of Corioles, the Romans make a humiliating retreat and are excoriated by Martius. Under his stern command, the Volces are beaten back to the city gates and collapse within. With the gates still ajar, Martius gives the order to enter the city for the coup de grâce. He strides forward, heedless of the fact that no one in his legions is following him. The gates slam shut behind him. Hours pass. Finally Martius emerges, blood stained but alive, a champion unexcelled. But where is Tullus Aufidius? Lo, the twain doth meet.


I'll fight with none but thee, for I do hate thee
Worse than any promise-breaker.


                               We hate alike.
Not Afric owns a serpent I abhor
More than thy fame and envy. Fix thy foot.


Let the first budger die the other's slave,
And the gods doom him after.


If I fly, Martius,
Holla me like a hare.


Within these three hours, Tullus,
Alone I fought in your Coriole's walls,
And made what work I pleased. 'Tis not my blood
Wherein thou seest me masked. For thy revenge,
Wrench up thy power to th' highest.


Wert thou the Hector
That was the whip of your bragged progeny,
Thou shouldst not scape me here.

(Here they fight, and certain Volsces come
in the aid of Aufudius. Martius fights till
the Volsces be driven in breathless, Martius
(I, ix, 1-13)

In the case of Cleopatra's Antony we encountered an emasculated warrior who has seen his manhood consumed by a virago of the Nile. But with Coriolanus and Aufidius, while there is no diminution in manly bravura and chest beating, we have a sense that, like Magellan reaching the east by sailing west, in Martius we have gone so far in the direction of masculinity that we have attained the South Sea of Effeminacy, where narcissistic beefcake heroes make oeillades at each other as they cavort in the fray. For in the dialectic of sex, masculinity turns into its contrary. Unbeknownst to these two big sissies, each has a crush on the other. That is why women are so frequently repelled by body builders and steroid pill-poppers. When a man's real love is found in the mirror what appears as masculine has undergone a sad mutation. As we will see below, this syndrome may be traced to Ancient Greece and is most clearly exemplified in the lollygagging of Achilles and his Ganymede, Patroclus.  

Take a close look at Coriolanus. The big figure in his life is not his retiring wife, Virgilia, whose business appears to be to occupy the position of spouse as a faithful lieutenant might hold a strategic hillside. She is a cipher. It is Coriolanus' mommy, Volumnia, who holds sway over him. It is she who has reared him in bravery and the martial arts, and has taught him that the only truly honorable life for a man of Rome is to suffer injuries and die for one's country.


Is he not wounded? He was wont to come home wounded.


O, no, no, no!


O, he's wounded, I thank the gods for't!

In considering her son's honour and bravery, Volumnia is not shy to claim these manly virtues for herself and tell her son he derived them from her (surely a slap in the face to his father's memory):


                                Do as thou list.
Thy valiantness was mine, thou sucked'st it from me,
But owe thy pride thyself.
(III, ii, 127-129)


I pray you, daughter, sing, or express yourself
in a more comfortable sort.  If my son were my husband,
I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won
honour than in the embracements of his bed where he
would show most love. When yet he was but tender-
bodied and the only son of my womb, when youth
with comeliness plucked all gaze his way, when for a
day of kings' entreaties a mother should not sell him
an hour for her beholding, I, considering how honour
would become such a person – that it was no better
than, picture-like, to hang by th' wall if renown made
it not stir – was pleased to let him seek danger where
he was like to find fame. To a cruel war I sent him,
from whence he returned his brows bound in oakI
tell thee, daughter, I sprang not more in joy at first
he was a man-child than now in first seeing
he had proved himself a man.
(I, iii, 1-17)  

VIRGILIA (to Volumnia)

Beseech you give me leave to retire myself.


Indeed you shall not.
Methinks I hear hither your husband's drum,
See him pluck Aufidius down by th' hair;
As children from a bear, the Volsces shunning him.
Methinks I see him stamp thus, and call thus:
'Come on, you cowards, you were got in fear
Though you were born in Rome!' His bloody brow
With his mailed hand then wiping, forth he goes,
Like to a harvest-man that's asked to mow
Or all or lose his hire.


His bloody brow? O Jupiter, no blood!


Away, you fool! It more becomes a man
Than gilt his trophy. The breasts of Hecuba
When she did suckle Hector looked not lovelier
Than Hector's forehead when it spit forth blood
At Grecian sword, contemning.
(I, iii, 29-48)

Shakespeare shows us, then, several ways to ruin a man. Too soft or too hard, both spell masculine disaster. A femme fatale like Cleopatra can so capture a man's fancy that he becomes a trifle for her amusement, letting him sink deeper and deeper in a vortex of lubricity until he's snuffed out altogether like a wasp in honey. The pretext there is “love.” Or, in the names of “manhood” and “honor” a mother may raise a young man to scorn any end that falls short of total martyrdom. Once a  popular ideal in the west, we tend to see this perverse syndrome nowadays only in the lunatic idolatries of the middle east. Volumnia thinks of herself as a noble Roman matron who has discharged her duty to Rome and its tutelary deities by raising a man of steely patriotism. But what she bequeaths to the world is a killing machine which but slenderly knows itself. (Lear, Quarto, I, i, 283-284) In seeking at his mother's instigation to extrude from himself the last vestiges of sympathy, Coriolanus completely loses touch with the feminine, and so can take as a love object only what is like himself, male. Effeminacy of this type is no less real for being concealed. As the soul vaporizes and the external body becomes armored in sinews and musculature, the vacuity of the inner digestive and excretory tracts is inevitably highlighted and eroticized, signaling availability for penetrative possession. This is the nightmare that haunts Volumnia's distraught son.

Because of his emotional immaturity, Coriolanus cannot master the art of politics, which must be done if his career is to continue. His pride and contempt for ordinary people alienates the commons and the tribunes have no difficulty turning the masses against him. Though a hero of Rome, Coriolanus is banished. While a Bolingbroke might gather his friends to form an army to conquer despised Rome (we see this also in Alcibiades' plot to invade Athens in Timon of Athens), Coriolanus proceeds incognito to the city of the Volsces where he seeks out – of all people – his sworn foe Tullus Aufidius, proposing an alliance! Their interaction at this point is instructive. For what we find is that the mutual “hate” which animated them turns inside out. As Cauis Martius unmasks in front of his most despised enemy, and proposes that they unite against the loathed city of Rome, he offers Tullus his throat to cut (IV, v, 97) if  he should choose to reject the venture of an alliance. Why that particular organ? He might have offered his head, after all. His adversary is stunned, and responds in a rather revealing manner.


O Martius, Martius!
Each word thou hast spoke hath weeded from my heart
A root of ancient envy. If Jupiter
Should from yon cloud speak divine things
And say ''Tis true', I'd not believe them more
Than thee, all-noble Martius. Let me twine
Mine arms about that body whereagainst
My grainèd ash an hundred times hath broke,
And scarred the moon with splinters.
               (He embraces Coriolanus)
                                                           Here I clip
The anvil of my sword, and do contest
As hotly and as nobly with thy love
As ever in ambitious strength I did
Contend against thy valour. Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sighed truer breath. But that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Beside my threshold. Why, thou Mars, I tell thee
We have a power on foot, and I had purpose
Once more to hew thy target from thy brawn,
Or lose my arm for't. Thou hast beat me out
Twelve several times, and I have nightly since
Dreamt of encounters 'twixt thyself and me –
We have been down together in my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throat –
And waked half dead with nothing. Worthy Martius,
Had we no other quarrel else to Rome but that
Thou art thence banished, we would muster all
From twelve to seventy, and, pouring war
Into the bowels of ungrateful Rome,
Like a bold flood o'erbear't. O, come, go in,
And take our friendly senators by th' hands
Who now are here taking their leaves of me,
Who am prepared against your territories,
Though not for Rome itself.
(IV, v, 102-136)

In the classic BBC video production, Aufidius embraces his beloved foe, cradling Martius's head against his own torso. The astounding speech he delivers is one, not of mere reconciliation, but of philia and eros. Martius, for his part, accepts these affections as though natural and sought after. It turns out that this great antagonist of Coriolanus, the one who hates his guts with a febrile passion, in fact cultivates an ardent love for him surpassing the desire he felt for his young bride on their wedding night! Though he had longed to “hew thy target from thy brawn” (that is, cut out your heart – or – unman you), Aufidius's actual feeling is quite to the contrary. Long before this sudden rapprochement Aufidius has been dreaming every night of a curious intercourse with Coriol”anus” (whose very name suggests a target organ). In Aufidius's repetitive dream, these two haters descend (“we have been down together”), undress one another ('unbuckling'), and exhaust themselves in violent intercourse or fellatio (“fisting each other's throats”). Here is the fantasized (and therefore actual) meaning of their hostile relationship. As Patroclus is to Achilles, so is Aufidius to Coriolanus, the latter's male varlet. Long before Freud, Shakespeare had charted the labyrinth of dreams, and Freud, the assiduous student of Shakespeare from childhood, learned much from the unrivalled master of the human mind. (See, Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, 1997)

Is the unconscious amour of Aufidius and Coriolanus an affair which exemplifies Shakespeare's ideals? Does he admire these two thoughtless adversaries? No. Their masculinity is not genuine but symptomatic of unresolved issues. It is crypto-effeminacy. Its conclusion is tragedy and death. Aufidius chafes under the sway of Coriolanus's autonomy, and soon enough the emotion which had switched from hate to love, flips back again to hate. The fate of Cauis Martius is thus sealed.  

Let us note in passing that much contemporary scholarship fails to come to terms with Coriolanus. Typical is the “cultural materialism” of Prof. Jonathan Dollimore, so preoccupied with political ideology that it is blinded to the most obvious and significant components of the text.      

Quite gratuitously, Dollimore denies that Volumnia delights in her son's wounds, suggesting that her real object of excitement is the “political capital” that accrues thereby. (Dollimore, 219) He then proceeds to deny that Aufidius loves Caius Martius, but merely “the power he signifies.” (Dollimore, 221) But how could Aufidius rejoice at the “signified power” of his enemy? Is he the manager of Caius Martius's campaign for the consulship? Only a critic preoccupied with politics could twist the text to make its sense political rather than personal. What “political capital” accrued when Hector's forehead “spit forth blood” at Grecian sword? There is none. Watch Dollimore's brand of thinking in action:

It is ironically significant that when they meet, Aufidius repeatedly fails to recognize Coriolanus even though they have many times fought each other:

                                     Thou hast beat me out
Twelve several times, and I have nightly since
Dreamt of encounters 'twixt thyself and me –
We have been down together in my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throat –
And wak'd half dead with nothing.

Despite this, Aufidius only recognises Coriolanus when he is told his name. The implication is clear: Aufidius loves not the man but the power he signifies; he puts a face to the name, not vice-versa. (Dollimore, 220-221)

The willful poverty of this argument is embarrassing. Coriolanus is absolutely the last person on earth Aufidius expects to stride uninvited into his vestibule. He enters muffled and disguised, and appears in a night where a few late candles burn. Though he “unmuffles,” his face is begrimed by hard travel. His disguise remains on. Is it any surprise that Aufidius doesn't know this stranger? Does that perceptual problem in any way imply that Aufidius's speech of extreme love (inverted hate) for Martius was a sham? Here is an inference hanging in thin air. Dollimore prefers to accord more weight to his own political agenda than to the mere text, the helpless victim of his tortuous deconstructions. Most shocking of all is the scanting of the passage partially quoted, which we would expect a phalanx of psychoanalysts to recognize as a veritable symphony of veiled sexual desire. Unfortunately, Dollimore's botching of Coriolanus is not atypical of contemporary criticism, which, with its camps of new historicism, cultural materialism, feminism and the like, is as stridently ideological and incoherent as any philosophy it chooses to vet.                

5.  Confederacy of Varlets

Shakespeare's most extensive portrayal of same-sex eroticism is Troilus and Cressida. It is a side show of degeneracy pendant to the Trojan War, in which many are speared and none is spared. Young Troilus, apprehending that his capacity to give delight and satisfaction to his lascivious lady is faltering, adopts the stratagem of cuckoldry. (Gontar, 100-107) He might have considered other options. While a complete literary treatment of alternatives to normalcy has yet to be written (De Sade and Jean-Paul Sartre are the best attempts), Shakespeare's play is a fairly thorough exploration of two: cuckoldry and same-sex eroticism. That is a logical pairing, for if delved to the root one would discover that the latter is the telos of the former. That is, cuckoldry is a half-way house on the dialectical path to pederasty. One of Shakespeare's main purposes in this perplexing play is to expose the rottenness that lies beneath advanced civilizations, and there can be little doubt as to the immediate locus of the action: London circa 1600. (Think of the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933, a later European side show of decadence lodged between two phases of a global conflagration.) Priam's Troy is crawling with discreditable and – dare we use the word? – disgusting people.   

For example, Cressida's uncle, given the opprobrious moniker “Pandarus” [= pander] is an effeminate matchmaker trying to seductively interest his alluring but cynical niece in Troilus. While Helen in All's Well That Ends Well merrily defends virginity in the face of Parole's critique thereof (I, i, 9-161), Cressida's smutty banter with Pandarus is replete with brown and copper noses. Though the meaning is childishly apparent,  Bate and Rasmussen crawl out on a hermeneutical limb by suggesting that “brown” refers to “someone with a dark complexion,” and that “copper” is “red (from drinking; conceivably suggests the metal noses occasionally worn by those who had lost their real noses to syphillis.)” (Bate, 1486) When schoolboys teasingly accuse one another of being “brown nosers” in relation to the teacher, is that a reference to people with “dark complexions”?

The scene shifts to the Greek camp, where some are emboldened to take Achilles' name in vain.


The great Achilles, whom opinion crowns
The sinew and the forehand of our host,
Having his ear full of his airy fame,
Grows dainty of his worth, and in his tent
Lies mocking our designs. With him Patroclus
Upon a lazy bed the livelong day
Breaks scurrilous jests
And, with ridiculous and awkward action,
Which, slanderer, he 'imitation' calls,
He pageants us. Sometime, the great Agamemnon,
Thy topless deputation he puts on,
And like a strutting player, whose conceit
Lies in his hamstring and doth think it rich
To hear the wooden dialogue and sound
'Twixt his stretched footing and the scaffoldage,
Such to-be-pitied and o'er-wrested seeming
He acts thy greatness in. And when he speaks
'Tis like a chime a-mending, with terms unsquared
Which from the tongue of roaring Typhon dropped
Would seem hyperboles. At this fusty stuff
The large Achilles on his pressed bed lolling
From his deep chest laughs out a loud applause,
Cries 'Excellent! 'Tis Agamemnon just.'
Now play me Nestor, hem and stroke thy beard,
As he being dressed to some oration'.
That's done as near as the extremist ends
Of parallels, as like Vulcan and his wife.
Yet the god Achilles still cries, 'Excellent!
'Tis Nestor right. Now play him me, Patroclus,
Arming to answer in a night alarm'.
And then forsooth the faint defects of age
Must be the scene of mirth: to cough, and spit,
And with a palsy, fumbling on his gorget,
Shake in and out the rivet.  And at this sport
Sir Valour dies, cries, O enough, Patroclus!
Or give me ribs of steel. I shall split all
In pleasure of my spleen'. And in this fashion
All our abilities, gifts, natures, shapes,
Severals and generals of grace extract,
Achievements, plots, orders, preventions,
Excitements to the field or speech for truce,
Success or loss, what is or is not, serves
As stuff for these two to make paradoxes.
(I, iii, 142-184)

What may be gleaned from this passage? Though the war began with an effort by the Greeks to recover the wife of Menelaüs, Helen of Troy, protection of the integrity of the biological family was not of paramount importance to many if not most members of the Greek troops. Indeed, as the siege of Troy is said to have spanned an entire decade, and wives did not accompany the Greek warriors, it may be wondered what sort of conjugal fulfillment might have been accorded the invaders over such a long period of time. The most outstanding example of ingenuity in the ranks is certainly the hero Achilles, who seems for whatever reason to have had scant respect for the mission of recovering a leader's wife. Shakespeare shows him doting on and cohabiting with a young man, Patroclus, with whom he was obviously intimately involved. These two pass the time either in copulation or by putting on loud satirical performances which mock the leadership of the Hellenes, making laughing stocks of Agamemnon and his brother. Why should a self-willed man like Achilles, physically and emotionally bonded with Patroclus, have any concern about foolish old Menelaüs and his trophy bride? The behavior of Achilles reported to the general staff by Ulysses is of conduct unbecoming to an officer and would certainly lead today to investigation, a court martial and dishonorable discharge, punishment, or both. One would want to eliminate such behavior as soon as possible, as it would be imitated by others and could soon undermine morale. And this is precisely what Shakespeare reports.


And in imitation of these twain
Who, as Ulysses says, opinion crowns
With an imperials voice, many are infect.
Ajax is grown self-willed and bears his head
In such a rein, in full as proud a place
As broad Achilles, and keeps his tent like him
Makes factious feasts, rails on our state of war
Bold as an oracle, and sets Thersites,
A slave whose gall coins slanders like a mint,
To match us in comparisons with dirt,
To weaken and discredit our exposure,
How rank so ever rounded in with danger.
(I, iii, 185-196)

What is the attitude of the author towards Achilles and Patroclus? One hundred percent negative. Choice of private indulgence over family, hearth and the protection of the nation is as bad a decision in Shakespeare's eyes as one could possibly imagine. The standpoint of Achilles is a particularly foul and unseemly brand of hubris which reflects nothing but his own personal glory and fulfillment. Instead of viewing same-sex intimacy as a legitimate exercise of individual freedom and right, without any negative consequences for others or for the body politic, Shakespeare demonstrates the invidious consequences which follow such a line of conduct: the undoing of society and state. Such is the impact of effeminacy according to Shakespeare. 

The character of Thersites, a misanthrope related to Timon and Apemantus in Timon of Athens, is the nemesis elicited by the hubris of Achilles. The initial confrontation occurs when Achilles and Patroclus come upon Thersites harassing the helpless clod Ajax. It soon turns out that the sharp tongued Thersites has nothing but contempt for Achilles and his boyfriend. (II, ii, 100-128) Thersites is not a philosopher, however, but a self-taught observer and social critic who speaks his mind, come what may. He suspects that as a result of sexual promiscuity in the Greek camp, disease (“the Neapolitan bone-ache”) will spread. (II, iii, 17-20) Achilles, whom the Greeks hold in such awe, he terms a fool. (II, iii, 60-64) And for self-serving arguments designed to rationalize repugnant activities, Thersites has no patience. 


Here is such patchery, such juggling and such knavery. All the argument
is a whore and a cuckold. A good quarrel to draw emulous factions and
bleed to death upon. Now the dry serpigo on the subject, and war and
lechery confound all.
(II, iii,  70-74)

This line of bombast continues in Act 4.


Here comes Thersites.


How, now, thou core of envy,
Thou crusty botch of nature, what's the news?


Why, thou picture of what thou seemest, and
idol of idiot-worshippers, here's a letter for thee.


From whence, fragment?


Why, thou full dish of fool, from Troy.


Who keeps the tent now?


The surgeon's box or the patient's wound.


Well said, adversity. And what need these tricks?


Prithee be silent boy. I profit not by thy talk.
Thou art thought to be Achilles' male varlet.


'Male varlet', you rogue? What's that?


Why, his masculine whore. Now the rotten
diseases of the south, guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs,
loads o' gravel i'th' back, lethargies, cold palsies, and
the like, take and take again such preposterous

[Taylor and Wells provide a longer rant of Thersites from the Quarto:

Why, his masculine whore. Now the rotten
diseases of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, loads
o' gravel in the back, lethargies, cold palsies, raw
eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing lungs, bladders full of
impostume, sciaticas, lime-kilns i' th' palm, incurable
bone-ache, and the rivelled fee-simple of the tetter [skin disease],
take and take again such preposterous discoveries.]   (Taylor & Wells, 776)


Why, thou damnable box of envy thou, what
mean'st thou to curse thus?


Do I curse thee?


Why, no, you ruinous butt, you whoreson
indistinguishable cur, no.


No? Why art thou then exasperate? Thou idle
immaterial skein of sleave-silk, thou green sarsenet flap
for a sore eye, thou tassel of a prodigal's purse, thou!
Ah, how the poor world is pestered with such waterflies!
Diminutives of nature.
(V, i, 3-31)

Here, of course, the argument comes full circle. We saw in Hamlet that “water-fly” is a Shakespearean code word for an effeminate man. Yet few note that in Troilus and Cressida in castigating Patroclus as Achilles' “male varlet,” Thersites numbers him among all the world's “waterflies,” meaning, of course, the set of effeminate men. This proves conclusively that in Hamlet the Prince's sub rosa question to Horatio intends to draw attention to Osric's effeminacy. And given the author's close identification with the playwriting Prince Hamlet, it is beyond denial that male same-sex intimacies are an abomination to Shakespeare.

6.  Conclusion

The foregoing discussion has not addressed same-sex relations in general, but only the male variety. Shakespeare's handling of female same-sex relations is taken up elsewhere.  

Effeminacy is not a virtue. In his Funeral Oration, that fountainhead of pride and probity from which our western world in part derives, Pericles of Athens said, “We cultivate refinement without extravagance, knowledge without effeminacy.” He was boasting. Our hardy ancestors, now lost in the mists of millennia,  struggling in fields of corn and battle for their existence, had no use for weakness – or its simulacra. Before the advent of civilization, masculine strength and forwardness were universally admired. They were the very instruments of human survival. Male aggression meant safety and the ability to expand and prosper. Men could be proud of themselves as men. They had a purpose based on life itself. But, as Aristotle observes, a necessary concomitant of civilization is leisure, and with leisure come peace and softness, as days are spent less frequently in contention with the raw elements. We dwell indoors today, where women rule the roost. The appreciated man, the welcome and attractive fellow, perforce must be gentle. Today in the United States, we have seen the flight of male employees from the moribund factories to the construction industry, which itself suffered a seemingly mortal blow in 2008. Millions of carpenters, riveters and joiners lost their jobs. Can these  decent outdoorsmen now squeeze into flimsy cubicles to support their families with finicky keyboards and monitors? Their masculine spirits are dashed, and their view of life has become an anti-value, an anachronism in the eyes of geeky bloggers and website designers. In the hot-house environment we have created, a real man is a stranger, clumsy and ridiculous, an unsophisticated brute, a bull in our urbane china shop. What is relentlessly advertised as progress is, in actual terms, social decay, in which the unreduced man has no function but to serve as cannon fodder in our exciting military excursions, or to mount quixotic political campaigns for handguns and automatic weapons. Televised football is a Neanderthal fantasy, a souvenir of the prehistoric past when Goths were Goths and Tamora was queen. (Titus Andronicus, I, i, 140) In such an artificial, fragile, micro-sized environment, natural male aggression must either be channeled outward, as leaders scheme to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels,” (King Henry IV, Part Two,  IV, iii, 342-343), or explode in the increasingly frequent domestic tragedies that baffle our soi disant experts.

Thus it is that we set a premium on effeminacy, whose arch sophistication is so splendidly congruent with the inanities of television and the “entertainment” industry. You see, dearie, we're all “metrosexuals” now. Haven't you heard? What could be more amusing than seeing body-builder / action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Hollywood movie playing the part of a nanny? Don't you get it? “There's the respect that makes calamity of so long life.” (Hamlet, III, i, 70-71) When those reared in such an effete era turn to cast a wan and Lilliputian eye in the direction of  Shakespeare's Rorschachian pages, what must they see if not images of themselves? That is all they know on earth, and all they need to know.


1. We need not take up the Sonnets. See, Hank Whittemore, The Monument,  Meadow Geese Press, 2005, which explains their personal and historical significance.  



Isaac Asimov, Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare, Wings Books, 1970

Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy, Duke University Press, 1993

Sky Gilbert, “A Sparrow Falls: Olivier's Feminine Hamlet,”  Brief Chronicles, Vol. I, 2009,  237

David P. Gontar,  Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays, New English Review Press,  2013

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, Vintage Books, 1991

William Shakespeare Complete Works, J. Bate, E. Rasmussen, The Royal Shakespeare Company, 2007

William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, 2d Edition,  G. Taylor & S. Wells, eds., Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2005  (all quotations from this text unless otherwise indicated)

Hank Whittemore, The Monument, Meadow Geese Press, 2005




David P. Gontar's latest book is Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays, New English Review Press, 2013.



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