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fragility, thy name is heteropatriarchy:

an investigation of gender and sexuality in shakespeare

By Ayla Sullivan

The duty of any artist is to reflect the times in which they live, as well as offer some semblance of progress. Under an overwhelming religious and political atmosphere, it is reasonable to assume Shakespeare would align himself and his works with cultural norms for his own protection. Yet, to make such an obtuse claim is to miss the nuance of gender and sexuality Shakespeare offered to his audiences. Many of his works explore homoeroticism while critiquing the nature of gender and sex from a place beyond theatrical farce. Namely in Hamlet, Macbeth, and Twelfth Night, Shakespeare explores gender and sexuality as a spectrum out of sincerity, rather than spectacle.

In order to understand the complexity of gender in Shakespeare’s works, it is imperative to define the role of the gender binary throughout his plays. Of course, Shakespeare wrote for his own company of all male actors who played a myriad of genders. His characters inherently exist in a spectrum of gender expression because he is consciously writing for men to play them. Though from a strictly literary perspective, Shakespeare uses the gender binary to juxtapose traditional presentations of the male and female, establish gender as a convention to be blurred and transformed, and as an avenue to comment on the ridiculousness of gender expectations. His use of gender as a theatrical device then is greater than one comedic joke, but rooted in authenticity.

Like many Shakespearean tragedies, both Macbeth and Hamlet are overwhelming concerned with masculinity and juxtapose classic expectations of the sexes for thematic purposes. Hamlet’s quest for patriarchal acceptance in both the literal and political sense is the heart of the play, with the women functioning as traits to avoid. The Scottish play could easily be defended as a testament to the fragility of male ego and search for purpose through usurpation in the same vein as Hamlet, but such a claim vastly underestimates the heart of the play. Macbeth is a work that constantly puts manhood into question and while the few women in the play certainly aim to contest gender roles, Lady Macbeth champions as a catalyst to serve Shakespeare’s other need to blur gender.

It is not uncommon for artists to establish rules in order to break them, which Shakespeare exemplifies in his use of the gender binary throughout Macbeth and Twelfth Night. Lady Macbeth, in her infamous “unsex me here” speech, calls for all the evil in the world to strip her womanhood and become the darkest version of herself. With the knowledge Lady Macbeth was originally written for a man to play, this speech not only strays from using the transphobic joke of having a man in a dress, but inspires a deeper connection to being intimate with one’s sadistic self when “unsexed”. Lady Macbeth becomes genderless to embrace danger in similar ways Viola of Twelfth Night adopts Cesario as a disguise to avoid danger. Though, the most important distinction is that these women change their gender expression or identity by finding traits within themselves that antagonise classic expectations of femininity. Their agency in their lives is what makes their gender fluidity in the binary sincere and not spectacle.

Viola’s exploration of self through gender expression still serves as a necessary comedic device, however, in order to comment fully on hypermasculinity and societal expectations for men. Her struggles with being a “believable” man, though rooted in transphobia, critique the notion of manhood as an ideology and what constitutes a man physically. “Viola/Cesario must literally perform the role of the male...[which] consequently points to the constructedness and performative character of gender itself,” (Charles 124). Once accepted that gender is a character within Shakespeare’s plays, it is clear how gender is an extension of metatheatricality as a tool to exploit societal norms. This phenomenon is not only present in Twelfth Night, but is exaggerated with the players in Hamlet and their interpretations of male and female, as well as Lady Macbeth’s need to perform gender in order to become a killer.

Acknowledging the performative nature of gender within the performance genre is essential to how Shakespeare’s works function as a conduit for progressive and socially reflective art. In Bodies that Matter, Judith Butler argues,“performativity is not a singular 'act' for it is always a reiteration of a norm or set of norms,” (Butler 241). While gender as performance is applicable to all of his works, the darkest and most honest exploration presents itself in the lead female character of Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth as a power hungry woman could easily follow tropes of manipulative women in court who embrace their femininity as a weapon, but she is not concerned with performing womanhood (or manhood) in order to fulfill her ultimate desires. Her desperate need to “unsex” herself critiques both sides of the gender binary. She is not desiring the aid of female deities, nor is she invoking male energy. She is shedding the core of her creation and uniqueness to be the rawest, bloodthirsty form of herself . Thus, by “unsexing” herself, she isolates herself from the construction of gender. By asserting the depths of her personhood, her character exists to investigate if the murderous quest for power is exclusively male or simply a flaw of humanity.

Yet, while Lady Macbeth cries to the void of darkness to unsex her, she continues to use feminine imagery with masculine intentions to resist the gender binary. She warps what anatomically makes her female, “...come to my woman’s breast and take my milk for gall” (Shakespeare 862) , to assert that all genders can create and creation is not inherently tied to traditional ideals of motherhood. Here, she creates herself by taking life from others. She then speaks of her “keen knife” and not seeing what “wound” it will make because of the “blanket” of night (Shakespeare 862), which creates a clear dichotomy of phallic and yonic imagery to incite procreative elements of establishing one’s own gender (or agender). It is also important to note how Lady Macbeth speaks and how language reinforces gender performativity. She exclusively uses commands in most of her speech, a convention typically seen as masculine. Whether it is speaking directly to “murd’ring ministers” (Shakespeare 862) or using characteristically male rhetoric of the time to embarrass her husband, “When you durst do it, then you were a man; and to be more than what you were, you would be so much more the man,” (Shakespeare 863), Lady Macbeth’s bodily femininity in conjunction with masculine language is what gives her control, but it is also what forces audiences to question the arbitrary labels of manhood and if direct speech is inherently male.

Her character eventually loses her mind, which could be argued is the ultimate price of performing masculinity and constantly seeking death. Lady Macbeth’s guilt led madness ends in suicide, which can be connected to feminine frailty akin to Ophelia’s death in Hamlet, but actually would be better suited with classic male ideals of honour through suicide. Lady Macbeth kills herself not out of guilt, but to not succumb to it. Her suicide is no different than a defeated Roman soldier who would rather kill himself and stay patriot to his cause, rather than be ruled by someone else. Not only does her character call attention to the ridiculous notion of the binary, but her death melding the feminine and masculine asserts gender is meaningless in death.

Death and suicide are not unfamiliar in the world of Hamlet, in which language is the root of gender performativity. In such a simplistic tone, Hamlet asks, “to be, or not to be,” and unleashes a wild ride of vulnerable, formal rhetoric exemplary of education only men could receive at the time. His thorough analysis and romanticism of death are rapid, shocking thoughts: “to die,─to sleep;─To sleep! perchance to dream: ay there’s the rub; for in that sleep of death what dreams may come,” (Shakespeare 688). Shakespeare’s characterisation of Hamlet through long winded, flowery soliloquies echo the ideal standard of an intelligent, male political figurehead because of his desperate need for approval of his gender. Hamlet is not only entrenched in grief, but has been usurped by his eldest uncle, rejected sexually, and emasculated. Yet, as society progresses, modern criticism lends to a new belief that Hamlet either could have been or should be played by a woman because of his use of language. The belief that Hamlet can be played by a woman is a popular concept, originating in the 18th century with Charlotte Clarke (Guardian) and continuing on today with recent female Hamlet, Lenne Klingman, of Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s 60th season (Kimball). As Hamlet can exist in the middle of the gender binary, rather than one side or the other, Shakespeare envisions a spectrum of gender and creates a universality to the notion of suicide.

As Hamlet is a survivor of grief and dire circumstance, Viola of Twelfth Night is a shipwrecked survivor and engages in being in and out of the gender binary simultaneously. She names herself, “all the daughters of my father’s house and all the brothers too;” (Shakespeare 652), furthering the notion that as everyone grieves, the sole child of a bloodline has no need for a confirmed gender if alone. While Viola explores the spectrum of gender out of safety, she also is a tool to expose the restrictive nature of heteropatriarchy as a whole. In fact, “[the] staging of gender imitation by Viola, the performance of her gender performance, uses her disguise and her identity with her brother Sebastian as vehicles to demonstrate that erotic attraction is not an inherently gendered or heterosexual phenomenon,” (Charles 124).

Sexuality throughout Shakespeare’s works is a complex investigation amidst his multiple genres and cannot be looked over lightly. Considering he was writing for all male casts, it is impossible to assert a heterosexual perspective on the physical actions happening in his plays. Of course, it is not uncommon for homosexual love to be seen as comedy for most heterosexual audiences even today. It could have easily served a comedic function in his comedies like Twelfth Night, but what is there to say about his tragedies with extreme, star crossed lovers? Shakespeare was not a careless writer and we cannot be careless in appreciating the sincerity in which he wrote a spectrum of sexuality. We can now reasonably infer Shakespeare was somewhat queer identifying due to finding letters and sonnets written to young men, which can also mean that (for a culture in which homosexuality was a punishable sin) the stage was the only place where queer identities and queer affection could be visible and socially acceptable.

Twelfth Night as a play of disguises and gender performativity then is a larger mask of how queer actors and narratives could exist on stage. The work itself is named after a festival in which social structures are turned upside down and offers an alternative world that explores homoeroticism and erotic attraction without societal backlash. “The phenomenon of love itself operates as a mechanism that destabilizes gender binarism and its concomitant hierarchies,” (Charles 124). Whether it be through Orsino’s eventual love for Viola because of seeing her as an equal and not a pedestal ideal of Olivia, Olivia’s internalised self hatred for bisexuality leading her to choose Sebastian, or Antonio and Sebastian’s clear romantic history, the use of gender and love creates an alternative reality in which the fluidity of sexuality is celebrated until a tragic, heterosexual end must come in order to remind the audience such a reality is outlandish and unattainable. The convention must exist for the sake of the period and also to keep queer identities safe. However, the story itself “disrupt[s] the boundaries of compulsory heterosexuality and class-consciousness through the performance,” (Charles 124).

The role of performing Shakespeare’s plays with this seemingly hidden intention is a way to revitalise texts and affirm gender and sexuality as a spectrum. While many modern critics of Shakespeare would assert he is a misogynist, the textual evidence and historical context argues the opposite. For a culture entrenched in fear of persecution for several “sins” and a constant state of shutting down and reopening theatres, Shakespeare navigated issues expertly. In Macbeth, he tackles the role of manhood and centers the lead woman as an agent of change and deadly ambition. Hamlet explores masculinity as an endless cycle of violence and inspires contemporary artists to weave more female presence. Even the comedy Twelfth Night, at risk of transphobic jokes, is fundamentally about the fluidity of gender and sexuality. Any other argument about homophobia, transphobia, or misogyny is either rooted in internalised commitments to heteropatriarchal values or usually perpetuated by ignorant directing or dramatic theory. Therefore, Shakespeare’s intentional focus on the breadth of gender and sexuality in the human experience is imperative to consider when reading all of his texts, but especially Hamlet, Macbeth, and Twelfth Night.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter. New York: Routeledge. 1993.

Casey, Charles. “Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night.” Theatre Journal, Vol. 49, No. 2 (May, 1997), The John Hopkins University Press. pp. 121-141. Print.


Guardian. “Thy Name is Woman: female Hamlets from Sarah Bernhardt to Maxine Peak-in pictures.” The Guardian. Guardian News. 26 Sept 2014. Web.

Kimball, Jim. “CSF Shakes Up a Shakespearean Masterpiece.” CU Presents. 14 June 2017. Web.


Shakespeare, William. "Hamlet." “Macbeth.” “Twelfth Night.” The Collected Works of William Shakespeare. New York: Barnes and Nobles Collectible Editions, n.d. 641-900. Print.