Straight Acting: The Many Queer Lives of William Shakespeare by Will Tosh - review by Sophie Duncan

Sophie Duncan

In Search of the Fair Youth

Straight Acting: The Many Queer Lives of William Shakespeare


Sceptre 304pp £22

Will Tosh’s Straight Acting opens with a fleet-footed history of Shakespeare’s sexuality as presented in the scholarly literature and closes with Tosh’s own conclusion that Shakespeare was ‘bi rather than gold-star gay’. In between are seven chapters that reimagine Shakespeare’s life – and the lives of early modern men – as profoundly queer. The result is a creative and capacious book that moves smoothly between recorded and speculative history: we see Shakespeare browsing classical erotica in the churchyard of St Paul’s, then, in the italicised sequences that open each chapter, imagine him dazzled by the gender play in John Lyly’s Galatea, and politely avoiding the sexual advances of a tipsy gay lawyer at Gray’s Inn. Along the way, Tosh, who is head of research at Shakespeare’s Globe, offers persuasive readings of expressions of same-sex desire in Shakespeare’s writing. This is by any standard a lively and accomplished biography of Shakespeare.

We see the making of young Shakespeare, his breeching and his education, the latter centred on ‘intoxicatingly ardent’ classical depictions of male love and devotion, which would shape his own artistry. In a chapter on 1580s London, ‘The Third University’, Tosh presents a city of young writers engaged in literary and sometimes sexual collaboration. Shakespeare’s relationships with Thomas Nashe, Christopher Marlowe and Richard Barnfield are deftly sketched; Tosh’s depiction of plague-obsessed Nashe particularly lingers. Barnfield even gets a bedroom scene, albeit not with Shakespeare, which calls to mind a line of Dorothy L Sayers’s: ‘what’s a poet? Something that can’t go to bed without making a song about it.’

Tosh is strikingly confident that young men whose friendships became sexual might have been ‘guilty of sinful carnality’ but did not engage in ‘the kind of thing that led to the scaffold’. His Elizabethan London is markedly devoid of religious doubt or queer guilt. This is not to say that Tosh presents sexual transgression as entirely without consequences. In fact, he argues that the disinheritance and downfall of queer sonneteer Barnfield – likeliest candidate for the ‘rival poet’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets – scared Shakespeare into delaying publication of his sonnets celebrating the master-mistress of his passion. Throughout the 1590s, Barnfield wrote freely and daringly of desire between men, first in The Affectionate Shepherd and then in Cynthia, with Certain Sonnets. In the second of these, he juxtaposed traditional we-love-Elizabeth panegyric with frank gay poetry that, Tosh suggests, broke ‘the homoerotic omertà by which educated Englishmen were expected to abide: the understanding that candid discussions of queer male desire must remain locked away in Latin’. If Straight Acting has a hero, it is Barnfield, not Shakespeare.

The book also captures the darker side of Shakespeare’s queer dramas. Marlowe, as Tosh notes, created in Edward II a gay tragedy at a time when Europe’s queer monarchs were remaking the political landscape in their own image. In Shakespeare’s comedies, however, the image of straight love is always deeply impressed with the tragedy of queer friendship. In Much Ado About Nothing, Benedick is a career soldier and serial bromantic, forever falling into ‘sworn brother[hood]’ with young officers. At the play’s opening, his boon companion is Claudio. But their relationship is disturbed when Beatrice, the object of Benedick’s affections, demands that he kill Claudio as proof of his devotion to her. Claudio has dishonoured Beatrice’s cousin Hero by accusing her of being unfaithful to him. The only reason Claudio can call Hero unchaste is because she lacks her usual alibi: ahead of her wedding to Claudio, Hero has turfed Beatrice out of their shared bed. For Hero, marriage means putting away childish things, including intimacy with Beatrice.

Among the strengths of Tosh’s book is his consideration of Twelfth Night’s Antonio and his adoration of Sebastian, who in Tosh’s analysis is not the dullish Cesario stand-in shoved at Olivia in Act 5, but the hot other half of the dazzling Messina twins. Sebastian and his sister Viola have never been sexier. Tosh wittily draws out Shakespeare’s obsession with boy-girl Ganymede types who drive everyone wild on sight. Theatre history is full of revealing anecdotes here. Playing Celia in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of As You Like It, for instance, Fiona Shaw described feeling ‘chilly with loss’ after the pretend marriage of Rosalind (in the guise of Ganymede) to Orlando. 

This is a book which speaks to the current moment without being overwhelmed by contemporary noise. Tosh admits that we have no way of knowing what Shakespeare’s contemporaries or characters might have called themselves had they had access to 21st-century terms. What’s refreshing is that the author treats this uncertainty as neither a print-and-stick labelling opportunity nor a cue for holy horror at ahistorical thought. Tosh is not the first writer to imagine a queer Shakespeare: he sets out his sources in a fine bibliographical essay, and in the prologue acknowledges that, once past the university gates, you can’t move for queer Shakespeareans and Shakespeareans queering. Following the repeal of Section 28, there are, happily, more opportunities in schools to discuss why The Merchant of Venice’s Antonio is so sad and your standard-issue Mercutio is likely to be fabulous, whether on stage or on screen. Shakespeare was bisexual in Doctor Who, while in 2016 the Donmar Warehouse produced three Shakespeare plays set in women’s prisons full of butch lesbians.

Tosh does not present Shakespeare’s gayness as though it were an undiscovered parchment that has just fallen out of a cupboard. His gift, rather, is to bring scholarly rigour to bear on queerness in early modern England. Straight Acting shines the same light on Shakespeare’s England as some of the Globe’s best productions.

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