In medieval and Elizabethan England, homosexuality was not only looked down upon, but was a crime punishable by law. Found perpetrators, including the famous King Edward II, were horribly punished. Edward was killed by “the slow and painful insertion of a red, hot poker into his anus”, along with his lover, who “had his genitals cut off and burned” (Sanders). Such is the world in which a bisexual William Shakespeare lived. Though he married Anne Hathaway at the age of 18, he was rumored to have had extramarital affairs with numerous men while in London (“Shakespeare’s Sexuality”).
Gay men are present in many of Shakespeare’s plays, most prominently Twelfth Night. A sailor named Antonio falls in love with a man of noble birth named Sebastian, whom Antonio rescued from a shipwreck. However, Antonio’s love only brings him grief, as the straight Sebastian views Antonio’s homosexual advances merely as gestures of friendship, and eventually marries a countess named Olivia. Shakespeare manifests himself in his character of Antonio, conveying a warning against being blinded by love, especially homosexual love, in Elizabethan England.
When the reader first meets Antonio, he has recently rescued Sebastian, who decides to go into town and meet the local duke, Orsino. Though he clearly loves Sebastian with a deep passion, Antonio cannot bring himself to say it, for to admit homosexuality would be tantamount to death. However, Antonio does give many strong hints, even offering to be Sebastian’s servant when Sebastian tells Antonio that he must leave him: “If you will not murder me for my love, let me/ be your servant” (2. 1. 34-35). Shakespeare also expresses his love for another man, but in a more secretive way.
Shakespeare tells of his love for a “fair youth” in sonnet 18, stating that the youth is “more lovely and more temperate” than a summer’s day (“Shakespeare’s Sexuality”). Shakespeare states that, while a summer’s beauty fades with the coming of autumn and winter, his lover’s beauty will stay for eternity. Both Shakespeare and Antonio are similar in the fact that neither wishes to express their sexual orientation openly—Antonio does it in a way that could be interpreted as fatherly or brotherly, and Sonnet 18 could be a work of purely fiction.
However, in a society more tolerant of gays and bisexuals, both of them would probably come out, knowing that they have nothing to fear. Though homosexual love only brings grief in Shakespeare’s world, love of any kind is more tolerated today, and homosexuals have a better time loving now. As the plays moves on, Shakespeare weaves more and more evidence of Antonio’s love for Sebastian in the play. After Sebastian leaves, Antonio once again meets up with him, this time giving Sebastian his purse, containing all of Antonio’s money in it. Soon, Antonio witness Viola, Sebastian’s twin sister dressed up as a man, being harassed by another man.
Antonio, thinking that Viola is Sebastian, bravely defends her, only to be arrested by the duke’s guards. When Antonio asks for his purse back for bail money, Viola, never having met Antonio, denies having received his purse, leaving Antonio to wonder why this beautiful young man who he loves has betrayed him so: “Do not tempt my misery, / Lest that it make me so unsound a man/ As to upbraid you with those kindnesses/ That I have done for you” (3. 4. 360-63). Antonio’s love for Sebastian ultimately leads to his own demise. He is imprisoned, and loses all his wealth.
Shakespeare includes this as a warning to all his fellow homosexuals—this world is a cruel one, one that hates anyone who defies that status quo. If a gay man comes out in Elizabethan England, he will almost surely be caught, tried, and arrested, as happened to Antonio. Shakespeare warns not only against the dangers of coming out, but also of even loving another in secret. Loving another leads to being afraid to lose them, as Antonio was to Sebastian. This fear of losing a close one drives one to act without any thought as to what the consequences to one’s actions might be.
Shakespeare also warns against the dangers of judging on appearance. As the guards drag him away, Antonio reproaches himself for being blinded by Sebastian’s good looks: “[I] relieved him with such sanctity of love, / and to his image, with methought did promise/ Most venerable worth, did I devotion” (3. 4. 375-77). Judging on appearance is one of the most dangerous things humans do. When one sees a person dressed extremely well, one immediately assumes that that person is rich and snobby, a person who takes bread from the mouths of hungry children just to satisfy themselves.
On the other hand, when one sees a homeless man dressed in rags, one tries to avoid that person because, in most humans’ minds, at least subconsciously, that person is lower than “normal” people. This view of humanity greatly restricts our perspective. When Antonio is dragged to the Orsino’s court by his guards, he claims that Viola (whom he thinks is Sebastian) is the cause of all his troubles. Antonio tells the duke his entire story about how he met Sebastian and Sebastian's supposed betrayal of Antonio: His life I gave him and did thereto add My love, without retention or restraint,
All his in dedication. For his sake Did I expose myself (pure for his love) … Where being apprehended, his false cunning … Taught him to face me out of his acquaintance(5. 1. 80-88). Such is the fate of a homosexual man in Elizabethan England. He has no rights, no real friends, and those that he does consider friends would betray him for a few cents. Though in this case Sebastian, being a benevolent lad, later arrives and professes his platonic love for Antonio, such a thing would rarely happen. Most often, a homosexual man would suffer a horrible fate, such as King Edward II or his lover.
If a king could suffer such a horrible fate, a normal man, one without the “divine right” supposedly granted to all European monarchs, would suffer an even more horrible fate, although a to think of a fate worse than that of King Edward does require some stretch of the imagination. To further warn the reader of the dangers of homosexuality, Antonio’s ultimate fate is not known—Antonio’s last line in the play, which happens when he is still in shackles, expresses incredulity at seeing both Viola and Sebastian in the same room. This not only gives multiple interpretations of Antonio, it also calls to attention the unimportance of his character.
Antonio is so insignificant that Shakespeare does not even bother to tell if Orsino lets him go free or not. Homosexuals in Elizabethan England were treated as “lower” humans, definitely lower than woman. As such, they were considered not just sinful and unholy, but unworthy of any attention. The character of Antonio raises some important questions about LGBT rights in modern times. Sadly, the treatment of homosexuals, at least in some parts of the world, has not improved since Elizabethan times. In many Middle-Eastern and African countries, male homosexual activities are considered sodomy and can be punishable by death.
Even in America, homosexuals are looked down upon. Numerous hate groups and websites use homosexuals as scapegoats for all of life’s problems, much as Hitler did with the Jews during the Holocaust. Contemporary anti-gay violence exists, as the family and friends of Matthew Shepard and Harvey Milk can attest. Education about homosexuality should start at a much earlier age—children should be introduced to homosexuality when they are young, for those of us who are young are more accepting of different ways of life than those of who, made blind by “maturity”, are stuck into our old ways and traditions.
Many children aren’t exposed to the word “gay” until fourth or fifth grade, and then only as an insult, a substitute for “stupid” or “dumb”. These kids do not learn what “gay” really means until later, and then it already has a negative connotation in their minds. This, along with the homophobia of parents, is one of the leading causes of homophobia in the country. Teachers must bring it upon themselves to ingrain in young children that homosexuality is not something to hate or fear, but something to accept.