Shakespeare’s writing was subject to official censorship, and he would have been in trouble if any of his plays or poems had directly mentioned homosexuality. Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s writing explores gender and desire beyond the confines of heterosexual attraction. A certain amount of same-sex eroticism was built in to all Elizabethan drama, because female parts were taken by boys. This cross-dressing invited male spectators to appreciate the beauty of boy actors as if they were women. Boys playing female roles also meant that all onstage kissing and caressing took place between male actors. Several of Shakespeare’s plays enhance these effects by requiring a female character to dress as a man. Rosalind in As You Like It dresses as a boy and flirts with the man she loves by asking him to pretend that “he” is really a girl. In those scenes, Orlando, a man played by a man, is wooing a boy actor playing the part of a girl who is dressed as a boy pretending to be a girl. If nothing else, As You Like It strongly suggests that gender is not the most important aspect of the attraction between two people.
Twelfth Night approaches the theme of desire from many angles, and few of them are strictly heterosexual. The play’s main character, a young woman called Viola, dresses up as a man called “Cesario.” Her chosen name can be read as a reference to the supposed bisexuality of Julius Caesar. As “Cesario,” Viola becomes a servant to Duke Orsino, who asks “Cesario” to help him woo the woman he loves, Countess Olivia. During the course of the play, Orsino falls in love with “Cesario,” although he is not able to declare his feelings until “Cesario” reveals that “he” is really a woman. As soon as Viola reveals her true gender, Orsino asks her to marry him. Viola is still dressed as a man when Orsino proposes, and Orsino has only ever known her as a man. He even continues to call her “boy” during his proposal. Countess Olivia falls in love with “Cesario” as well. Although she believes “Cesario” is really a man, she is attracted to “his” feminine looks and way of speaking. At the end of the play, Olivia marries Viola’s twin brother Sebastian, believing him to be “Cesario.” When she discovers her mistake, Sebastian tries to console her by suggesting that he, like “Cesario,” is ambiguously gendered: “maid and man.”
Some readers of Twelfth Night believe that Shakespeare’s audiences would have recognized the relationship between Sebastian and his friend Antonio as homosexual. The two men express passionate affection for one another, and their friendship probably would have been “suspect” to an Elizabethan audience because Antonio is of a lower class status than Sebastian, while Sebastian depends financially on Antonio. Another Antonio, in The Merchant of Venice , has a similar relationship with the young gentleman Bassanio. These two characters also belong to different classes, and Antonio risks his life to support Bassanio financially. The fact that Antonio is an Italian merchant may also have signaled to Shakespeare’s audiences that the character is prone to homosexual desire. The Merchant of Venice explores the theme of social exclusion through the Jewish character Shylock, so Shakespeare’s audiences may have recognized that in Antonio the playwright was depicting another character excluded from the mainstream of society, in Antonio’s case because of his homosexuality.