Shakespeare reflected Elizabethan standards of heterosexuality in his plays by emphasizing the importance of marriage, and particularly the importance of remaining chaste until marriage. In The Tempest, for example, Prospero threatens Ferdinand not to break Miranda’s “virgin-knot” (IV.i.), and the young man quickly assents. Other Shakespearean couples piously await marriage before having sex, including young lovers in The Merchant of Venice (Portia and Bassanio), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius), Much Ado About Nothing (Beatrice and Benedick), and many others. Just as Shakespeare highlighted the importance of pre-marriage chastity, he also referenced the importance of sex within marriage, and particularly the role of sex in the consummation of marriage. This represents an important plot point in Romeo and Juliet. When the young couple wakes up after having apparently slept together in Juliet’s room the night after Friar Laurence marries them, Shakespeare leaves it ambiguous as to whether they actually had sex. Church doctrine insisted that marriage must be consummated by the sexual act, so the ambiguity in this scene leaves it unclear whether the lovers’ marriage can be considered legally binding.
With regard to representations of same-sex desire, all plays were subject to official censorship, and Shakespeare would have been in trouble if any of his plays or poems had depicted homosexuality directly. 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. 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 offers Shakespeare’s most complex approach to the themes of gender and sexual desire. 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,” though 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 identity, Orsino asks her to marry him. Viola is still dressed as a man when Orsino proposes, and 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.”