Elements of sexuality and lust are very openly present in the works of Shakespeare's tragedies. No matter if one is reading Othello, Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, one can't deny the frequent allusions to concepts such as love and lust, hatred and desire, want and self-absorption, even violence as they relate to relationships and sexuality. This common theme pervaded much of the work that was written during the time of Shakespeare, and is evident even of great works today. Has the work of Shakespeare, especially as written and revealed in the tragedies however, been adequately explored? Has society achieved ultimate understanding of all the deep seated desires of Shakespeare's work, or are there hidden themes related to sexuality that have yet to be uncovered?
Shakespeare's tragedies undoubtedly reveal the emotions involved when portraying characters filled with love and lust, desire and feeling toward one another in typical love hate relationships. There is another side of Shakespeare's tragedies however, one involved intimately with sexuality, that has cause to be considered further. The theme of homosexuality as portrayed in the tragedies warrants a great deal of exploration, as it has warranted fervent discussion amongst interpreters, literary scholars and psychoanalysts not to mention the avid reader.
There are many that would say that Shakespeare's work exhibits many elements of male friendship as commonly portrayed in the Renaissance era. However, upon closer examination it is highly reasonable to assume that many of Shakespeare's male tragic figures in fact displayed outright homoerotic and homosexual tendencies. Some even argue that William Shakespeare himself may have lived a secretly gay lifestyle. Many have discussed and pondered over the prevalence of homosexual innuendo's in the Sonnet's that Shakespeare wrote. Sonnet Twenty is a prime example of a work completed by William Shakespeare that openly expresses his desire for another male figure. What of Shakespeare's tragedies?
Homosexual tendencies can also be attributed to many of Shakespeare's tragedies including Othello and Hamlet. The relationships between the male parties in his works is often ambivalent, indicating a leaning toward female sexual desire at one moment and males sexual desire the next. Perhaps a more correct synopsis would be to suppose that Shakespeare's work often takes on bisexual tendencies.
Close examination of the wording in Shakespeare's work reveals many hidden implications that openly express sexuality, lust and desire. The real question is, are these tendencies always heterosexual in nature or can they in fact be considered homosexual?
Many have written on the idea of the prevalence of homosexual emotions in Shakespeare's works, and commented openly about their considerations. "If there is veritas in vino, there is surely veritas in coitu," says Wendy Doniger in her 1996 article entitled Sex, Lies, and Tall Tales" (Doniger 1). Michael Foucault put it slightly differently, "At the bottom of sex, there is truth," he said. "It is in the area of sex that we must search for the most secret and profound truths about the individual, that it is there that we can best discover what he is and what determines him" (Doninger, 1). Thus it is that we might solve a pervasive mystery present in Shakespeare's texts. It is through an exploration of sexual lies and fiction that we might discover the truth about Iago, the villain of Othello, the Moor of Venice, who participates in the one explicit act of homosexuality that occurs in any of Shakespeare's tragedies (Partridge 13). That is not to say that Shakespeare's tragic texts, which are rife with sexual innuendo, do not contain other references to homosexuality. However, Partridge notes that, "Shakespeare alludes to homosexuality very seldom and most cursorily" (Patridge 13). In fact, Iago is the only one of Shakespeare's characters who willingly admits to having engaged in sexual activity with another man. Therefore, the tale of Othello, the Moor of Venice is the most logical starting place for an examination of homosexuality in Shakespeare's works. And, if indeed Iago is meant to be read as a homosexual character, much of his jealousy and hatred for both Desdemona and Othello may be explained in that way. As Foucault says, "we now know that it is sex itself which hides the most secret parts of the individual; the structure of his fantasies, the roots of his ego, the forms of his relationship to reality," (Doniger 1). What Coleridge, trying to shed some light on why Iago behaves as he does, calls the "motive hunting of a motive-less malignity," may be explained by Iago's latent sexual desire for Othello. (Bevington, 1123) After all, the play focuses on the motif of sexual jealousy and the subsequent destruction of love that such jealousy engenders. It is not untenable to assume that there are several sexual jealousies at work in the play, not just Othello's jealousy of Desdemona.
Throughout the text, Iago expresses his hatred for Othello again and again. It is almost as if he is trying to convince himself even as he tries to convince others. In the opening scene, Roderigo pushes Iago to explain why he continues to serve Othello when he professes such a determined hatred for the man. And, while Iago presents a moderately plausible explanation, it is not necessarily an explanation that is couched in veritas. There are many who argue that Iago's very expressive comments and focused attention on Othello are enough in and of themselves to prove his homoerotic tendencies.
Iago further explains that he has been passed up by Othello for a military preferment that was awarded to Cassio instead. The explanation rings true in a certain sense. Iago is a "junior field officer who hates being outranked by a theoretician or staff officer," in the form of Cassio (Bevington, 1123).
Iago tells Roderigo that there is no remedy for the situation. "Tis the curse of service;" he explains, "Preferment goes by letter and affection, And not by old gradation" (Othello I, i, 35-37). Iago appears to feel a reasonable chagrin at the whimsical nature of senior officers who award advancement based on friendship rather than years of loyal service. It soon becomes apparent, however, that what Iago actually feels is a deep and pervasive anger - an anger that will lead him to seek the absolute destruction of Othello, Cassio, Desdemona, and even himself. It is a kind of anger that seems out of proportion to a lost promotion and more in keeping with a spurned lover's desire for retribution. It also becomes apparent throughout the play that Iago does not necessarily want Othello dead, but he certainly wants Cassio and Desdemona in that condition. "In following him," Iago says of Othello, " I follow but myself," which indicates that he sees himself inextricably intertwined with Othello and his fortunes (Othello I, i, 58). It seems fair to argue that someone so inextricably intertwined in the life of another would ultimately have some sort of love, some deep felt bond with this person, whether outwardly expressed or not.
Further, Iago is not taking the whole matter as lightly as it first appears. Essentially, he is a man with a plan. He tells Roderigo that he will appear to be Othello's friend. He will outwardly profess love and duty, "but seeming so, for my peculiar end" (Othello, I, i, 60.)
Tis not long after but I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at. I am not what I am." (Othello I, i, 64-66).
During this conversation, Iago and Roderigo are proceeding to Brabantio's house to tell him that his daughter has eloped with Othello. When they arrive, Iago describes their union in spectacularly vile terms. "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!," he calls out to Brabantio. (I, I 89-90) When Roderigo attempts to mitigate his crudeness, Iago goes even farther. "I am one sire, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moore are now making the beast with two backs," he informs Brabantio (I, i, 117-119)
Thus, in the very first scene of the play, Iago chooses to describe Desdemona's and Othello's sexual activity in determinedly inflammatory terms. It would not seem to be the lack of military promotion that has aroused such deep passion in Iago and driven him near to madness, but rather Othello's coupling with Desdemona that has him bothered. And, with the words, "I am not what I am" Iago has interjected an air of mystery and menace into the plot. The reader can only conclude that there is another layer beyond the obvious; another dimension to Iago that is driving him in tragic directions.
Iago's preoccupation with Desdemona presents yet another troubling factor in the play. Bevington notes that while Iago may have reason to be peeved with both Cassio and Othello, Desdemona has not done him any harm.
Yet, he seems to reserve a special hatred for her in particular and plots to destroy her reputation and even her life as well.