Shakespeare’s Prince

I thought this was an interesting and partly correct observation:

Another way of saying this, of course, is that we’ve pushed the domain of transgressive sexuality and gender identity from artistic expression and culture into public recognition and law. I don’t think I’m unique in thinking there’s a lot less gender bending in popular music now than in David Bowie and Prince’s heydays, and that the trend in both movies and music is toward hyper masculinity for straight male characters and singers rather than ambiguity of any kind.

Today’s the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and wild Bill is famous for gender bending and cross-dressing, across many of his plays but particularly in the comedies Twelth Night and As You Like It. His most famous tragedy is also in some ways an “interrogation of masculinity,” as the English professors say: the main conflict could be summarized as why Hamlet can’t be a real man like his dad, to avenge his dad.

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,

That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,

Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,

And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,

A scullion!

(That’s not exactly the same thought as When Doves Cry- but there’s a similar pathos. And Purple Rain’s protagonist could probably relate to Hamlet’s family problems, even if they’re not exactly the same.)


Our time would be happy to assign Hamlet a label- gay or trans- and attribute his problems conforming to his father’s model of masculinity to his unacknowledged, true identity. But in doing so we make the space of accepted, heterosexual masculinity smaller than in Shakespeare’s time rather than larger. Judging from my experience with high schoolers, “Claudius, do you even lift?” is about all that Hamlet could get away with now.

One can’t know whether the tensions and and crosses and reversals of his plays reflected Shakespeare’s “true” identity, as the bisexuality of the sonnets would suggest, or whether that was (like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust) in part a convenient pose. Certainly, gender-bending and cross-dressing exist in earlier forms across all the Italianate poetry, Latin plays, and European folktales from which Shakespeare drew themes and plots, and these themes and dramatic practices survived him for centuries- in the Beaumarchais play which became Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, for example, the stage directions state that the young man Cherubino must be played by a beautiful woman, even before Mozart wrote “Voi che sapete” for a soprano playing Cherubino to sing.

The idea that our time is uniquely tolerant of fluid or shifting identities seems unlikely. The contention that changes in law and custom in our own time that make permanent changes in identity more feasible make the rest of the society more able to let their freak flag fly, rather than holding more tightly onto received identities, seems to me rather unproven.

8 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Prince

  1. Just discovered this post, so apologies for belated responses.

    1. I’m not sure Xeni’s original point holds. Assuming biological gender isn’t quite the same as hate, and I’m not sure to what degree anyone felt that much venom toward Prince. There’s cultural critique and then there’s hate. We’ve experienced a lot of inflation in the meaning of the latter.

    2. If I have a freak flag at all, going on 30 years now it must be an apparently absurd lack of sensitivity to gender/sexuality issues that strike others as obvious. Your other Shakespeare references are one thing, but until now it had never occurred to me to interpret Hamlet’s behaviour as gender identity confusion. Failure to live up to his father’s standard of warrior decisiveness, perhaps. Bookishness, over-intellection, indecision, philosophical doubt, fear, sure. Not one of which ever struck me as an attempt to suggest femininity or any other gender issue all these years. I admit a certain fascination that this should be anything like part of the common repertoire of interpretations.

    But given that Hamlet and his father represent 2 or more types within manhood that have coexisted for millennia, it never occurred to me to see gender as an issue. I am force to conclude that we increasingly see gender even in places where it is not.

    3. Which leads me somewhat indirectly to your conclusion. Not for the first time, I wonder that our current obsessions are not actually putting a new straitjacket on behaviour. We are not far short of assuming the mildest of nonconformity with very narrow male and female stereotypes [even stereotypes in the minds of quite traditional people] will result in the need for gender transition. If even Hamlet is questioned just for being a bookish, cowardly nerd, no boy is safe. No even slightly tomboyish girl, either.

    That would make us actually less enlightened than we were 30 years ago or more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course you’re quite right that Hanlet’s qualities are themselves embodying certain kinds of masculinity, even if he experiences them as emasculating him in comparison to his father (or, from the audience’s perspective, in contrast to Laertes’s decisiveness).


  2. Of course, I was also struck by someone a few years ago analyzing Hamlet in terms of mental illness, and whether Shakespeare intended there to be doubt over whether or not the ghost was real.

    Not believing in ghosts myself and having the full software of modern materialism installed, I nevertheless assumed that Shakespeare himself intended the ghost to be real, for Hamlet to assume the ghost was real, and for his audience to assume the ghost was real.

    If you posit the chance that the ghost is not real and Hamlet knows he might be imagining it out of mental distress, then his doubt and fear becomes all the more understandable. He would go from wondering whether the ghost was really his father and really speaking truth, and wondering if killing Claudius would be murder based on falsehood, to wondering if the whole thing is in his head and therefore killing Claudius was pure madness.

    None of which suits my admittedly more traditional interpretation, which would be more like, “who cares- Claudius usurped your rightful throne. Take it by the same method.”

    Which of course omits any properly politic consideration of Danish medieval constitutional practice and whether or not this second seizure of the throne would or would not be considered itself usurpation and Hamlet duly condemned by some nobles in a position to judge.


    1. In a way, it suggests that empirical materialism is very closely connected to the renunciation of violence- that our ability to doubt the validity of what we know is closely connected to the ways “conscience doth make cowards of us all.”


      1. An interesting thought in its own right- not a connection that had previously occurred to me in quite that way.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s