I am really not sure I want to address this area, but it is part of what I question about Coriolanus, so I feel I do need to go there. Please understand that I am not objecting to homoerotic content; I am just trying to understand it in the context of the play and the time when it was written. I know how it is interpreted today, and I am not disagreeing with that. I want to know how it was interpreted 400 years ago, and what it was meant to say about the characters in Coriolanus.
OK, if you are familiar with the play, you know what I am talking about. Act IV, scene V. If you are not familiar with it, or if you really aren’t sure you actually heard what you THOUGHT you heard, go read this speech here. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
[tap tap tap]
That speech is CLEARLY homoerotic to modern readers. What I don’t know (and would really like to) is whether it was meant that way. Yes, I am aware that there are theories that some of Shakespeare’s sonnets were written with a male lover in mind, but AFAIK, none of them come out and say it so overtly. How would the language in this speech have been received in Elizabethan times? What did this passage mean to Shakespeare’s audience, and what does it say about the characters of Aufidius and Colriolanus?
My limited Google-fu hasn’t turned up much. I mostly ended up with interviews with Ralph Fiennes about the 2011 movie. My Shakespeare Insider (I have a relative that works at a Shakespeare theater) turned up this article that was somewhat helpful. In it, we find that in Elizabethan times, homosexual behavior, while regarded with horror and classified as a sin against nature, was not confined to a certain category of people, but considered something that anyone could fall prey to. There was no homosexual class, per se. ALL humans were capable of engaging in homosexual acts in a moment of weakness. There was a class of people referred to as “sodomites” (Not my word! Just quoting! Don’t flame me!) but that definition was not restricted to the person’s sexual behavior; a whole host of evils was contained in that definition. If one could habitually commit one crime against nature (which was defined also as a crime against God and the state), he would be capable of many other unnatural crimes, such as blasphemy, atheism, treason, heresy, and general rebellion against society. The sodomite was not merely a lover of men, he was a dangerous rebel who could never be forgiven of his unnatural crime.
Contrast that with the concept of the Masculine Friend. It was extremely common for Elizabethan men to have very close, very intimate, non-sexual relationships with other men. It was also common for a number of people to share one bed — that’s just the way people slept then. The person you were “bedfellows” with was not necessarily a person you shared sexual relations with as it is today. What was important about sharing a bed with someone is that your bed mate was someone you would TALK TO after the candles were blown out, someone you shared your ideas and plans with, someone you were intimate with on an intellectual and emotional level, not a physical one. As such, it was very important (and also common knowledge) who you shared your bed with. (with whom you shared your bed? Take your pick.) An influential person sharing a bed with another was seen as a sign of patronage and approval in the public eye.
It was also not uncommon for men to speak of such friends in extreme flowery and, what seems to us, romantic terms. In the article linked above, Bray quotes the diary of the Archbishop of Laud, who is recounting a dream about his patron:
That night in a dream the Duke of Buckingham seemed to me to ascend into my bed, where he carried himself with much love towards me, after such rest wherein wearied men are wont exceedingly to rejoice; and likewise many seemed to me to enter the chamber who did see this.
Not only did he dream the Duke came to his bed, he dreamed that everyone SAW it. Not a description a shameful behavior, but a sign of favor that should be made public. It was also not uncommon for men to embrace and kiss in public. The physical and verbal expressions of affection between men were not just for show; they were expressions of intense emotional bonds, bonds that were not of a sexual nature, but of social and political significance. This intimacy was public and generally accepted. Sodomy was subversive and generally condemned.
So, what then are we to make of Aufidius’s speech? It does seem suggestive. Aufidius is happier to see Corilanus than he was to see his bride on their wedding night. He speaks of twining his “arms around that body” (which elicited some titters from the Hiddlestoners in the audience) and contesting “hotly and nobly” (ahem) with his love. This does seem to go a bit beyond masculine companionship. Indeed, Bray does conclude that the lines between sodomites and masculine companions could be blurred, and that public affection could often be a disguise for private sin. How would Aufidius have been seen by an Elizabethan audience? A man declaring his affection for his erstwhile enemy in a public and acceptable way? Or is it something more, something the audience would have considered depraved? Does Corilanus’s acceptance of Aufidius’s love brand him the worst kind of traitor? I really do not know the answers to these questions. The recent Donmar Warehouse production does come down on the side of the less acceptable (to Elizabethan audiences) relationship; Aufidius’s speech is followed by a passionate whiskery kiss. Moreso, the apparent cuts in the final scene (as far as I can remember; I wish I could see it again to confirm) appear to make Coriolanus’s murder an act of jealous rage, complete with a sadosexualistic drinking of blood. (Ew.) Definitely not the revenge of a betrayed compatriot. I have a couple more versions of Coriolanus on tap; I am interested to see how other versions have treated this issue.
More thoughts on the recent Donmar production of Coriolanus:
NTLive, or J and the Hiddlestoners