Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Wind and The Rain: Gay Pagan Shakespeare

As Hurricane Irene churns her way north towards New England, my mind drifts to a song from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, "Hey, Ho, The Wind and The Rain." I suppose in my youth I would have preferred the Scorpions' "Rock You Like a Hurricane", but as  I get older I prefer the classics.

Here's Ben Kingsley performing "Hey Ho..." from a 90s film version.

When I was in college I took a full year of Shakespeare. I really enjoyed it, but I remember finding the dialogue a little tough to follow. Now that I'm older I like Shakespeare even more, and strangely find the dialogue much easier to understand. I suppose I just have twenty-five more years of reading comprehension under my belt.

I also appreciate Shakespeare in a different way now. As a teen, I was drawn to the tragedies. Blood! Guts! Curses! Revenge! Now, I like the romances and comedies. Love. Sex. Mistaken Identity. Redemption. Forgiveness.

Shakespeare's plays are full of pagan references. Classical mythology was an essential part of education in the Renaissance, so as a result we find Hecate, Jupiter, Diana, Ceres, Juno and Iris as characters in his works. The rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream perform an ancient Roman tragedy for Theseus, the mythical king of Athens, and his Amazonian wife. Orlando in As You Like It is compared to Hercules, and the Romans celebrate Lupercalia in Julius Caesar. The list goes on.

Shakespeare was also the first author to mention Herne the Hunter, in The Merry Wives of Windsor. This antlered ghost is acknowledged as an aspect of the Horned God by many pagans and Wiccans, but Merry Wives is also full of fairies dancing under oak trees and small-town witches.

Merry Wives has some cross-dressing in it, as do so many of his plays. In As You Like It, Orlando falls in love with Rosalind disguised, significantly, as a young man named Ganymede, and Viola's disguise as her allegedly dead brother Sebastian causes sexual confusion among the Illyrian gentry in Twelfth Night.

The same play features one of Shakespeare's few clearly gay characters: Antonio, a heroic sea-captain in love with Viola's brother Sebastian. Sadly, he doesn't get his man at the end. Another Shakespearean Antonio, the titular character in The Merchant of Venice, seems to be in love with a younger man. He doesn't get his man either. What's going on here? The final Antonio appears in The Tempest, where he is Prospero's evil usurping brother. His partner in crime? A nobleman named Sebastian.

I wonder if Shakespeare was trying to work out some issues through Antonio. I sometimes think of all three Antonios as the same character at different stages in his life - openly loving and heroic, closeted and melancholy, and finally just bitter and evil. It's not a great trajectory. Perhaps there's some lost Shakespeare play that describes how Antonio wins Sebastian's heart. If not, someone should write it!

So you don't become bitter and evil like Antonio, here's a great scene from visionary Derek Jarman's film of The Tempest. Watch out girls, it's stormy weather! I love the sailors, and singer Elizabeth Welch filling the role played originally by three goddesses.

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