Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage

From courtship rituals to cross-dressing to love poetry, examine the ways in which Shakespeare and Renaissance writers explored identity, sexuality and gender roles.

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Shakespeare, sexuality and the Sonnets

Article by:
Aviva Dautch

Aviva Dautch traces how Shakespeare's Sonnets have been read and interpreted through the lens of biography, identity, gender and sexuality.

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An introduction to Edward II

Article by:
Martin Wiggins

The complex portrayal of Edward II’s love for his male favourite Gaveston has fascinated audiences for centuries. Here Martin Wiggins discusses the play’s depiction of same-sex love, homophobia, power and tragedy.

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Photograph of actress playing Lady Macbeth, holding crown above her head

‘Unsex Me Here’: Lady Macbeth’s ‘Hell Broth’

Article by:
Sandra M. Gilbert

Sandra M. Gilbert considers how Lady Macbeth in her murderous ambition goes beyond prescribed gender roles, but in doing so only succeeds in monstering herself and becoming a parody of womanhood, until madness again confines her to feminine helplessness.

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The Duchess of Malfi and Renaissance women

Article by:
Dympna Callaghan

The Duchess of Malfi is an unusual central figure for a 17th-century tragedy not only because she is a woman, but also because, as a woman, she combines virtue with powerful sexual desire. Dympna Callaghan places Webster's character in the context of contemporary drama, politics and discourses about widows and female sexuality.

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An introduction to the poetry of Aemilia Lanyer

Article by:
Christina Luckyj

Aemilia Lanyer was one of the first Englishwomen to publish a volume of original verse. Christina Luckyj analyses her long religious poem Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, the bittersweet ode 'The Description of Cooke-ham' and the ways in which Lanyer presents herself as a poet.

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A close reading of 'The Flea'

Article by:
Aviva Dautch

The suitor in 'The Flea' enviously describes the creature that ‘sucks’ on his mistress’s skin and intermingles its fluids with hers. Here Aviva Dautch explores images of eroticism, death, guilt and innocence in John Donne's poem.

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Character analysis: Romeo and Juliet

Article by:
Michael Donkor

Michael Donkor studies the characters of Romeo and Juliet in Act 2, Scene 2 of the play – otherwise known as the ‘balcony scene’.

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Character analysis: Miranda in The Tempest

Article by:
Lilla Grindlay

Lilla Grindlay explores the character of Miranda in Act 3, Scene 1 of The Tempest, considering language, form and a feminist interpretation.

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Character analysis: Gertrude in Hamlet

Article by:
Tamara Tubb

Focussing on key quotations and theatrical interpretations, Tamara Tubb explores the character of Gertrude in Hamlet and her role within the play.

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Character analysis: Isabella and Angelo in Measure for Measure

Article by:
John Gordon

Focussing on the themes of virtue and morality, John Gordon considers how Shakespeare presents the characters of Isabella and Angelo in Act 2, Scene 2 of Measure for Measure.

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An introduction to The Duchess of Malfi

Article by:
Michael Billington

Michael Billington explores the source material for The Duchess of Malfi and the play's reception over the last 200 years, and argues that Webster uses the tragedy to offer a vision of human existence as chaotic and unstable.

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Ophelia, gender and madness

Article by:
Elaine Showalter

The character of Ophelia has fascinated directors, actresses, writers and painters since she first appeared on stage. Here Elaine Showalter discusses Ophelia's madness as a particularly female malady, showing how from Shakespeare's day to our own Ophelia has been used both to reflect and to challenge evolving ideas about female psychology and sexuality.

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Shakespeare and friendship

Article by:
Will Tosh

Shakespeare's plays often portray intense, complicated friendships. Will Tosh considers how these reflect, and sometimes challenge, Elizabethan ideas about what it meant to be a friend.

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Contemporary illustration featuring a close crop of a man's face and blood-like drops across the image

Manhood and the ‘milk of human kindness’ in Macbeth

Article by:
Kiernan Ryan

The tragedy of Macbeth revolves around the question of what it means to be a man, argues Kiernan Ryan.

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A Queer reading of Twelfth Night

Article by:
Miranda Fay Thomas

Miranda Fay Thomas explores how Twelfth Night interrogates conventional ideas about gender and sexuality, portraying gender as performative and suggesting erotic possibilities between same-sex pairs.

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Comedy, tragedy and gender politics in Much Ado About Nothing

Article by:
Emma Smith

Much Ado About Nothing pits male bonding against heterosexual relationships. Emma Smith examines this conflict and the ways in which it threatens the play's status as comedy.

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Daughters in Shakespeare: dreams, duty and defiance

Article by:
Kim Ballard

A number of Shakespeare's plays show daughters negotiating the demands of their fathers, often trying to reconcile duty with a desire for independence. Kim Ballard considers five of Shakespeare's most memorable literary daughters: Juliet, Desdemona, Portia, Katherina and Cordelia.

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Juliet's eloquence

Article by:
Penny Gay

Over the course of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet goes from being a sheltered child to a young woman passionately in love. Penny Gay considers how this transformation, and its tragic consequences, are accompanied by Juliet's development as a poet.

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Gender in Measure for Measure

Article by:
Kathleen E. McLuskie

Kate McLuskie explores how Shakespeare used a comic framework in Measure for Measure to debate ideas about rights, responsibilities and the social regulation of sexual relations.

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Marriage and courtship

Article by:
Eric Rasmussen

Eric Rasmussen explains the complex process of getting married in Shakespeare’s England, and the way this worked for young Will himself. He explores the tension, in Shakespeare’s plays, between the old order, in which fathers chose their daughters’ husbands, and the new order based on mutual love, but still plagued by the threat of infidelity.

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Questions of Value in The Merchant of Venice

Article by:
Farah Karim-Cooper

The valuation of property and people – particularly women – in Shakespeare’s Venice reflects contemporary anxieties nearer home, suggests Farah Karim-Cooper.

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Shakespeare and gender: the ‘woman’s part’

Article by:
Clare McManus

In Shakespeare's day, female parts were played by male actors, while more recently, actresses have taken on some of his most famous male roles such as Hamlet and Julius Caesar. Clare McManus explores gender in the history of Shakespeare performance.

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Women playing Shakespeare: The first female Desdemona and beyond

Article by:
Hannah Manktelow

Hannah Manktelow charts the journey from the all-male playhouses of Shakespeare's day, to great actresses in female roles, and modern women cross-dressing to play male heroes like Hamlet.

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Benedick and Beatrice: the 'merry war' of courtship

Article by:
Penny Gay

Penny Gay sees Benedick and Beatrice as the witty stars of a Shakespearean rom-com. She explores both their modernity and their conformity to traditional gender roles and marriage.

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Measure for Measure: what's the problem?

Article by:
Kate Chedzgoy

Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare's "problem plays": it sits uneasily between tragedy and comedy. Kate Chedzgoy discusses how the play combines the two genres and, in doing so, raises questions about morality, justice, mercy and closure.

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Measure for Measure and punishment

Article by:
John Mullan

John Mullan considers how Measure for Measure explores ideas about justice, mercy and punishment.

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Measure for Measure: Symmetry and substitution

Article by:
Emma Smith

The title of Measure for Measure suggests the play's concern with equality and exchange. Emma Smith discusses how Shakespeare explores these ideas through imperfect or unsettling symmetry and substitution, including the possible substitution of London for Vienna as the play's setting.

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Power and gender in The Taming of the Shrew

Article by:
Rachel De Wachter

Does The Taming of the Shrew advocate sexual inequality or does it show and critique men’s attempts to subordinate women? Rachel De Wachter discusses how we should think about relations between the sexes in the play, and examines how writers, directors and actors have explored this question over the past four centuries.

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Clothing and transformation in The Taming of the Shrew

Article by:
Emma Smith

Emma Smith explores how clothing complicates ideas about gender and social status in The Taming of the Shrew.

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Subversive theatre in Renaissance England

Article by:
Eric Rasmussen, Ian DeJong

Eric Rasmussen and Ian De Jong investigate the subversive potential of Renaissance theatre.

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An introduction to Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Article by:
Hannah Crawforth

Hannah Crawforth explores how Shakespeare used and radically changed the conventions of love poetry, and how modern poets have reinvented his Sonnets for themselves.

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Love poetry in Renaissance England

Article by:
Emily Mayne

Love poetry in the Renaissance often expressed sexual or romantic passion, but it could also serve a variety of political, social and religious ends. Emily Mayne explores the origins and development of Renaissance love poetry and the many forms it took.

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Further themes

Comedies

From cross dressing in Twelfth Night to magical storms in The Tempest; from deception in Much Ado to biting satire in The Alchemist, discover the beauty and complexity of Shakespearean and Renaissance comedies.

Tragedies

From Hamlet’s melancholy to Juliet’s eloquence; and from Othello’s misunderstanding to Doctor Faustus's damnation, discover the richness of Shakespearean and Renaissance tragedies.

Histories

From the staging of disability to the influence of Machiavelli, explore the history plays of Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers.

Shakespeare’s life and world

From the open air Globe to the candlelit Blackfriars; from countryside to city; and from noblemen to strangers, discover the world that shaped Shakespeare’s work and that influenced his legacy.

Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage

From courtship rituals to cross-dressing to love poetry, examine the ways in which Shakespeare and Renaissance writers explored identity, sexuality and gender roles.

Elizabethan England

Exploration and trade, crime and punishment, clothing and social structure: explore key aspects of Elizabethan life, culture and society.

Poetry

Discover close readings, critical interpretations and personal responses to Shakespeare’s sonnets, the poetry of John Donne and more.

Renaissance writers

Uncover the fascinating, colourful lives of Renaissance writers including John Donne, Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe, and explore key features and themes in their groundbreaking plays and poetry.

Ethnicity and identity

From Othello and Shylock to depictions of the ‘New World’ and anti-immigration riots, explore Shakespeare’s fascination with ethnic identity.

Power, politics and religion

A murdered king, a homeless ruler, a man who sells his soul to the Devil: discover how Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers represented power and powerlessness.

Global Shakespeare

Discover how Shakespeare’s work was influenced by other cultures, and how it’s been interpreted in nations across the world for 400 years.

Interpretations of ‘madness’

From Lear’s breakdown to Ophelia’s malady, examine the ways in which Shakespeare depicts ideas of ‘madness’.

Deception, drama and misunderstanding

Investigate the ways in which Shakespeare and Renaissance writers explore miscommunication, dishonesty, trickery and the nature of theatre.

Language, word play and text

Prose and verse, word play, neologisms and rhetoric: discover how Shakespeare and Renaissance writers developed innovative and experimental uses of language.

Magic, illusion and the supernatural

Mischievous fairies, monstrous apparitions and scheming witches: examine the ways in which Shakespeare and Renaissance writers played with the magical and supernatural.