Was Hamlet gay? The textual evidence...

I am hardly the first one to suggest that there might be more going on than meets the eye in Shakespeare's most famous tragedy. In 1881, a scholar named Edward P. Vining published a book, The Mystery of Hamlet, that took such evidence as the prince’s rejection of Ophelia and excessive attachment to Horatio, as well as a painstaking examination of the text, to present the theory that “Prince” Hamlet was actually a princess—a girl being raised as a boy for political reasons. This interpretation was used as the basis of one of the earliest filmed versions of the play, a 1920 silent German production starring Danish actress Asta Nielsen as a cross-dressing female Hamlet in love with Horatio. This interpretation, mind you, did not require changing the existing text of the play--only playing what was already there with a different subtext. (For more on the history of women in the role, check out this recent article by my very kind blurber and sometime pen-pal, Charles Marowitz.)

Of course, these days, another theory dares to speak its name about why the prince might prefer the company of his schoolfellow. Could Hamlet be gay? Shakespeare had certainly written about male romantic love before. Whether or not you take Shakespeare's sonnets as biographical evidence of an actual homosexual affair, they clearly present a vividly imagined portrait of a poet named Will's ardent infatuation with a young man with “a woman’s face” whom he calls “the master mistress of my passion.”

Prince Hamlet speaks of himself using similar gender-bending language, confessing to Horatio, “Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice and could of men distinguish, her election hath seal'd thee for herself. […
] Give me that man that is not passion's slave, and I will wear him in my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart, as I do thee.”

You are the choice of my soul, my heart’s core, my heart of heart? Heady stuff for one “straight” man to be declaring to another! And indeed, the prince’s next line, “Something too much of this,” is usually played as backing away from the confession of the paragraph before—a sort of Elizabethan “no homo.”

But an actor and director could just as easily choose to play the line the opposite way--as admission that his feelings for Horatio are “too much” and transgress the boundaries of mere friendship. Compare Shakespeare’s language here to that in Sonnet 20, lamenting that Nature had made his master-mistress a man:

And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by add
ition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

Might this phallic “one thing” be the same “something too much” that keeps Prince Hamlet from happiness with the partner preferred by his heart and soul?

In Act 3, Hamlet calls Horatio “Damon dear,” a reference to the tale of Damon and Pythias, two Greek gentlemen so famously devoted to one another that each was willing to sacrifice his own life to save his friend’s. (But sodomy and pederasty among the ancient Greeks and Romans was common knowledge in Elizabethan England, and the subject of many a bawdy joke.

There may be a double meaning, then, in Horatio’s declaration “I am more an antique Roman than a Dane,” as Hamlet lies dying in his arms. The brokenhearted scholar, like Romeo, means to drink from the poisoned cup and follow his beloved into death. It is only after Hamlet begs him “[i]f thou didst ever hold me in thy heart…in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain/to tell my story,” that Horatio relents, and is spared Romeo’s fate.

Might there be a similar tale of star-crossed lovers hidden between the lines of Hamlet? I think it’s at least one possible reading of the play. And the enduring greatness of Hamlet is that it has in it enough ambiguity and mystery to sustain countless new productions and re-interpretations.