Queering Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes

  • Share on Tumblr

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the new Guy Richie film released in the UK this month, will inevitably raise the question foregrounded by his first Sherlock Holmes film: are Holmes and Watson supposed to be gay? The films unashamedly toy with the idea. Discussing Sherlock Holmes on The Late Show with David Letterman, Robert Downie Jr. was asked whether the two characters had a ‘different level of relationship’ beyond solving crimes, and replied: ‘You mean that they were homos?’The outspoken Downie set the pulses of studio bosses racing by his suggestion that Dr Watson’s fiancée could be a cover for the relationship between the two male characters, and by his disarming reassurance that Holmes and Watson are just ‘two men who happen to be room-mates, wrestle a lot and share a bed’.

The new film is much more explicitly camp, and is regularly defined by film critics as a ‘bromance’, a term coined from Ang Lee’s gay tragedy Brokeback Mountain. Holmes’s own love-interest, Irene Adler, is taken out in the first reel, leaving him a gooseberry at Watson’s wedding. He swiftly vanishes, only to reappear on the train to Brighton, Watson’s honeymoon destination, dressed as a woman. He hurls Watson’s bride (safely) from the train and recruits his partner into an alternative ‘honeymoon’ of manly adventure in Europe. The two men mime a violent sexual embrace (essential to the plot) and engage continually in exchanges of risqué innuendo, as when Holmes invites Watson to dance at a ball: ‘I thought you’d never ask’.

In truth one hardly needs an elaborate ‘queering’ strategy to disclose the latent homosexual content of Conan Doyle’s stories of intimate male bonding and masculine camaraderie. Which is why, in Nine Lives of William Shakespeare, I deployed the device of a Sherlock Holmes hommage, drawing on exactly the same material as Guy Richie (especially the European journey in ‘The Adventure of the Final Problem’), as a vehicle for exploring the imponderables of Shakespeare’s possible homosexuality. Shakespeare’s plays and poems are full of homosexual bonds amongst both men and women. But there is hardly enough biographical evidence – the dedications to two poems, the narrative expounded in the Sonnets, a cryptic allusion in a contemporary poem, and Rowe’s rumour of a suspiciously large loan – to confirm whether or not Shakespeare himself was a lover of men. Stories of Shakespeare in a gay relationship with the Earl of Southampton, such as those that feature in the novels of Anthony Burgess and Erica Jong, are as fictional as Shakespeare’s own studies of homosexual passion.

As in other biographical areas where the historical record is remarkably deficient in terms of concrete evidence, ‘Shakespeare in love’ is a territory of mystery within which the imagination can lose itself in the search for an undiscoverable certainty. Since there is no direct evidence that Shakespeare did in actuality enjoy and suffer a gay relationship with the Earl of Southampton, or with any other man, it seems legitimate for a fictional commentary to take the form of invention, and to operate by parallelism and contrast rather than by historical narrative. ‘The Adventure of Shakespeare’s Ring’ in Nine Lives of William Shakespeare finds Holmes and Watson, pursuing the theft of ‘Shakespeare’s ring’ from Stratford’s Birthplace Museum, drawn into the gay milieu of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, and thence provoked into an acknowledgement of their own homosexual attachment:

‘I admitted that I would never have suspected the true state of affairs in this case, as I had never thought of Shakespeare as a lover of men.
“You see, Watson”, observed Holmes, “how often you have complained that I keep my suspicions secret from you, and keep you in the dark till the last page is turned? Yes, I have read such sentiments in your fanciful little accounts of my cases. But in this instance, it was not my secrecy, but your innocence, that prevented you from seeing the truth. You think Shakespeare was a ‘normal’ man, though he wrote poems of passionate love to a homosexual aristocrat. You made nothing of our friend Harvey’s unusual interest in the ring, combined with his peculiar domestic arrangements. Indeed it was not until I drew you into the company of notorious sodomites that the truth began to dawn on you!”.

It was all true, and I was at a loss to understand what it was that had blocked my vision. “Yes, I begin to see it now”.
“But do you see it all? Do you see it clearly? Watson, why have you never married?”
“Never found the right girl, I suppose.”
“No Watson, you have never found any girl. You care nothing for women. You live with another man. Has it never occurred to you that as far as appearances go, we might ourselves be taken for homosexuals?”.
I blushed to the roots of my hair, not so much at the impropriety of what he had said, as at the fact that I felt somehow exposed, unmasked, detected …
“‘Journey’s ending, lovers’ meeting’”, Holmes remarked, “as the old play says”.

The parallel between Holmes/Watson and Wilde/Douglas is also implicitly featured, and explicitly discussed, by the presence, in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, of Stephen Fry, who reminds viewers that Guy Richie’s Watson, Jude Law, also played Bosie to his Oscar in the movie Wilde. The ascription to Sherlock Holmes of such a pregnant quotation from Twelfth Night is not my invention, as Holmes cites it himself in Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ (1903). Holmes and Watson are fictional characters, and Shakespeare was flesh and blood. But their imagined love-lives can seem remarkably similar.

Graham Holderness’s Nine Lives of William Shakespeare is published by Continuum Press.

You might like to order a copy from The Shakespeare Bookshop by sending an e-mail to bookshop@shakespeare.org.uk

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Graham Holderness is a writer, Professor of English at the University of Hertfordshire, and author of Nine Lives of William Shakespeare (Continuum, 2011).
  • Arthur

    I’m very sorry, but are you f*cking kidding me? The word “bromance” was not coined to describe Brokeback Mountain. Are you joking? Please tell me you’re – look up the etymology of the word. And furthermore, Brokeback Mountain is a romance, not a bromance. It’s fairly apparent, I would say.

    I believe everyone has the potential to form a homosexual attachment, and so I view Shakespeare as bi or pan, but predominantly straight. There is subtext galore in the plays, though. Mostly, it’s just text.

  • Wmyers4224

    Of Shakespeare’s sexually-darkest plays, “Twelfth Night,” “Troilus and Cressida” and “Othello” most reveal–arguably–the discomfiting truths about the nature of sex and our sexuality. In “Twelfth Night,” a play all about “doubleness,” Shakespeare may very well have located the sexual truth on the middle ground–that under certain circumstances and conditions at any point in one’s life, one may indeed find themselves attracted to specific members of both sexes. “Gay” and “heterosexual” and even “bisexual” seem inadequate words given the play’s multiple sexual conundrums that at the last suggest the neccessity of sexual compromise and accommodation on the part of the involved couples if they are to be happy. Sex is at the end of romance and desire. If, for example, Viola-Cesario, in II.iv, impulsively kisses Orsino, it is to a devious effect, and this is Shakespeare’s genius at work in “Twelfth Night.” Viola is acting on her passion as a woman–not thinking about the implications and consequences of that kiss. She is unwittlingly cruelly playing on emotions here, for Orsino thinks he has just been kissed by his handsome boy page. Meanwhile, the “man” of Olivia’s dreams turns out to be a woman. Viola starts out in love with Orsino, but three months of “some commerce” with the countess has clouded and complicated things. How has she changed by the end? Ideas about love are upended in “Twelfth Night,” and love at the play’s end may be seen in perhaps its purest form–indiscriminate of gender.

    Wayne Myers, author of “The Book of Twelfth Night, or What You Will: Musings on Shakespeare’s Most Wonderful (and Erotic) Play.”    

Download a free book written by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells about Shakespeare, Conspiracy & Authorship. Download the Book.


24 brilliant poems, inspired by Shakespeare's life and art, bound in an artisan stitched chapbook

get your copy now