Day: November 29, 2021

Of Ganymedes and Kings: Staging Male Homosexual Desire in the Winter’s Tale

I Swear I’m Not Gay, But Like, I Love You Dude

Ganymedes and Kings Nora Johnson explores the idea of how homosexual love was represented back during early modern England and how it relates to our modern understanding of homosexuality by its representation on William Shakespeare’s play “The Winter’s Tale”. In her paper she explains that our current view on sexuality and love is radically different then during this time. She uses multiple different points of reference to conclude that Leontes and Polixenes were once lovers and Leontes reaction was based upon that love. There are a few points I am going to have to ignore and instead focus on a select few. Also one more thing, there is a lot of set up for this but trust me it’s worth it!

Homosexuality is a New Concept

Johnson starts her essay by saying “When historians discuss the relation between homosexuality practice and homosexual identity in England before the eighteenth century, they often note that male same sex behaviors coincided with neither a set of psychosocial characteristics nor a clear sexual preference”. She also says that  ”…homosexual practice was part of an aristocratic sexual aesthetic, a “fashion”, in which the courtier sampled at will from an array of erotic practices, non of which could impose itself upon him as a ridged identity”. While this practice was not necessarily sexual, it was very loving and intimate. While not outwardly acknowledged, there was a clear homosexual desire that was common.

King James Has a Daddy Kink???

It was very common to deeply love another man. A perfect example of this was King James himself. He had a very ”interesting” relationship with a man named George Villers. There are multiple accounts on the level of love andinfluence they had on each other. James was deeply in love with this man and in a letter puts him akin to both a wife and a child. James says, 

“That we may make at this Christmas a new marriage ever to be kept hereafter; for, God so love me, as I desire only to live in this world for your sake, and that I had rather live banished in any part of the earth with you than live a sorrowful widow’s life without you. And so god bless you, my sweet child and wife, and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your dear dad and husband.”

King James address’s Villiers in a way that elicits escapism. In this letter he puts his love in an image that he is allowed to love. He is the king of England. He is believed to be chosen by God to lead this country, to admit a true love embraced with sodomy would be disastrous. So, by putting this man in the shape of a wife and kid he is allowed to express his feelings. This is a common trope and idea back then.

Sodomy Isn’t Homosexuality?

Back then, sodomy lived in a much greyer area than we acknowledge today. Our current idea of homosexuality is a very new concept. To the people at this time, sodomy was a sin anyone could commit. In fact, it was only ever really brought up when it could be associated with things like chaos, anarchy, heresy, etc. It was an idea that was very loose with its meaning. There are multiple examples of homosexual desire throughout this era’s theatre. A common trope that lives within sodomy was the Ganymede. According to Dartmouth, “Greek mythology Ganymede was a prince of Troy who was and extremely beautiful young man. In the Iliad Homer even states “godlike Ganymede, / Who was the loveliest born of the race of mortals” (20:232-4). One day Zeus either sent an eagle or transformed into an eagle and kidnapped Ganymede to be cupbearer to the gods on Mt. Olympus. Their Zeus gave him eternal youth and made him his lover.” This idea was ever present in Shakespeare’s day because they were very obsessed with Greek and Roman mythology.

◦Shakespeare has even referenced the name in his play ”As You Like It”.


According to Johnson, the point of a Ganymede in plays is to be “… the effeminate boy who was stereotypically the object of homosexual desire in early modern England, was similarly imagined to be defined by his sexual availability to mature men and similarly deployed as a locus of sexual power to stigmatize or characterize.” This character trope was so powerful that it was piece of the stigmatization the theatrical profession. An example of this was in Marlow’s Edward 2 Gaveston plans to entertain his king by saying, “Sometimes a lively boy in Dian’s shape/ With hair that gilds the water it glides, /  Crownets of pearl about his nakes arms, / And in his sportful hands an olive-tree, / To hide those parts which men delight to see, / Shall bathe him in a spring.

This boy is impersonating a goddess in a very effeminate manner. All the while, it very erotic. This imagery was a very common trope back then. This goes back to how King James discussed his love. The Ganymede trope was heavily known and engrained within their culture.

So, How Does This All Relate to The Winter’s Tale?

While this trope is not technically present within this play, it is important to know for background information. This is a play that places homosexuality in a lens that can only be truly seen once these ideas are understood. Without knowing how significant boyhood is too homosexual themes, Leontes seems to be just crazy to be crazy. This entire plays conflict stands on the ground that you can at least acknowledge these symbols.

To Prove It Here’s Some Quotes

In Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 21-32 Camillo says,

“Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia. They were trained together in their childhoods, and there rooted betwixt them then such an affection which cannot choose but branch now. Since their more mature dignities and royal necessities made separation of their society, their encounters, though not personal, have been royally attorneyed with interchange of gifts, letters, loving embassies, that they have seemed to be together, though absent; shook hands, as over a vast; and embraced, as it were, from the ends of opposed winds. The heavens continue their loves!”


But Wait There Is More!

Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 65-79

◦Hermione: Was not my lord / The verier wag o’ the two?

◦Polixenes:  We were as twinned lambs that did frisk I’th’ sun

And bleat the one at th’other. What we changed / Was innocence for innocence. We knew not / The doctrine of ill-doing nor dreamed That any did. Had we persued that life, / And our weak spirits ne’er been higher reared / With stronger blood, we should have answered heaven / Boldly, “Not guilty,” the imposition cleared / Heredity of ours.

◦Hermione: By this we gather / You have tripped since

◦Polixenes: O my most sacred lady, / Temptations have since then been born to’s. For / In those unfledged days was my wife a girl; / Your precious self had not then crossed the eyes / Of my young playfellow.

Looking into those Quotes

With all the information previously presented and incorporated into these lines, it is very obvious that this love extends past just friends. They were extremely close. They both want to be together, but they cannot be. Instead, they must use others to facilitate the love that they have. They cannot Polixenes implies that all of their love ended once Hermione came.

Heres a Quote Where Leontes Discusses His Sexuality to His Son

Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 153-158

“… Looking on the lines / Of my boy’s face, methoughts I did recoil / Twenty-three years and I saw myself unbreeched, / In my velvet coat, my dagger muzzled / Lest it should bite its master and so prove, / As ornaments oft do, too dangerous.”

There is a lot to unpack right there. The first is a bit of historical context. It wasn’t until children were 6 that they started to wear gendered clothes. So, when Leontes says “… and saw myself unbreeched”, he is referring to back before he had to start acting like a man. To continue the idea that boyhood often was a mask for homosexuality, when he says “… my dagger muzzled / Lest it should bite his master and so prove, / As ornament oft do, too dangerous”, he is referring to his feelings on Polixenes. In a society that allows homoromantic love but condemns the acts of homosexuality it makes sense that he is referring to an idea of shame that he may still feel today.

Socrates Symposium

“Men whose bodies only are creative, betake themselves to women and beget children…. But creative souls-for there are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies-conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or retain…. And he who in youth has the seed of [virtue and wisdom] implanted in him and is himself inspired, when he comes to maturity desires to beget and generate. … and when he finds a fair and noble and well-nurtured soul, and there is union of the two in one person, he gladly embraces him, and to such an one he is full of fair speech about virtue and the nature and pursuits of a good man . . . and at the touch and presence of the beautiful he brings forth the beautiful which he conceived long before . . . and in company they tend that which he brings forth, and they are bound together by a far nearer tie and have a closer friendship than those who beget mortal children, for the children who are their common offspring are fairer and more immortal. Who when he thinks of Homer and Hesiod and other great poets, would not rather have their children than any ordinary human ones?”

If you don’t want to read it that’s totally fine. To put it simply, Socrates believes that the best type of lover is not necessarily that of a male and female but one of a true companionship. One that makes twosouls one. This type of partnership is ever lasting. This is clearly very evident of Leontes view of Polixenes. And there was no way that Shakespeare knew this quote very well. What is interesting is how even though this idea is meant to be celebrated. Leontes fantasy does become his downfall soon after. And instead, this love is used to celebrate the idealisation of heterosexuality. 

Hermione The Go-Between

Due to the two men needing to have a middleman for them to express each others love for one another, Hermione becomes the main vehicle for this. Even just to ask Polixenes to stay Leontes asks her to do this for him “Tongue-tied our queen? Speak you” (1.2.27) Hermione becomes a vehicle for their love. Even before the supposed scandal Polixenes views her sexually corrupting his friend when discussing his relationship between his friend before she came around saying “O my sacred lady, / Temptations have since been born to’s” (1.2.76) They both use her to deflect their “boyhood feelings”. After Leontes sees his best friend and his wife holding hands he angerly confronts them. During his speech he uses language that heavily implies that he is using her as a board to project his own fantasies onto. “Affection! thy intention stabs the centre: / Thou does make possible things not so held, / Communicat’st with dreams;- how can this be? / With what’s unreal thou coactive art,/ and fellow’st nothing: then ‘tis very credent / Thou may’st co-join with something; and I find it, / (And that beyond commission) and I find it, / (and that to the infection of my brains, / And hard’ning of my brows).” (1.2.138-46) He says that he imagines her doing things that he fantasizes about doing with Polixenes. He even calls it an ”infection of my brains”.

The Fine-Line This Play Straddle

”The Winter’s Tale legitimates its own erotic practice while simultaneously obeying the injunction to be fruitful and multiply” Even though Shakespeare creates a deep love for the two kings, it is only once this love is defined by their children’s heterosexual relationship that the conflict resolves. This duality and message is even implied within the seasons. The conflict begins in winter: a cold desolate season, while it resolves in spring: a time associated with pregnancy and agriculture.

The Kids Bring It Full Circle

The play moves to Perdita and Florizel at a sheep shearing festival in the spring. The children of the two kings years later. Years after Leontes casts away his newborn baby onto an island, she and Polixenes’s new son fall in love. Their love is deeply strong and is celebrated. Perdita’s frankly sexual remarks to florizel indicate that this is a new pastoral to which women and heterosexual desire are most emphatically invited” (Johnson) “Methinks I play as I have seen them do / In Whisun pastorals. Sure this robe of mine / Does change my disposition.” (4.4.133-135)

 Heterosexuality Wins??

Since Leontes blow up he has lived in misery for 16 years and sworn not to marry another. It isn’t until the couple show up and it is revealed Perdita is the kings long lost daughter. Their arrival brings Polixenes in tow and everyone is forgiven. It is even implied that Hermione is alive and ready to live with her husband and daughter as a family. To prove that this scene is meant to glorify heterosexuality Peridita says this about her own marriage, “I see the play so lies/ That I must bear a part” (4.4.655-66) She knows that her marriage is not so much about her, but instead she recognises that she is just a part of her father and Polixenes’s reunion.

So I ignored A Few Things

This paper has a lot of other points in regard to gender and the Ganymede. She discusses the different gender power dynamics within its view of homosexuality and even the structure of the play. It goes into depth of Camillo’s own sexuality, and he is another middleman for the kings, and goes to elaborate that he is the literal Ganymede of the play.