Reviewing the Best Queer-Coded Characters in Shakespeare

June 21, 2023

Everybody knows Shakespeare. 


You might’ve been forced to read Romeo and Juliet in high school English, or maybe your favorite movie is a modern adaptation of Julius Caesar…cough-cough, it’s Mean Girls. Regardless, the Bard permeates much of literature one way or another. However, perhaps not as well known to most is that beneath the surface, much of Shakespeare’s work surrounds ideas of gender and queerness. Many of the plays are concerned with cross-dressing, gender fluidity, and same-sex friendships that many scholars have interpreted to be much more. 


Last spring semester, I had the opportunity to take a class on a few of Shakespeare’s major works. Here are my takeaways on the best queer-coded characters after taking the class.


Horatio from Hamlet 

In the play, Horatio is Hamlet’s closest friend and one of the only people to truly care about his well-being. Horatio’s loyalty is unwavering to the point of many scholars believing it is more than just good-hearted friendship. But one famous line has sealed the deal for many scholars, and that is when Horatio bids goodbye to Hamlet with “Goodnight, sweet prince,” a tender farewell as if saying goodbye to a lost love. 


Rosalind from As You Like It  

One of the play’s plot points is the blooming romance between the two main characters, Rosalind and Orlando. But in a turn of events, Rosalind is banished and decides to present as a man in her new exiled life. In her pursuit of Orlando, she flirts with the idea of teaching him how to woo Rosalind under the guise of her male-presenting persona, Ganymedes. Dressed in masculine attire while performing romantic gestures with Orlando is enough to question the true intentions of Rosalind and whether she might be interested in blurring the lines between her own identity. 


Ariel from The Tempest 

An air spirit enslaved to the sorcerer Prospero, Ariel’s gender identity has always been fluid. This interpretation is bolstered by the fact that the character has been open to both female and male presenting actors, the name itself is gender neutral, and that a spirit’s gender is generally vague according to scholars.  


Antonio and Bassanio from The Merchant of Venice

The character of Antonio has one of the most explicit queer arcs in the works I have read. The play has a focus on a conflict surrounding his best friend, Bassanio, who it is heavily implied he is in love with. Antonio not only lends Bassanio a dangerously large loan but also takes the fall when Bassanio is unable to pay it back, the punishment meaning death. In a passionate display of love, Bassiano declares his love for Antonio and that “[he] would lose all, may sacrifice them all,” including his wife’s life and his own, in order to save his “friend.” 


In the end, Shakespeare’s timeless works are capable of changing with time, each work’s interpretations becoming more and more culturally resonant. Often, they are so ambiguous that it can be perfectly believable imagining his characters in multiple ways–including as queer. 

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