By Nicholas Landon
No, of course they’re not. That is one of the most pointless interpretations I’ve ever heard, second only to a phallic reading of Emily Dickenson’s “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.”
And there are the beautiful cries of “homophobe, homophobe” emanating from the internet.
Before you string me up as a bigot, though, I want to seriously sit you all down and have a chat about gay readings of literary text. First off, there are some instances where gay readings do add to the nuance and characterization within the text itself. I will get into those more later, but for now, it is important that you all understand that I am not against the concept of gay readings.
That said, yes, some of the uses of gay readings are suspect. Hence my opening derision for the gay reading of Hamlet. This dismissal comes from a number of different reasons. Starting with the least serious first, reason number one is that the text just doesn’t support it. At no point is there anything, overt or implied, that links Hamlet and Horatio in a romantic way. They are close friends, that cannot be argued, but there is a negative gender stereotype that is actually harmful that tends to equate any kind of emotional connection between men as gay. This extends past the ignorant or the homophobic, by the way, into the more liberal communities as well. If there is a hint, no matter how small, the instant reaction is to question the character’s sexuality. And while some might defend it as trying to keep an open mind and expand the pitifully small roster of gay characters in fiction, the reality is that this response often ends up no better than this:
Moreover, by making every emotional connection from the most minute to the most intimate instantly romantic, this practice perpetuates the same negative ideology that made possible the friendzone, i.e. that the only source of emotional intimacy is romance, and that friendship is inherently less important. This is why I find gay readings of Sam and Frodo or John Watson and Sherlock Holmes so infuriating; not because they are questioning the sexuality of the characters – the characters don’t exist, so their sexuality is a meaningless argument by default – but because this reading relies only on the fact that they are close friends. Again, emotional connection does not equal homosexual by necessity.
Continuing on from that point, the interpretation of Hamlet and Horatio as gay stems mostly from the end of the play, in which Horatio just about kills himself when he sees Hamlet dying. From there comes the argument that he loss of a platonic friendship would not cause someone to kill themselves. This interpretation ignores Horatio’s own reason for wanting to die, namely a sense of archaic pride that urges him to suicide, much like ancient Romans or Samurai after their masters have died. The reason is closer to survivor’s guilt, a phenomenon that is well documented when the body count is this high. Seriously, read Hamlet again and really look at the body count. EVERYONE is dead. If they had more than one scene in the play, they are no longer breathing by the end. But the emotional trauma is not enough reason to wish for death; no, no, it has to be because Horatio has the gay crush on Hamlet. Reductive interpretations at its finest, people.
But more important than the reductivity or the stretch of interpretation from a textual standpoint, there is another problem, and this is the one that really kills me on a philosophical and ethical level. Namely, this reading ignores how the characters self-identify. Hamlet spends most of the first half of the play trying to get into Ophelia’s pants. Horatio isn’t given anything, because his love life is not important to the proceedings. So at best the characters are unidentified, at worst shown with an obsessive need for the opposite sex. And I can hear you, there in the back, explaining to me how it’s all just character repression and that they really are in love, but can’t because its early first-millennium Denmark and gay just isn’t okay. To you I want to say, thank you for proving my point. In the long run, the relationship between Hamlet and Horatio has not much of anything to do with the plot. The closest it gets is feeding into the themes of loyalty to friends and family vs. loyalty to the throne. Other than that, it doesn’t really work in the grander subtext of betrayal and revenge, politics and government, and the moral choices that Hamlet is faced with. Even the canon relationship Hamlet has with Ophelia are more there to drive the plot and Hamlet’s madness, without really adding to the themes of the story. But nevertheless we jump through hoops and justify till we are tied in knots to say that Hamlet and Horatio are gay. And before you bring up “Goodnight, sweet prince,” just put down the shovel, you aren’t helping your cause.
Which, in turn, brings us to the most troubling assertion that the way the person self-identifies is less important than how the observer sees his/her relationships. Hamlet and Horatio aren’t gay because they’re gay; they’re gay because we see them as gay. And all, in the end, for no real purpose to the whole.
Now, with all of that said, I did mention that there are some ambiguous characters where a gay reading might prove interesting. Surprisingly enough, the one I was thinking of when I said that was actually Timon and Pumbaa, from The Lion King. Now, some of you are calling bullshit, since there aren’t any context clues to support their relationship and that their relationship doesn’t really connect to the themes of the movie (which are the exact same themes as Hamlet, just with animate lions). The difference is that while Hamlet and Horatio provide nothing extratextually by being gay, Timon and Pumbaa might. Think about it, if Hamlet and Horatio are gay, what is gained by the reader? Really, not all that much. But Timon and Pumbaa represent a possibly gay (and interspecies, but I won’t get into that) couple, that are also adoptive parents. And they are adoptive parents who raise a king. They are not a harmful influence, but end up helping Simba grow just the same as if they were a heterosexual couple. And while it is not strictly canon, text-wise, it is something that kids will see. It is a positive portrayal in a time and place where homosexual parenting is a hot button issue.
While more asexual than gay (his genitalia are non-functioning, so it makes it hard to argue a sexual identity), Jake Barnes from The Sun Also Rises is another interesting reading, as his relationships are integral to the plot and themes of the book. Ishmael and Queequeg are yet another couple that provide an interesting thematic hiccup in Moby-Dick (they aren’t in it long enough to be considered much more than a hiccup, but still), as they’re relationship provides a major premise in the theological arguments in that book. Also, there is language in the text itself that supports a gay reading, which helps exponentially.
All of this has been a long rant, and I am aware of that, but what am I really hoping to achieve? Namely, a generation of people who, instead of retroactively making established characters gay, instead go out and write new characters who have whatever sexuality the new stories demand. A generation ready to do something new. The stigma on homosexuality has just started to fade in the last ten or twenty years, and there is a new realm opening up that wasn’t there before. So, instead of trying to read with eisegetical homosexuality, go out and create something new.
After all, that is the artist’s job.