Bi Book Club: Hamlet

By Jennie Roberson

December 28, 2022

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Well, hey there, my beautiful bi bookworms! I hope this finds absolutely none of you in the winter of your discontent. I hope it finds nothing rotten in the state of your Denmark. Maybe this column even finds you in fair Verona, where we lay our scene. (We don’t, actually — a bit more north — but let me have a little fun).

Since brevity is the soul of wit, and tedious the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief: Today, we will be covering Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy play, Hamlet.

Oh yes, we’re heading way back more than four centuries to cover the narrative of the melancholy Dane. The same one you probably were forced to read in high school (and sometimes even called upon to stand up and read out loud to your other schoolmates — mortifying for most, but not for a little ham like me.)

It’s no secret we love Shakespeare around here — he’s my favorite dead husband, and in this space we have already covered his gorgeous and gorgeously queer sonnets. So since sonnets and other poetry are not outside the scope of Bi Book Club, I see no reason why we can’t include the occasional play — especially one so well-known it includes not just dozens of now-everyday turns of phrase but perhaps the most renowned monologue in the English language.

So let’s get into it!

Cover of Hamlet featuring the characters in a old painting style.

I know this may seem silly — and I don’t entirely think I’m under contract to state this, however; I also don’t want to deal with flack from any new readers about it — but I will say first and foremost that there will be SPOILERS for this … well, this four-hundred-year-old play. If you don’t know its main plot points and have made it this far, I’m terribly curious if you’ll tell me what life is like living under a rock. Anyway: in order for me to make my argument, I will need to pull from plot points all over the play, so if you’re curious to know if this tale has a happy ending — er, read or watch a version of it first and then come back.

There are also some content warnings I should go over, including but not limited to: Depression, thwarted attempts to die by suicide, misogyny, and murder.

Finally, if this is your first time popping around the Bi Book Club: Welcome! We don’t have any rating systems here, just each author’s take on a particular piece of written work. Feel free to agree or disagree, but like any good book club, be ready to defend your argument.

Hamlet is a tragedy drawing mainly from the Scandinavian myth of Amleth, detailing the story of the eponymous Danish prince plotting to and eventually killing his uncle, Claudius, whom he suspects murdered the king (his brother) in order to marry his mother, Gertrude, and usurp the throne. While Hamlet was originally written around 1600 and has been performed in multiple iterations down the centuries, in the 20th century it shifted into becoming regarded as Shakespeare’s most celebrated play due mostly to renewed appreciation for the psychological and philosophical depth of the main character’s mind. As such, in the last 120 years, it has become one of the most performed tragedies and recognized plays written by the Bard.

Now, the beauty of Hamlet (and many of his other works) is that they not only contain rich literary treasures but often have so many fascinating themes that, as the times change, so do interpretations of the plays. Hamlet is no different. To whit, in my lifetime, I’ve seen at least half a dozen productions — one performed by a nearly all-female cast, one comedically abridged, and one miming version called Hamlet Shut Up, which reduced Shakespeare’s longest play to one line. ALL of them shed new light on a play I practically know by heart. And because it’s open to interpretation, we can continually see layers that were, frankly, always there but societal conventions of previous generations dared not let us consider.

Yes: I’m talking about the fact that the character was, and always has been, bi.

Maybe this seems like a strange academic leap for many. Maybe many of us are used to the idea of just seeing his weird and often terrifying, misogynistic love for Ophelia being the only one on display or discussed. But that’s simply not the case.

Consider Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s buddies from his recent partying college days at Wittenberg; they’re some of the first people in the same social class with whom he loves enough to break from iambic pentameter into prose, a show of both familiarity and love. He even says and remarks to Rosencrantz to call upon their love of the past, which is “ever-preserved”, and that if they ever loved him, they’d be honest with him about why they arrived at court.

Some would consider that interpretation reaching (though, hey, if it’s good enough for Sir Ian McKellen, it’s good enough for me), so instead, let’s get to the big (bi) fish: Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend.

While it’s clear from his speeches and soliloquies throughout that Hamlet adores Horatio, his declarations of love are more flowery than is strictly necessary for a bromance — even in the effusive Elizabethan times. These exchanges get into the Alexander Hamilton/John Laurens level of extra, and I am here for it.

Not enough? Consider that, as Hamlet lies dying in Horatio’s arms, Horatio is so bereft at the idea of losing his “friend” he makes a grab to drain the goblet full poison himself. I mean, I love my friends, but I’m not following them to the grave Romeo-and-Juliet style.

It’s also important to consider the idea of Hamlet. Having to be closeted about his love for his best friend, due to his royal status. This isn’t someone who, in a medieval court, could have been his royal consort. Sure, he had the hots for Ophelia at one point (and declares a love that exceeds thousands of a brother’s upon her death), but wouldn’t that wrinkle also add a different level of intrigue and strife to Hamlet’s plight? Not only is our melancholy Dane pinioned by his own inaction as a tragic flaw, but during the first four acts, those who possibly conspired against and killed his father keep throwing an ex-lover in his path, while all the prince wanted to do was chill at Wittenberg with Horatio and the rest of his homies, away from the stress and pull of life at court?

I’m not going to go line by line with this interpretation because I don’t want to lose anyone in the weeds, but there is absolutely textual evidence for this type of queer interpretation. And, in my not-so-humble opinion, it’s been in front of our faces the whole time. But alas, we could not see this chaotic, disaster bi for yet another layer of the onion that gets to the heart of his mental makeup, strife, and conflict.

Well, that’s what I have for now, my erudite followers. If you disagree, that’s again totally fine. We can always settle this over a fencing match in front of the Danish court.

But only on stage, of course. After all: the play’s the thing.

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