I just read a New Republic article about Orlando Cruz, the Puerto Rican featherweight boxer with a 19-2-1 record. Apparently Cruz has just shaken up the sports world by acknowledging that he is gay. For reasons I’ll explain in a moment, the affair has got me thinking of Shakespeare.
Given the macho culture of male athletics, which is particularly pronounced in boxing, Cruz’s coming out is remarkable. The blowback has been instantaneous. Apparently, in his most recent fight with Mexican boxer Jorge Pazos, Mexican audience members jeered him in “high-pitched sissy voices.” Although Cruz, as expected, won the fight, the media attention had clearly drained him and he experienced more difficulties than expected.
Male athletes have come out of the closet before this but almost always after their sports careers had ended. Cruz is distinctive for coming out while he’s still boxing.
Shakespeare would find the whole affair no big deal. Renaissance England saw homosexuality differently than we do today, blurring the line between male friendship and same sex attraction. Furthermore, the commonly held homosexual stereotype was of a hyper-masculine male, not an effeminate one. Cruz would have seemed normal.
Bruce Smith’s classic work Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England (1991) talks about how the violent and the erotic often come together in the bard’s plays, especially those about soldiering. For instance, in Henry V we hear this account of the battlefield deaths of Suffolk and York:
So did he turn and over Suffolk’s neck
He threw his wounded arm, and kissed his lips,
And so espoused to death, with blood he sealed
A testament of noble-ending love.
Smith also finds a “concatenation of aggression, male bonding, and homoerotic desire” in Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, Othello (Iago) and Romeo and Juliet (Mercutio).
Homosexuality wasn’t entirely endorsed by the Renaissance since it was, technically speaking, a capital offense. Few people were prosecuted for it, however. Cruz at the time would have been a celebrity because of same-sex attraction, which would have reenforced his masculine image, not undercut it.
Not all was positive. Cruz would sooner or later be expected to leave the world of same sex relationships and move on to heterosexual coupling. After all, he would have been expected to father children with a wife. In Shakespeare’s sonnets, the speaker advises the beautiful young man to marry, even though he himself will be left with “nothing” as a consequence (Sonnet 20). In Twelfth Night, the macho Antonio, whose love for Sebastian is “more sharp than filèd steel,” is left all by himself at the end of the play as Sebastian marries Olivia.
Cruz, by contrast, could (thanks to some historic votes this past Tuesday) move to a handful of American states and get married to a man. That’s something Shakespeare could not have imagined.
Or maybe he did imagine it. In Twelfth Night, Orsino gets married to a man. To be sure, Shakespeare must turn this man into a woman by the end of the play, but before doing so he has allowed us to picture other possibilities. Same for Orlando in As You Like It, who gets to make love to, and finally marry, Ganymede. For a few acts, Renaissance imaginations could anticipate 21st century America before Shakespeare surrenders to convention and has Ganymede transmute into Rosalind. This Orland, incidentally, is a champion wrestler.
I realize I’ve strayed from Orlando Cruz but, given how dramatic he is, he might appreciate the Shakespeare comparisons.