restricted access Horror, Homosexuality, and Homiciphilia in McKellen's Richard III and Jarman's Edward II
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Horror, Homosexuality, and Homiciphilia in McKellen's Richard III and Jarman's Edward II

In Richard Loncraine's film version of Richard III (1995), Ian McKellen as Richard experiences "homiciphilia": erotic arousal from the thought of having caused the deaths of his victims. The film also hints at Richard's homosexual attraction to his henchman Tyrell and contains images that evoke the gay bathhouses associated with early outbreaks of AIDS. This negative treatment of deviant sexuality seems startling in a film based on a screenplay by, and starring, the openly gay actor Ian McKellen. By combining these dual markers of Richard's/McKellen's transgressive sexuality, the film leaves itself vulnerable to a reading, characteristic of the backlash against homosexuality in the late 1980s and 1990's, whereby gay men are demonized for deriving sexual pleasure from passing along AIDS to their partners, and through them, to the rest of society. In its treatment of homosexuality, McKellen's movie resembles the classic Hollywood horror films of the 1930s, which portray "the monster" as a stand-in for "the homosexual." As in such films, McKellen gratifies his heterosexual audience by killing off his homosexual protagonist and allowing a "normal" straight couple to regain control of England. McKellen's accommodationist political stance is thrown into relief when one compares Richard III to Derek Jarman's Edward II (1991). Jarman's radical position, which concedes nothing to the straight establishment, celebrates his protagonist's queer sexuality and impels him to rewrite the ending of Marlowe's play to dramatize the victory of queer resistance over heterosexual oppression.


Shakespeare, Richard III, Loncraine, McKellen, Jarman, Homosexuality, Film, Horror, Homiciphilia, Edward II

In his article "Cinema and the Kingdom of Death: Loncraine's Richard III," Peter S. Donaldson observes the director's repeated conflation of sexuality and mortality:

Loncraine's handling of the voyeuristic conventions of filmic sexuality … is always complicated by our being able to read in them the signs of Richard's particular obsession with death …. The scene of the murder of Rivers at the moment of ejaculation during fellation, followed by a cut to a child's train and then to a steam engine entering a tunnel, also enacts such a double displacement, whereby screen voyeurism is reframed as necrophilia.


While it is legitimate to employ the term "necrophilia" to refer to "Richard's particular obsession with death," Donaldson elsewhere uses a form of the word in its more commonly understood denotation: "sexual attraction to, or intercourse with, dead bodies" (OED). Recalling a particularly macabre moment from Richard Eyre's 1990 stage version, which first transported the action to an imaginary Fascist England of the 1930s, Donaldson writes,

The National Theatre production from which the film derives even contained explicitly necrophiliac scenes: after Hastings's death his head was brought to Richard in a fire bucket. Alone on the huge stage, he savored the moment, glanced about (no one there; only us), and reached lovingly into the bucket in a kind of erotic ecstasy.


Although this episode in Eyre's production clearly exhibits Richard's necrophilia, no such scene appears in Loncraine's film (1995), which never brings Richard into direct physical contact with the corpses of any [End Page 567] of his victims. In the film, Ian McKellen as Richard experiences erotic arousal, not from the mere contemplation of death or from touching dead bodies, but from the thought of having caused those deaths himself.1 To describe the sexual pleasure that McKellen's Richard appears to derive from homicide, I have coined the term "homiciphilia."

Since Richard's homiciphilia may be fed only by murder, the film brands Richard's erotic desire as an evil perversion, and the king's ultimate defeat by the virtuous Richmond, whose licit heterosexual orientation is stressed, therefore represents the triumph of married sexuality over depraved sexual deviance. This conservative, even reactionary treatment of deviant sexuality seems startling in a film based on a screenplay by, and starring, Ian McKellen, one of the most prominent openly gay actors working in modern cinema. Such a paradox appears even more puzzling when one considers that Richard III also occasionally hints at...