The subject of desire, though long present in critical commentary on Shakespeare's poetry and drama, has elicited steady interest in recent decades. Along with the related topics of jealousy and lust, critics have observed the theme of desire as an almost ubiquitous element in Shakespeare's writing, seen most clearly in such works as Venus and Adonis, Troilus and Cressida, the Sonnets, and Othello, but also lurking in Cymbeline, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and even The Comedy of Errors. Many commentators have maintained that the force of human desire, be it sexual or otherwise, drives the love plays and, more subtly, the histories and tragedies.
Scholars have frequently devoted their attention to the nature of desire as an unfulfillable passion that leads to destruction in the plays. In Venus and Adonis, critics have seen desire as the symptom of love out of joint, as a devouring force characterized by the unrestrained lust of Venus for the beautiful Adonis. Catherine Belsey has observed desire as an ambiguous force, noting that Venus and Adonis "promises a definitive account of love" but fails to provide it. Instead, desire appears as an intensely contradictory power that facilitates the opposition of love and beauty—two ideals that William Keach has noted should be complementary, but rather clash in the poem, leading to the death of Adonis and the frustration of Venus. An unfulfilled and similarly destructive desire appears in Romeo and Juliet; according to Lloyd Davis, it exists in "two paradigmatic and conflicting ways," as both ideal and tragic, and results in a self-devouring passion.
Critics have further explored the ruinous forms of obsessive desire—lust and jealousy—in Shakespeare's sonnet cycle and in his later plays. Joseph Pequigney has examined Shakespeare's stylistic representation of lust in the language and imagery of the sonnets, noting the corrupting force of desire on the body and the soul. Lawrence Danson has applied an understanding of Elizabethan social structure to the topic of male jealousy in marriage. Using Othello and Cymbeline's Posthumus as examples, Danson evaluates desire as a tormenting force allied with a masculine requirement for absolute control of the feminine.
Not surprisingly, critics have also investigated Shakespeare's extensive use of desire as a metaphor. René Girard and Valerie Traub, for example, have both focused on its symbolism in Troilus and Cressida. Girard has viewed desire as serving a mimetic function, observing that for Troilus "the extinction of desire [is] a result of undisturbed possession" of Cressida. After he loses Cressida to the Greeks, Troilus finds that jealousy intensifies his desire, but only, Girard argues, as an imitation of the Greeks' passionate intensity. Thus, Troilus's desire ceases to be original, and is instead a destructive mimicry aroused by envy and loss. For Traub, desire operates through the corrupting metaphor of disease, specifically syphilis. Like syphilis, it appears as deadly and contagious in the play, and serves to represent "anxieties relating to all bodily exchanges," both sexual and military. Jonathan Hall has followed an even more esoteric study of the forms of this passion, highlighting metaphors of mercantile desire in relation to the dissolution of personal identity in The Comedy of Errors. Hall's work likewise indicates the varied forms of desire in Shakespeare's writing and the numerous avenues of inquiry this topic has elicited.
William Keach (essay date 1977)
SOURCE: "Venus and Adonis," in Elizabethan Erotic Narratives: Irony and Pathos in the Ovidian Poetry of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Their Contemporaries, Rutgers University Press, 1977, pp. 52-84.
[In the following essay, Keach analyzes the ironic imagery and erotic motivations of character in Venus and Adonis, examining the poem's "insight into the turbulence and frustration of sexual love."]
Shakespeare's first published work as a poet was an epyllion. With the London theatres closed in 1592-1593 by the plague, Shakespeare was temporarily prevented from writing for "Pennie-knaves delight" (to borrow Lodge's phrase from Glaucus and Scilla), so he took the opportunity to write and publish Venus and Adonis and thus to put himself before the public as a "serious" author.1 This "first heir of my invention," as he calls Venus and Adonis, is dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, whose sybaritic taste it was presumably meant to flatter.2 Shakespeare's strategy for the occasion, we might speculate, was this: he would treat one of the most familiar of mythological subjects,3 but he would elaborate the subject into the new kind of poem introduced by Lodge three or four years earlier. Whether or not the striking stanzas on Venus and Adonis in Glaucus and Scilla actually suggested the...
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Obsessive Desire: Jealousy And Lust
Joseph Pequigney (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "The Action of Lust," in Such Is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets, The University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 155-88.
[In the following excerpt, Pequigney observes the mechanisms of lust in Shakespeare's Sonnets 127-32 and 144-7.]
Possibly no single poem in Shakespeare's sonnet sequence is more imperative for understanding it holistically than Sonnet 129, "The expense of spirit." This key sonnet defines the central theme of Part II as lust, [and] sheds light on its arrangement of sonnets. . . . This sonnet is the third one of Part II, and the first two—127 and 128—prepare the way for it in the course of introducing the secondary subject of the Sonnets, the liaison with the mistress.
The protagonist is already infatuated with her in Sonnet 127. Nothing is said about how or when they met. He does not address her directly here but launches into that stock-in-trade of the amorist, praise of her beauty. It is not of the type normally admired, being "black," and so he must defend it while eulogizing it. That gives a mildly unconventional twist to the opening poem, though it barely hints at the unconventionalities to follow. The first quatrain points out that, in the past, "black," in the sense of the dark coloring of a brunette as opposed to the light coloring of a blonde, "was not counted fair [= comely, with a...
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Desire As Metaphor
Jonathan Hall (essay date 1995)
"Mercantilism and Desire in The Comedy of Errors," in Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995, pp. 39-52.
[Here, Hall investigates Shakespeare 's mercantile metaphors of desire and their relation to the construction of personal identity in The Comedy of Errors.]
The advent of mercantile capitalism should not be understood as a purely "economic" transition, if by that term we mean the severely delimited and specialized set of theories and practices characteristic of the epoch of bourgeois hegemony. The later "science" of political economy tends (naturally, as it now seems to us) to obscure its own basis in an alienation of the practices of monetary power and rationalized administration from all other social interrelations and cultural practices. It is constituted as an impersonal science precisely through a "forgetting" of its nonetheless persistent and real connections with the politics of the everyday, that is interpersonal relations of every sort and, consequently, the organization of even supposedly private desire. But this economic scientism, so familiar to us as to appear almost unquestionable (except occasionally on moral grounds), is a late development of bourgeois culture, and in our epoch of monopoly capitalism it sits rather awkwardly with the culture of individual...
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Adelman, Janet. "Bed Tricks: On Marriage as the End of Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure." In Shakespeare's Personality, edited by Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan, and Bernard J. Paris, pp. 151-74. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
Examines male sexual desire as a violating and corrupting force potentially legitimized through marriage.
Belsey, Catherine. "Desire's Excess and the English Renaissance Theatre: Edward II, Troilus and Cressida, Othello." In Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage, edited by Susan Zimmerman, pp. 84-102. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Notes chaotic and ironic manifestations of desire in Troilus and Cressida and Othello.
Calderwood, James L. "Desire, the Eyes and the Gaze." In Harvester New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream, pp. 23-47. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992.
Investigates metaphors of seeing in relation to the topic of desire in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Girard, René. "The Politics of Desire in Troilus and Cressida" In Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, pp. 188-209. New York, Methuen, 1985.
Explores the workings of desire in both the erotic and political sub-plots of Troilus and Cressida.
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