Sexuality in Shakespeare
Sexuality in Shakespeare
The subject of sexuality and sexual language in Shakespeare's plays has long been a topic of critical interest. Ranging from the humorous and playful to the dark and taboo, the exploration of human sexuality is a constant in Shakespeare's texts. And while Shakespeare's bawdy language has led some to censor it in the past, the trend in modern scholarship has been to undertake a close analysis of his writing for the purposes of uncovering the cultural and historical factors behind his presentation of the sexes. To this end, scholars have used the contemporary tools of feminism and gender theory to explore the prevalent forces of misogynistic and patriarchal thinking, as well as to unearth some of the sexual anxieties of Renaissance culture as they are shaped by language.
Critics have observed the comic mode of Shakespeare's sexual language by tracing the forms of his ribald punning, innuendo, and metaphor. Spearheaded by the first publication of Eric Partridge's Shakespeare's Bawdy in 1948, modern scholars have become increasingly enlightened as to the depth of Shakespeare's linguistic portrayal of human sexuality. Such topics as marriage and the battle of the sexes are predominant in the comedies, in which scholars have noted the prevalence of wordplay and sexual double entendre—the cornerstone of humor in such works as The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing. But behind this bawdiness, many critics have observed the more serious nature of Shakespeare's presentation of the sexual, outlining such issues as the Elizabethan pre-occupation with—and male fear of—the supposed dangers of female sexuality. Further sites of scholarly interest relate to the fact that Shakespeare's theater employed only male actors to portray female characters, leading to discussions of obscured sexual identity, homoeroticism, and the marginal role of women in early-modern Europe.
The Language Of Sexuality
E. A. M. Colman (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "What Is Indecency?" in The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare, Longman Group Limited, 1974, pp. 1-21.
[In the following essay, Colman examines the historical contexts of Shakespeare's bawdy language, comparing the mores of Elizabethan and modern times.]
Now it is quite undeniable, that there are many passages in Shakespeare, which a father could not read aloud to his children—a brother to his sister—or a gentleman to a lady:—and every one almost must have felt or witnessed the extreme awkwardness, and even distress, that arises from suddenly stumbling upon such expressions, when it is almost too late to avoid them, and when the readiest wit cannot suggest any paraphrase, which shall not betray, by its harshness, the embarrassment from which it has arisen. Those who recollect such scenes, must all rejoice, we should think, that Mr Bowdler has provided a security against their recurrence; and, as what cannot be pronounced in decent company cannot well afford much pleasure in the closet, we think it is better, every way, that what cannot be spoken, and ought not to have been written, should now cease to be printed.1
Thus Francis Jeffrey, advocate, Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow, and formidable editor of The Edinburgh Review. True to character, the future...
(The entire section is 14452 words.)
Stephen Orgel (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "Nobody's Perfect: Or Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Women?", in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 88, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 7-29.
[In the following essay, Orgel explores the cultural assumptions behind male and female sexual identity in Shakespeare's plays.]
My title is the last line of that most Renaissance of modern comedies, Some Like It Hot. Joe E. Brown re-acts to Jack Lemmon's desperate revelation that he is not the woman Brown thinks he has been wooing, but a man in drag. Instead of indignantly withdrawing his proposal of marriage, however, Brown responds with cheerful complacency, "Nobody's perfect." The moment provides an appropriate setting for my own scene.
I want to rethink some basic information about the English Renaissance theater. It is a commonplace to observe that the stage in Shakespeare's time was an exclusively male preserve, but theatrical historians tend to leave the matter there, as if the fact merely constituted a practical arrangement and had no implications beyond its utility in a number of disguise plots. But it has very broad implications, which are both cultural and specifically sexual, and those are what I want to address. To begin with, the male public theater represents a uniquely English solution to the universal European disapproval of actresses. No contemporary...
(The entire section is 8530 words.)
Female Sexuality And Misogyny
William C. Carroll (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: "The Virgin Not: Language and Sexuality in Shakespeare," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 46, 1994, pp. 107-19.
[In the following essay, Carroll discusses the question of female sexuality as a locus of mystification, dislocution, negation, and linguistic transgression in Shakespeare's dramas.]
'New plays and maidenheads', according to the Prologue of The Two Noble Kinsmen,
are near akin:
Much followed both, for both much money
If they stand sound and well. And a good
Whose modest scenes blush on his marriage
And shake to lose his honour, is like her
That after holy tie and first night's stir
Yet still is modesty, and still retains
More of the maid to sight than husband's
The endless renewal of the spoken word, the play whose every performance is almost but not quite the originary 'first night's stir', is comparable here to the virgin whose maidenhead is taken...
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Ferguson, Margaret W., Maureen Quilligan and Nancy J. Vickers, eds. Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, 426 p.
Collection of essays on sex and gender relations in the Renaissance.
Kleinberg, Seymour. "The Merchant of Venice: The Homosexual as Anti-Semite in Nascent Capitalism." In Literary Vision of Homosexuality, edited by Stuart Kellogg, pp. 113-26. New York: The Haworth Press, 1983.
Relates the themes of money, ethnic hatred, and homoeroticism in The Merchant of Venice.
Neely, Carol Thomas. Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985, 261 p.
Examines relations between the sexes in Shakespeare's plays as influenced by the issue of marriage.
Partridge, Eric. Shakespeare's Bawdy: A Literary & Psychological Essay and a Comprehensive Glossary, revised edition. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1969, 223 p.
Seminal study of Shakespeare's use of sexual language. Contains an exhaustive glossary of sex-related words in Shakespeare's plays.
Rose, Mary Beth. The Expense of Spirit: Love and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 240 p.
Details cultural transformations in the...
(The entire section is 241 words.)