Study Guide

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare Essay - Sexuality in Shakespeare

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 law lord was pronouncing sentence on Shakespeare's indecency with a good deal less circumspection than Dr Bowdler himself. Bowdler, in a preface to his edition, drew a careful distinction between the editor of a literary text and any presumptuous artist who might take it upon him to retouch a painting or sculpture. With literature, Bowdler pointed out, 'the original will continue unimpaired', to be reprinted in toto if the expurgated version is consigned to oblivion, whereas in the plastic arts, 'if the endeavour to improve the picture or the statue should be unsuccessful, the beauty of the original would be destroyed, and the injury be irreparable'.2

For all its modest good intent, however, The Family Shakespeare let its editor in for generations of ridicule, much of it from people who had not read his well-meaning preface. Such are the penalties of having one's name give rise to a household word. But what poor Bowdler's whole exercise makes clear—and Jeffrey's forceful support of it clear still—is that the bawdy passages in Shakespeare should not be shrugged aside as merely frivolous. They can produce a strong emotional effect in certain readers simply by the fact of being bawdy. This remains true even in the comparatively uninhibited 1970s. The cultural world of Lord Jeffrey and the Bowdlers lies at an immense distance, and from the heights of what a John Updike character has called 'the post-pill paradise' we may smile down on their stern pronouncements with detached tolerance. Yet such evidence as we have from sociologists and psychologists suggests that the verbal expression of ideas connected with sex and non-sexual coprology does still elicit a marked emotional response from most English-speaking readers. References to sexual activity, urination and defecation may have lost much of their power to startle, but they remain the literary counterparts of what the law continues to call 'indecent exposure'. People think them healthy, comic, improper, distasteful, offensive or sinister as a result of their tending to defy widely respected (if ill-defined) standards of chastity or propriety. These standards depend on a robust but fluctuating system of taboos—a system that varies between different social groups at any one time and varies still more markedly between one 'generation' and another. Perhaps the most obvious fluctuations in ideas of what is proper, at least as far as the English-speaking nations are concerned, can be seen in conversations about pregnancy, childbirth, contraception, and even just the female legs and feet. All those unmentionables of the nineteenth-century English middle classes are now largely free of taboo: the draped piano limbs of Queen Victoria's Windsor have become only a joke.

Given, then, that standards of propriety, and hence of its opposite, do genuinely shift, it becomes necessary to establish three things before tackling Shakespeare's bawdy. First, exactly what do we now mean when we describe any piece of writing as 'indecent'? Secondly, how far did Elizabethan and Jacobean notions of indecency differ from those most readily acknowledged—permissively or otherwise—among English-speaking people today? And thirdly, how far do Shakespeare's plays themselves draw attention to the special nature of their own indecent passages?

An initial distinction must be made between sexuality in general and indecency in particular. Quite obviously, not all sexual writing is indecent. A medical textbook or a manual on birth control will be much concerned with the sexual organs and their functioning, but cannot be described as bawdy. It lacks both salacity and salacity's usual motive—a desire to shock, even if only fleetingly or mildly. In literature too, a great deal of writing about sex and sexual mores is rendered, by its seriousness, utterly remote from bawdy. Consider, for instance, Madame Bovary. This was, in its day, accused of being indecent and subversive, yet not even the Imperial Attorney claimed that Flaubert's literary depravity had extended to his treating sex flippantly or grotesquely. Bawdy, as distinct from straightforward sensuality, always partakes of the comic, whether through absurdity, grossness or a startling ingenuity. It need not actually be funny, any more than a pun needs to be funny in order to be recognised as a pun, but it often consists in that form of the absurd in which something physical is unexpectedly introduced when something spiritual is at issue. Again, in its least humorous forms, bawdy can be identified by its quality of caricature. It exaggerates, sometimes to the point of being downright bizarre, but sometimes only quite mildly. As with other forms of the grotesque in literature, the reader or listener has to be alert to fine differences in context and fine gradations of tone. To my mind, Macbeth is being neither gross nor (consequently) bawdy when he envisages withered murder who

                        with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his
Moves like a ghost

—but I imagine that not everybody would accept my opinion. I think most people would agree, on the other hand, that Iago is being bawdy when he implicitly invites Othello to picture Desdemona 'naked with her friend in bed'. Such a phrase is rolled on the tongue, as one critic has put it,3 while its speaker savours both the picture evoked and the torture in inflicts. Similarly, Othello himself is being bawdy, though with deadly seriousness, when he speaks to Emilia and Desdemona as if they were in a brothel. The sexual accusations become indecent by being perversely distorted.

So we have an axiom: to be bawdy, a piece of talk or writing has to have behind it the intention to startle or shock. It also has to be at once more and less than sensual. Inasmuch as it labours the physical, it is sensual; but its other aspect is the exercise of wit, and this requires that the speaker remain partly at a distance from what he contemplates. Bawdy is often indirect, metaphorical or allusive. Only at its least subtle does it use blunt, unequivocal terms of sexual description, the familiar four-letter words. Shakespeare invariably suppresses these in favour of euphemistic or pseudoeuphemistic substitutes: a man's yard (penis, as an English word, came later) will less often be joked about under its own name than under the thin disguise of prick or pike or weapon. Cunt and fuck do not reach print in Shakespeare's text at all, except through puns (count, focative). Again you find substituted words carrying the ideas—case, foin and the like. Shakespeare's indecency might well be described metaphorically as a linguistic region, a zone situated between the real and the imagined, between the clinical and the pornographic. The area is shady and ill-defined. Its borders are always uncertain, and they can waver mercurially from moment to moment as a conversation or poem proceeds. The region provides breeding grounds for fantasy, as we have already seen with Othello. If Don John, Iago or Iachimo hints vaguely at a sexual offence ('Even she—Leonato's Hero, your Hero, every man's Hero'), the imagination of the heater is stirred but still left free to envisage attitudes worthy of the most practised and inventive of concubines.…

At an opposite extreme from the bawdy jibe and innuendo you find Shakespeare's non-scurrilous sexual references. Most of his allusions to the consummation of marriage are of this neutral kind, as also are his references to childbirth, suckling and, quite often, illegitimacy. In the history plays particularly, a character's bastardy will often be discussed simply in the matter-of-fact terms of his limited rights, obligations and social standing. The same is true of adultery when it is discussed with legalistic formality at certain points in the trial scene of The Winter's Tale. Some of this sexually slanted, but non-bawdy, material receives attention in the chapters that follow, but only when it has proved to have a bearing on genuinely indecent passages. More often, serious unexaggerated sexuality can be passed over without special mention. Yet the distinction between the two modes of sexuality will have to be made continually, so it will be worth while at this stage to consider in general terms how far Elizabethan notions of the indecent differed from some of those of the present day. In this, as in any other matter, Shakespeare is not always bound by convention, but we do at least have to be aware of the prevailing conventions of his time if we are to interpret his words sanely.

Non-sexual obscenity has changed comparatively little in England across four centuries. We have no difficulty in recognising, and gauging the force of, Shakespeare's references to chamber-pots, close-stools or flatulence. More remote from a twentieth-century viewpoint, but clear enough from the attitudes of characters within the plays, is the medieval and Renaissance cherishing of bad breath as a source of ribald humour. The joke has lost its popularity—progressively, I would suppose, with the advance of modern dentistry—though like nose-picking and scratching, halitosis remains a topic widely avoided in everyday conversation.

Since these asexual types of impropriety are only marginal to investigation of the sexual, this book could have disregarded them without serious loss. But it happens that when Shakespeare resorts to non-sexual indecency he nearly always does so in a context that is already bawdy in a sexual way. Yeats's Crazy Jane is less than precise, anatomically, when she assures the Bishop that 'Love has pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement', but she would seem truthful enough to most of Shakespeare's characters, as their cheerfully indiscriminate use of such a word as tail makes clear (see glossary). While it would be perfectly logical, then, to rule coprophilous indecency out of this whole discussion, on the grounds of its being asexual, it is easy and usually helpful to consider it alongside the sexual scurrility which tends to accompany it in the plays.

Turning to sexual indecency itself, we find a much wider range of Elizabethan subject matter. To begin with, almost any Renaissance comedy, Shakespearean or not, draws on much the same sources of sexual humour as any mid-twentieth-century television farce. There are likely to be jokes about the male and female reproductive organs; about articles of clothing that have sexual implications (codpieces, points, hose, plackets, smocks, and bodices low-cut or tight-laced); about lust, and especially the lust of bachelors, husbands or widows; about frigidity, and especially the frigidity of wives; about adultery and prostitution; and of course about sexual promiscuity generally. Where the Elizabethan selection does differ noticeably from the parallel list one might compile from popular entertainment of the present day it is chiefly in a preference for jokes about cuckoldry, castration or itinerant friars as opposed to, say, birth control, homosexuality or seductive typists. The causes of some of these differences are too obvious to need comment. The Elizabethans did not have typists or reliable methods of birth control—though some of them had ambitions to contraception:

EPICOENE … And have you those excellent receipts, madam, to keep yourselves from bearing of children

LADY HAUGHTY O, yes, Morose. How should we maintain our youth and beauty else? Many births of a woman make her old, as many crops make the earth barren.4

For our part, we do not have itinerant friars. We do, on the other hand, still have adultery, and this makes it interesting that cuckoldry has lost much of the mirthprovoking force which it clearly possessed four centuries ago. Its decline may perhaps be attributable to the loosening of patriarchal ties in a society that has, in general, grown less concerned than it used to be with questions of inheritance. As the first act of King John, with its dispute between the Faulconbridge half-brothers, reminds us, a man's true paternity used to be a matter of pressing importance, both socially and economically. Any act of adultery on the part of a married woman was a potential destroyer of lineage and hence of that ordered security which nowadays depends much more on the independently earned incomes of successive generations. In a milieu where much is at stake when paternity is doubted or challenged, society's fear of the adulterer may well find expression indirectly, both through a high valuation of the notion of 'honour' in relation to sexual behaviour and through a popular view of the deceived husband as a butt, a figure for the time of scorn to point his slow unmoving finger at. The cuckold's horns survive today only vestigially, represented by a two-finger gesture of increasingly vague opprobrium; yet there is abundant documentary evidence to show that our Elizabethan ancestors not only found the horns idea funny but also felt sensitive to its implication of cuckoldry whenever it was used against them. A passage in the anonymous compilation Tarlton's Jests5 describes how the famous comic fell out with 'one in the Gallerie':

It chanced that in the midst of a Play, after long expectation for Tarlton, (being much desired of the people) at length he came forth: where at his entrance, one in the gallerie pointed his finger at him, saying to a friend that had never seene him, that is he: Tarlton to make sport at the least occasion given him, and seeing the man point with one finger, he in love againe held up two fingers: the captious fellow jealous of his wife (for he was maried) and because a Player did it, tooke the matter more hainously, and askt him why hee made Homes at him: No quoth Tarlton, they be fingers:

 For there is no man which in love to mee
Lends me one finger, but he shall have three.

No, no, sayes the fellow, you gave me the homes: true saies Tarlton, for my fingers are tipt with nailes which are like hornes, and I must make a shew of that which you are sure of: this matter grew so, that the more he medled, the more it was for his disgrace: wherefore the standers by counselled him to depart, both he and his hornes, lest his cause grew desperate: so the poore fellow plucking his Hat over his eyes, went his wayes.

Humour dealing with homosexuality shows up another shift in social attitudes, though here the evidence from Elizabethan drama is harder to weigh. In the first place, emotional friendships between men were an accepted part of Renaissance life, and the gradations between simple admiration and homosexual lust seem to have been even wider in range and subtler in kind than they are now. When young men shared a bed, it was likely to be regarded as a matter of mere convenience rather than as the indulgence of a sexual inversion. The same was true, and remained so for much longer, of pairs of young women. To an Elizabethan audience, the friendships between Valentine and Proteus, Antonio and Bassanio, Menenius and Coriolanus ('I tell thee, fellow, / Thy general is my lover', V.ii.13), would have seemed no more homosexual than those of Rosalind and her cousin Celia, Beatrice and her cousin Hero—'although, until last night, / I have this twelvemonth been her bedfellow' (Much Ado IV.i.146). The Sonnets carry us into a different sphere, since the relationships between the poet's persona and one or more young men do suggest active sexual involvement. At least one of the sonnets (number 20 …) shows Shakespeare rebutting the suggestion of physical homosexuality, but, viewed in the light of the sequence as a whole, that attempt to etherealise the love affair looks specious.

When the plays glance at sodomy it is with reticence and distaste. The one fully explicit reference comes from Thersites in Troilus and Cressida when he curses Patroclus as Achilles' male varlet:

PATROCLUS Male varlet, you rogue! What's that? THERSITES Why, his masculine whore. Now, the rotten diseases of the south, the guts-griping ruptures, … incurable bone-ache, and the rivelled fee-simple of the tetter, take and take again such preposterous discoveries!


The word preposterous here is being used quite literally—'backside foremost'—and this bluntness, like so much else in Troilus, is in marked contrast with Shakespeare's usual treatment of the topic. Generally, his allusions to buggery are few in number and ambiguous in tenor. A typical instance is in Henry V (III.ii.129) where Gower exclaims 'Gentlemen both, you will mistake each other' and Jamy comments, 'Ah, that's a foul fault!" Jamy's remark is ambivalent. It could be condemning only the art of deliberate misunderstanding, as cultivated by Fluellen and Macmorris, but the considerable force of the word foul in early modern English, and the frequent occurrence of a sexual flavour in fault, together suggest a double entendre. If my suspicion is right and this is a joke based on the idea of the two disputants homosexually mis-taking one another, its very ambiguity looks defensive, a kind of evasion.

So far as one can judge, then, Shakespeare seems to have shared in the conventional disapproval of sodomy which found further theatrical expression through Jonson, Middleton, Tourneur and others.6 But the evidence for this is mostly of a negative type: the subject was one that he seems to have preferred to avoid—as is scarcely surprising if one considers official attitudes to homosexuality in the reign of Elizabeth I. From 1563 until 1861 buggery 'committed with mankind or beast' was a felony that could, and quite often did, incur the death sentence. Among the many ugly sidelights on the death of Christopher Marlowe in 1593 was the informer Richard Baines's report that Marlowe had affirmed 'That all they that love not Tobacco & Boies were fooles'. If Marlowe had escaped Ingram Friser's dagger, this piece of careless talk would not in itself have hanged him—Baines and Thomas Kyd, between them, had notes of far more heinous items of table-talk—but an accusation of homosexuality would at the very least have added weight to charges of atheism. From 1603 to 1625 the official outlook on homosexual activity was presumably less searching than in Elizabeth's reign, if only because James I himself was said to be homosexually inclined, as also was his eventual Lord Chancellor, Francis Bacon. The practice of sodomy in such high places, however, would not have been likely to make the dramatists more outspoken about it. And the law remained unchanged: in 1628, the third part of Sir Edward Coke's Institutes of the Laws of England surveyed the history of punishments for buggery, confirming that 'the judgement of felony doth now belong to this offence, viz. to be hanged by the neck till he be dead'. Coke mentions only one Jacobean prosecution for a homosexual offence: in 1608 a man called Stafford had been indicted 'for committing buggery with a boy, for which he was attainted and hanged'.7

If Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists were more nervous of sexual inversion on the stage than are their later-twentieth-century descendants, they were a good deal less squeamish over venereal disease. Their comments on 'the pox' are numerous and, on the whole, cheerful, with an unpleasant and dated air, not unlike that of the same period's jocularity over madmen. It was not that the deadly nature of syphilis went unrecognised. The new and virulent strain of this infection that seems to have been brought to Europe by Columbus's men on their return from the New World in 1493 had been recognised as a killer by a number of sixteenth-century physicians. But the writers of medical treatises were not yet able to distinguish between syphilis and the other sexually transmitted diseases—infections that were much less dangerous, but which simultaneously affected many of the syphilitic patients.8 From gonorrhoea, in the absence of syphilis, a man or woman might recover, and it was perhaps because of this that the physicians' warnings about brothelry went largely unheard, very much as in our own time cigarette smokers have widely disregarded the findings of research into lung cancer. Shakespeare's plays embody the popular attitudes: up to about 1599 (the probable year of Henry V) they treat the pox as a source of fun; thereafter, they have a good deal to say about death from it, speaking somethings sombrely, sometimes with a brittle kind of hilarity.

Interesting though they are, these various changes in the prevailing modes of sexual humour over the centuries are only a part of what has to be taken into account for the assessment of Shakespearean indecency. An equally important kind of change is the purely semantic. In sexual matters, more than in most others, individual words have tended to change their meaning or force, often under the pressure of changing fashions in slang. Aunt, for example, can no longer mean prostitute, unless in some special stage situation which explicitly sets up the euphemism. Aching bones, coughing, a cracked voice and whitening or thinning hair do not nowadays suggest venereal illness, as they do for Timon of Athens and for Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida. The cart is no longer a standard punishment for prostitutes. Appetite, in modern usage, has lost the sense sexual appetite or lust, just as light no longer invites semantic punning on a secondary meaning forward, wanton. Contrariwise, bastard has lost much of its scabrous weight by declining into common usage as a vague expletive. Such broadening and weakening, the normal fate of abusive terms, can be seen affecting whoreson in the course of Shakespeare's own lifetime. Thereafter the word fails to hold its place in the spoken language even as a soldierly expletive. Cuckold and bawd have also vanished from everyday speech, while bawdy and bawdry survive only in comparatively sophisticated (usually literary) contexts, and pox only in medical compounds such as chicken-pox.

As regards our recognising sexual indecency when we come to it, however, neither old-fashioned subject matter nor obsolete vocabulary represents the major difficulty. The archaic and the puzzling at least alert us, as we read, to the need for research. The trickiest problem lies rather in responding accurately to the sexual innuendo of a bygone age. Two quotations, one from our own day and one from Shakespeare's, will perhaps illustrate this.

What about these crooners, eh? What about these crooners? I don't know what we're coming to. I don't, honest. Look at the stuff they sing. Look at the songs they sing! "The Dark Town Strutters' Ball", "The Woodchoppers' Ball", "The Basin' Street Ball"—it's a lot of rubbish, isn't it?

John Osborne, equipping his Entertainer with that music-hall joke, can count on us to see it, and to appreciate its hackneyed quality, because it is rooted in the subsoil of a popular culture which is still familiar. But with this, compare Ben Jonson inviting a friend to supper.

Yet shall you have, to rectifie your palate,
An olive, capers, or some better sallade
Ushring the mutton; with a short-leg'd hen,
If we can get her, full of egs, and then,
Limons, and wine for sauce: to these, a coney
Is not to be despair'd of, for our money;
And, though fowle, now, be scarce, yet there
 are clarkes,
The skie not falling, thinke we may have

For the twentieth-century reader there is nothing in these lines that points immediately to a secondary meaning behind the surface promise of gustatory joy, yet several possible ambiguities of a risqué kind are treading on one another's heels. Capers can suggest kidlike (even goatish?) leapings as well as a herbal relish: in As You Like It Touchstone patronises Audrey with 'I am here with thee and thy goats, as the most capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among the Goths' (III.iii.5). Sallade is the same words as sallet—something improperly tasty, as we know from Hamlet's warning the players not to have 'sallets in the lines to make the matter savoury' (II.ii.435). Mutton crops up frequently in the Elizabethan period as a cant term for prostitute, or at any rate to denote a sexually available woman. A short-legged hen is more innocent, but play-house poultry are prostitutes in Bartholomew Fair (II.v.96), and eggs are aphrodisiacs to Falstaff (Merry Wives III .v.25-6). Coney, although commonest in its straightforward sense rabbit and its slang extension to gull or naive victim, sometimes becomes a term of endearment for a woman, decently or indecently (OED, cony, sb. 5 and 5b). Larks are amongst the 'Good poultry' served to Cocledemoy and the procuress Mary Faugh, in strict privacy, in Marston's Dutch Courtesan (ed. M. L. Wine, I.i.13-18). Now, none of this proves that Jonson's epigram has an underlying pattern of mock bawdy enticement; but the coincidence of half-a-dozen salacious nether-meanings available within almost as many lines does open up some such possibility. Reference to Jonson's source, the forty-eighth Epigram of Martial's tenth book, neither strengthens nor weakens the possibility. The Martial poem is not in any way erotic, but Jonson is, as usual, adapting, not merely translating, so he is not in any way bound by the limits of his Latin original. Again, it may be objected that he himself was not habitually bawdy in his writing, and that he more than once inveighed against 'the immodest and obscene writing of many in their plays'. But he was not so solemn as to practise consistently what he preached, as anyone reading 'On the Famous Voyage' quickly discovers. Where that account of a journey up the noxious Fleet Ditch differs radically from 'Inviting a Friend to Supper' is in the blunt obviousness of most of its ribaldry. Yet if a strain of indecency does run through the invitation, its cryptic, muted quality is exactly what one might expect from that kind of poem. Jonson would have taken care not to expose it plainly, since that would have taken away from the poem's wit. Hilda Hulme has explained the principle well in a discussion of double entendres in Shakespeare:

The more skilfully the improper sense is suggested, the less likely it is that we can prove that such a sense is present. The art of the speaker and of the dramatist will be shown, so to say, by concealment, in the exactness with which the innocent and less innocent meanings can counterchange, the preciseness with which one sense fits the space taken by the other.9

So it is with the Ben Jonson epigram. One is left suspicious, but unsure, because the available evidence is indecisive. We live close enough in time to The Entertainer to feel certain of Osborne's calculated suppression of the expected word balls in favour of rubbish, but we are too far removed from the everyday verbal humour of Jonson's world to know for certain whether he is doing something similar.

With Shakespeare, then, page by page and line by line, the possible bawdy ambiguities must be weighed carefully if their value is to be judged at all accurately. On the one hand there is the risk of reading past them; on the other, there is the risk of being so determined to grasp at every innuendo that we proceed to read in to the text lewd meanings which its wording and phrasing will not reasonably support.

An amusing instance of the first of these errors affected the editorial handling of a line in Romeo and Juliet for over two hundred years. One of Mercutio's milder indecencies is his reference to 'Young Abraham Cupid' (II.i.13), which occurs when he is 'conjuring' the hidden Romeo to reappear and join his friends instead of skulking in the Capulets' garden. Puzzled by the apparently incongruous attachment of Abraham to the son of Venus, Lewis Theobald, in 1733, aired a suspicion that Shakespeare had really written 'Young auborn Cupid,—i.e. brown-hair'd'.10 Other eighteenth-century editors changed Abraham to Adam, having accepted the 'explanation' put forward by John Upton:

Shakespeare wrote, Young Adam Cupid, &c. The printer or transcriber, gave us this Abram, mistaking the d for br: and thus made a passage direct nonsense, which was understood in Shakespeare's time by all his audience: for this Adam was a most notable archer; and for his skill became a proverb.11

Ingenious, very. And the habit of printing Adam instead of Abraham survived right to the middle of our own century—despite the fact that as long ago as 1838 Charles Knight had solved the artificial crux: 'The "Abraham" Cupid is the cheat—the "Abraham man"—of our old statutes.'12 Mercutio is likening the near-naked Cupid to the rogues who wandered the country stealing and begging, many of them with faked sores showing through their scanty rags. Dekker's book Lantern and Candelight describes with gusto how these villains went without breeches quite deliberately, and how their 'going Abr' am (that is to say, "naked") is not for want of clothes but to stir up men to pity and in that pity to cozen their devotion'.13 This combination of the ideas of nakedness and cozenage exactly fits the tone of Mercutio's bawdily derisive speech. Theobald and Upton were unintentionally bowdlerising Shakespeare.

To illustrate the converse, the editorial creation of an indecent innuendo, the eighteenth century may be quoted again. Sir Thomas Hanmer, perplexed over Lear's use of the expression good-years ('The good-years shall devour them, flesh and fell', V.iii.24), was apparently unwilling to connect it with the vague imprecation 'What the good-year!' which occurs in Much Ado, 2 Henry IV, The Merry Wives and other plays. Instead, he 'emended' Lear's use of it to goujeres. This intriguing but imaginary word he glossed as 'The French disease', and alleged its derivation to be from the French Gouje, 'a common Camp-Trull'.14 One cannot help admiring the ingenuity of all this. It seems slightly unchivalrous of Chambers's Dictionary to dismiss it drily as 'an editor's would-be improvement upon goodyear … , from a spurious Fr. goujére'.

At the same time, it would be unjust to create the impression that distortion of Shakespeare's indecency, one way or the other, has been any more common among Shakespeare's editors than among his other commentators. If anything, the reverse has been true, at least in recent decades. The very nature of the modern textual scholar's expertise makes him less likely to corrupt Shakespeare's meaning than are critics who lack such training, and the twentieth-century equivalents of Theobald's or Hanmer's well-meant solecisms are to be found, for the most part, outside the confines of formal textual study. Eric Partridge's book Shakespeare's Bawdy is their best-known repository—not so much through being positively misleading as through failing to provide explicit defence for interpretations which, as H. W. Fowler might have said, will require to be defended every time they are put forward. It might have been possible for Partridge to justify the inclusion of come in his glossary, but the entry under the word certainly does not succeed in justifying it. The gloss 'To experience a sexual emission' is supported by two Shakespearean quotations:

MARGARET Well, I will call Beatrice to you,
  who I think hath legs.
BENEDICK And therefore will come.
                            Much Ado V.ii.23

OLIVIA Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio?
MALVOLIO To bed! 'Ay', sweetheart, and I'll
  come to thee!'
                           Twelfth Night III.iv.28

Neither of these, I suggest, is anything like convincing as evidence for the modern orgasmic usage of come which Partridge is attributing to Shakespeare. It is a usage that does occur in Dekker—'a wench that will come with a wet finger', 1 Honest Whore I.ii.4—but that does not make it Shakespearean.

Much the same thing happens with eye, for which Partridge in 1947 claimed a Shakespearean sense of pudendum muliebre. Shakespeare uses the word eye, in singular or plural form, 1311 times. Given the associative habit of the poet's mind, it is not impossible that once...

(The entire section is 14452 words.)

Sexual Identity

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,...

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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...

(The entire section is 17937 words.)

Further Reading

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...

(The entire section is 241 words.)