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...
(The entire section is 41,459 words.)