illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 299

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

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14452

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...

(This entire section contains 14452 words.)

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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   design Moves like a ghost                                                  II.i.54

—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 meeLends 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  larkes.

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 or twice amongst all those occurrences the opening or closing movement of this moist, hair-fringed organ—conventionally, with Elizabethan writers, the point of entry for love—could suggest the appearance or function of the vulva. As G. I. Williams has pointed out, eye is used in this way by Middleton and Rowley:

I'll never leave the love of an open-hearted,   widow for a narrow-eyed maid again.    Middleton, No Wit Like a Woman's I.ii.295

… for a woman, they say, has an eye more   than a man.      Middleton and Rowley, The Changeling                                   III.iii.74

But the very clarity of these two examples is instructive, for if the limited similarity between eye and vulva is to be part of the sense-pattern in any play, its wording, or at least that of its context, must surely indicate that the comparison is being made. Partridge, in the single Shakespeare quotation he invoked, could point to no such indication.

A whitely wanton with a velvet brow, With two pitch balls stuck in her face for eyes; Ay, and, by heaven, one that will do the deed, Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard.Love's Labour's Lost III.i.186

The last two lines are indisputably bawdy, but it would take more than that, with or without an eyes/ay pun and a mention of balls, to supply for eyes the pudendal significance that Partridge asserted. The weakness of his case becomes still more apparent when his cross-reference to O ('For the semantics') is followed up. From O in the glossary we are further referred to circle where 'the semantics' consist of a note stating, ' Magic circle and—physiologically inaccurate—sexual circle'. When yet another cross-reference leads us back, via ring, to the entries at circle and O, we might be excused for suspecting an elaborate leg-pull.

Even outside the Partridge glossary there have been a number of inadequately supported attributions of indecencies to Shakespeare in recent years. For a long time after the appearance of Dover Wilson's New Cambridge edition of Hamlet (1934; second edition 1936), the repeated use of the word nunnery in III.i was widely accepted as meaning brothel as well as, if not indeed instead of, convent. That a jocularly inverted use of the word would have been available to Shakespeare is not in doubt: OED (nunnery, Ib) quotes its use by Nashe, by Fletcher and on an eighteenth-century title-page. But to know that such a usage was possible in the early seventeenth century is not in itself enough to demonstrate that Shakespeare avails himself of it for Hamlet. As A. L. French has shown,15 this usage simply does not lend itself to the antithesis that Hamlet is making when he harangues Ophelia—an antithesis, not simply between marriage and the avoidance of marriage, but between sexual activity and its avoidance. 'He cannot be saying "avoid sex by going to a brothel"!'

The nunnery instance effectively demonstrates the importance of the general tone of a passage in determining what is indecent and what is not. William Empson and the New Critics have made us readier than preceding generations to appreciate Shakespeare's habit of combining apparent incompatibles, whether in verse or in stage effect. We have come to accept, too, that the author who devised the mock suicide of Gloucester and Imogen's despair over the corpse of Cloten seems capable of almost any mingling of emotions, however bizarre. But there is nothing to suggest that he would set up such tensions casually, let alone unconsciously, as some of the more avid bawdy-hunters would seem to imply. Take, for example, Cleopatra's lament on the death of Antony.

                                O, see, my women, The crown o' th' earth doth melt. My lord! O, withered is the garland of the war, The soldier's pole is fallen! Young boys and   girls Are level now with men. The odds is gone, And there is nothing left remarkable Beneath the visiting moon.[Swoons IV.xv.62

Commenting on these lines, Virgil K. Whitaker writes of 'an all too appropriate though indecent double meaning of the kind that Shakespeare uses elsewhere to deflate the emotion of a potentially tragic situation'.16 The alleged double meaning is, I take it, in the phrase 'The soldier's pole is fallen', which in a comic context could no doubt make reference to a detumescent penis. To accept that as an available meaning here, however, is to read with the distorting eye of early adolescence. At a literal level, one could oppose the sexual reading by remarking Cleopatra's steady emphasis on soldierly triumph as contrasted with ordinariness. Young boys and girls find a place in the flow of images not because they are sexually immature but because they are powerless, uncelebrated; grown men have become like them, unremarkable. But Whitaker's interpretation can surely be disposed of more simply. In the theatre, where Cleopatra has to faint ('She's dead too, our sovereign'), a joke would either prove unactable or, if actable, atmospherically ruinous. To suppose that Shakespeare has blundered so absurdly at this of all moments in the play is to carry critical openmindedness to the point of vacuity.

Not all allegations of indecency can be so firmly proved or disproved. Bawdy, as I have said, is an indefinite region, and between the demonstrably decent and the demonstrably indecent lies much that is neither. It is hard to be sure, for example, whether Cleopatra is being flippant or serious, improper or heedlessly urgent, when Shakespeare has her exclaim

Ram thou thy fruitful tidings in mine ears, That long time have been barren.                                           II.v.23

Then again, what does one decide about two of the most famous lines of song in Twelfth Night?

Journeys end in lovers meeting, Every wise man's son doth know.                                           II.iii.41

If the word son were to be given the heavy stress that the tetrameter allows, it could conceivably be argued that progression from lovers meeting to son implies copulation—and hence a risqué insinuation of the kind which pointedly omits explicit reference to sexual activity, as in the John Osborne passage I quoted earlier. Yet it seems doubtful, to say the least, whether many readers or audiences would detect so muted a hint; and to ignore it would not necessarily be imperceptive, especially in view of the near-proverbial commonness in Elizabethan literature of phrases like 'every wise man's son' and 'every mother's son'. This is also why such sayings as 'woo her, wed her, and bed her' (The Taming of the Shrew I. i.141) are rarely if ever indecent.

A more complex illustration of the same interpretative difficulty may be drawn from the title Much Ado About Nothing. This lends itself to at least two possible interpretations, and perhaps also a third. First there is the obvious sense of the phrase, appropriate as the name of a light comedy in which characters fuss over what seems to have occurred but in fact amounts to nothing. Secondly there could be the nothing/noting pun which occurs only innocently within the play itself (II.iii.52-5) but which is to be found in a context of prostitution in Marston:

FRANCESCHINA … You ha' brought mine love, mine honor, mine body, all to noting!

MARY FAUGH To nothing! I'll be sworn I have brought them to all the things I could. I ha' made as much o' your maidenhead—and you had been mine own daughter, I could not ha' sold your maidenhead oft'ner than I ha' done.

The Dutch Courtesan, ed. cit., II. ii.7

This would give us not only much ado about nothing but also much ado about noting—noting in the sense observing or 'branding with disgrace' (OED, note, v., 1, 7b, 7c).

But there still remains the third possibility, that Nothing carries the bawdy implication vulva, as the letter O probably does when Juliet's Nurse demands of Romeo, 'Why should you fall into so deep an O?' (III.iii.91). Another possible parallel is in Hamlet:

HAMLET Do you think I meant country matters? OPHELIA I think nothing, my lord. HAMLET That's a fair thought to lie between    maids' legs.

OPHELIA What is, my lord? HAMLET Nothing.                                               III.ii.112

After the pun in country, we need not doubt that Hamlet is making a further bawdy joke with 'Nothing.' But what joke, precisely? Does this nothing, with or without a circular gesture of the fingers, represent the female pudend, as Dover Wilson and Thomas Pyles both proposed?17 Or does Shakespeare only mean—as F. W. Bateson has suggested to me—that nothing, no penis, ought to be lying between maids' legs? Either meaning is possible, and neither seems provable.

The difficulty of finding solid corroboration for Nothing as a pudendal joke in Much Ado increases rather than decreases when we face the bewildering variety of nothing-quibbles displayed by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Many are based on the idea of somebody's lacking sexual organs (male or female) altogether. In The Lover's Melancholy III.i.74, Ford has the foolish courtier Cuculus exclaim, 'I will court any thing; be in love with nothing, nor nothing'. Essentially the same idea, this time in a quibble conflating the want of a vagina with the want of a dowry, occurs in the anonymous King heir (printed 1605):

RAGAN   She [Cordella] were right fit to make a   Parsons wife:   For they, men say, do love faire women   well,   And many times doe marry them with   nothing. GONORILL   With nothing! marry God forbid: why, are   there any such? RAGAN   I meane, no money. GONORILL   I cry you mercy, I mistooke you much.…                                              B4

Many other nothing-jokes only approach the physiological, steering clear of it at the last moment. When Pistol asks, 'Come we to full points here, and are etceteras nothings?' (2 Henry IV II.iv.174) his meaning is unmistakably sexual, but it is also obscure. The same applies to Leontes's ranting to Camillo in The Winter's Tale:

                     Is whispering nothing? Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses? Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career Of laughter with a sigh?—a note infallible Of breaking honesty. Horsing foot on foot? Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more   swift? Hours minutes? Noon midnight? And all eyes Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs   only, That would unseen be wicked—is this   nothing? Why, then the world and all that's in't is   nothing; The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia   nothing; My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these   nothings, If this be nothing.                                       I.ii.284

A speech like this would seem to be the last word in what Thomas Pyles called 'pudendal suggestiveness': nothing, note, foot, honesty in a hymenal form that will break—all these are words which, in one place or another, Shakespeare uses sexually. But in the pell-mell flow of Leontes's diseased imagination, 'suggestiveness' is the most we can claim. Of the nine nothings in those twelve lines, we cannot point to a single one and say with confidence, 'Just there he means vulva.'

The whole matter is further complicated by the fact mat nothing is synonymous with nought, which Elizabethan spelling did not consistently differentiate from naught. Such a quibble as Flute's 'A paramour is—God bless us—a thing of naught', or Richard Ill's 'Naught to do with Mistress Shore?' is not necessarily anatomical. It may simply be invoking the general idea of sexual sin (as in naughty). The same is true of nothing itself when Iago dwells on it. 'Nay, but be wise: yet we see nothing done, / She may be honest yet.… So they do nothing, 'tis a venial slip' (Othello III.iii.429, IV.i.9).

We arrive, then, at a semantic impasse. If Shakespeare had called his comedy Much Ado About Nought we could at least have claimed one ribald nether-meaning, nought/naught/naughty, with some confidence. As it is, Much Ado About Nothing might conceivably involve a sexual double entendre, since the plot is concerned with Hero's virginity and, in a way, with Beatrice's. Hero, although doing nothing wrong, finds herself accused of 'doing nothing' in a conceited sense of that phrase. But since not even Borachio or Don John anticipates Iago's quibble, we have to face the fact that the play itself does not establish this kind of connection between its title and its content. A reader comparing that title with the quite unconceited names of companion pieces—The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, All's Well That Ends Well—has no choice but to return the same verdict as for the Ben Jonson poem: non-proven.

Enough has been said to indicate the hazards surrounding the analysis of indecent material in Shakespeare's plays and poems. As I hope several of the foregoing quotations have made clear, not only single words and phrases but even whole speeches, whole episodes, will sometimes steer close to being bawdy, yet will just shave past its true sexual-absurd tone. An 'averagely indecent' Shakespeare play (As You Like It, perhaps, or 1 Henry IV) is likely to have roughly as many near-bawdy lines as it has actually bawdy lines. Fortunately, Shakespeare himself gives extensive help towards our telling the difference. As has often been remarked in other connections, he was never an author to waste his effects by allowing them to pass unnoticed. Whatever the dramatic functions of his sexual references—whether made lightly (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labour's Lost), in aggressive jest (Hamlet, Troilus, Cymbeline) or in grim earnest (Othello, Lear, Timon)—they are very often shaped and pointed by their context. Key words or phrases are sometimes repeated to give the theatre-audience time to grasp double meanings.

HOSTESS Here's a goodly tumult! … Alas, alas! put up your naked weapons, put up your naked weapons.… Are you not hurt i'th' groin? Methought 'a made a shrewd thrust at your belly.

2 Henry IV II.iv. 194-201

Besides the guidance given by the general tone and drift of meaning, we also get, in the plays, the explicit responses of a variety of characters, 'registering' indecency in their different ways. Sometimes the speaker of a bawdy line will hesitate over it or apologise for it in advance:

BURGUNDY Pardon the frankness of my mirth, if I answer you for that. If you would conjure in her, you must make a circle; if conjure up love in her in his true likeness, he must appear naked and blind.

Henry V V.ii.287

POMPEY Sir, she came in great with child, and longing—saving your honour's reverence—for stewed prunes.

Measure for Measure II.i.86

On other occasions the apology comes after the lapse into impropriety, and it will often be addressed directly to the audience.

NURSE   Sleep for a week. For the next night, I   warrant,   The County Paris hath set up his rest   That you shall rest but little. God forgive   me!   Marry, and amen!Romeo and Juliet IV.v.5

In some of these comic passages, Shakespeare's characters will pointedly bowdlerise their own expressions.

Touchstone avoids saying jakes by calling Jaques 'Master What-ye-call't'; Lafew refers delicately to Lavache's 'lower part', and Launce to 'another thing' that his milkmaid may perhaps be liberal with; Pompey speaks of the pox as 'the thing you wot of; and in the brothel at Mytilene, Boult suppresses thorn or prick when he is praising the fresh rose, Marina, to Lysimachus.

On the occasions when a suggestive remark is not signalled by the character speaking it, there should still be small danger of our missing the point if the dramatist has another character at hand to clarify the line for the audience through his or her reception of it, whether amused, guffawing, coy, reproving, shocked, brusque or indignant. Reproof comes most commonly—as one might expect—from the women.

MARIA Come, come, you talk greasily; your   lips grow foul.Love's Labour's Lost IV.i.130

KATHERINE Le foot, et le count? O Seigneur Dieu! Ils sont mots de son mauvais, corruptible, gros, et impudique, et non pour les dames d'honneur d'user. Je ne voudrais prononcer ces mots devant les seigneurs de France pour tout le monde. Foh! Le foot et le count!

Henry V III.iv.48

Needless to say, Shakespeare's females vary widely in their attitudes to verbal impropriety, but the variations are based on a recognisable Elizabethan norm. Once again it is Marston who expresses it most plainly:

Fie, Crispinella! you speak too broad.… Faith, sister, I'll be gone if you speak so broad.… Good quick sister, stay your pace. We are private, but the world would censure you; for truly severe modesty is women's virtue.

The Dutch Courtesan, ed. cit., III .i.24, 28, 45

Shakespeare is invoking this social inhibition when he has Lavinia, in Titus Andronicus, seek a euphemism for some such word as ravishment ('one thing more, / That womanhood denies my tongue to tell'), and when he has Desdemona hesitate over saying whore: 'Am I that name, Iago? … I cannot say "whore": / It does abhor me now I speak the word'. In Much Ado, the stock convention is simultaneously acknowledged and disrupted. It rules Hero, but not her lively cousin Beatrice or the blunter Margaret.

HERO God give me joy to wear it [her wedding gown], for my heart is exceedingly heavy.

MARGARET 'Twill be heavier soon, by the weight of a man.

HERO Fie upon thee! Art not ashamed?

MARGARET Of what, lady? Of speaking honourably? Is not marriage honourable in a beggar? Is not your lord honourable without marriage? I think you would have me say, 'saving your reverence, a husband'; an bad thinking do not wrest true speaking, I'll offend nobody. Is there any harm in 'the heavier for a husband'? None, I think, an it be the right husband and the right wife; otherwise 'tis light, and not heavy; ask my Lady Beatrice else, here she comes.


A similar difference in freedom of expression between ladies of comparable social position can be seen in Henry VIII (II.iii) when the Old Lady teases Anne Bullen about chastity and ambition. More likemindedness and a still less 'refined' attitude can be noticed in Cleopatra's attendants:

CHARMIAN Well, if you were but an inch of fortune better than I, where would you choose it?

IRAS Not in my husband's nose.

CHARMIAN Our worser thoughts heavens mend!

Antony and Cleopatra I.ii.55

The well-bred female's sense of propriety is thus a highly variable, but also very useful, indicator of Shakespearean indecency.

Scoldings for outspokenness are not always well deserved. Sometimes it is the reprover, not the reproved, who has invented the indecency that Shakespeare is pointing up. In The Taming of the Shrew, for example, Petruchio's lackey Grumio (madcap servant to a madcap master) abuses the already victimised tailor by making him the butt of a series of quite imaginary scurrilities:

PETRUCHIO [to the tailor's man] Well sir, in brief, the gown is not for me.

GRUMIO You are i'th'right, sir, 'tis for my mistress.

PETRUCHIO Go, take it up unto thy master's use.

GRUMIO Villain, not for thy life! Take up my mistress' gown for thy master's use!

PETRUCHIO Why sir, what's your conceit in that?

GRUMIO O sir, the conceit is deeper than you think for. Take up my mistress' gown to his master's use! O fie, fie, fie!


The whole process of imputing indecency is at its most intricate with those characters whose scurrilising tendencies go deepest. Mistress Quickly could vie with any police prosecutor in the art of uncovering what she—but scarcely anyone else—would take to be cunningly worded sexual innuendo. Much the same is true, in a more serious way, of Othello and Leontes in their jealous phases. Luckily, this habit of mind is easy to gauge.

Finally, we have to consider those instances of possible bawdy in which the speaker makes no hesitation or apology, and no other character is suitably placed to register licentiousness. When this happens, the reader will be thrown back on his assessments of mood, connotation, implication, dramatic circumstance and the nature of the person speaking. The occurrence of several potentially indecent words in rapid succession can also strengthen one's suspicions, as we saw with Ben Jonson. Even then, at any one time, our reading of 'doubtful' bawdy will embrace a whole range of semantic possibilities, with the result that our precise interpretation can differ between one reading (or performance) and the next. These ambiguous indecencies, fortunately, are seldom crucial to the interpretation of an entire speech or scene.

One result of this whole enquiry into indecency has been my own growing conviction that the golden rule is to be slow in assuming ribald significance anywhere in Shakespeare—above all when reading or directing the plays in the sexconscious and irony-loving atmosphere of the later twentieth century. There has been unintended warning for us all in productions of Othello rendered nonsensical by tarty, ogling Desdemonas; in some orgiastic Midsummer Night's Dreams; and in the odd extensions of homosexual emphasis in at least one Troilus and Cressida. The lesson needs to be written plain: only where the text of Shakespeare fully supports a bawdy interpretation can we make deductions of any worth regarding his dramatic or thematic use of indecency.


1The Edinburgh Review, xxxvi (1821-22), 52-3: part of an unsigned notice of Thomas Bowdler, ed., The Family Shakespeare (10 vols, London, 1818). In an article in Notes and Queries (n.s. xiii (1966), 141-2) Noel Perrin pointed out that, strictly speaking, the 1818 Family Shakespeare was not the first but the second edition. The true first edition, containing only twenty of the plays, had appeared in 1807 and had been the anonymous work of Bowdler's sister, Henrietta Maria Bowdler.

2The Family Shakespeare (London, 7th edn, 1839), p. vii.

3 G. I. Williams, 'Serious uses of sexual imagery in the Elizabethan drama', Ph.D. thesis, University of Wales, 1964, p. 313.

4 Ben Jonson, Epicoene, ed. Edward Partridge (1971), rV.iii.50.

5Tarlton's Jests (edn of 1613), [B2v]. In this extract, as in all other old-spelling quotations in this book, I have adopted modern typographical conventions, expanding Elizabethan contractions and altering v, u, i and long s to u, v, j and short s wherever modern usage would have them so. (I am grateful to Professor P. H. Davison for drawing my attention to the Tarlton incident.)

6 See, for example, Jonson, Sejanus, ed. J. A. Barish (1965), I.i.212-16, or Epicoene, ed. cit., I.i.23-4; Middleton, ed. A. H. Bullen (London, 1885-86), More Dissemblers besides Women V.i.l90ff., or A Game at Chess IV.ii.108-10; Tourneur, The Revenger's Tragedy, ed. R. A. Foakes (1966), I.iii.35, or The Atheist's Tragedy, ed. Irving Ribner (1964), IV.iii. 205-10; Dekker, ed. Fredson Bowers (1953-61), Satiromastix I.ii.21-166; Webster, The White Devil, ed. J. R. Brown (1960), V.i.122-4.

7 The quotations from Sir Edward Coke are taken from H. Montgomery Hyde, The Other Love (1970), pp. 37-41.

8 See, for example, William Clowes, Treatise, touching the cure of the disease called Morbus Gallicus (London, 1579; 1585).

9 Hilda M. Hulme, Explorations in Shakespeare's Language (1962), p. 118.

10 Lewis Theobald, ed., The Works of Shakespeare (7 vols, London, 1733-34), vii, 151-2.

11 John Upton, Critical Observations on Shakespeare (London, 1746), pp. 234-5 (quoted, with slight alterations, in H. H. Furness's Variorum Romeo and Juliet (Philadelphia, 1874), p. 87).

12 Quoted in Variorum Romeo and Juliet, p. 88.

13 Thomas Dekker, The Wonderful Year, The Gull's Horn-Book, Penny-Wise Pound-Foolish, English Villainies Discovered by Lantern and Candlelight, and Selected Writings, ed. E. D. Pendry (1967), p. 289.

14 Sir Thomas Hanmer, ed., The Works of Shakespear (6 vols, Oxford, 1743-44), vi, Aaaa.

15 A. L. French, 'Hamlet's Nunnery', English Studies (Amsterdam), xlviii (1967), 141-5.

16 Virgil K. Whitaker, The Mirror up to Nature (1965), p. 295.

17 Cf. J. Dover Wilson, ed., New Cambridge Hamlet (2nd edn, 1936), p. 199, and Thomas Pyles, 'Ophelia's "Nothing" ', Modern Language Notes, lxiv (1949), 322-3.

Peter Cummings (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Bawdy Planet," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. CI, No. 4, Fall, 1993, pp. 521-35.

[In the following essay, Cummings surveys Shakespeare's use of sexual imagery, wordplay, innuendo, and metaphor.]

Composition is superior to love-making as a means of satisfying the need for self-expression…; almost equal to it as an anodyne to that loneliness with which all of us, but especially the literary and artistic and musical creators, are beset.… Moreover, to write of sex and love serves both to satisfy—and perhaps to justify—the intellectual and spiritual need to create and homeopathically to assuage one's physical desires.

—Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy

Not saying the operative word seems a particularly devious and deadly form of obscenity, since it forces the victim to contaminate his own mind, to call up the expression that the speaker does not even deign to voice.

—Robert M. Adams, Bad Mouth

When I first read Eric Partridge's Shakespeare's Bawdy (1948) at a sitting long ago in graduate school, I naturally skipped around in its famous glossary to check on some favorite sensational words. Could Shakespeare, I wondered, have written this word? … Or thought about that? Connoisseurs of both Shakespeare and Partridge will know that I did not find many of the very blunt words we have for such matters. I did find, though, much more about sex than I could have imagined in Shakespeare.

I remember being struck then by several contradictory things about the book, even as I felt it forever remove a thick academic veil from the gamy figures of Shakespeare' s text. On the one hand it struck me as both fastidiously British in some of its baroque locutions, as in the passage on the surrogate sexuality of writing, used as an epigraph here. On the other hand it seemed aggressive and explicit in its explanations of some of Shakespeare's metaphors. It struck me as charmingly paradoxical that one could find here certain entries defined in full detail, but spelled, out of some ultimate decorum, with asterisks. Thus we find fu*k, which renders no phonetic change on fuck, or the doubly defused c**t, for cunt, when it is in fact the scholarly purpose of the book to spell out the veiled or implied. (Partridge was ahead of his time—and his publisher.)

The main reason, however, that I could not put the book down, quite apart from its sensational and alluring subject, is what I would now call the voice of Partridge's text. He strides forth in that book as an outspoken man of wide lexicographical learning, of unflagging energy, of strong and even cranky opinions, as a man of unorthodox logic, and eccentric tastes. When you read Partridge's introduction you cannot help but feel your eyebrows raise here and the corners of your mouth twitch into a smile there. You have to love it when he says, "I am not a Shakespearean scholar; but merely a Shakespeare-lover, interested in wit and in words." Partridge had not so much the scholar's reserve, caution, and circumspection as the lover's passion, impulsiveness, posturing, and irresistible flair. What a show!

Partridge's book arrested my attention then, as it regains it today, not only for the deeper and broader horizons it reveals in Shakespeare, but for the unique perspective of Partridge's fearless opinions. To make the distinction that Leo Spitzer was fond of making, this is not a document in scholarship but a monument. It stands among the handful of major contributions to Shakespeare studies, with its craggy lines, curmudgeon warts, and all.

In response to Partridge's claim that no scholar, including himself, has seen every bawdy tenor that lies buried under the copious vehicles of Shakespeare's metaphors, some readers might try to ferret out hitherto undetected sex in the text. That is not my purpose here. Instead I want to isolate some selected passages and ask what we learn about Shakespeare's mimesis of human sexuality from the nature of the figurations he deploys.

It bespeaks two utterly different conceptions of sexual congress to image it as to plant a seed on the one hand versus to diddle on the other. The first metaphor compares the female body to a nurturing earth that germinates the received male seed, while the second, in a word of unknown origin, figures it as the passive recipient of a jiggling motion with the metaphorical force of to cheat, swindle, delude. The distance between the figures could hardly be greater, and we sense the enormous range that figurative language can play, especially regarding sexuality. That range is of course continuously being broadened or transformed by both cultural evolution and what we call technological progress. It was inevitable, for instance, that, with the advent of the personal computer, sex could be programmed, formatted, and digitalized.

As the metaphors that characterize contemporary American bawdiness mirror unconscious cultural attitudes toward the body, so too, naturally, do Shakespearean figurations of sexuality reflect the cultural embroideries of his time. The spoken and written word and the texture of the phenomenal culture reflect and replicate each other, as they always do. So of course in Shakespeare's figures we find the full, rich, multivalent, and profoundly paradoxical bawdy of the high Elizabethan, new modern English culture.

To say this in neatly framed sentences is one thing; to accept it generously, fully, and without clouding cultural bias is another. The first we can do through the power of language to say anything; the second we can never truly do, because the language we use to do it is a tar baby in which we are already hopelessly stuck. But because we are stuck in our own mess does not mean that we cannot appreciate how earlier cultures got stuck in theirs. Shakespeare, as he himself all too well knew, was marked by the means and manners of his common, inkstained calling, as we read in sonnet 111:

Thence comes it that my name receives a   brand, And almost thence my nature is subdu'd To what it works in, like the dyer's hand.

We read him so steadily still precisely because he was so fully marked by, and so profoundly articulate about, what he worked in, which was not only ink, but the culture at its zenith around 1600, in the English-speaking Renaissance world.

If we assume that Venus and Adonis, though published in 1593, represents an earlier habit of mind and genre, as it probably does, then it can be read as an erotically teasing resistance to consummate sex. At its physical center, just as at the center of Spenser's book 3 (1591) of The Faerie Queene ("Right in the middest of that Paradise" 3.6.43), lies an unfallen Eden of the female body. "I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer," says Venus to the reluctant Adonis, as she details the venerean paradise of her lush body:

Feed where thou wilt, on mountain, or in dale,   Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry,   Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.                                   (11. 230-232)

Beyond these invitations, more explicitly cunnilingual in the diction of "feed," "in dale," "graze," and "lower" than we may think at first, Venus unleashes yet more explicit metaphors. She then describes the "relief (as both contour and satiation) of her "sweet bottom grass," her "round rising hillocks," and her "brakes [punning on breaks, or openings, no doubt] obscure and rough" in which to "shelter." Let us notice not how overt Venus is being, behind her figures, but instead what the figures make of her body. Shakespeare's diction here images it as a virtually Spenserian Eden and Bower of Bliss in all its indulgent frankness and pastoral luxury. The human body is probably not imaged with this degree of copious, untroubled frankness again in Shakespeare. The body is part of unfallen nature here, and nature is openly and shamelessly sexual. But Adonis says no.

Almost as if Shakespeare were demonstrating the full range of the barometers of metaphor, he turns from this limpid and guileless female seduction to aggressive and guilty male sexual invasion in his next narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece (1594). Tarquin's rape of Lucrece is detailed as the "hot charge" of his veins, "like struggling slaves for pillage fighting." Bending over the nude and sleeping Lucrece, Tarquin "bids them do their liking," and after ignoring her pleas in the blindness of his lust, he metaphorically becomes a horse of unbridled passion:

While Lust is in his pride, no exclamation  Can curb his heat, or rein his rash desire,  Till like a jade, Self-will himself doth tire.                                     (11. 705-707)

That "tiring" of course comes with ejaculation, and Shakespeare's mixed metaphors for that event capture the paradoxes of rapine seizure of female virtue and the expenditure of male virtù (cf. "The expense of spirit in a waste of shame" in sonnet 129). But we can take a closer look at the telling language of this passage. When Tarquin has had his will, and "Pure Chastity is rifled of her store," when "Lust, the thief, [is] poorer than before," he becomes simultaneously full and empty. Like the "full-fed hound or gorged hawk," Tarquin "devours his will, that liv'd by foul devouring," and full of "surfeit-taking," he at once becomes "Drunken Desire" who "must vomit his receipt." Instantly he becomes "Feeble Desire" who, with "lank and lean discolored cheek, / With heavy eye, knit brow, and strengthless pace," watches her "revels" make him a "rebel" who "for remission prays" (11. 692-714). It is a dense cluster of images.

In that imagery the male orgasm produces the paradoxes of glutted expense and depleted begging for its own lost wealth. Emission creates a flaccid poverty that prays for the "remission" of the stuff that made flesh rich and "proud." Meanwhile, in an imagery incorporating stains, spots, tears, ruined temples, and troops of cares, the physical weight of both the seminal deposit and moral guilt drops openly onto the poem: "She bears the load of lust he left behind, / And he the burthen of a guilty mind." The sodden tristesse of the postcoital moment is rendered by the figures of bearing ponderous burdens. From the arena of draft animals and slave labor come the metaphors of the turgid heaviness of forced sex, in both its physical and spiritual fallout. When we linger long enough not only to "get" the metaphors but also to read the compressed, and damning, conceptions of the body that they imply, we get a glimpse of the seamy tragedy of blind lust that is possible at the other end of the heavenly vision.

In turning to the plays, one of course opens onto the vast expanse of an ocean of evidence, where no single crossing can begin to see the whole. But what some selected compass points might do is to chart both the range and function of the figures that Shakespeare chooses to represent sexual activity and congress. It is an adventure of renaissance proportions for the reader.

As an introduction to Shakespeare's general dramatic practice of deadly innuendo in handling bawdy dialogue, we can cite the fireworks scene when Kate and Petruchio first meet face to face in The Taming of the Shrew. The encounter is obviously a battle of wits and a skirmish of tongues, so it is no surprise when the talk itself turns to stings, and tales, and tails, and tongues. Here Kate is about to leave, when Petruchio says, "What, with my tongue in your tail? Nay, come again, / Good Kate; I am a gentleman" (2.1.218-219). Kate responds by striking him.

That Katherine, the supreme wit and tongue-lasher, should here fall silent and resort to physical attack would indicate that some extreme boundary of decorum has been crossed. The outrage of course is that Petruchio, who has said no improper word, has joined "tongue," "tail," "come again," and "gentleman." Their imagery and sequence cause Kate to create the picture their connection suggests. The picture says something like "you might want me to resort to anal/oral contact to double your orgasm, but my standards (at least in public) are higher." By making Kate hear his words, and visualize them in a certain way, Petruchio causes her to sully her own imagination. No wonder she resorts to blows. She has met her verbal match. While Kate's response may be extreme, Petruchio's technique of devastating innuendo beneath superficial decorousness sets a standard for Shakespeare's whole career in sexual irony.

In Love's Labor's Lost, for example, after passion for learning has been subverted by learning of passion, then the lords, ladies, and clowns feel free to perform some verbal tumbling, with the vocabularies of archery and bowling for instance. In a passage at 4.1.108-143, Boyet, Rosaline, Maria, and Costard get increasingly witty and suggestive with terms like "mark," "hit," "fit," "mete" (as both meat and measure), "prick," "shoot," "hand," "cleave," and "rubbing."

Instead of explicating this lengthy passage, I will simply say that bawdy antes get upped until female decorum has to call a halt ("Come, come, you talk greasily, your lips grow foul") when Maria detects talk of genital manipulation, double penetration, and clitoral ("clout") overstimulation or injury. The public games people play are here metaphorically laid over the more private games they play, and their interplay in language becomes the real game. Costard of course loves it; he is thrilled "when it comes so smoothly off, so obscenely [for seemly] as it were, so fit." In some sense Costard's pleasure over the "fit" between metaphor and meaning must be a cousin to Shakespeare's satisfaction in getting us to find the fit and so of course to play his game by his rules.

When we come to Romeo and Juliet we must have all our wits about us, for Mercutio is one of Shakespeare's most punning, ironic, and cheeky users of language. As he himself says to the moonstruck and therefore slower than normal Romeo, "Take our good meaning, for our judgment sits / Five times in that ere once in our five wits" (1.4.46-47). If I read this witty injunction correctly, it means we must understand his implications, which have five times the content of the meanings perceived by our senses. That is, we must watch Mercutio closely; he makes far more meaning than meets either eye or ear.

He does not delay in demonstrating his cynical and lickerish wit. When he and Benvolio are searching for Romeo in Capulet's orchard, he puns on the word anger, playing off Benvolio's meaning of irritate, to imply arouse:

This cannot anger him; 'twould anger him To raise a spirit in his mistress' circle, Of some strange nature, letting it there stand Till she had laid it and conjur'd it down. That were some spite.                                       (2.1.23-27)

Here, beneath the apparent images of folk magic that Mercutio describes as "fair and honest" conjuring of the love-possessed Romeo, lie surely some of the most explicit images of the sexual act in all the works. As Robert Penn Warren says in "Pure and Impure Poetry," "Mercutio has made a joke, a bawdy joke. That is bad enough, but worse, he has made his joke witty and, worst of all, intellectually complicated in its form. Realism, wit, intellectual complication—these are the enemies of the garden purity."

Let us look more closely at the intellectual complication here. In clinical language one might call this passage, as well as the following lines on vaginal and phallic fruits (11. 34-38), "frontal genital penetration with orgasm"; but, whatever we call it, both Mercutio and Shakespeare require the hearer to find the bawdy plane of meaning. The surface plane carries just as "honest," or chaste, a meaning as it does an apparent one, with its ritual standing in magic circles and raising of spirits. We think we "know" that Mercutio means something else here, but it is also our negotiation with the text, our work, our mind that finds the plane of metaphor that images orgasmic sexual congress. In some sense the text is only as bawdy as we are, but we also still feel that, however bawdy we may be, the text still got there before us. One imagines the irony of the smile that must have slyly played at the edges of Shakespeare's lips as he wrote.

Partridge has called our attention to the bawdy richness of Mercutio's remark "The bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon," and in doing so he reminds us that its innuendos will be grasped only by "reading and pondering" the implications of the metaphors worked on sundials, clockfaces, bell-tolling, and hands. In the same way Mercutio's bantering with Romeo earlier in the scene about goose-chasing (prostitute-hunting), roast goose, sauces, wit-stretching to make it broad (indecent), groaning, etc., also requires some keen squinting to see all the naughty fun beneath. But Mercutio outrightly hails Romeo's readiness to see the bawdy, and to participate in it:

Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; now art thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature, for this drivelling love is like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bable in a hole.                                    (2.4.89-93)

We may not be safe to assert it about Shakespeare, but at least Mercutio here seems to anticipate Partridge in the sentiment that the art of bawdy language is a higher form of expression than the lolling simplemindedness of the sexual act itself. Mercutio loves broad wit that stretches far to touch the body metaphorically in its private parts and secret acts, and he takes virtually every opportunity, until swordplay mortally cuts even his wit short, to push language into sexual terrain. Even when Benvolio, however playfully, asks him to "stop there, stop there" for the sake of decency, Mercutio pushes deeper into the scurrilous. Even as he claims he has already stopped, he gets in a Parthian shot below the belt: "I would have made it short, for I was come to the whole depth of my tale, and meant indeed to occupy the argument no longer." Here a second look at the sleights of tongue beneath "made it," "come," "end," "tale," "occupy," "no longer," and even "argument" (as both topic and struggle) make this quite worthy of the five-leveled wit of a most mercurial mind.

In Othello Shakespeare turns a quicksilver wit like Mercutio's, with its penetrating power to insinuate sexual images, into the deadly poison of Iago's bestial pornography. Iago himself says it in 3.3, that long thematically central scene depicting the poisoning of Othello's mind:

Dangerous conceits are in their natures   poisons,

Which at the first are scarce found to distaste, But with a little act upon the blood Burn like the mines of sulphur.                                   (3.3.326-329)

Bawdy metaphors, ingested for their spiciness, can by their power to ignite passions, come to burn the mind like hell. And so they do in this scene. Iago is enjoined on pain of death, in line 360, to supply "ocular proof of Desdemona's infidelity, and by line 444 Othello says "Now do I see 'tis true." What comes to replace the conspicuously absent "ocular proof are the "dangerous conceits" of Iago's perverse, but also wickedly ingenious, coinages of meaning. In these ninety lines alone there are several of Shakespeare's many coinages in this play, if we can trust the O.E.D. to register first usages accurately. Among the suggestive words Iago uses to describe Desdemona's alleged doings we find "topp'd," "prime," and "salt," all used for the first time with salacious connotations.

To recur to Robert Adams, Iago engages in that "particularly devious and deadly form of obscenity [that] forces the victim to contaminate his own mind." Iago is using words that exist already, but he is making them into metaphors of sexual matters for the first time, as Emilia does later with the word seamy, and in so doing he causes Othello to be himself the coiner of the foul images that create the ocular proof for his poisoned and burning mind's eye. Othello is perhaps the most dramatic example one could cite, and of course the most devastating, of the power of metaphor to embody concept, to give palpable shape to idea, and thus to lure the hearer or reader into its double textures of meaning. For it is in this play that metaphor actually paralyzes a man's mind and overcomes its consciousness, as it fells Othello, that giant of innocence and honesty, in the physical seizure in 4.1. At the cruel pun of lying that Iago instigates in line 34 of that scene, Othello fumes, "Lie with her? Lie on her? … I tremble at it.… It is not words that shakes me thus.… O devil!" (11. 35-42). We know better, however, and the awesome pity and terror of Aristotle's Poetics comes rippling through us here as we see just how precisely it is words and words alone, but here in their devastating power of sexual figuration, that drop a great man in his tracks. Shakespeare here allows the language of bawdy imagery to achieve truly concussive force. It is the word as overwhelming totem and taboo.

Finally let us consider a moment early in The Winter's Tale that we might make into a summary proposition about Shakespeare's bawdy. It is the famous moment of irrational jealousy that Leontes experiences after Hermione persuades Polixenes to prolong his visit:

                        Gone already! Inch-thick, knee-deep, o'er head and ears a   fork'd one! Go play, boy, play. Thy mother plays, and I Play too, but so disgrac'd a part, whose issue Will hiss me to my grave: contempt and  clamor Will be my knell. Go play, boy, play. There  have been (Or I am much deceiv'd) cuckolds are now, And many a man there is (even at this  present, Now, while I speak this) holds his wife by th'  arm, That little thinks she has been sluic'd in 's  absence, And his pond fish'd by his next neighbor—by Sir Smile, his neighbor. Nay, there's comfort  in't, Whiles other men have gates, and those gates  open'd, As mine, against their will. Should all despair That have revolted wives, the tenth of  mankind Would hang themselves. Physic for't there is  none. It is a bawdy planet, that will strike Where 'tis predominant; and 'tis powerful—  think it— From east, west, north, and south. Be it  concluded, No barricado for a belly. Know't, It will let in and out the enemy With bag and baggage. Many thousand on's Have the disease, and feel it not.                                   (1.2.185-207)

Naturally we must consider the deeply troubled source here, a volatile and suspicious husband facing what he considers hot evidence, and so we realize the tragic partiality of his irrational conclusion. But we are not asking questions so much about where his characters' judgments lie as about how Shakespeare's language renders sex.

In this passage it is customary to notice the triple plays worked on both "play" and "issue" and other bitter puns on the trespass of the wife as a property, but we can get yet closer to some of the language of this remarkable sequence. First Leontes's opening image of himself as a "fork'd one" deserves notice. Partridge of course makes the connection here to horns and to the forked shape of the body, but perhaps there is also the phonetic suggestion of a fucked one, in the figurative sense of abused, or harshly treated. We must re-member the acts he has on his mind, and we can cite John Florio's A World of Words (1598) to establish the currency in Shakespeare's time of what we may think of as a modern four-letter obscenity. (Florio defines the Italian fottere as "to jape, to sarde, to fucke, to swive, to occupy.")

In the devastating image of the unsuspecting man, now present with his wife who is cuckolding him, there are strong details. In order to intensify the present tense of such cuckoldings, Shakespeare em-ploys several redundant referents of immediacy: "even at this present, / Now, while I speak this." There is no escaping the sense that wherever, whenever this speech is spoken—"even at this present"?—that it must send out a feeling of scandalous indictment into its audience.

Let us notice the verbs and the figures they create in naming the transgression itself. "Sluic'd," which may be a metaphoric coinage by Shakespeare here, liter-ally means "to flush with a rush of water," as Partridge notes. What we might notice, from an etymo-logical point of view, is that it joins that interesting group of sl - words, such as sly, slut, slot, slip, slit, etc., which phonetically combine the sibilant s with the liquid, labio-dental l, to create what is a family of suggestive words. The combination of the phonetic eros of the word itself, and the image it contains of drenching a narrow floodgate, makes it a deeply suggestive, and so doubly appropriate, word for aggressive forbidden sex.

The image that concludes the sentence, of Sir Smile, the man's nearest neighbor, his friendly neighbor, fishing the husband's pond, makes its wickedly corporeal and olfactory points. One almost hesitates to spell the image out, not out of false modesty, but out of a sense that the power of the passage lies in its challenge to each reader to picture what the words create.

I cannot resist spelling out some of the implications of the several remaining figures in this tightly woven passage. As Shakespeare chooses the verb sluic'd, it is as though this mind has worked etymologically, around the French escluse, floodgate, via the Latin exclusa, shut out; and so he naturally thinks about gates of other sorts, as entryways into private places. But there is a further detail beyond the associative move from one kind of gate to another, however, and that is the manipulation of verb and tense in the gate figure. There we can perhaps see through what seems an awkward shift, from the present tense of "have" to the past tense "open'd," to a probable double meaning. Here we may read the line either as implying a missing "have" ("and [have] those gates open'd") or as suggesting that the gates "open'd" (simple past tense), as if by themselves willfully, and so against the will of the husband, to admit the opener. In this reading the implication of a willing, but secret, participation in adultery by the wife fits more aptly with the deep paranoid resignation to an irresistible force that the whole passage expresses.

For Leontes the power of sex is planetary in its influence: there is simply no remedy for it:

      Physic for't there is none. It is a bawdy planet, that will strike Where 'tis predominant.

Observe the terse finality of the first sentence, mimetic of the irrefutable truth of what it asserts. Then, in an arresting image that puns doubly on itself, Shakespeare's rich poetry creates a complex picture limning the planetary predominance of bawdy, but also perhaps a punning renaissance explanation for it, in the fact that sexuality is a planet with a body. The listening audience will likely hear both meanings, in not seeing the words spelled out. But we must notice too that the word planet in Shakespeare's ptolemaic cosmology refers neither to the fixed stars nor to an unmoving center, the … "wanderer" stars. Here the planet of sex is personified as a great force that can "strike," that is, fornicate aggressively, whenever it is "predominant." On the level of the passage's astrological imagery the latter word means, harmlessly, "in the ascendant," of course, but in terms of corporeal logistics it must mean "on top." Sexuality, the image suggests, is out there, like some planet, or occult and fateful influence waiting to control us. We like to say that we have sex; the image says that sex has us.

One is reminded here of Ophelia's "Young men will do't if they come to it," but the image here reaches out to a far wider, indeed global, horizon. Everyone, it seems, will do it if he comes to it. The logic of the passage, if we combine the effects and impacts of its figures, asserts that there can be "no barricado for a belly" (here "belly" is womb or uterus—O.E.D. II.7—not stomach), simply because it is there and because it is a passageway. "It will let in and out the enemy" simply because there are gates to open, openers who get predominant, because there are fish in ponds and poles for fishing. As a devastating final point to those who might think of the counterargument that sexual uses and abuses of the body are not so widespread, Shakespeare has Leontes say, "Many thousand on 's / Have the disease, and feel't not." The apparent exception to the general rule may simply be ignorant.

In the context of these images I am reminded of a passage, anything but bawdy, in Hamlet. The Ghost is speaking to Hamlet about the effects of Claudius's poison, and he says that "swift as quicksilver it courses through / The natural gates and alleys of the body" (1.5.66-67). Here the figure of gates and alleys por-trays the valves, veins, and tissues of containment and passageway in the physiological organism, of course, but it also portrays the body as a trafficked and tra-versed thing, an organic structure designed to accept and permit movement into, through, and out of it. In the same way Leontes's vision of the irresistible proclivity of the body to open gates, to sluice and be sluiced, to enter and permit entry into its orifices and passages, in short to "let in and out the enemy," seems to recognize the manifest destiny of corporeal existence on earth.

As the body is made so will it be used, he seems to say, and we may dare to suggest, so seems Shakespeare to say, though finally in a far less bitter and paranoid way than Leontes. If we can hear the tenor of this judgment without the jealous rage of Leontes, then I suggest we may hear something of the Shakespearean corporeal poetics of bawdy: "Physic for't there is none": it is inherent in "the natural gates and alleys" of the body. The microcosm of human sexuality is born of, and identified with, the macrocosm of the natural world, its passages, caves, fluids, interacting organic forms, and its concentric astrological forces. It is a bawdy planet.

Sexual Identity

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8530

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 continental public theater restricted the stage to men. Spain, in this as in so much else, offers a useful parallel: the Spanish authorities worried the question of histrionic morality with far greater zeal than the English, and in 1596 they banned women from the stage; but the spectacle of transvestite boys was found to be even more disturbing than that of theatrical women, and the edict was rescinded four years later.1 So the first puzzle, if one is looking at English Renaissance theater in a European context, is why this seemed a satisfactory arrangement to the English and not to anyone else; or, to put it more directly, why were women more upsetting than boys to the English?

Second, the fact of a male theater in England is more problematic than it has been made to appear: the English stage was a male preserve, but the theater was not. The theater was a place of unusual freedom for women in the period; foreign visitors comment on the fact that English women go to theater unescorted and unmasked, and a large proportion of the audience consisted of women. The puzzle here would be why a culture that so severely regulated the lives of women in every other sphere suspended its restrictions in the case of theater. The fact of the large female audience must have had important consequences for the development of English popular drama. It meant that the success of any play was significantly dependent on the receptiveness of women; and this in turn meant that theatrical representations—whether of women or men or anything else—also depended for their success to a significant degree on the receptiveness of women. When we see dramatic depictions of women in Elizabethan drama that we consider degrading, it has become common to explain the fact by declaring them to be male fantasies and to point to the exclusively male stage to account for them. But this cannot be correct: theaters are viable only insofar as they satisfy their audiences. The depictions must at the very least represent cultural fantasies, and women are implicated in them as well as men.

Next, it is in an important respect not quite true to say that the English public stage was exclusively male. Elizabethan theatrical companies contained no women, but Italian troupes visited England on occasion, and performed not only at court but throughout the country, often in conjunction with royal progresses, and therefore under the queen's patronage—theater in this respect, as in so many others, was an extension of the court. Since Italian theater companies were family affairs, they always included women, so that the English did in fact from time to time see women on the stage. What they did not see were English women on the stage: the distinction they maintained was here not between men and women but between "us" and "them"—what was appropriate for foreigners was not appropriate for the English.2 We can tell something about how the gender question was regarded by asking whether women were seen in English Renaissance plays as "them" rather than "us," as the Other. A case can certainly be made for this; there is a large component of male bonding in Shakespeare, what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls the homosocial; and plays like The Merry Wives of Windsor and Othello certainly have powerful elements of the-men-against-the-women, though it is not at all clear, if we think of these plays in this way, who are "us" and who are "them." The men in Merry Wives lose hands down to the women, and Emilia on the relationships between the sexes—

'Tis not a year or two shows us a man. They are all but stomachs and we all but  food; They eat us hungerly, and when they are full, They belch us.…


… jealous souls will not be answered so; They are not ever jealous for the cause, But jealous for they're jealous

—certainly is not speaking as an outsider. In the con-text of Othello, this is the normative view, the one we are expected to agree with. But in a larger sense, we would have to say that there are lots of others in this theater; in fact, Elizabethan drama is often dependent on otherness. Comedies are Italian, French, or provincial, tragedies Spanish or Scandinavian or ancient, pastorals take place somewhere else. Dekker, Jonson, and Middleton placing comedies in contemporary London are doing something new. The Other, for this theater, is as much foreign as female—Othello is the Other. And in the largest sense, the Other is theater itself, both a threat and a refuge.

Women are commodities in this culture, certainly, whose marriages are arranged for the advantage or convenience of men, either their fathers, or the male authority figures in their and their prospective husbands' families. But this too does not distinguish women from men: alliances were normally arranged for men just as for women—the distinction here is between fathers and children, not between the sexes; this is a patriarchal society. Fantasies of freedom in Shakespeare tend to take the form of escapes from the tyranny of elders to a world where the children can make their own society, which usually means where they can arrange their own marriages. Whether this is conceived as ultimately benign and restorative, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Winter's Tale, or disastrous, as in Othello and Romeo and Juliet, it works for women as well as men: the crucial element is the restrictive father, not the sex of the child. Rosalind and Orlando, Lorenzo and Jessica are free to choose each other; Bertram's marriage to Helena is no less constrained than the one proposed for Juliet to the County Paris. The problem is the father or the king or the structure of authority, not one's gender. This is not to say that it isn't preferable to be male in the Renaissance world: obviously it is. It is the context of that preference that I am concerned with.

I want to begin by considering what seems to me a particularly subversive version of that fantasy of freedom, the return to childhood. In The Winter's Tale, Leontes, after his first flash of violent jealousy, explains his distracted manner to Hermione and Polixenes in this way:

   Looking on the lines Of my boy's face, methoughts I did recoil Twenty-three years, and saw myself  unbreeched, In my green velvet coat, my dagger muzzled, Lest it should bite its master, and so prove, As ornaments oft do, too dangerous.

The return to childhood here is also a retreat from sexuality and the dangers of manhood exemplified in unmuzzled daggers. Leontes sees himself "unbreeched," not yet in breeches: Elizabethan children of both sexes were dressed in skirts until the age of seven or so; the "breeching" of boys was the formal move out of the common gender of childhood, which was both female in appearance and largely controlled by women, and into the world of men. This event was traditionally the occasion for a significant family ceremony.

The childhood to which Leontes imagines himself re-turning has been described by Polixenes as Edenic, and specifically presexual:

We were as twinned lambs that did frisk  i'th'sun, And bleat the one at th'other; what we  changed Was innocence for innocence; we knew not The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed That any did; had we pursued that life, And our weak spirits ne'er been higher reared With stronger blood, we should have answered  heaven Boldly "not guilty," the imposition cleared Hereditary ours.

This is a world without vice and without temptation, in which even original sin appears to have been dealt with. There are no women in it, only the best friend, an emotional twin.

At this point Hermione enters the fantasy with a pertinent observation: "By this we gather / You have tripped since." Polixenes agrees; the fall from grace is a fall into sexuality:

   O my most sacred lady, Temptations have been born to 's, for In those unfledged days was my wife a girl; Your precious self had not yet crossed the  eyes Of my young playfellow.

Hermione both protests and concurs:

Of this make no conclusion, lest you say Your queen and I are devils. Yet go on, Th' offences we have made you do we'll  answer, If you first sinned with us, and that with us You did continue fault, and that you slipped  not With any but with us.

However good-natured their banter, Hermione's projected conclusion is the logical one: "your queen and I are devils." Her teasing view of marriage as a continuing state of sin with diabolical agents repeats the view of sexuality implicit in the men's fantasy.

It is impossible to say what particular word or gesture triggers Leontes' paranoid jealousy, but the translation of the inseparable friend into the dangerous rival and of the chaste wife into a whore is similarly implicit in the fantasy, its worst-case scenario, so to speak, replicating the situation Shakespeare had imagined with such detailed intensity in the dark lady sonnets. And when Leontes retreats from it he is retreating not only from women and sex: he is retreating from his place in one of the very few normative families in Shakespeare—families consisting of father, mother, and children. Most families in Shakespeare have only one parent; the very few that include both parents generally have only one child, and when that configuration appears, it tends to be presented as Leontes' marriage is presented, as exceedingly dangerous to the child: we may take as examples Juliet and her parents, Macduff and Lady Macduff, Coriolanus and Virgilia, the Duke and Duchess of York arguing about whether to denounce their son as a traitor. It is a configuration that, with the single exception of the Page family in The Merry Wives of Windsor, never appears in comedy.

Marriage is a dangerous condition in Shakespeare. We are always told that comedies end in marriages. A few of Shakespeare's do, but the much more characteristic Shakespearean conclusion comes just before the marriage, and sometimes, as in Love's Labor's Lost and Twelfth Night, with an entirely unexpected delay or postponement. Plays that continue beyond the point where comedy ends, with the old fogies defeated and a happy marriage successfully concluded, depict the condition as utterly disastrous: Romeo and Juliet, Othello. Most Shakespearean marriages of longer du-ration are equally disheartening, with shrewishness, jealousy, and manipulativeness the norm in comedy, and real destructiveness in tragedy: Oberon and Titania, the Merry Wives, Capulet and Lady Capulet, Claudius and Gertrude, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Cymbeline and his queen, Antigonus and Paulina.

In fact, relationships between men and women interest Shakespeare intensely, but not, on the whole, as husbands and wives. I might even go on to say not on the whole as men and women: a significant number of plays require the woman to become a man for the wooing to be effected. The dangers of women in erotic situations, whatever they may be, can be disarmed by having the women play men, just as in the theater the dangers of women on the stage (whatever they may be) can be disarmed by having men play the women. The interchangeability of the sexes is an essential assumption of this theater.

It is also an assumption of the culture as a whole. For us the entire question of gender is controlled by issues of sexuality, and we are quite clear about which sex is which. But for the Renaissance the line between the sexes was blurred, often frighteningly so. Medical and anatomical treatises from the time of Galen cited homologies in the genital structure of the sexes to show that male and female were versions of the same unitary species.3 The female genitals were simply the male genitals inverted, and carried internally rather than externally. Sexual experience was conceived to be the same in both; during coitus, both not only experience orgasm but ejaculate, and female ejaculation with its component of female seed is just as necessary for conception as male ejaculation is. Both male and female seeds are present in every foetus; a foetus becomes male rather than female if the male seed is dominant and generates enough heat to press the genital organs outward—if, that is, the foetus is stronger, with strength being conceived as heat.4 Analogously, and logically, many cases were recorded of women becoming men through the pressure of some great excitement or activity. The crucial point is, however, that those transformations that are attested to as scientific fact work in only one direction, from female to male, which is conceived to be upward, toward completion. Indeed, the function of sexual pleasure is generally said in the medical literature to be that it enables men to overcome their natural revulsion at the imperfection of women, and enables women to overcome their natural distaste for and fear of childbearing, which would mean, in Renaissance terms, their distaste for being women.

Such claims, of course, are not merely scientific, but imply (like the scientific claims of all eras, including our own) a political agenda. The homologies they cite are only anatomical, and imply no egalitarian bias; most of the scholastic opinion codified by Ian Maclean in The Renaissance Notion of Women stresses the differences between men and women, not their similarities. Women are less intelligent, more passionate, less in control of their affections, and so forth. The difference in degree of perfection becomes in practical terms a powerful difference in kind, and the scientific arguments are used to justify the whole range of male domination over women. The frightening part of the teleology for the Renaissance mind, however, is precisely the fantasy of its reversal, the conviction that men can turn into—or be turned into—women; or perhaps more exactly, can be turned back into women, losing the strength that enabled the male potential to be realized in the first place. In the medical literature we all start as women, and the culture confirmed this by dressing all children in skirts until the age of seven or so, when the boy, as Leontes recalls, was "breeched," or put into pants, and began to be trained as a man. From this point on, for a man to associate with women was felt to be increasingly dangerous—not only for the woman, but even more for the man: lust effeminates, makes men incapable of manly pursuits; hence the pervasive antithesis of love and war. Thomas Wright, in The Passions of the Mind in General, warning against the dangers of love, writes that "a personable body is often linked with a pestilent soul; a valiant Captain in the field for the most part is infected with an effeminate affection at home"5 (the effeminate affection being his passion for women), and Romeo, berating himself for his unwillingness to harm Tybalt, cries out,

   O sweet Juliet, Thy beauty hath made me effeminate, And in my temper softened valor's steel!

Such formulations are all but axiomatic in the period, and the word "effeminate," over and over, serves the basic explanatory function in them. Women are dangerous to men because sexual passion for women renders men effeminate: this is an age in which sexuality itself is misogynistic, as the love of women threatens the integrity of the perilously achieved male identity. The fear of effeminization is a central element in all discussions of what constitutes a "real man" in the period, and the fantasy of the reversal of the natural transition from woman to man underlies it. It also, in a much more clearly pathological way, underlies the standard arguments against the stage in anti-theatrical tracts from the time of the church fathers on. In this context, the very institution of theater is a threat to manhood and the stability of the social hierarchy, as unescorted women and men without their wives socialize freely, and (it follows) flirt with each other and take each other off to bed: the association theater with sex is absolutely pervasive in these polemics.

But in England, the sexuality feared is more subversive than even this suggests, precisely because of the transvestism of the stage. It is argued first that the boys who perform the roles of women will be transformed into their roles and play the part in reality. This claim has its basis in a platonic argument, but in the puritan tracts it merges with a general fear of blurred social and sexual boundaries, of roles and costumes adulterating the essences that God has given us. Jonas Barish, in his exhaustive and indispensable study of the anti-theatrical material, relates the hostility to transvestite actors to the synchronous revival of medieval sumptuary laws, the attempt to prevent members of one social class from appearing to be members of another (thus tradesmen were enjoined from wearing silk), and he quotes William Perkins to the effect that "wanton and excessive apparel… maketh a confusion of such degrees and callings as God hath ordained." "Distinctions of dress," Barish comments, "however external and theatrical they may seem to us, for Perkins virtually belong to our essence, and may no more be tampered with than that essence itself."6 This is certainly the way the polemicists view the situation; but it is precisely the essence that is the problem. What is our God-given essence, that it can be transformed by the clothes we wear? Philip Stubbes, in a passage that bears directly on the question of transvestite actors, deplores a current (and recurrent) fashion of masculine dress for women. "Our apparel," he says, "was given us as a sign distinctive to discern betwixt sex and sex, and therefore one to wear the apparel of another sex is to participate with the same, and to adulterate the verity of his own kind. Wherefore these women may not improperly be called Hermaphroditi, that is, monsters of both kinds, half women, half men."7 It is the fragility, the radical instability of our essence, that is assumed here, and the metamorphic quality of our sinful nature. The enormous popularity of Ovid in the age reflects both its desires and its deepest fears.

But the argument against transvestite actors warns of an even more frightening metamorphosis than the trans-formation of the boy into a monster of both kinds. Male spectators, it is argued, will be seduced by the impersonation, and, losing their reason, will become effeminate, which in this case means they will lust not after the woman in the drama, which would be bad enough, but after the boy beneath the woman's costume, thereby playing the woman's role themselves. This fear, which has been brilliantly anatomized by Laura Levine, is so pervasive in the tracts, and so unlike modern kinds of sexual anxiety, that it is worth pausing over.8

John Rainolds says the adoption by men of women's clothing kindles "great sparkles of lust," and, citing the authority of Socrates, compares the homosexual response engendered by transvestite boys to the sting of poisonous spiders: "if they do but touch men only with their mouth, they put them to wonderful pain and make them mad: so beautiful boys by kissing do sting and pour secretly in a kind of poison.…"9 Here the attraction of men to beautiful boys is treated as axiomatic; the assumption behind this hysterical (and very ambivalent) warning is that to try boys will be to prefer them to women; though the passage, as it continues, is equally vehement against heterosexuality. Similarly for William Prynne, the transvestism of the stage is especially dangerous because female dress is an important stimulant to homosexuality: the "male priests of Venus" satisfy their companions, the "passive beastly sodomites of Florida," by wearing women's clothes, the "better to elicit, countenance, act and color their unnatural execrable uncleannesses."10 The implication is that the heterosexual titillation is a cover for the homosexual response beneath. Notice also that the transvestite is not the passive one in this relationship.

Rainolds, Prynne, and any number of other anti-theatrical writers offer observations such as these as models for the theatrical experience. For such writers, the fact that women are prohibited from the stage reveals the true etiology of theater: what the spectator is "really" attracted to in plays is men—the deepest fear in anti-theatrical tracts, far deeper than the fear that women in the audience will become whores, is the fear of a universal effeminization. The growth of desire through the experience of theater is a sinister progression: the play excites the spectator and sends him home to "perform" himself; the result is sexual abandon with one's wife, or more often with any available woman (all women at the playhouse being considered available), or worst of all—and this is a claim that recurs throughout the literature—the spectator begins by lusting after a female character, but ends by having sex with the man she "really" is. Philip Stubbes gives a particularly clear statement of this anxiety: "the fruits of plays and interludes" are, he says, that after theater, "everyone brings another homeward of their way very friendly, and in their secret conclaves they play sodomite or worse."11 What is worse is presumably the sodomized.

The assumption behind all these assertions is, first, that the basic form of response to theater is erotic; second, that erotically, theater is uncontrollably exciting; and third, that the basic, essential form of erotic excitement in men is homosexual—that, indeed, women are only a cover for men. And though the assumption in this form is clearly pathological, it is also clearly related to anatomical theories of the essential homology of male and female—to claims that male and fe-male are versions of each other, that the female is an incomplete male, and that it is therefore possible for her even, given enough excitement, to mutate naturally into the male. The fears, that is, are grounded in what is recognized as fact.

But why, then, if boys in women's dress are so threatening, did the English maintain a transvestite theater? It is necessary to remember that anti-theatrical tracts are pathological. They share assumptions with the culture as a whole, but their conclusions are eccentric. Stephen Greenblatt, in a brilliant essay, relates the development of the transvestite stage precisely to the cultural tropes of the body as they are anatomized in the medical and gynecological theories of the age, and he concludes that "a conception of gender that is teleo-logically male and insists upon a verifiable sign to confirm nature's final cause finds its supreme literary expression in a transvestite theater."12 This is an exciting and attractive thesis, but the problem with it is that the medical theorists are for the most part French and Italian, and France and Italy did not develop transvestite theaters. Why did only the English public theater resist the introduction of women on the stage? I should say at once that I cannot answer this question, but the reasons must have to do with culture-specific attitudes toward women, and toward sexuality.

Despite the anxiety expressed in the anti-theatrical literature, English Renaissance culture, to judge from the surviving evidence, did not display a morbid fear of homosexuality. Anxiety about the fidelity of women, on the other hand, does seem to have been strikingly prevalent; this is clear from nonliterary sources.

Katharine Maus cites recent studies of sixteenth-century ecclesiastical courts in Essex and York which reveal that most of the defamation suits were prompted by three insulting terms: cuckold, whore, and whoremaster.13 The fear of losing control of women's chastity, a very valuable possession that guaranteed the legitimacy of one's heirs, and especially valuable for fathers as a piece of disposable property, is a logical consequence of a patriarchal structure—as the figure of Prospero makes clear. One would have to have parallel statistics from Spain, France, and Italy to know how much explanatory value the defamation records have; certainly cuckoldry seems to have been very much on the Italian mind in the Renaissance. But these figures help to indicate the extent to which theater served as a means of managing specifically sexual anxieties: Maus notes that the incidence of cuckoldry plots is much higher in the drama than in the other imaginative genres in the period.

As far as paternal prerogatives were concerned, there were sufficient ambiguities within the English system to justify the anxieties of a father who assumed his rights over the disposition of his child to be absolute. Fathers were legally entitled to arrange their daughters' marriages as they saw fit, and of course had control of all property that accompanied the daughter; but the legal age of consent was twelve for women (fourteen for men), which meant that daughters over the age of twelve were also legally entitled to arrange their own marriages. They might make themselves paupers by doing so, but they could not be stopped.14 The horror stories of enforced marriages—there are many in the period—relate primarily to upper-class matches, where political alliances and large sums of money were at stake. In such cases, what the age of consent meant in practice was merely that a woman could not be forced to consent to a marriage arranged by her father before she reached the age of twelve.

Middle- and lower-class arrangements, however, would have been much less constrained. Indeed, middle-class London was a place of unusual liberty for women, and this certainly bears on both the popularity of the London theater with women and their relative freedom to enjoy it: the professional theater drew its support largely from London's properous mercantile and artisan classes. It also probably accounts for the proliferation of plays about both love matches and cuckoldry, the two sides of the notion of liberty for women. Such liberating theatrical freedom, of course, could be seen as dangerous and anarchic, and the source of the danger was generally claimed to be sexual.

Public theater is regularly associated, moreover, not only with loose women but with homosexual prostitution; the latter charge is found not only in puritan polemicists but in the playwrights themselves. Yet the attitude implied in the charge tends to be, surprisingly, liberal and permissive. In Middleton's Father Hubburd's Tales, a budding London rake is advised "to call in at the Blackfriars, where he should see a nest of boys able to ravish a man."15 In Jonson's Poetaster, Ovid's father, learning that Ovid has become a playwright, and fearing that he will go on to be an actor, says, "What, shall I have my son a stager now, an ingle for players … ?" (I.2.15-16). An ingle is a catamite; Alan Bray cites this and several other examples to show that the association was a common one.16 But the theaters were not therefore closed or avoided by decent folk. The crime of sodomy is inveighed against repeatedly and energetically in legal and theological contexts; but, as Bray demonstrates, it was scarcely ever prosecuted. When cases of homo-sexual behavior reach the courts, they are dealt with on the whole with surprising moderation—admonitions, exhortations to abstain. In fact, again, women are felt to pose the more serious problem: heterosexual fornication was much more energetically prosecuted. Magistrates took an interest in such cases because they resulted in illegitimate births, which increased the poor rolls, whereas, unless the activity involved coercion or malfeasance, there was rarely anything in homosexuality worth bothering about.

In one extraordinary case discussed by Bray, a laborer named Meredith Davy was brought before the magistrate on what certainly could have been a charge of sodomy. Davy slept in the same bed with a twelve-year-old apprentice, and a third man slept in the same room. On a number of occasions the third man heard activity in the other bed, and heard the boy protest and cry out in pain. It took about a month for the witness to realize what was happening, and he finally reported it to the mistress of the house, who referred the case to the magistrate. The defendant appeared baffled by the charge, and clearly had no conception that what he was doing was related to the abominable crime of sodomy. This, surprisingly, seemed sufficient mitigation to the magistrate, and to the household as a whole; Davy was sent home with an admonishment to leave the boy alone, "since which time," the court report concludes, "he hath lain quietly with him."17 The two, that is, were allowed to continue to sleep together; and it is conceivable that things quieted down not because Davy stopped making advances but because the boy stopped objecting—it was not, after all, the boy who made the complaint.

Bray argues that such a story does not testify to any remarkable tolerance on the part of the English, but rather to a selective blindness: sodomy was something that, despite a number of explicit and well-known prosecutions—the cases of Nicholas Udall, Francis Bacon, the Castlehaven scandal—the English associate on the whole only with foreigners, not with themselves. Travelers observing it in the relatively tolerant climates of Italy, Turkey, North Africa, and Russia use it as an index to the viciousness of Catholic, Muslim, or barbaric societies.18 And yet when, at the opening of Epicoene (1.1.23), Clerimont is shown with a page boy who is described as "his ingle," the fact serves as nothing more than one of a number of indices to the easy life of a London playboy. Charges of sodomy always occur in relation to other kinds of subversion; the activity has no independent existence in the Renaissance mind, just as there is no separate category of the homosexual. It becomes visible in Elizabethan society only when it intersects with some other behavior that is recognized as dangerous and antisocial; it is invariably an aspect of atheism, papistry, sedition, witchcraft. The puritan charge that theater promotes homosexuality appears because to the puritan mind theater is felt to be dangerous, not the other way around; sodomy becomes the visible sign of its subversiveness. King James's public and overtly physical displays of affection for young men are frequently remarked in the period; they are considered to be in bad taste (as are the king's manners generally), but not even the most rabid puritan connects them with the abominable crime against nature.19

And yet the Jacobean court, at least from the perspective of Charles I's Whitehall, was felt to be especially hospitable to homosexuality. Lucy Hutchinson, whose husband was a Roundhead colonel, saw in this a significant element in the transition from Jacobean to Caroline:

The face of the court was much changed in the change of the king, for King Charles was temperate, chaste and serious; so that the fools and bawds, mimics and catamites of the former court grew out of fashion; and the nobility and courtiers, who did not quite abandon their debaucheries, yet so reverenced the king as to retire into corners to practise them.20

The disapproval of this puritan woman discussing the debaucheries of catamites is colored by neither anxiety nor outrage. Tastes, she merely observes, change. Here, for comparison, is a passage from a letter written to Buckingham by King James:

… I cannot content myself without sending you this present, praying God that I may have a joyful and comfortable meeting with you and that we may make at this Christmas a new marriage ever to be kept hereafter; for, God so love me, as I desire only to live in the world for your sake, and that I had rather live banished in any part of the earth with you than live a sorrowful widow's life without you. And so God bless you, my sweet child and-wife, and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your dear dad and husband. James R.21

The metamorphic quality James adopts in this rhetoric is notable; he proposes marriage to Buckingham, and then imagines himself in succession as widow, father, and husband, and Buckingham as his child and wife. The interchangeability of gender is here an essential element of the language of Eros; this is the other side of the fear that love effeminates.

Though there are any number of passionate heterosexual relationships depicted in English Renaissance literature, it is a commonplace to find a generalized misogyny in the work of the period, even in its idealization of chaste and beautiful women who are also cold and untouchable. What is less often observed is that along with the varieties of conventional romance, romantic and even erotic homosexual relationships also figure from time to time in the literature of the period, in a context that is often—though certainly not invariably—positive, and registers again surprisingly little anxiety about the matter. I am not talking here about what in modern terms would be called male bonding, where no explicit sexual component is acknowledged; though there certainly is a good deal of that in Renaissance literature. I am talking about explicitly homo-sexual relationships. Consider the fact that Rosalind disguised as a boy can play a wooing scene with another man under the name Ganymede. The peculiar and pathological element in this is not that Orlando is therefore involved in playing a love scene with a man. It is that so few critics (and none cited in the Variorum) have ever remarked that the model for it must be a homosexual flirtation; the name Ganymede cannot be used in the Renaissance without this connotation. But there is no indication whatever that Shakespeare is doing something sexually daring there, skating on thin ice. Counterexamples in which homosexual behavior leads to disaster are excededingly rare. The only clearcut theatrical one is in Marlowe's Edward II (and in the career of Marlowe generally), and I shall return to this; but first I'd like to cite a number of other instances.

The young shepherd Colin in the January eclogue of The Shepherd's Calendar rejects the advances of the older shepherd Hobbinol, "Albe my love he seek with daily suit: / His clownish gifts and curtsies I disdain" (56-57). Colin instead pursues the unresponsive Rosalind. Hobbinol's flirtation is presented simply as part of the poet-shepherd's experience; but since Colin is identified in the book as Spenser and Hobbinol as Gabriel Harvey, the allusion seems to have a specific application as well, to be saying something about the relationship between Spenser and Harvey. Spenser clearly does not consider this libelous, and judging from their continued association, neither did Harvey. But it makes the volume's editor, E. K., nervous: in glossing the passage he duly cites the relevant classical precedents of Socrates and Alcibiades. These lead him to the conclusion that "paederistike [is] much to be preferred before gynerastike, that is the love which enflameth men with lust toward womankind." He adds at this point in his gloss on line 59 that he is not thereby condoning (or, presumably, implying that Harvey is guilty of) the "execrable and horrible sins of forbidden and unlawful fleshliness" celebrated by Lucian and Pietro Aretino.

The strategy here is significant, and to modern eyes puzzling. In order to disarm the allusion, E. K. need only have cited Virgil's second eclogue, which he has already recognized as one of Spenser's principal sources: here the poet imitateth Virgil. But instead he gives an argument from classical authority in defence of pederasty and against heterosexual love. This is entirely unnecessary as a strategy on Spenser's behalf, since Colin has rejected Hobbinol in favor of Rosalind. Nevertheless, E. K. wants to insist on the privileged status of homosexuality, not as an aspect of poetry, but of the highest moral philosophy—Socrates authorized it. To do this it is only necessary to deflect the prohibited aspects of homosexual behavior onto women on the one hand, and Italians on the other. It is important to observe that despite Colin's interest in Rosalind, there is no argument here in favor of the love of women, and that homosexual love is defined in opposition to heterosexuality, which is equated with lust.

Marlowe, in Hero and Leander, expresses a good deal more enthusiasm for the physical side of homoeroticism. He also, like the anti-theatrical polemicists, assumes the interchangeability of male and female, though this is a source of excitement rather than panic. When Leander is first described, he is praised primarily for his erotic effect on men. Cynthia, apparently alone among women, "wished his arms might be her sphere"; whereas Leander's hair "Would have allured the venturous youth of Greece / To hazard more than for the Golden Fleece." Leander could have replaced Ganymede as Jove's cupbearer; if Hippolytus had seen Leander, he would have abandoned his chastity and fallen in love with him; the rudest peasant and the barbarous Thracian soldier sought his favor. After this, it is not surprising that he attracts the attentions of Neptune, who mistakes him for Ganymede and is described in an extraordinarily explicit passage making passes at Leander as he swims naked to Sestos. The episode is notable for the total lack of anxiety it projects. It is comic, and enthusiastic.

In Troilus and Cressida, Patroclus urges Achilles to return to the battlefield:

To this effect, Achilles, have I moved you. A woman impudent and mannish grown Is not more loathed than an effeminate man In time of action. I stand condemned for this. They think my little stomach to the war And your great love to me restrains you thus.

Sweet, rouse yourself; and the weak wanton  Cupid Shall from your neck unloose his amorous  fold And, like a dew-drop from the lion's mane, Be shook to air.

The language is the language of love, but the terms might have been borrowed from any polemicist; and Thersites comes straight out with it: there is nothing platonic about the relationship between the two heroes—Patroclus is "Achilles' male varlet … his masculine whore." Thersites is not the most reliable of witnesses, but the play makes no attempt to represent Achilles and Patroclus as innocent of the abominable crime. Achilles is unmanned, however, by love itself, not by its object, which turns out at the crucial moment to be female as well as male. He is also in love with Priam's daughter Polyxena, and the love of women proves finally more antithetical to the claims of martial heroism than the love of men:

My sweet Patroclus, I am thwarted quite From my great purpose in tomorrow's battle. Here is a letter from Queen Hecuba, A token from her daughter, my fair love, Both taxing me and gaging me to keep An oath that I have sworn. I will not break it. Fall Greeks, fail fame, honor or go or stay, My major vow lies here; this I'll obey.

To my knowledge the only dramatic instance of a homosexual relationship presented in the terms in which the culture formally conceived it—as antisocial, seditious, ultimately disastrous—is in Marlowe's Edward II. It would certainly be possible to account for its perspective, if not for its uniqueness, by viewing it in the context of Sedgwick's thesis about Renaissance homosexuality: that it was not viewed as threatening because it was not defined in opposition to, or as an impediment to, heterosexuality and marriage.22 Edward's love for Gaveston is destructive because it is presented as anti-heterosexual; it renders him an unfit husband, as his passion renders him an unfit king. I am not happy with this explanation not because there is anything wrong with it, but because it is too straightforward to account for what seems to me a very devious and genuinely subversive play. Both politically and morally, the power-hungry nobles and the queen's adultery with Mortimer are as destabilizing as anything in Edward's relationship with his favorite, and the real complaint against Gaveston has nothing to do with his sexuality, but with the fact that he is being given preferments over other powerful and ambitious courtiers. For Marlowe to translate the whole range of power politics into sodomy certainly says something about his tastes and that of Elizabethan audiences, but it also has to be added that it was probably safer to represent the power structure in that way than it would have been to play it, so to speak, straight. Had Richard II been presented as a sodomite, would the authorities have found it necessary to censor the deposition scene? Maybe Edward's sexuality is a way of protecting the play, a way of keeping what it says about power intact. This is the work of Marlowe the government spy, at once an agent of the establishment and deeply subversive. And if we look forward, Edward's relation to Gaveston provides so clear a mirror of King James's behavior toward Carr, Buckingham, and the other favorites that it is startling to find that the play was reissued in 1612 and performed publicly in 1622. Its subject is advertised on the title page, as it had been in the original edition, as "the tragic fall of Mortimer." In fact, in 1621, in an inflammatory parliamentary speech, Sir Henry Yelverton had made the analogy between James's treatment of Buckingham and Edward's of his favorites explicit—the particular favorite cited was not Gaveston but his successor Hugh Spencer, but the point was not lost on James and Buckingham. James demanded a retraction on the grounds that the comparison represented him as a weak king, and Yelverton was forced to apologize and was heavily fined.23 Had it been possible for a Jacobean audience to acknowledge sodomy as an English vice, the play, and the allusion, would have been treasonable.

Homosexuality in this culture appears to have been less threatening than heterosexuality, and only in part because it had fewer consequences and was easier to desexualize. The reason always given for the prohibition of women from the stage was that their chastity would thereby be compromised, which is understood to mean that they would become whores. Behind the outrage of public modesty is a real fear of women's sexuality, and more specifically, of its power to evoke men's sexuality. This is dangerous because it is not subject to rational control, which is a way of saying that it is not subject to any other kind of authority either—what from one perspective was slavery to passion, from another was a declaration of independence. This bears on the question of what women found attractive about a theater we find misogynistic—the end of The Merchant of Venice, with Portia's and Nerissa's ring trick, plays on both the male fears and the female fantasies of a patriarchal society.

Shakespearean drama often confronts these anxieties; comedy looks for ways to control them, they constitute a subject for tragedy. Othello's and Iago's assumptions about Desdemona, and about women generally, include all the familiar claims of Renaissance treatises on women and the dangers of the stage; they are false in this case, but Desdemona's chastity does not save her or Othello from a tragic outcome. Moreover, critics with patriarchal leanings might argue, and have on occasion done so, that the real source of the tragedies of Desdemona and Juliet is their refusal to obey their fathers, their insistence on choosing their own husbands. In one respect, these plays exemplify a perfectly standard patriarchalist and antifeminist line, and though Elizabethan audiences would certainly have responded to their tragic force, it is doubtful that any Elizabethan spectator would have found them subversive.

Greenblatt has related the transvestism of figures like Portia, Rosalind, and Viola to the teleology of masculinity implied by the medical and gynecological theories cited earlier. Such figures, in this reading, "pass through the state of being men in order to become women. Shakespearean women are in this sense the projected mirror images of masculine self-differentiation."24 But even this clearly has its anxieties: Shakespeare shows on occasion an unwillingness to allow them to return to being women. Viola announces in the final moments of Twelfth Night that she cannot become a woman and the wife of Orsino until her woman's clothes have been recovered—a dress borrowed from Olivia or a new one purchased for the occasion apparently are not options—and that this will require the release of the sea captain who alone can find them, which in turn will necessitate the mollification of the enraged Malvolio, who has had the sea captain incarcerated: this all materializes out of no-where in the last three minutes of the play. And Malvolio at the play's end offers no assistance but runs from the stage shouting "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you." For Viola to become a woman requires, in short, a new play with Malvolio at its center. Rosalind, speaking the epilogue to As You Like It, reminds us that she is a boy, and that the drama has not represented an erotic and heterosexual reality at all: "If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as have beards that pleased me.…" This is the only place in Shakespeare where the heroine undoes her gender in this way (though Cleopatra at one moment approaches it). And yet Rosalind is surely among the most attractive and successful of Shakespeare's women: it must be to the point that Shakespeare does not want to leave her intact. I think it is also to the point that Twelfth Night includes the only overtly homosexual couple in Shakespeare except for Achilles and Patroclus. What the presence of Antonio and Sebastian acknowledges, in a play that has at its center a man wooing a man, is that men do fall in love with other men. "You are betrothèed," Sebastian tells Olivia, "to a man and maid," recalling the master-mistress of Shakespeare's passion in the sonnets. The same point is made by giving Rosalind the name Ganymede.

Finally, a brief observation about Olivia. She is referred to twice as the Countess Olivia, and Malvolio imagines himself becoming Count Malvolio by marrying her. In the English peerage, the only way for Olivia to be a countess would be as the wife or the widow of an earl. But Olivia is as yet unmarried. Her father, however, was a count, and Shakespeare seems to be using the Italian system, in which all the children of a nobleman inherit the title. But there is no system in which a man can become a count by marrying a countess. Malvolio will raise his status by marrying Olivia only if Olivia is also a man.


For references and valuable suggestions, I am indebted to A. R. Braunmuller, David Halperin, Ursula Heise, Karen Newman, David Riggs, Winfried Schleiner, and Marion Trousdale.

1 Most Spanish companies included both women and transvestite boys, and one or the other was prohibited from time to time. Female cross-dressing, however, seems to have been considered a more serious problem than transvestite boys, and was repeatedly banned (e.g., in 1600, 1608, 1615, and 1641), which suggests that the ban must have been repeatedly ignored. The first actresses appeared on Dutch stages in 1655, to predictably outraged clerical opinion. Holland is not a parallel case because it had had no public theater before this time, but the event is suggestive and probably points to contrasting Protestant and Catholic attitudes as well. See Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches (New York, 1987), 408.

2 G. E. Bentley also notes the 1629 visit of a French company that included actresses. One reporter claims that the troupe was driven from the stage by public outrage at the first and only performance, but the records indicate that this was not the case, and that they performed at least twice more at public theaters in London. See G. E. Bentley, The Jacobean and Caroline Stage (Oxford, 1966), 1:25.

3 I am here summarizing the work of Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Women (Cambridge, 1980); Thomas Laqueur, "Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology," Representations 14 (Spring 1986): 4-16; and Stephen Greenblatt, "Fiction and Friction," in Reconstructing Individualism, ed. Thomas C. Heller et al. (Stanford, 1986), 30-52.

4 Such an etiology is not unknown in nature. The sex of alligators is determined by the heat at which the eggs are incubated: if it is 90° or over, they are male, if 87° or under, they are female. On the question of whether at 88° or 89° they become androgynes, the authorities are silent.

5 Thomas Wright, The Passions of the Mind in General, ed. W. W. Newbold (New York, 1986), 237.

6 Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley, 1981), 92.

7 Ibid.

8 Laura Levine, "Men in Women's Clothing: Anti-theatricality and Effeminization from 1579 to 1642," Criticism (Spring 1986): 121-43. In what follows I am in part summarizing Levine's argument.

9 John Rainolds, Th'Overthrow of Stage Plays ([Middleburg], 1599), 11, 18.

10 William Prynne, Histriomastix (London, 1633), 209.

11 Philip Stubbes, Anatomy of Abuses (London, 1585), sig. L8v.

12 Greenblatt, "Fiction and Friction," 47.

13 Katharine Maus, "Horns of Dilemma: Jealousy, Gender and Spectatorship in English Renaissance Drama," ELH 54 (Fall 1987): 561-62.

14 After the enactment of the Canons of 1604, parental consent was required for the marriage of children up to the age of twenty-one.

15Works of Thomas Middleton, ed. A. H. Bullen (Boston, 1886), 8:77.

16 Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London, 1982), 54-55.

17 Ibid., 77.

18 Ibid., 75.

19 To my knowledge, the only instance of political capital being made of King James's homosexuality is in the scurrilous Corona Regia (1615), almost certainly by the German Catholic satirist Caspar Schoppe (Scoppius), but maliciously credited to James's supporter Isaac Casaubon and published with a false imprint. This makes much of James's conferring on his favorites the title of "Magnus Cubicularius tuus" (Knight of your Bedchamber), praises the king for so successfully mixing lust with religion, and compares him with the notorious Heliogabolus. James, outraged, offered a reward for the identification of the author, which was not claimed until 1639. I am indebted to Winfried Schleiner for this reference.

20Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, ed. C. H. Firth (London, 1906), 69.

21Letters of King James VI & I, ed. G. P. V. Akrigg (Berkeley, 1984), 431.

22 See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York, 1985), 1-48.

23 The incident is discussed in Roger Lockyer, Buckingham (London, 1981), 101-3.

24 Greenblatt, "Fiction and Friction," 51.

Female Sexuality And Misogyny

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 17937

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  giv'n If they stand sound and well. And a good  play, Whose modest scenes blush on his marriage day 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  pains.(Prol. 1-8)

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 yet 'still is modesty', still seems 'more of the maid' than not. I want to take up here some of the ways in which plays and maidenheads are related, how Shakespeare's dramatic language represents sexuality. It will be necessary to narrow the focus considerably, of course—in terms of language and sexuality in Shakespeare, here, if anywhere, is God's plenty. My argument will therefore only concern female sexuality as a production of male discourse, and I mean to use the term 'sexuality' rather than 'gender' because I will examine the biological semantics at work in the plays. Some feminist theorists have argued that female sexuality is, in patriarchal discourse, unrepresentable—conceptually available only as lack, invisibility, or negation.1 I will pursue that position through the different, sometimes contradictory ways in which the language of several early modern writers, particularly Shakespeare, represented female sexuality and biology. Ultimately, I will examine some of the mystifications of the Tudor-Stuart discourse of virginity, the ne plus ultra, so to speak, of female sexuality—looking particularly at how certain modes of discourse registered the presence or absence of virginity.

To begin with, female sexuality in Shakespeare's plays is invariably articulated as linguistic transgression—that is, a verbal replication of female obliquity. Often, the ordinary relation between signifier and signified has slipped, been dislocated or even reversed, the linguistic equivalent of the world turned upside down.2 The chief rhetorical figure here is the pun. It's not surprising that Dr Johnson termed the pun Shakespeare's 'fatal Cleopatra', employing the supreme Shakespearian example of female sexuality to indicate how Shakespeare's masculine persuasive force, to borrow Donne's term, was weakened and deflected by the 'irresistible' fascinations of the feminized quibble. For the heroic, manly playwright, 'a quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation'.3 In employing this terminology of swerve, fall, and decline, Johnson touches on something important about the sexualized energy of the pun, as a linguistic field of subversion and transgression.4 Yet Johnson has also suggestively reversed the actual analogy by transforming the beautiful Atalanta, who abandoned her race with Hippomenes to pick up the golden apples, into the male playwright distracted by effeminizing verbal structures. This gender reversal is necessary for Johnson's understanding of unstable language as feminine and therefore seductive. Johnson thus suggests part of my argument here: that patriarchal discourse equates destabilizing verbal forms and female sexuality.

The pun and its inversion, the malapropism, permit the introduction into utterance of female sexuality without ever seeming to name or recognize it. The references may be comic—as in the Latin lesson in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the English lesson in Henry V, with its mispronunciations of 'foot' and 'count'—or they may be sinister—as in the references to 'country matters' and 'country forms' in Hamlet and Othello—but such linguistic forms continually enact some type of subversion of the master discourse. When Bottom assures his fellows that they will meet in the woods, 'and there we may rehearse most obscenely' (Dream 1.2.100-1), we have little reason to doubt him.5

This kind of wordplay permits the eruption of female sexuality into ordinary utterance. In Love's Labour's Lost, for example, Costard has been put in Armado's custody as punishment for his transgression with Jaquenetta:

ARMADO Sirrah Costard, I will enfranchise thee. COSTARD O, marry me to one Frances! I smell some l'envoi, some goose, in this. ARMADO By my sweet soul, I mean setting thee at liberty, enfreedoming thy person. Thou wert immured, restrained, captivated, bound.                                    (3.1.117-22)

In a complicated series of misunderstandings, Costard has come to equate 'l'envoi' with 'goose', a common slang term for a prostitute. So his fear is that he will be forced to marry a prostitute named Frances. Her name, in turn, has come from the mishearing of 'enfranchise' as 'one Frances'—the word for liberation turns into its opposite, signifying a forced marriage. Costard's linguistic incapacities have created a phantom virago, a loose woman with designs on him. A similar betrayal of subconscious threats occurs in The Merry Wives of Windsor, when Quickly mishears the answer 'pulcher' as 'polecats' during the Latin lesson. The lesson continues:

EVANS What is your genitive case plural, William? WILLIAM Genitive case? EVANS Ay. WILLIAMGenitivo: 'horum, harum, horum'. QUICKLY Vengeance of Jenny's case! Fie on her! Never name her, child, if she be a whore.                                        (4.1.52-7)

Thus 'pulcher' becomes a slang word for 'whore', virtually the opposite of the original word. And in one of Quickly's most remarkable transformations, 'genitive case' becomes 'Jenny's case'—the prostitute by name and, considering her profession, her most valuable possessive as well; here a grammatical term itself generates the sexual chimera. 'Horum', of course, predictably mutates into a verb. Through a kind of acoustical genius, Costard and Quickly achieve a creation ex nihilo, the fabrication of comically and sexually aggressive females—two ladies of the night, Frances and Jenny—from the swerves and frictions of language.

If puns and malapropisms offer the sexual low road, the eruption of the carnivalesque sexual into high discourse, then their linguistic opposite is represented by a far more stylized form of verbal dislocation, the riddle. However riddles are categorized, one common structural feature is that 'the referent of the description' is withheld, to be guessed at by anaudience—all signifiers and no discontinuity' in short.6 This 'temporary threat of discontinuity' Roger Abrahams aptly terms 'epistemological foreplay', leading to the riddler's clarifying and satisfying solution to the problem—providing the absent signified.7 Shakespeare's plays encode female sexuality in riddles so as to mystify it in terms of obliqueness or absence. We may think immediately of such examples as the casket riddles in The Merchant of Venice, which double the mystification, with one riddle on the outside of each box and another on the inside, leading to another kind of inside/outside riddle, as the treasure chest that contains the woman leads to the woman that contains, and is, the sexual treasure. Bertram's riddle in All's Well That Ends Well also relies on synecdoches and verbal dislocations to encode Helen's aggressive (in his view) sexuality: 'When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband; but in such a "then" I write a "never"' (3.2.57-60). Bertram has sworn, in the phrase which suggests my paper's title, 'to make the "not" eternal' (3.2.22), to leave the riddle forever unresolved, epistemological foreplay with no climax.

In Shakespeare's first romance, however, the 'not' does and must remain eternal for Pericles. The riddle he reads encodes incest, the missing signified the daughter of Antiochus:

I am no viper, yet I feed On mother's flesh which did me breed. I sought a husband, in which labour I found that kindness in a father. He's father, son, and husband mild; I mother, wife, and yet his child. How they may be and yet in two, As you will live resolve it you.(Pericles Sc.107-14)

It is worth recalling here that Shakespeare, as Goolden has noted, has altered his sources by making the missing signified of the 'I' in this riddle be, not the father, but the daughter.8 This change not only 'sharpens the focus on the princess', as Gorfain notes,9 but defines female sexuality as absence—and, if the riddle is answered, as transgression. In a final example, when Mariana appears before the Duke at the end of Measure for Measure, her riddling responses to his questions lead him to conclude, 'Why, you are nothing then; neither maid, widow, nor wife!' (5.1.176-7). But the Duke's 'nothing' is then represented in Mariana's riddling self-proclamation:

My lord, I do confess I ne'er was married, And I confess besides, I am no maid. I have known my husband, yet my husband Knows not that ever he knew me.                                  (5.1.183-6)

Once again, the power of negation, of the 'not', becomes the defining category of a woman's sexuality. Mariana's riddle that 'my husband / Knows not that ever he knew me' anticipates the paradox of the former virgin who 'still retains / More of the maid to sight', but also begins to lead us toward darker and more tragic moments in the plays, particularly to Othello, who kills the wife he knew not he knew.

If puns and riddles occlude female sexuality by displacing it from the plays' high discourse, we might expect a less oblique representational strategy in the names given to female sexuality, and to the female genitalia specifically, but the realm of the referential, as we will see, is no less one of mystification. Usually, the name given to the female sex organs in Shakespeare's plays is a variant of the patriarchal metaphors of absence or containment: the O, the pit, ring, case, box, casket, the subtle hole, her C's, U's, and T's, the lake, pond, swallowing tomb, the placket, chimney, the fault,10 and so on. Here are the images, now familiar from psychoanalytic and philological scholarship, of absence, emptiness, darkness, fall, invisible depth. From the 'unhallowed and bloodstained hole' (2.3.210) and 'detested, dark, blood-drinking pit' (2.3.224) of Titus Andronicus, to the 'sulphurous pit' (Lear F 4.5.125) of Lear, Shakespeare produces one misogynistic representation after another; virtually all of them suggest that the female genitalia, in one way or another, locate 'hell … darkness … burning, scalding, stench, consumption' (Lear F 4.5.124-5).11

The most contested and paradoxical category of semantic description, however, is the category of the virgin, who is metonymically defined by the names given to her hymen. The religious and psychological value of virginity was of course under interrogation in early modern England. On the one hand, the cult of the Virgin Mary taught, as Marina Warner has noted, 'that the virginal life reduced the special penalties of the Fall in women and was therefore holy. Second, the image of the virgin body was the supreme image of wholeness, and wholeness was equated with holiness'. The virgin body was believed to be perfectly sealed up, 'seamless, unbroken'. This belief was based in part on inaccurate medical knowledge—'the hymen was thought to seal off the womb completely … caulking the body like tar on a ship's timbers', as Warner notes, though Renaissance anatomists, as we will see, were not as certain as this formulation.12 The virgin's body, to employ a vocabulary derived from Bakhtin, is 'classical', with its key orifice closed, rather than 'grotesque'. The hymen thus became the most important fetishized commodity possessed by a woman, a barrier both physical and spiritual, a sign from God marking the Second Eve. As Mary Douglas has shown, the 'body's boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious';13 the hymen is an ultimate threshold, a barrier to men, marking the fall into sexuality, the transition from maiden to woman, the making of the virgin not. The hymen's liminal status gives it an enormous symbolic importance as a construct of patriarchal discourse.14

The cult of the Virgin, however, was under attack in Reformation England, and even Queen Elizabeth's appropriations of Catholic iconology as the Virgin Queen did not overcome the sceptics and iconoclasts.15 Elizabeth's own dalliances were public gossip, even her monthly gynaecological status, and Ben Jonson could speculate to Drummond of Hawthornden that Elizabeth 'had a Membrana on her which made her uncapable of men, though for her delight she tryed many, at the comming over of Monsieur, ther was a French Chirurgion who took in hand to cut it, yett fear stayed her & his death'.16 There was also a strong libertine tradition which demystified and subverted the value of virginity. Catullus, for one, furnished the Renaissance its standard comparison between the natural world and sexuality, preeminently through the unplucked flower that loses its bloom (LXII. 39-47). He also commodifies virginity, suggesting that the maidenhead can be precisely divided to reflect the economic stakes of those who have invested in it:

Your maidenhead [virginitas] is not all yours   but in part your parents'; Your father has a third, your mother is given  a third, Only a third is yours.                                  (lxii.62-4)17

This passage stands behind Chapman's continuation of 'Hero and Leander',18 among other texts, and leads to paradoxical arguments that virginity is not a something, an intact hymen, but a nothing. Marlowe's witty argument, in 'Hero and Leander' Sestiad I, is typical. Virginity and marriage, the narrator argues, are completely different:

This idol which you term virginity Is neither essence subject to the eye, No, nor to any one exterior sense, Nor hath it any place of residence, Nor is't of earth or mould celestial, Or capable of any form at all. Of that which hath no being, do not boast; Things that are not at all, are never lost.                                       (1.269-76)

The libertine argument may be aimed at seduction, but it also turns on a definition of absence and negation that can lead in more disturbing directions. Iago taps into the vision of the 'not', the nothing, when he tells Othello: 'Her honour is an essence that's not seen. / They have it very oft that have it not' (Othello 4.1.16-17). The handkerchief may be offered as a substitute membrane which can be seen, handled, and passed back and forth, but virginity itself is one of those 'things that are not at all', 'they have it very oft that have it not'. The thing itself can be known only through signs, thereby permitting a semiotic slippage which can be manipulated by an Iago for his own ends.

Paroles' dialogue on virginity with Helen in All's Well That Ends Well follows the same line of sophistic logic. His argument proceeds from the libertine assumption: 'It is not politic in the commonwealth of nature of preserve virginity', because 'loss of virginity is rational increase' (1.1.124-6).19 Virginity is a paradoxically self-annihilating commodity: 'by being once lost [it] may be ten times found; by being ever kept it is ever lost … 'Tis a commodity will lose the gloss with lying: the longer kept, the less worth' (129-30, 150-1). Time forbids the quotation of this entire dialogue, but it ends with an elaborate personification which inverts the gender and age of the virgin:

Virginity like an old courtier wears her cap out of fashion, richly suited but unsuitable, just like the brooch and the toothpick, which wear not now. Your date is better in your pie and your porridge than in your cheek, and your virginity, your old virginity, is like one of our French withered pears: it looks ill, it eats drily, marry, 'tis a withered pear—it was formerly better, marry, yet 'tis a withered pear.


Turning the young maiden into the old courtier, this passage moves toward an equation between the hymen and male impotence; for every intact virgin, it seems, another male has failed. Helen's response to Paroles—'Not my virginity, yet …' (line 161)20—provides the first instance of the rhetoric of negation which resurfaces later in the play in the central riddle, already quoted, in which Bertram says 'I have wedded her, not bedded her, and sworn to make the "not" eternal' (3.2.21-2), and in Diana's challenge to the King in the final scene, 'Good my lord, / Ask him [Bertram] upon his oath if he does think / He had not my virginity' (5.3.186-8).

The language which Shakespeare employs to signify virginity thus generally trades on various forms of paradoxical negation, but the names given to the hymen itself suggest both positive and negative categories. The name 'hymen', to begin with, signifies both the god of marriage, and marriage generally, as well as the physical membrane; the same word thus figures the object which defines the virgin, and the ritual which demands the loss of that object.21 The state of virginity thus exists only as a condition of potential loss. The god of marriage makes two formal appearances in Shakespeare: first, at the end of As You Like It, to 'join in Hymen's bands' (5.4.127) the four couples, and again in the opening scene of The Two Noble Kinsmen, accompanied by a traditionally dressed virgin, 'encompassed in her tresses, bearing a wheaten garland' ( Neither play includes a description of the god himself.22

More metaphorically, the hymen is a 'maidenhead', a usage which the OED dates from the mid-thirteenth century. Shakespeare uses the term frequently, often in the sense of a commodity, a thing to be acquired or taken, or a trophy of male conquest and possession. Thus Jack Cade asserts in The First Part of the Contention (2 Henry VI): 'There shall not a maid be married but she shall pay to me her maidenhead, ere they have it' (4.7.118-20). But Shakespeare also understands the symbolic inversion at work in this name, by which the head of a maiden becomes a maidenhead, resulting at times in fantasies of punishment and dismemberment.23 In Romeo and Juliet, Samson promises to be civil with the maids:

             I will cut off their heads. GREGORY The heads of the maids? SAMSON Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads, take it in what sense thou wilt.                                      (1.1.22-5)

This displacement figures in several of the plays, but particularly in Measure for Measure, where the plot lines converge in the figure of the executioner, Abhorson, and his new assistant, the bawd Pompey. As Ragozine's head is substituted for Claudio's head, so is Mariana's maidenhead substituted for Isabella's.24

The hymen is further objectified as a valuable object; thus Laertes warns Ophelia not to open 'your chaste treasure … / To [Hamlet's] unmastered importunity' (Hamlet 1.3.31-2). Virginity is a rare jewel but, as Marlowe puts it in 'Hero and Leander', 'Jewels being lost are found again, this never; / 'Tis lost but once, and once lost, lost for ever' (11.85-6). In Pericles, Boult threatens 'To take from you [Marina] the jewel you hold so dear' (Pericles Sc.19.180), following the Pander's (or Bawd's) command to him, 'Crack the ice of her virginity, and make the rest malleable' (Sc.19.167-8). Thus virginity is valuable, rigid, reflective, and fragile—an irresistible challenge to possess, not a spiritual state but merely a physical condition.

In perhaps the most common metaphoric name, virginity is an unplucked flower, usually a rose; to penetrate the hymen is to deflower. The metaphoric origins of this ancient comparison are easy enough to imagine, and the usage in Shakespeare, and certainly in all of Renaissance literature, is pervasive; I will mention here only the 'little western flower' struck by the 'bolt of Cupid', in A Midsummer Night's Dream, 'Before, milk-white; now, purple with love's wound' (2.1.165-7). Some contemporary scientific treatises, however, literalized the flower metaphor in their anatomical descriptions. In The Anatomie of the Bodie of Man (1548), for example, Thomas Vicary uses the metaphor of 'deflouring' but reserves the term 'flowres' as a specific name for the menses, a term which had become common usage among Renaissance anatomists, midwives, and physicians.25 In his Microcosmographia (1615), however, Helkiah Crooke brings biology and metaphor more closely together. 'The Caruncles [small pieces of flesh and membrane] are foure', Crooke says in his description of the hymen, 'and are like the berries of the Mirtle, in every corner of the bosome one'. All these parts and others, taken 'together make the forme of the cup of a little rose halfe blowne when the bearded leaves are taken away. Or this production', he goes on, 'with the lappe or privity may be likened to the great Clove Gilly-flower when it is moderately blowne' (223 [sic: actually 235]). No wonder Perdita, just five years earlier, did not want 'streaked gillyvors, / Which some call nature's bastards' (The Winter's Tale 4.4.82-3) in her garden. Crooke's attempt to bring the semantic domains of metaphor and biology together was echoed in other anatomies, including the anonymous Aristotle's Master Piece, where the hymen

is like the bud of a rose half blown, and this is broken in the first act of copulation with man: and hence comes the word Deflora to deflower; whence the taking of virginity, is called deflowering a virgin: for when the rose bud is expanded, virginity is lost.26

The flower is thus both a metaphor and, through acts of transference and supposed observation, allegedly also a close description of the thing itself.

Crooke goes on to further definitions of the hymen: 'It is called Hymen quasi Limen, as it were the entrance, the piller, or locke, or flower of virginity' (223 [sic: 235]), and later, 'they call it Claustrum virginitatis, the lock of virginity: for which their opinion they bring testimonies out of the holy scriptures' (255)—namely, the custom of displaying the virginal blood on the wedding sheets. Some anatomies also offer as a name the term 'Cento', which translates as 'patchwork'. Thus the liminal threshold must be locked and contained, yet the membrane itself is almost indescribably fragile, mere threads.27

Shakespeare employs one name which puns on all the dislocations and mystifications that we have already examined—that is, the virgin knot (thus my title again). What was a virgin knot? It is equated with but apparently distinct from the so-called marriage knot and the true-lover's knot. The true-lover's knot is the icono-graphic image of the elaborately encoiled and overlapping thread, with no beginning or end, which unites true lovers via a 'knot formed of two loops intertwined' (OED)—a kind of early Möbius strip, used as an impresa or perhaps worn on the sleeve; the OED offers examples from the fourteenth century. Examples may be seen as well in portraits of the time—such as that of Sir Henry Lee (1568) in the National Portrait Gallery—in emblem books, and, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, in Julia's proposal to 'knit' up her hair 'in silken strings / With twenty odd-conceited true-love knots' (2.7.45-6). The 'true-love' was also a kind of flower which was said to resemble the true-lovers knot—which leads us back to the flower of the hymen itself.28

The marriage knot, on the other hand, was the mystic union of two lovers through marriage, what Milton termed 'the inward knot of marriage, which is peace & love' and 'the holy knott of mariage'.29 The marriage knot could not be dissolved by man, as Spenser noted: 'His owne two hands the holy knots did knit, / That none but death for ever can divide' (Faerie Queene; marriage is 'the knot, that ever shall remaine' (Amoretti 6.14).30 Shakespeare's usage is straightforward: Warwick in The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York (3 Henry VI) refers to the 'nuptial knot' (3.3.55), Capulet plans to 'have this knot knit up tomorrow morning' between Juliet and Paris (Romeo 4.2.24), and in Cymbeline those who marry are said 'to knit their souls … in self-figured knot' (2.3.114-16). The knot of love may also indissolubly link friends or family: Gloucester in 1 Henry VI refers to the 'knot of amity' to be gained through the alliance with France (5.1.16), Malcolm describes 'those strong knots of love' which are Macduff's family (Macbeth 4.3.28), and Agrippa claims the marriage between Antony and Octavia will make Antony and Octavius 'brothers, and … knit your hearts / With an unslipping knot' (Antony 2.2.132-3). Hippolyta in The Two Noble Kinsmen elaborates the metaphor in this description of the friendship of Pirithous and Theseus:

                  Their knot of love, Tied, weaved, entangled with so true, so long, And with a finger of so deep a cunning, May be outworn, never undone.                                   (1.3.41-4)

The marriage knot or true-lover's knot cannot be 'undone', 'untied', or 'dissolv'd', then. It is for ever.31

But the virgin knot is something else. In Pericles, Marina is determined to preserve her honour:

If fires be hot, knives sharp, or waters deep, United I still my virgin knot will keep. Diana aid my purpose.                                    (Sc.16.142-4)

And Prospero warns Ferdinand not to be another Caliban with Miranda:

If thou dost break her virgin-knot before All sanctimonious ceremonies may With full and holy rite be ministered …(Tempest 4.1.15-17)

And so Bertram's riddle in All's Well turns on this pun—'I have wedded her, not bedded her, and sworn to make the "not" eternal' (3.2.21-2)—on both the marriage knot and the virgin knot; he resists the eternal knot by refusing to untie the physical knot. Clearly, the virgin knot—an external figure for the hymen within—is meant to be 'untied' or broken in marriage. But what kind of a knot is it? a square knot? a double half-hitch? surely not a sailor's knot? For Othello, the word conveys everything ugly about what he thought had been his virgin wife: turning the fountain of his life into 'a cistern for foul toads / To knot and gender in' (Othello 4.2.63-4).

There were at least two contending mythological accounts of the virgin knot. In 'Hero and Leander' Sestiad v, Chapman refers to the general union of lovers in his long narrative of Hymen's own wedding. The god of marriage himself was eternally bound, when Juno's priest took

            the disparent silks, and tied The lovers by the waists, and side to side, In token that thereafter they must bind In one self sacred knot each other's mind.                                      (v.355-8)

But if the 'sacred knot' will never be dissolved, another ritual is also invoked:

The custom was that every maid did wear, During her maidenhead, a silken sphere About her waist, above her inmost weed, Knit with Minerva's knot, and that was freed By the fair bridegroom on the marriage night, With many ceremonies of delight.                                    (v.389-94)

Minerva—said to be a perpetual virgin in some Renaissance accounts—seems a plausible choice here, yet Chapman's identification of the knot with Minerva is probably a mistake, as D. J. Gordon has suggested.32

A second mythological account—certainly the traditional one—is given by Ben Jonson in his masque Hymenal, where the eternal knot and the knot to be dissolved seem to blend together. 'Reason' describes the dress of the bride, including

The zone of wool about her waist, Which, in contrary circles cast, Doth meet in one strong knot that binds, Tells you, so should all married minds.                                  (lines 173-6)33

The description of the 'personated bride' in the stage directions offers a bit more information: 'her zone, or girdle about her waist, of white wool, fastened with the Herculean knot' (lines 51-2). Jonson's own footnote offers this explanation: 'That was nodus Herculeanus [Hercules' knot], which the husband at night untied in sign of good fortune, that he might be happy in propagation of issue, as Hercules was, who left seventy children' (p. 517). Jonson cites as his authority Sextus Pompeius Festus, who indeed specifies the number seventy, though the great majority of authorities suggested a more modest number: Rabelais, for instance, describes Hercules as one of the 'certain fabulous fornicators … who made women of fifty virgins in a single night'. Even Christian critics of pagan eroticism, such as Clement of Alexandria, held the line at fifty, as Jonson himself did in The Alchemist (2.2.39).34 The knot of Hercules, in turn, may be associated with the Amazonian belt, the 'golden belt of Thermodon', as Golding translated it (Metamorphoses IX .233). In one of his twelve labours, Hercules defeated the Amazon Hippolyta and seized the belt or girdle she wore, freeing the way, in effect, for Theseus' capture of Hippolyta. The figure of the Amazon, as several scholars have shown, represents an effeminizing, demonized female power, suppressed and contained within patriarchal discourse.35 Queen Elizabeth, herself frequently compared both to Minerva and to an Amazon, is pictured in two of the Armada portraits with an elaborate knot on her dress precisely in front of her genitals; her virginity is thus signified as intact, just as the maidenhead of England is now safe from the Spanish attack.36

But whether the virgin knot derives from Hercules, from Minerva, or from biological semantics, it also remains a 'not', a negation. If it is understood as the 'Hymen quasi Limen', it is a liminal nothing, perhaps a knot or puzzle to be undone, a zero, a 'nothing'. 37 Some contemporaries speculated that there was no such thing as the hymen as a matter of biological fact. In his long section on the female reproductive system in De usu partium, the premier reference work in the period, Galen never mentions the hymen, and indeed, there seemed to early modern writers no defined use for the hymen—except to mark by its absence the loss of virginity. Adherents of the so-called one-sex model of the human body, moreover, either do not mention the hymen or cannot relate it to anything equivalent in the male system.38 In Microcosmographia, Crooke is consistently definitive in his comments, but turns exceedingly tentative in his description of the hymen, referring to what 'many will have to bee a slender membrane … This they say is broken in the devirgination'. For the 'true History of the Hymen', though, Crooke refers to other texts rather than to any actual observation (233 [sic: 235]). In the 'Questions' at the end of this chapter, moreover, Crooke's answers raise more questions: 'Almost all Physitians thinke that there is a certain membrane … which they call Hymen. This membrane they say is perforated in the middest' (255). In examining the claim that a virgin will bleed when the hymen is first deflowered—the sole function of the hymen from a male point of view—Crooke invokes textual precedent, but it is not clear: 'Falopius yeeldeth to this opinion, Columbus writeth that he hath seene it, [but] Laurentius sayeth' that after many dissections of young maidens 'hee could never finde it though he searched curiously for it with a Probe; which (sayth he) might have beene felt to resist the Probe if there had beene any such thing, and therfore he thinketh that it is but a meere fable. Yet notwithstanding thus far he giveth credite to Columbus and Falopius, that hee thinketh there is sometimes such a membrane found', but it may be only an 'Organicall disease' or malformation. The letting of blood by the virgin, then, may not always occur, and is no sure sign of virginity. 'Wee must therefore', Crooke concludes, in a passage which must have unsettled many a man at the time, 'finde out some other locke of Virginitie' (256). Similarly, in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Robert Burton takes up the argument about whether the sign of virginity is the hymeneal blood, quoting authorities from the Bible, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Carthaginians, and so forth; revealing the instability of this sign of virginity, Burton concludes that as a test for virginity, hymeneal blood is 'no sufficient trial', according to some authorities, 'And yet others again defend it.'39 A similar doubt is registered in Aristotle's Master Piece, where the anonymous author describes various ways in which the requisite signs of the hymen's presence may fail to appear. The conclusion registers a zone of uncertainty and potential anxiety:

when a man is married and finds the tokens of his wife's virginity, upon the first act of copulation, he has all the reason in the world to believe her such, but if he finds them not, he has not reason to think her devirginated, if he finds her otherwise sober and modest: Seeing the Hymen may be broken so many other ways, and yet the woman both chaste, and virtuous. Only let me caution virgins to take all imaginable care to keep their virgin zone entire, that so when they marry, they may be such as the great Caesar wished his wife to be, not only without fault but without suspicion also.40

But no wife can be without a 'fault', in all the senses of that term; the 'tokens' of virginity are unstable, and if the husband 'finds them not, he has not reason to think' his wife is not a virgin. Ambrose Parey, on the other hand, is not tentative or qualifying at all:

it is worth observation, that in all this passage there is no such membrane found, as that they called Hymen, which they feigned to be broken at the first coition. Yet notwithstanding Columbus, Fallopius, Wierus, and many other learned men of our time think otherwise, and say, that in Virgins a litle above the passage of the urine, may be found and seene such a nervous membrane, placed overtwhart [sic] as it were in the middle way of this necke, and perforated for the passage of the courses [i.e. menses]. But you may finde this false by experience. (Book 3, p. 130)

Parey notes the contradictions among different authorities, including midwives, as to the supposed location of the membrane. Those who rely on the appearance of hymeneal blood as the sign of virginity are making a mistake, he argues, giving as one incredible example a story of prostitutes who have learned to counterfeit virginity, by putting into their vaginas 'the bladders of fishes, or galles of beasts filled full of blood, and so deceive the ignorant and young lecher, by the fraud and deceit of their evill arts, and in the time of copulation they mixe sighes with groanes, and womanlike cryings, and the crocodiles teares, that they may seeme to be virgins, and never to have dealt with man before' (Book 24, p. 938). Virginity is here reduced to one of the performing 'arts', constituted by nothing more than a set of manipulable signs; but as we have seen, even the existence of virginity's physical manifestation, the hymen, was always constituted by secondary and tertiary signs and emblems. That these could be manipulated, or could not be relied upon to convey any truth about women, is the surprising discovery of much contemporary medical discourse, which questions the very existence of the hymen. If the virgin might actually be a harlot, then the 'lock' of virginity is no sure thing. Maybe, maybe not. The evidence of the hymen's presence depends on the status of the sign, which can only (perhaps) point to its absence. As Parey mused on the contradictions of the hymen, 'But truly of a thing so rare, and which is contrary to nature, there cannot be any thing spoken for certainty' (Book 24, p. 938).

Thus the mystery of virginity that attracts, confuses, and bedevils many of the male characters in Shakespeare's plays, the fetishized commodity that is and is not. The plays circle round this mystification through an oblique language of indirection and negation. The not/knot pun slides further and further from its signified, unable to name it but unable to escape it. Flute tells us, 'A paramour is, God bless us, a thing of naught' (Dream 4.2.14), allowing sexual transgression and emptiness to mate in a pun. Ophelia takes up Hamlet's suggestive pun in similar language:

Hamlet Be not you ashamed to show, he'll not shame to tell you what it means.

OPHELIA You are naught, you are naught.                                         (3.2.137-40)

And Richard III confounds Clarence's guard,

Naught to do with Mrs Shore? I tell thee,  fellow: He that doth naught with her—excepting  one— Were best to do it secretly alone.(Richard III 1.1.99-101)

We may even begin to hear more complex resonances in Viola's paradoxical self-declarations: 'I am not that I play' (Twelfth Night 1.5.177) and 'I am not what I am' (3.1.139).

In the Shakespearian language of sexuality, then, a woman is not a virgin whose knot is nought because she has been naught. Virginity is continually invoked, described, celebrated, occluded, denied, and denounced, and language can only obliquely represent it. It remains a kind of negation ex creatio. 'What I am and what I would', Viola tells the audience, 'are as secret as maidenhead' (Twelfth Night 1.5.206-7).


1 One of the best discussions of sexuality in the early modern period is Mary Beth Rose, The Expense of Spirit: Love and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama (Ithaca, 1988).

2 For a recent analysis of the crisis of the sign in this period generally, see Barry Taylor, Vagrant Writing: Social and Semiotic Disorders in the English Renaissance (Toronto, 1991). The 'world turned upside down' trope, in relation to women, is analysed in Natalie Zemon Davis's classic essay, 'Women on Top', in Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford, 1975).

3Samuel Johnson: Rasselas, Poems, and Selected Prose, ed. Bertrand H. Bronson. (New York, 1958), p. 252.

4 There is a substantial body of critical commentary on the Renaissance use of the pun; see in particular the luminous work of M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (London, 1957), and Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, 1968). See also

5 Freud remarks that the malaprop 'does not possess [any inner] inhibition as yet, so that he can produce nonsense and smut directly and without compromise' (Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, ed. James Strachey (New York, 1960), p. 185).

6 Roger D. Abrahams, 'The Literary Study of the Riddle', Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 14 (1972), p. 187. On the distinction between 'oppositional' and 'non-oppositional' riddles, see Alan Dundes, 'Toward a Structural Definition of the Riddle', in Analytic Essays in Folklore (The Hague, 1975).

7 Abrahams, 'The Literary Study of the Riddle', p. 182.

8 P. Goolden, 'Antiochus's Riddle in Gower and Shakespeare', Review of English Studies, n.s. 6 (1955), 245-51.

9 Phyllis Gorfain, 'Puzzle and Artifice: The Riddle as Metapoetry in "Pericles" ', Shakespeare Survey 29, (1976), p. 14. Ruth Nevo describes this riddle as 'dream work methodized', in Shakespeare's Other Language (London, 1987), pp. 39-41.

10 See John H. Astington, ' "Fault" in Shakespeare', Shakespeare Quarterly, 36 (1985), 330-4. See also

11 Shakespeare uses a few terms that appear in contemporary anatomies and midwifery books—the mother, the lap—but they are exceptions to the general pattern. The 'mother' was the uterus (cf. Lear's 'O, how this mother swells up toward my heart', Lear F 2.2.231). The 'Lap or Privities' was 'that part into which the necke of the wombe determineth, and is seated outwardly at the forepart of the share bone, and is as it were a skinny addition of the necke, as Galen speaketh … aunswering to the prepuce or foreskin of a man' (Helkiah Crooke, Micro-cosmographia: A Description of the Body of Man (London, 1615), p. 237; subsequent textual references are to this edition). Hamlet's request of Ophelia—'Lady, shall I lie in your lap?' (Hamlet 3.2.107)—is thus quite explicit, as the ensuing dialogue indicates. The best overview of English Renaissance gynaecological knowledge is Audrey Eccles, Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Tudor and Stuart England (Kent, Ohio, 1982).

12 Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (New York, 1976), pp. 72-4.

13 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London, 1984), p. 115. For a discussion of the ways in which 'sexual states and functions are used as markers of social identity', using modern ethnographic evidence, see Kirsten Hastrup, 'The Semantics of Biology: Virginity', in Defining Females, ed. Shirley Ardener (New York, 1978).

14 Cf. the answer in The Problemes of Aristotle, with other Philosophers and Phisitions (London, 1597) to the Question, 'Why doth a woman love that man exceeding well, who had hir maidenhead?' : 'Is it bicause that as the matter doth covet a forme of perfection, so doth a woman the male? or is it by reason of shamefastnes? for as that divine Plato saith, shamefastnes doth follow love. It is reason that the love and esteeme of him who loosed the bonds of hir crédite and shame. Or is it bicause the beginning of great pleasure, doth bring a great alteration in the whole, bicause the powers of the minde are greatly delighted, and sticke and rest immoveably in the same? And therefore Hesiodus giveth counsell to marry a maide' (14). In his essay on 'The Taboo of Virginity', Freud offers a more sophisticated but equally gender-biased explanation of the same alleged phenomenon: 'The maiden whose desire for love has for so long and with such difficulty been held in check, in whom the influences of environment and education have formed resistances, will take the man who gratifies her longing, and thereby overcomes her resistances, into a close and lasting relationship which will never again be available to any other man. This experience brings about a state of "thraldom" in the woman that assures the man lasting and undisturbed possession of her and makes her able to withstand new impressions and temptations from without' (Sigmund Freud, Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, ed. Philip Rieff (New York, 1963), p. 70).

15 On the Elizabethan appropriation of the cult of the Virgin, see Frances A. Yates, Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (London, 1975), pp. 29-120; Roy Strong, The Cult of Elizabeth (Berkeley, 1977); Louis Adrian Montrose, ' "Shaping Fantasies": Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture', Representations, 2 (1983), 61-94; and C. L. Barber and Richard P. Wheeler, The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development (Berkeley, 1986), pp. 23-38.

16 Carole Levin, 'Power, Politics, and Sexuality: Images of Elizabeth I', in The Politics of Gender in Early Modern Europe, eds. Jean R. Brink, et al, Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, 12 (1989), 95-110; Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson (Oxford, 1925-52), 1.142.

17 Guy Lee, ed., The Poems of Catullus (Oxford, 1990), p. 75.

18 Stephen Orgel, ed., Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Poems and Translations (Harmondsworth, 1971), 'Hero and Leander', Sestiad v.473-8. Textual quotations from Marlowe and Chapman are from this edition.

19 Erasmus makes this argument in Proci et puellae (1523); see The Colloquies of Erasmus, trans. Craig R. Thompson (Chicago, 1965, pp. 86-98). For a concise discussion of the Renaissance doctrine of Increase, with special attention to Shakespeare's sonnets, see J. W. Lever, The Elizabethan Love Sonnet (London, 1956), pp. 189-201. Donne (the attribution is in doubt) argues in Paradox XII, 'That Virginity is a Vertue', that 'surely nothing is more unprofitable in the Commonwealth of Nature, then they that dy old maids, because they refuse to be used to that end for which they were only made … Virginity ever kept is ever lost' (John Donne, Paradoxes and Problems, ed. Helen Peters (Oxford, 1980), pp. 56-7). Cf. Comus' argument in Milton's 'Comus': 'List Lady, be not coy, and be not cozen'd / With that same vaunted name Virginity; / Beauty is nature's coin, must not be hoarded, / But must be current, and the good thereof / Consists in mutual and partak'n bliss, / Unsavory in th'enjoyment of itself. / If you let slip time, like a neglected rose / It withers on the stalk with languish't head' (John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York, 1957), lines 737-744, p. 107). Even the anti-libertine argument employed the same rhetoric, as may be seen in the thirteenth-century homily, Hali Meidenhad: 'Maidenhood is a treasure that, if it be once lost, will never again be found. Maidenhood is the bloom that, if it be once foully plucked, never again sprouteth up' (Hali Meidenhad, ed. Oswald Cockayne (London, 1866), p. 10).

20 Helen's line strikes me as not necessarily a textual crux, as some editors have thought—thus Bevington's The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 1.1.165n, as well as the Riverside edition—but as her serious musing on Paroles' comic paradoxes: 'Not my virginity'.

21 So in Catullus' famous wedding song, the god is summoned by the singing of virgins: ' "o Hymenaee Hymen, / o Hymen Hymenaee", / ut lubentius, audiens / se citarier ad suum / munus, huc aditum ferat / dux bonae Veneris, boni / coniugator amoris' (LXI.39-45). [' "O Hymeneal Hymen, / O Hymen Hymeneal", / So that the more gladly, hearing / Himself summoned to his proper / Duty, he may make approach here / As the bringer of good Venus / And good love's uniter': Lee, Poems of Catullus, pp. 58-9.]

22 Cartari, in Le imagini de i'dei (Lyons, 1581), offers an illustration of Hymen with the following commentary: 'Hymen was shown by the ancients in the form of a handsome young man crowned with a diversity of flowers, in his right hand a lighted torch and in his left hand a red veil (or it could be saffron) with which new brides covered their head to face the first time they went to their husbands. And the reason for this … is that the wives of priests among the ancient Romans almost always wore a similar veil. Because they were not allowed to divorce, as others were, the covering of the bride with the veil came to mean the desire for the marriage never to be dissolved. This does not preclude also the symbolic meaning of the chaste modesty of the bride, which is the same as Pudor, respected by the ancients so much that it was worshipped like a god' (quoted in John Doebler, Shakespeare's Speaking Pictures (Albuquerque, 1974), p. 37).

23 Cf. Lear's vision of the simpering dame, 'Whose face between her forks presages snow' (Lear F 4.5.117).

24 In Pericles, Boult tells Marina, 'I must have your maidenhead taken off, or the common executioner shall do it' (Sc.19.153-4).

25 Thomas Vicary, The Anatomie of the Bodie of Man (1548), eds. F. J. and Percy Furnivall (London, 1888), pp. 77-8. According to Ambrose Parey, the term 'flowers' is used 'because that as in plants the flower buddeth out before the fruits, so in women kinde this flux goeth before the issue, or the conception thereof (The Workes of that famous Chirurgion, Ambrose Parey, trans. Thomas Johnson (London, 1634), Book 24, p. 945). Textual references are to this edition; I will refer to Parey by his Englished name rather than Pare. James Rueff, in The Expert Midwife (London, 1637), employs the same terminology of deflowering (also describing former virgins as 'robbed of their best Iewll' (Book 2, p. 59).

26The Works of Aristotle, The Famous Philosopher (New York, 1974), p. 18. This description is quoted again in Aristotle's Experienced Midwife (in The Works, pp. 80-1), and in Aristotle's Last Legacy (in The Works, p. 233). The textual history of these spurious works is obscure; Eccles locates copies of the Master Piece from 1694, the Last Legacy from 1690, and the Midwife from 1700, but all are 'certainly derived from much older works' (Eccles, p. 12). In the case of the Problemes of Aristotle—usually included with the other three works—printed copies exist from 1595. In Hoby's translation of Castiglione's Courtier (1561), however, Lord Gasper reports 'a great Philosopher in certaine Problemes of his, saith' that a woman always loves the man who 'hath been the first to receive of her amorous pleasures' (Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. Sir Thomas Hoby (London, 1928), p. 199)—i.e. the passage from The Problemes of Aristotle quoted in note 14, above. The modern editor cites Aristotle's Physics as a source, but Thomas Laqueur (Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), p. 277, n. 23) reports that this idea cannot be found there. The reason is that it comes from the spurious Problemes, apparently from an edition much earlier than the earliest known version listed in the STC. By 1615, the idea has become completely conventional: 'Whence is the Proverb (as it hath been said)Maydens love them that have their maydenhead' (Richard Brathwaite, A Strappado for the Divell (London, 1615), M3).

27'Claustrum ' was also used in Aristotle's Master Piece, pp. 10, 18. For 'Cento', see Rueff, The Expert Mid-wife, Book 2, p. 52.

28 For Sir Henry Lee's portrait, see Roy Strong, Gloriano: The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (New York, 1987), p. 141, plate 149. Cf. the title of Richard Brathwaite's excruciatingly long retelling of the Pyramus and Thisby story: Loves Labyrinth: Or the True-Lovers Knot (London, 1615). The OED gives Hamlet 4.5.39 as a reference to the true-love flower, where Ophelia sings of 'sweet flowers, / Which bewept to the grave did—not—go / With true-love showers'. Cf. also Vaughan's remarkable poem, 'The Knot', where the heavenly Virgin is addressed: 'Thou art the true Loves-knot; by thee / God is made our Allie, / And mans inferior Essence he / With his did dignifie. / For Coalescent by that Band / We are his body grown, / Nourished with favors from his hand / Whom for our head we own. / And such a Knot, what arm dares loose, / What life, what death can sever? / Which us in him, and him in us / United keeps for ever'. (The Complete Poetry of Henry Vaughan, ed. French Fogle (New York, 1964), lines 5-16, p. 302). Phillip Stubbes complains of the fashion in 1583, noting the 'sleeves … tyed with true-looves knottes (for so they call them)' (Phillip Stubbes, Anatomy of the Abuses in England, ed. F. J. Furnivall (London, 1877-9), 1.74).

29The Complete Prose Works of John Milton, ed. Ernest Sirluck (New Haven, 1959), D.D. 2.269.31, M.B. 2.467.30. The author of Hali Meidenhad notes: 'Look around, seely maiden, if the knot of wedlock be once knotted, let the man be a dump or a cripple, be he whatever he may be, thou must keep to him' (p. 32).

30 J. C. Smith, ed., Spenser's Faerie Queene (Oxford, 1909),; Ernest de Selincourt, ed., Spenser's Minor Poems (Oxford, 1910).

31 Milton allows that 'the knot of marriage may in no case be dissolv'd but for adultery' (Complete Prose Works, D.D. 2.240.29), while Donne prays in erotic language for a separation from the knot in 'Holy Sonnet xiv': 'Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain, / But am betrothed unto your enemy, / Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again, / Take me to you, imprison me, for I / Except you enthral me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me' (John Donne: The Complete English Poems, ed. A. J. Smith (London, 1976), p. 314). Cf. Leantio's dying words for Bianca in Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women, ed. J. R. Mulryne (London, 1975): 'My heart-string and the marriage-knot that tied thee / Breaks both together' (4.2.44-5).

32 In 'Chapman's Use of Cartari in the Fifth Sestiad of "Hero and Leander" ', Modern Language Review, 39 (1944), 280-5, D. J. Gordon suggests that Chapman inferred an allusion to Minerva in Cartari's phrase, 'In quo Deam Virginensem vir invocabat'; yet in other passages of Cartari which Chapman has obviously read, the identification with Hercules is quite clear: 'Cingulum id Herculano nodo vinctum'. Cartari, in turn, is simply paraphrasing (as he acknowledges) Sextus Pompeius Festus: 'Hunc Herculaneo nodo vinctum' (Sexti Pompei Festi: De Verborum Significatu Quae Supersunt Cum Pauli Epitome, ed. Wallace M. Lindsay (London, 1913), p. 55). Chapman may have made an association with Minerva's shield, with which the maiden warrior-goddess defended her virtue. On the iconography of Minerva's shield, see James Nohrnberg, The Analogy of the Faerie Queene (Princeton, 1976), pp. 456-7. For a broader study, see Rudolf Wittkower, 'Transformations of Minerva in Renaissance Imagery', Journal of the Warburg Institute, 2 (1938-9), 194-205.

33 Ben Jonson, The Complete Masques, ed. Stephen Orgel (New Haven, 1969). Textual references are to this edition. In Aristotle's Master Piece, 'the Zone, or girdle of chastity', is defined as the hole in the middle of the hymen, through which the menses flow (p. 18). The terminology of the 'Zone' may derive from Catullus' famous phrase, 'zonam soluere virgineam', 'to undo a virgin's girdle' (Lee, Poems of Catullus, LXVII 28, p. 112).

34The Five Books of Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. Jacques Le Clercq (New York, 1936), p. 390; Clement of Alexandria, trans. G. W. Butterworth (London, 1919), p. 69. Sextus Pompeius Festus seems to have been the first to escalate the number ('septuaginta'), which was also copied by Cartari. Natalis Comes (Chapter Seven of the Mythologiae) gives the number as fifty. At some point, moreover, a further escalation in Hercules' sexual power took place, as he is said not just to impregnate fifty (or seventy) virgins, but to do it in a single night (so Jonson at Alchemist 2.2.39).

35 See Celeste Turner Wright, 'The Amazons in Elizabethan Literature', Studies in Philology, 37 (1940), 433-56; Winfried Schleiner, 'Divina virago: Queen Elizabeth as an Amazon', Studies in Philology, 75 (1978), 163-80; Gabriele Bernhard Jackson, 'Topical Ideology: Witches, Amazons, and Shakespeare's Joan of Arc', English Literary Renaissance, 18 (1988), 40-65; and Simon Shepherd, Amazons and Warrior Women: Varieties of Feminism in Seventeenth-Century Drama (New York, 1981).

36 See Strong, Gloriano, pp. 130 (pl. 138) and 132 (pl. 139). In other portraits, a pearl or other jewel holds the same symbolic place on her dress—pp. 127 (pl. 136), 129 (pl. 137), and 151 (pl. 168).

37 In a very suggestive essay, David Willbern traces 'Shakespeare's Nothing', in Representing Shakespeare, eds. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore, 1980). See also

38 Thomas Laqueur's definitive study, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, has no entry in its Index under 'hymen'; the subject is significantly absent throughout. Neither of the two most popular midwifery books available in England in this period—Eucharius Roesslin, The byrth of mankynde (London, 1540; 13 editions), and James Guillemeau, Child-Birth or, The Happy Deliverie of Women (London, 1612; 2 editions)—ever mentions the hymen, even in their descriptions of the female reproductive system. In The Sicke Womans Private Looking-Glasse (London, 1636), John Sadler makes a single, one-line reference to the hymen (Chapter I, p. 5).

39 Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Holbrook Jackson (London, 1932), 3.3.2 (p. 284).

40Aristotle's Master Piece, in The Works of Aristotle, The Famous Philosopher, p. 20.

Michael Hattaway (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Fleshing His Will in the Spoil of Her Honour: Desire, Misogyny, and the Perils of Chivalry," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 46, 1994, pp. 121-35.

[In the following essay, Hattaway undertakes a general analysis of misogyny in Shakespeare's texts, describing four sitesanatomical, psycho-analytical, social, and ideologicalin which misogyny occurs.]


To begin with, a description of an excellent but disconcertingly politically correct production of Measure for Measure by Compass Theatre Company.1 The group, directed by Neil Sissons, is a small one and, as with Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream, they generated a stunning new reading of the text by doubling members of the cast. Isabella and Mistress Over-done were played by the same actress; Angelo, Claudio, and Barnardine by one actor, and the authority figures of the Duke and Elbow by another. The revelation of the production came with the recognitions of the last scene. In that final sequence, the Friar is unmasked as the Duke: in this production, in a resonantly quoted gesture, Angelo was also stripped down—the cast wore modern dress—to the long-johns he had worn as Claudio in prison. At the Duke's question 'Which is that Barnardine?' (5.1.477), the actor simply adopted the half-crazed mannerisms he had deployed for Barnardine during the short sequence that follows.

David Westbrook had played Angelo as a compulsively smiling, bespectacled, and totally bald young man whose first act on acquiring power was to tidy the Duke's desk. He looked like the most dangerous sort of train-spotter who revealed his true day-dreams as he wrestled Isabella to the ground at the end of 2.4. Handy-dandy, which was which? The doubling of the actors led to an equation of the 'naturalness' of Claudio's 'tilth and husbandry' with the depravity of Angelo the 'virgin violator': Claudio was merely Angelo in disguise, and, more horribly, Angelo was Claudio in disguise. The Duke's second question, 'What muffled fellow's that?' (5.1.485) acquired another, generalized, meaning—the production ended with the Duke, a comfortable, cherubic, humorous fellow, chortling to himself centre stage. He too, it turned out, was 'muffled' : the director had highlighted the moment when he had 'pardoned' Isabella for refusing to lay down her chastity, and his plan to bring her 'heavenly comforts of despair / When it [was] least expected' (4.3.107-8) was thereby revealed as part of a long-hatched plan to get her into his bed. One might go further: the doubling of Isabella and Mistress Overdone suggested that both, in a patriarchal world, were transgressors. By proposing to Isabella, the Duke was at once exercising his power over a woman who had challenged his authority and seeking to turn into fact the fantasy of taking sexually an unattainable woman. Men without their little brief authority were indeed poor forked creatures: Angelo/Claudio had to be comforted and led off by a horrified Isabella (Helen Franklin) who looked back at the Duke her 'saviour' with an expression that would have been apt if Elbow had propositioned her.

This was undoubtedly brilliant and, equally undoubtedly, a post-feminist production. The insight of the production was of our time, and there is no evidence either in the text or even in my sense of what a performance would have meant to contemporaries that would enable me to dismiss it out of hand on critical or 'historical' grounds. Indeed I want to examine and try to explain, if not to condone, some of the appalling attitudes towards women within other plays that productions of this kind may expose. They lay bare a disconcerting degree of misogyny2—to such an extent that I am prepared in this context, to speak of 'Shakespeare's works' rather than 'Shakespearian texts'. Shakespeare's plays of love—in tragedy, comedy, and romance—often expose ploys of hatred. The tones of 'happy' romantic comedy are so continually displaced that we might concede that what Lactantius deemed to be the subjects of ancient comedy, 'the debauching of virgins and the amours of strumpets',3 apply equally to Shakespeare in the Renaissance. I shall end by drawing attention to particular passages where it is obvious that misogyny is problematized.

These days, however, for a man 'reading as a woman' there is much discomfort, not only because one is invited to accept guilt on behalf of one's masculine forebears—and that's dangerous—but equally because, by endorsing the kind of statement the Compass production made, there is a danger of suppressing all that is erotic and enjoyable—in Renaissance terms, perhaps, what is 'wanton' or 'frolicsome'—and embittering all relationships between the sexes. For Shakespeare's plays explore not only the connections between sex and power but those between sex and pleasure. I do not want to launch here into another reading of Madonna as a cultural icon, but I do want to suggest that the Compass Company's reading suppresses what George Orwell called, in his wonderful essay on the art of Donald McGill (the artist who produced 'vulgar' seaside postcards), the Sancho Panza view of life, one of the 'two principles, noble folly and base wisdom There [that] exist side by side in nearly every human being'.4 There is admittedly little cheerful relishing of sexual vulgarity of this sort in Measure for Measure. Lucio is relevant, but Lucio is hard to define. We might take his jibes at Angelo's sexuality as merely sniggering clubroom prattle, and feel that Shakespeare undercuts his role as a positive foil to sexual puritanism by having him abandon Kate Keepdown. Alternatively we may hear in his lines the sardonic tones and the verbal conceits of Pietro Aretino, the scourge of princes.

Concerning the wanton, we might consider the sort of values that are associated with, say, Costard in Love's Labour's Lost who seems simply 'happy' to consort with his wench. Again, however, I need to qualify as I am aware that there are dangers of attributing a happy and unconstrained sexuality to what were in those days called the base members of society. Freud may have been as guilty of this idealization when he wrote of the unproblematized sexuality of 'primitive man'5 as Margaret Mead was when writing of the Samoans. Moreover, it is not just male clowns who celebrate sexual desire: Beatrice and Margaret in Much Ado (3.4), Rosaline and Maria in Love's Labour's Lost (4.1) speak 'greasily'. In cases like this, are the politically correct simply going to attribute this 'feminine bawdy' to the proclivities of a voyeuristic male author? Rather, to quote Orwell again, sexy talk represents 'a sort of saturnalia, a harmless rebellion against virtue'6—for there are dangers under the present cultural regime that a neo-Bowdlerism may become prevalent.7 Man may be a giddy thing, but male desire will not go away—nor need it be the driving force of a chauvinist or imperialist strategy. It may on occasion even be reciprocated.

Woven into what follows is a general analysis of misogyny in Shakespearian texts. I want, after some preliminary remarks about evidence and some account of contemporary debates, to think about possible psycho-analytical, social, and cultural explanations—perhaps descriptions is a better word—of Renaissance misogyny. I list these by order of convenience: it is impossible for me to prove either that the social is base and the others superstructure, or that the psychological is prior to either by virtue of being transhistorical. In particular texts we may come across the displacement of class hostilities onto gender but we can set this up as no over-arching explanation. My descriptions tend to the psycho-analytical8 and ideological; they are less transparent than the terms in which the querelle des femmes was conducted in early modern England. 'Jane Anger's' Protection for Women (1589), and, a generation or so later, the texts associated with the play Swetnam the Woman Hater (1620), for example, are essentially rhetorical exercises.9 The authors simply trade idea for idea, reversing the direction of musculine railing by looking out alternative topoi and exempta from the scriptures and the church fathers to confound Aristotle and expose how, as the mysterious 'Jane Anger' says, men 'confess we are necessary, but… would have us likewise evil'.10 Nor do I want to deal here with the 'humorous' type of the stage misogynist and his formal diatribes.11

I want to concentrate on three plays—Love's Labour's Lost, All's Well that Ends Well, and The Winter's Tale— in order to explore some of the particular connections made in the Renaissance between male sexuality and blood. Because blood is a metonym not only for a humour but also for social rank, I shall be invoking what I said about Costard and implying that both Renaissance misogyny and our own 'anti-sexism' may well be products of élite cultures. Both may stem from what Orwell called 'high sentiments'12—and high sentiments can be dangerous.


To begin with language. It was well said of D. H. Lawrence that the representation of sex in his novels is a way of 'talking about something else', an area where 'Eros becomes metaphor'.13 We are now equally aware of a hermeneutic circle, that 'something else' is often a way of talking about sex, and that consequently gender and, possibly, desire itself, at the centre of our experience, is as conditioned by social forms and pressures as any other aspect of life. What we take to be the most intimate, the most authentic, the most unmediated is, because we can position it only within language, as much a social as a private phenomenon. The private is but an internalization of the social or, as Michel Foucault put it, 'there is no experience which is not a way of thinking'.14 According to a 'hard' reading, sexuality is not just a biological drive but 'a way of fashioning the self "in the experience of the flesh", which itself is "constituted from and around certain forms of behaviour" … Like the whole world for Nietzsche, … sexuality is "a sort of artwork"15

Like woman, man is not born but made.16Literary Love, the title of a notable book by A. J. Smith, deconstructs itself—or turns out to be about far more than it proclaims. Because of this mediation in and by language, the authentic experience is endlessly deferred; desire is bound to be unfulfilled either because it fails to match the imaginary or, having matched it, reveals itself to be thereby inauthentic. (I do not think it is too far-fetched to claim that a consideration of the play of style in As You Like It leads to a profound questioning of whether the romantic is in fact authentic. Orlandos may be happier wooing their Ganymedes than wedding their Rosalinds.)

Donne's writings provide a convenient site for the investigation of the relationship between language and desire—if we can distinguish them. One need only invoke, from the second Satire, Coscus, once a poet and now a lawyer, who 'woos in language of the Pleas and Bench'.17 Although Coscus is a fool, he, like all of us, can woo (and feel?) only in the language of another trade or practice. Eros is unattainable except through metaphor.

Donne's epigram 'On Manliness' gives us another example. The language game upon which it depends reveals that manliness is a construction:

Thou call'st me effeminate, for I love  women's joys; I call not thee manly, though thou follow  boys.

The grammar of the poem serves to defamiliarize the word 'women's'. It can be a subjective or an objective genitive: the voice of the poem may be confessing that he enjoys what women enjoy or that he enjoys women. Experience in this world can be explained only by metaphor, and 'spiritual' or Platonic love rendered and experienced only by the language of this world. Biological division, sex, gives its name to 'sex' in the sense of desire—an unobvious case of metonymy (or is it synecdoche, the part for the whole?). In what might be the first use of the word 'sex' in its modern sense of carnal desire,18 Donne seems to claim that desire is always driven by something else:

This ecstasy doth unperplex,  (We said) and tell us what we love, We see by this, it was not sex,  We see, we saw not what doth move.

What, then, doth move?


To the men of the Renaissance, the answer was simple, 'Blood' or 'Flesh and blood'. This is the reply churlish that the Duchess' Younger Son offers in The Revenger's Tragedy when he is asked what moved him to the rape of Antonio's wife.19 Blood, of course, was one of the humours. To those with bad faith, like this Younger Son, it gave an excuse for transgressive behaviour; for Shakespeare's Angelo it is the centre of a tragic predicament: 'Blood, thou art blood' (2.4.15). It was a sign of a curse, ambiguously signifying lust and murder,20 as we hear in De Flores' rebuke to Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling: 'A woman dipped in blood, and talk of modesty'.21 For sage Ben Jonson blood was part of a signifying system. He solved the brain/mind problem by arguing that a description of a physical condition could only be a metaphor for a mental condition.22

'Blood' therefore is what Empson called a complex word. Let us consider a moment in All's Well when the Countess is bidding farewell to her son:

Be thous blessed, Bertram, and succeed thy  father In manners as in shape. Thy blood and virtue Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness Share with thy birthright.                                    (1.1.58-61)

'Blood' and 'virtue': the context suggests that these designate aspects of nature and nurture, inherited and acquired qualities. These words, however, are disconcertingly ambiguous: 'blood' can mean rank ('birthright') as well as 'good breeding',23 'virtue', manliness or mettle as well as goodness. This turns out not to be a simple binary opposition, but a quaternary one. When we deconstruct the passage we realize that there is an ideological agenda contained in it: rank gives licence to desire, and goodness depends on sexual valour.24 The Countess is being proleptic, anticipating both Bertram's rejection of Helen and his (thwarted) attempt on Diana's virginity.

In another key we might notice how what we might have understood, before Foucault, as a biological imperative, desire, is described by the clown of the play, Lavatch, as something experienced by the 'other', in this case the body of the subject:

COUNTESS Tell me thy reason why thou wilt marry.

LAVATCH My poor body, madam, requires it. I am driven on by the flesh, and he must needs go that the devil drives.


The passage economically evokes a fierce Pauline Christianity that has generated, as the clown's plain speaking demonstrates, what Donne calls a 'serpent love',25 an alienated sexuality. This ascription of desire to the blood and its demonization together constitute one part of what I would term a complex disorientation syndrome.

To analyse it, we might start with the physical. Anatomy was imperfectly understood, or rather what we take to be the empirical, something to be seen, was 'seen as' a version of the ideological. As Thomas Laqueur has claimed in his important analysis of the 'one-sex model' of Renaissance sexuality, most anatomists of the period sought to reveal similarities and not differences between cadavers of what we take to be the 'opposite' sexes, with a view of course to demonstrate that woman was but an imperfect version of the man.26 It followed that they held both semen and the menses to be versions of blood. In the Hippocratic tradition, 'sperm, a foam much like the froth on the sea, was first refined out of the blood; it passed to the brain; from the brain it made its way back through the spinal marrow, the kidneys, the testicles, and into the penis. Menstrual blood, a phethora or leftover of nutrition is, as it were, a local variant in this generic corporeal economy of fluids and organs.'27 Accordingly, we read in Thomas Vicary's The Anatomy of the Body of Man, 1577: 'And further it is to be noted that this sperm that cometh both of man and woman is made and gathered of the most best and purest drops of blood in all the body; and by the labour and chafing of the testicles or stones, this blood is turned into another kind, and is made sperm. And in man it is hot, white, and thick, wherefore it may not spread nor run abroad of itself, but runneth and taketh temperance of the woman's sperm, which hath contrary qualities, for the woman's sperm is thinner, colder, and feebler'.28 This reinforces the over-valuation of the masculine and the devaluation of the feminine: we read in a misogynistic text of 1599, 'Woman … [is] not framed for any respect or use than for a receptacle of some of our excremental humours':29 woman is 'the pits'.

What we are meeting, in these patriarchal texts (which arguably served as documents of control rather than as descriptions of experience) is a deeply ambivalent attitude towards sexuality, both male and female. On the one hand it is a manifestation of manliness (virtu), on the other it is the enemy of goodness (virtue). Moreover because, in the Augustinian tradition, desire, since the fall, has not been voluntary, desire, like drink, makes and mars a man, causes him to lose control.30 In a figure used in the 1615 translation of Varchi's The Blazon of Jealousy, voluptas supplants voluntas?31 Or, to put it another way, misogyny may well imply misandry. The rules that were framed to control the behaviour of women served of course to control the behaviour of men. If a man 'fell' for a woman, it was easy to blame the cause of that fall, which was, paradoxically, the idealized object of his desire. In some cases this might be projected back onto the subject. So Othello, when he is vaunting of his success in winning Desdemona, sums it up in his half-proud, half-shame-faced line, 'I do confess the vices of my blood' (1.3.123).

We see this fear of women—or is it hatred?—registered in Love's Labour's Lost. The men of Navarre are young bloods, men of high degree in the prime of their youth. They proclaim that they are devotees of art (they are seeking fame), and that study, based on reason, is all too vulnerable to 'affections':

Therefore, brave conquerors—for so you are, That war against your own affections And the huge army of the world's desires                                   (1.1.8-10)

'Affections' means here both perturbations or diseases (OED, affection sb 10) and desires.32 But in order to put down desire the men put down the cause of disease and desire—women. This 'happy' comedy is, we may come to feel, shot through with misogyny:

DUMAINE  I would forget her, but a fever she  Reigns in my blood and will remembered be.                                  (4.3.93-4)

In the subplot Armado, he who would combine the male roles of Mars and Mercury, explores the 'bittersweet' pun of amare-amaro:33 'Love is a familiar; love is a devil. There is no evil angel but love' (1.2.163-5).

Biron, who in the first set of wit in the play casts himself as the 'natural' man, unwilling to repress his desires, has a set speech later where his satirical wit serves only to reveal a comic unease that well may rest upon a degree of residual misogyny:

What? I love, I sue, I seek a wife?— A woman, that is like a German clock, Still a-repairing, ever out of frame, And never going aright, being a watch, But being watched that it may still go right…

And I to sigh for her, to watch for her, To pray for her—go to, it is a plague That Cupid will impose for my neglect Of his almighty dreadful little might.                                    (3.1.184-98)

This is the sort of jocularity we find in misogynist texts like Les quinze joyes de mariage, translated anonymously in 1509 as The fyftene Joyes of maryage and again in 1603 as The Batchelar's Banquet,34 probably by Robert Tofte who seems to have specialized in this sort of work.35 If we read the text in this 'hard' manner we may conclude that Biron's great set speech in praise of love later in the play ('Have at you, then, affection's men at arms'36) is mere opportunistic rhetoric.

The way in which social form empowers feeling is manifest in Biron's lines

For every man with his affects is born, Not by might mastered, but by special grace.37                                   (1.1.149-50)

This second line needs unpacking. 'Affects' is a pun: it means both 'affections' and 'affectations', has to do with both humours and manners. In this comedy, as it happens, the 'affects' are, we might conclude, mastered, not, as is usual in comedy, by will or change but by 'grace'. The Princess and her ladies come upon the scene as, to pick up Biron's phrase, 'special graces'. The phrase has a specific meaning—it derives from Calvin who distinguishes 'special graces' from 'gifts of nature'. 'Special graces', he writes, 'God … diversely and to a certain measure dealeth among men that are otherwise ungodly'.38 The ladies are, moreover, related to the classical tradition, to figures of Venus and the three Graces.39 Artists customarily depicted the Graces with two figures facing and one with her back to the viewer40—which may explain the joke where all turn their backs on the masquers (5.2.160). The play ends with a set of deferred betrothals: Venus eventually tames Mars.41 From that union, that discordia concors, would be born, according to Plutarch, 'the child Harmony'.42 Shakespeare inscribes the idea in the musical débat between Owl and Cuckoo, Winter and Spring at the end of the play. That is a positive strand: equally, however, Amor is a god of death.43

ROSALINE [Cupid] hath been five thousand year   a boy. CATHRINE Ay, and a shrewd unhappy gallows,   too. ROSALINE You'll n'er be friends with him, a   killed your sister. CATHERINE He made her melancholy, sad, and   heavy, And so she died.                                              (5.2.11-15)

The betrothals are contracted under the shadow of death, the death of the King of France. Cupid's labour may have been lost, and a 'hard reading' of the play might hint that no marriages are in fact going to ensue.

The ambivalence of this Renaissance attitude to sex informed attitudes not just to courtship but to marriage. There is pertinent material in The Winter's Tale. We start by thinking of Leontes and Polixenes looking back to a state of innocence when they were 'boy eternal' (1.2.66). Imprinted on this metaphor is, as Hermione makes plain, a dream of Eden from which men were expelled—because of the feminine:

We were as twinned lambs that did frisk i' th'  sun, And bleat the one at th'other. What we   changed Was innocence for innocence. We knew not The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed That any did. Had we pursued that life, And our weak spirits ne'er been higher reared With stronger blood, we should have answered   heaven Boldly, 'Not guilty', the imposition cleared Hereditary ours. Hermione     By this we gather You have tripped since. Polixenes     O my most sacred lady, Temptations have since then been born to's; for In those unfledged days was my wife a girl. Your precious self had then not crossed the   eyes Of my young playfellow. Hermione                    Grace to boot! Of this make no conclusion, lest you say Your queen and I are devils.(The Winter's Tale, 1.2.69-84, emphases added)

Here we notice an allusion not only to the fall but to the question of pre-lapsarian marriage. Paradise, for these two men, was a world of masculine friendship, and there woman takes the role not of a Grace but of a serpent. They seem to be explicitly rejecting the largely Protestant notion of paradisal marriage,44 a notion that had been at the centre of a controversy that had raged a year or so before the play was written between the academic dramatist William Gager45 and the Revd William Heale who set out his case in An Apology for Women (1609). Heale constructs his vindication of women and exposure of the double standard with a with a goodly number of sententiae and exempla drawn from a wide range of authors. It ends with a commentary on 'the Eden of felicity',46 the story of Paradise, in which Heale argues that woman exceeds man because of being made not out of dust but out of man's rib:

And parallel also unto the purity of this golden age was the perfection of man's and woman's soul. For when their bodies were first framed as a picture of wrought wax or an image of hewn stone, God breathed thereunto a lively soul, which he styled the breath of life. And that spirit, being of an aëreal substance and (as it were) angelical essence, defused itself into each part, giving motion, sense, and reason unto the whole.47

This suggests a resonance for the statue scene, but I wonder whether Paulina's 'recreation' of Hermione48has purged Leontes' misogyny. Like everyone I had noticed that Hermione does not speak to Leontes. However, I think I had failed to notice how the implied stage directions suggest that the scene could be played to show Leontes not in the throes of a redemptive joy, but as appalled, even disgusted. He was eager to kiss the 'statue' (5.3.80) but not the living woman. Paulina has to urge Leontes forward:

               Do not shun her Until you see her die again, for then You kill her double. Nay, present your hand. When she was young, you wooed her. Now,  in age, Is she become the suitor?                               (5.3.105-9)

Leontes stays tongue-tied, possibly refusing the implied offer of a hand-fasting or new marriage contract,49 as his wife seeks to reconjure old emotions:

POLIXENES She embraces him. CAMILLO She hangs about his neck.                                         (5.3.111-12)

The two do not exchange any dialogue, and most of what Leontes says has to do with procuring a marriage between Camillo and Paulina, as well as asking pardon from his wife and Polixenes.


These are some of the Renaissance contexts, anatomical and theological, of misogyny. I now want to turn to various contemporary models. We are thoroughly familiar with the construction of the feminine in Shakespearian texts: 'Sacred and sweet was all I saw in her' says Lucentio of Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew (1.1.174). This suggests a strong process of suppression. What was suppressed was below the waist:

The fitchew nor the soilèd horse goes to't With a more riotous appetite. Down from  the waist They're centaurs, though women all above. But to the girdle do the gods inherit; Beneath is all the fiend's. There's hell, there's darkness, there is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption. Fie, fie, fie;  pah, pah!(Lear, f 4.5.120-6).

This excess of Lear is obviously pathological, but the equation of hell with the vagina was a common trope,50 a Renaissance equivalent to the identification of the Medusa's head with the female genitals made by Freud and others.51 How might we explain? In Much Ado Claudio wants women to be sexually inert, to reaffirm their powerlessness in all that they do:

CLAUDIO You seem to me as Dian in her orb, As chaste as is the bud ere it be blown. But you are more intemperate in your blood Than Venus or those pampered animals That rage in savage sensuality.                                (4.1.57-61)

Claudio's emotion seems to be in excess of the facts, telling us more about himself than about Hero. Her nature not her action is the butt of his pathological indictment of what he takes to be the excessive and trasgressive. The invocation of animals aligns itself with Freud' s account of the way children may displace images of copulating animals into their fantasies concerning their parents' sexual intercourse. 'They adopt what may be called a sadistic view of coition.'52 Stories in which humans copulate with animals may also be reworkings of this 'primal scene' narrative: Oberon's desire to humiliate Titania by having her fall for an ass is obviously relevant here.

Such bestial or sadistic images seem to emerge in Shakespeare as an index of immature or displaced sexuality. So Iago, who, as Lynda Boose has demonstrated,53 is usefully thought of as an Aretinian pornographer rather than a Machiavellian devil, the 'shadow-side'54 of the men in the play, kindles Brabanzio's fury not just by his racist taunts but by reminding him of how woman brings out the beast in man:

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram Is tupping your white ewe.                                       (1.1.88-9).

Notice how he calls Desdemona a ewe and not a lamb, suggesting that she is out to wound Brabanzio's manhood and not just his family honour. And again:

… you'll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, you'll have your nephews neigh to you, you'll have coursers for cousins and jennets for germans … your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.55


For Othello he conjures images of bestiality, cunningly getting the Moor to see himself in Cassio's place and so raising 'spirits' that Othello had seemingly methodically suppressed:

It is impossible you should see this, Were they as prime as goats, as hot as  monkeys, As salt as wolves in pride, and fools as gross As ignorance made drunk. But yet I say, If imputation, and strong circumstances Which lead directly to the door of truth, Will give you satisfaction, you might ha't.56                                    (3.3.407-13)

Along with bestial fantasies we find a disconcerting sadism in the mental make-up of several of Shakespeare's heroes. It emerges in the 'manliness' of Tullus Aufidius, who eroticizes his enemy Coriolanus:

               Thou hast beat me out Twelve several times, and I have nightly since Dreamt of encounters 'twixt thyself and me— We have been down together in my sleep, Unbuckling helms, fisting each other's  throat— And waked half dead with nothing.                                  (4.5.122-7)

This man's love is not for the 'Other' or woman but for his alter ego, both detested and admired. In Timon the hero's command to the whores Phrynia and Timandra, 'Hold up, you sluts, / Your aprons mountant' (4.3.135-6) suggests a metaphorical rape by the gold he pours into their laps, a grotesque parody of what Jove did to Danaë. My point is that misogyny of a particularly sexual kind seems to be apparent in an extraordinarily large number of Shakespearian texts.


If Freud is right, misogyny may be a function of a well-nigh universal function of childhood fantasies of the primal scene, and I don't know whether I can demonstrate that this sort of thing is what Foucault calls 'a historically singular form of experience'.57 However, I do not thing that it is difficult to demonstrate that there was a condition of woman question in the culture of the English Renaissance. Martin Ingram's work on church courts58 shows an intense preoccupation with what Natalie Zemon Davis earlier called 'women on top',59 those whom men considered a threat to the social system, who weren't 'sacred and sweet'.60

Perhaps one of the reasons that we have not perceived as clearly that there may have been a 'condition of men' problem is that 'literary' texts, written by men, tend to concern themselves with individual moral and emotional problems, to see women as simply a group that comprises the 'other'. However, whenever there has been any sort of movement for female emancipation we have tended to find group male sexual disorientation.61 The plethora of cuckolding jokes in comedy may well manifest a fear of female emancipation.62

When we turn to a manifestation of this in Shakespeare, I want to start with Othello:

OTHELLO I had been happy if the general camp, Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body, So I had nothing known. I, now for ever Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content, Farewell the plumèd troops and the big wars That makes ambition virtue!

Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone.                                                 (3.3.350-62)

The lines are familiar, but that crucial triple sexual pun on 'occupation'63—it means role or vocation, as well as designating Desdemona as mere object—remains unglossed in the new Arden (1958) and even the New Cambridge (1984) editions. Othello's social identity entails his sexual identity. He perceives Desdemona's seeming violation of his ethical position, his marital honour, mainly as a violation of his social reputation, the kind of 'honour' of which Iago speaks. Desdemona had begun by 'deceiving' her father (1.3.293): maybe Othello has begun to believe Brabanzio, and his only reaction to this 'unruliness' may be a more strenuous assertion of what he takes to be his essential maleness, what the text reveals to be simply masculine behaviour.

Another familiar moment, which shows that Othello saw not what doth move:

OTHELLO It is the cause, it is the cause, my   soul. Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars. It is the cause. Yet I'll not shed her blood, Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, And smooth as monumental alabaster. Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men.

                  When I have plucked thy rose I cannot give it vital growth again. It needs must wither. I'll smell thee on the    tree.               [He kisses her]                                      (5.2.1-15)

Yet again the masculinity lies in language. Writers have often noted Othello's idealization, not so his bad faith:64 the moor refuses to define the cause of his jealousy, he (wilfully?) confuses the final cause for which he will kill his wife with the efficient cause by which he is driven to kill his wife. Few would now agree with Bradley: 'The deed he is bound to do is no murder, but a sacrifice'.65 The speech does far more than generate pathos, it makes us acutely uncomfortable. 'When I have plucked thy rose' means, of course, 'when I have taken your maidenhead'.66 (It is not so glossed in the old or New Cambridge or new Arden editions.) The suggestion is that only by killing Desdemona can Othello meet with Desdemona's sexuality. 'Thy bed, lust-stained, shall with lust's blood be spotted' (5.1.37): this act, moreover, seems to him to be a way of exterminating female sexuality—and his own sexuality. Of Iago he exclaims:

Ay, 'twas he that told me on her first. An honest man he is, and hates the slime That sticks on filthy deeds                                    (5.2.154-6)

The misogyny, based on a pathological aversion to the physical nature of marital copulation, could not be more apparent.

As Eliot made us aware years ago, one of the great questions of the play is whether Othello achieves recognition, sees some shame in motives late revealed, or whether he merely cheers himself up. Othello's 'O blood, blood, blood!' (3.4.455) may indicate some beginnings of awareness: it is a cry of vengeance, a piece of invective against his wife's sexuality, and maybe contains the beginning of recognition that he shares blood with Cassio, that passion will destroy order. At the end he is conspicously silent about his love. Perhaps this silence betokens a recognition that at last—but too late—he has understood not only the moral innocence but the sexual nature of himself and his wife.

So Lavatch's 'blood', Hamlet's blood-curdled ghost,67 Othello's 'O, blood, of blood, blood!': they all partake of the devil, all generate echoes of the primal scene. They generate the overheated pornographic imagination of Hamlet brooding on reechy kisses and the underheated pornographic imagination of Iago.


Our so-called patriarchal bard, in a fine frenzy of evenhandedness, offers some fierce verdicts on transgressive or excessive masculine sexuality. Men are, as searchers after reputation rather than virtue, perverters of the parable of the talents:

PAROLES He wears his honour in a box unseen That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home, Spending his manly marrow in her arms                                   (2.3.276-8)

The taking of maidenheads is an index of virtue, but woman, the owner of maidenhead, causes man to spend, use up, his precious marrow,68 his semen, his manliness.69 And, from another sequence in All's Well, we hear the disconcerting line that gives this essay its title:


[Bertram] hath perverted a young gentlewoman here in Florence of a most chaste renown, and this night he fleshes his will in the spoil of her honour.


'Fleshes' means to give a first taste of flesh, as to a hawk: here losing virginity is an act of sadism and martial pillage.

Men are in short misogynists, seeking a sexual satisfaction that is endlessly deferred, and, if achieved, achieved only through fantasising:

Helen [to the Widow]         O, strange men, That can such sweet use make of what they   hate, When saucy trusting of the cozened thoughts Defiles the pitchy night; so lust doth play With what it loathes, for that which is away.                                        (4.4.21-5)

This is a gaming metaphor—although it is not glossed as such in New Cambridge—but the pun on 'play' suggests both faking in bed and sexual molestation. It is a marvellous metaphor for what Freud terms the 'tendency to debasement in love'.70 (There may also be an echo of an Aristotelian problem: a woman, he averred, 'always loveth the man that hath been the first to receive of her amorous pleasures … and contrariwise the man hateth the woman that hath been the first to couple in that wise with him'.71)

It is all too easy to pluck word crisis out of air, but I do want to suggest that the literary and possibly actual construction of sexuality was at odds with reality.

If we want to construct a historically singular model to account for this deformation we might look to chivalry. It was both a residual ideology as it is registered in the archaizing of Spenser, the conspicuously false consciousness of Beaumont and Fletcher,72 and a dominant one as registered in the way Queen Elizabeth turned her chastity to power.73 Originally chivalry was an ethic for legitimating war: 'as men are valiant, so are they virtuous'74—this comes from the sardonic 'Jane Anger'. When mediated through the chivalric epics, the code defines and supports an essentially individualistic ethic. It is a code for knights doing battle against enemies equal to them in rank in the feudal order or against 'paynims', evil others.

As part of a set of residual myths, it imports a set of rituals or metaphors into personal relationships. Man-hood was not just a matter of biological age and sex, but became a category of achievement that is acquired only through rites of passage. Youths were invested as squires, then dubbed knights: these central rites of passage from boyhood to manhood, physiological process measured by sexual development, are figured around patterns of war. Margaret Tyler, translator of Ortuñez de Calahorra's The First Part of the Mirror of … Knighthood (1578), tersely hints at this:

The chief matter therein contained is of exploits of wars, and the parties therein named are especially renowned for their magnanimity and courage. The author's purpose appeareth to be this, to animate thereby and set on fire the lusty courages of young gentlemen to the advancement of their line by ensuing such like steps.75

My hypothesis is that we can show, by a reading of Shakespeare, that chivalry, residual chivalry, affected male sexuality disastrously. Chivalry purports to relate to ethics but in reality it relates to politics. War-like aims are disguised as service to the female—as we see the idealization of Helen in Troilus and Cressida—and turn the consorting of men and women to a hunt for prizes and maidenheads. Chivalry constructs women as passive, as ornaments, and imposes chastity (something that can be owned or taken by a man) as a means of legitimating male power. The condition of women becomes a question of value, women become thereby tokens of exchange, and value is focused on their sexuality, on honesty rather than honour. Men idealize in order to suppress. Courtship is generally courtiership: women's desire is channelled towards their 'servants' or their lords as a way of sustaining dynasty. If the metaphors are not courtly they are martial: power is generated not through courtly negotiation but through 'the vocabulary of gentlemanly combat'.76 Armed knights are conquered by ladies77—that sort of thing.

When, however, a man turns from chivalric warrior to chivalric 'servant' he is in danger of being 'unmanned', made effeminate,78 and driven to mortal sin by feminine will. Listen to Lear's catechizing of the disguised Edgar:

LEAR What hast thou been?

EDGAR A servingman, proud in heart and mind, that curled my hair, wore gloves in my cap, served the lust of my mistress' heart, and did the act of darkness with her;

(Folio text, 3.4.78-82)

'Servingman' seems to me to be a pun here, both the cavaliere servente and a servant, the former reduced to the latter. As a loving warrior, Tomalin in Nashe's 'Choice of Valentines' is subject to the power of 'Priapus' who, against the power of his mistress Frances' dildo, is nothing:

Poor Priapus, [she exalts] whose triumph now    must fall, Except thou thrust this weakling to the wall;

Behold how he usurps in bed and bower, And undermines thy kingdom every hour.                                    (247-50)

Book 5 of The Faerie Queene begins with a linking of chivalry with justice, and the main quest of the hero is to free Eirena—an idealized feminized figure of Ireland—from the giant Grantorto (the papacy). Proper rule is obviously not only Protestant but masculine. However, one of the most notable victories won by Artegall is that over the Amazon Radigund (5.4.33).79 Artegall is accompanied by Talus the iron man whose attacks on Radigund are not only violent but wantonly tyrannical:

And euery while that mighty yron man, With his stange weapon, neuer wont in warre, Them sorely vext, and courst, and ouerran, And broke their bowes, and did their shooting   marre.                                      (v. 4.43)

Artegall is later rescued from the clutches of Radigund by his love Britomart, the incarnation of chastity who, having been granted a vision in the Temple of Isis or Equity,80 becomes even more powerful. This all seems to contain much interest for the cultural historian. For the moment I should define it as an example of what Freud called 'negation':81 'woman is brought to the surface of social consciousness only to be repudiated'.82 Or, as Foucault argued, codes of sexual conduct represent 'an elaboration of masculine conduct carried out from the viewpoint of men in order to give form to their behaviour' .83 Men come to hate the very paragons of virtue they have created to save themselves from themselves. Which may be why a Hamlet, conscious of being like Claudius, prey to desire, so hates Ophelia.

This investigation is infinitely extendible. I have described four sites, anatomical, psycho-analytical, social, and ideological, but would be loath to claim that my descriptions have provided adequate explanations for the misogyny that seems to a modern reader to be a feature of these texts. Misogyny in most of these contexts seems to be a function of patriarchy, but the terms in which it is understood form part of a whole series of signifying systems, not all of which can be attached to historically specific cultural agendas. I have added some evidence to suggest that the centres of these texts are inhabited by a number of subjects who see all sexuality, all 'acts of darkness', as shameful and 'adulterous'.84 Nashe tells in 'The Choice of Valentines' how Justice Dudgeon-Haft and Crabtree Face have driven his love Frances from rustic dancing on the town green into a brothel (21-4). He also writes in the dedicatory sonnet:

Complaints and praises everyone can write, And passion out their pangs in stately rhymes, But of love's pleasures none did ever write That hath succeeded in these latter times.

True then and, unfortunately, perhaps true now.


1 12 February 1992 at the Opera House, Buxton.

2 A prime Renaissance text, often reprinted, is the anonymous Problems of Aristotle; see also and

3Divinae Institutiones, 6.

4 George Orwell, 'The Art of Donald McGill' [1942], in Collected Essays (London, 1961), p. 175.

5 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, The Penguin Freud Library (Harmondsworth, 1985), p. 306.

6 Orwell, p. 178; see Katharine Eiseman Maus, 'Transfer of Title in Love's Labor's Lost: Language, Individualism, Gender', in I. Kamps, ed., Shakespeare Left and Right, (1991), pp. 205-23.

7 My awareness of these issues was sharpened by a paper given by Ann Thompson at a meeting of the Northern Renaissance Seminar.

8 I concur with Stephen Orgel who writes, 'To take the psychoanalytic paradigm seriously, however, and treat the plays as case histories, is surely to treat them not as objective events but as collaborative fantasies and to acknowledge thereby that we, as analysts, are implicated in the fantasy. It is not only the patients who create the shape of their histories, and when Bruno Bettelheim observes that Freud's case histories "read as well as the best novels", he is probably telling more of the truth than he intends' ('Prospero's wife' in Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan and Nancy J. Vickers, eds., Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourse of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe (Chicago, 1986), p. 52.

9 The first recorded use of 'misogynist' in OED is in the anonymous play Swetnam the Woman Hater (1620); of 'misogyny' in 1656; a rehearsal of commonplaces concerning the imperfection of women is to be found in Book 3 of Castiglione's Book of the Courtier; see also

10Jane Anger her Protection for Women, reprinted in Moira Ferguson, ed., First Feminists (Bloomington, N.Y., 1985), p. 66.

11 See Linda Woodbridge, 'The Stage Misogynist' in Women and the English Renaissance (Brighton, 1984), pp. 275-99.

12 Orwell, p. 177.

13 Mark Kinkead-Weekes, 'Eros and Metaphor: Sexual Relationship in the Fiction of D. H. Lawrence', Twentieth Century Studies, 2 (1969), 3-20, p. 4.

14 Paul Rabinow, ed.,The Foucault Reader (Harmondsworth, 1986), p. 335.

15 Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), p. 13.

16 For Jacques Derrida on the way 'man' might be demarcated in terms of gender, see Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles, tr. Barbara Harlow, 1979, pp. 59-65, and 103-5.

17 'Satire 2', 48.

18OED, sv. sb3, although the passage is not cited there.

19 Tourneur [or Middleton] The Revenger's Tragedy, ed. R. A. Foakes (London, 1966), 1.2.47; compare 'he hath fall'n by prompture of the blood' (Measure, 2.4.179).

20 See Christopher Ricks, 'The Moral and Poetic Structure of The Changeling' EC 10 (1960), 290-306; compare Spenser, The Faerie Queene, 5.7.9-10 (on the priests of Isis), and Vittoria in Webster's The White Devil, ed. John Russell Brown (London, 1966), 'O my greatest sin lay in my blood. / Now my blood pays for't' (5.6.240-1).

21Changeling, 3.4.126.

22Every Man Out of his Humour, Induction, 103.

23 Compare 'For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour, / Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood, / A violet in the youth of primy nature' (Hamlet, 1.3.5-7), and see David S. Berkeley and Donald Keesee, 'Bertram's Blood-Consciousness in All's Well that Ends Well', Studies in English Literature, 31 (1991), 247-58; for the way that bleeding was a disgrace for a man, see Gail Kern Paster, '"In the spirit of men there is no blood": blood as trope of gender in Julius Caesar', SQ, 40 (1989), 284-98.

24 This is also registered in a line from 'A Lover's Complaint': 'O false blood, thou register of lies' (52).

25 The phrase is from Donne's 'Twicknam Garden', a hymn of hatred for love.

26 See The Problemes of Aristotle (London, 1597): 'Aristotle doth say that men have small breasts and women little stones' (Sig. c6); the same text also claims that milk is digested blood (Sig. c7).

27 Laqueur, p. 35; for the implications in Twelfth Night, see pp. 114-15.

28 Thomas Vicary, The Anatomie of the Bodie of Man, 1577, Early English Text Society, Extra Series No 53 (London, 1888), p. 79; cf. The Problems of Aristotle: 'The seed … is white in men by reason of his great heat, and because it is digested better … The seed of a woman is red … because the flowers is corrupt, undigested blood' (sig. E3).

29 E & T. Tasso, Of Marriage and Wiving, tr. R. Tofte (London 1599), sig c3; in The Problems of Aristotle, copulation is described as 'purging': 'it doth expell the fume of the seed from the brain, and it doth expell the matter of impostume'.

30 James Grantham Turner, One Flesh: Paradisal Marriage and Sexual Relations in the Age of Milton (Oxford, 1987), pp. 40 ff.

31 B. Varchi, The Blazon of Jealousy, tr. R. Tofte (London, 1615), p. 16; see Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, vol. 2 of The History of Sexuality, tr. Robert Hurley, 1985, p. 6 for an exploration of the way men become 'the subject of desire'.

32 Compare Gal. 5.24: 'For they that are Christs, have crucified the flesh with the affections and the lusts'.

33 Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (Harmondsworth, 1967), p. 92.

34 F. P. Wilson, ed., The Batchelars Banquet (Oxford, 1929).

35 He wrote a poem about his unhappy adventures at a performance of the play; see G. R. Hibbard, ed., Love's Labour's Lost (Oxford, 1990), pp. 1-2.

36 4.3.288 ff.

37 'Special grace' is glossed by a commentator on Calvin as 'a special endowment of capacity, virtue, or heroism by which a man is fitted to serve the divine purpose in the world, while he himself may remain in the common state of human depravity'. Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, tr. F. L. Battles, 2 vols. (London, 1961), 1, 276n; compare Pierre de la Primaudaye, 'Of Marriage', The French Academie, tr. T. B. (London, 1586): '[marriage is necessary] by reason of sin, which came in afterward, except in those to whom God hath granted the special grace of continency, which is as rare a thing as any whatsoever' (pp. 480-1).

38Institutes, 2.3.4, tr. T. Norton (London, 1562).

39 See Boyet' s compliment on the grace of the Princess (2.1.9-12); for the Graces, see Spenser, The Faerie Queene, 6.8.24, and the Gloss to April in The Shepheardes Calender. The Graces, Aglaia, Thalia, and Euphrosyne, were associated with brightness (splendor), freshness (viriditas), and happiness (laetitia) respectively (Wind, p. 269), and it could be that these determine the subjects of the poems to Maria (' … fair sun, which on my earth dost shine … ' [4.3.57 ff.]), Catherine (' … Love … Spied a blossom passing fair' [4.3.99 ff.]), and Rosaline's cheerful witty personality.

40 Wind, pp. 26 ff.

41 For the iconology of this figure, see Wind, pp. 89 ff.

42 Plutarch, 'Isis and Osiris', Moralia, v, 370.

43 Wind, pp. 152 ff.

44 See Mary Beth Rose, The Expense of Spirit (Ithaca, N.Y. 1988).

45 See Turner, pp. 1-2.

46 Heale, p. 10.

47 Heale, p. 60.

48 Freud, in 'Mourning and Melancholia', speaks of the way in which 'the loss of a love-object is an excellent opportunity for the ambivalence in love-relationships to make itself effective and come into the open'. On Metapsychology (Harmondsworth, 1984), p. 260.

49 This may quote the gesture of Hermione and Polixenes 'paddling palms' in the second scene of the play (1.2.117).

50 See Stephen Booth, ed., Shakespeare's Sonnets (New Haven, 1977), pp. 499-500, who cites among other texts Rowland's 15th Epigram from his The Letting of Humour's Blood in the Head-Vaine (London, 1600); consider also the designation 'hell' in the game of barley-break (see The Changeling, 3.3.165n).

51 Freud, On Sexuality (Harmondsworth, 1981), p. 31 1n.; for an essay that links the image to Macbeth, see Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality (London, 1987), pp. 97 ff.

52 'On the Sexual Theories of Children', On Sexuality, p. 198.

53 Lynda E. Boose, ' "Let it be Hid": Renaissance Pornography, Iago, and Audience Response', Autour d'Othello, ed. Richard Marienstras and Dominique GoyBlanquet (Amiens 1987), 135-43.

54 Edward A. Snow, 'Sexual anxiety and the male order of things in Othello', ELR, 10 (1980), 384-412, p. 409.

55 The figure appears in Rabelais, Gargantua, chap. 7, and see M. P. Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, 1950), B151.

56 Snow writes, 'In Freudian terms, Iago is alienating Othello from the sexual act by making him participate in it from the place of the superego' (p. 396).

57 Foucault, Pleasure, p. 4.

58 Martin Ingram, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570-1640, Past and Present Publications (Cambridge, 1987).

59 Natalie Zemon Davis, 'Women on Top: Symbolic Sexual Inversion and Political Disorder in Early Modern Europe', in The Reversible World, ed. Barbara A. Babcock (Ithaca, N.Y., 1978).

60 See also and This may have been itself a symptom of general economic decline as well as of the increasing power of the craft guilds (see Merry E. Wiesner's study of particular German cities, 'Spinsters and Seamstresses: Women in Cloth and Clothing Production', in Ferguson, pp. 191-205.) Doubtless aspects of witch-hunting can be attributed to analogous factors. We might also consider the rule of Elizabeth, the virgin queen (see Peter Stallybrass, 'Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed', in Ferguson, pp. 123-42).

61 See two poems by Lady Mary Wroth, niece to Sir Philip Sidney, 'Love a child is ever crying' and 'Late in the forest I did Cupid see' (in Germaine Greer, et al, eds., Kissing the Rod (London, 1988), pp. 66-7). These we read, I think, rather differently if we know that they were written by a woman; compare also Lionel Trilling's preface to Henry James's The Bostonians (London, 1952).

62 Keith Thomas, 'The Place of Laughter in Tudor and Stuart England', TLS (21 January, 1977), 77-81.

63 Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy (London, 1968), p. 155.

64 A notable exception is provided by Edward A. Snow (see n. 54 above).

65 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1957 edn), p. 161.

66 Partridge, p. 176.

67 See Hamlet, 1.5.69-70.

68 Compare 'Venus and Adonis' where Venus proclaims 'My flesh is soft and plump, my marrow burning' (142).

69 For the economy of semen, see de la Primaudaye, p. 238, Laqueur, p. 101.

70 See 'On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love' in Freud, Sexuality, pp. 247-60.

71 Aristotle, I Physics, xviii, cited by Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, tr. Sir Thomas Hoby, Everyman edn, p. 199.

72 See Jonson, The New Inn, ed. Michael Hattaway (Manchester, 1984), p. 35.

73 See it mocked in Nashe's Unfortunate Traveller (in Salzman, pp. 262 ff.)

74 'Jane Anger', in Moira Ferguson, p. 70.

75 Reprinted in Moira Ferguson, p. 54.

76 See Nancy Vickers, ' "The Blazon of Sweet Beauty's Best": Shakespeare's Lucrece', in Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, eds., Shakespeare and the Question of Theory (London, 1985), pp. 105-6.

77 Compare Pericles, scene 6, 26.

78 Cf. Romeo, 3.1.113-15; on the 'feminizing' of subjects by their princes see Joan Kelly-Gadol, 'Did Women Have a Renaissance?', in Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koontz, eds., Becoming Visible: Women in European History (Boston, 1987), p. 159.

79 See Thomas Healy, New Latitudes: Theory and English Renaissance Literature (London, 1992), pp. 94-5.

80Faerie Queene, v.7.

81 'The outcome … is a sort of intellectual acceptance of the repressed, while at the same time what is essential to the repression persists'. 'Negation', in Metapsychology, p. 438.

82 Dympna Callaghan, Women and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy (London, 1989), p. 12.

83Use of Pleasure, pp. 22-3.

84 See Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago, 1980), pp. 248 ff.; compare Snow's conclusion that 'Shakespeare locates the principle of evil and malice at the level of the superego, the agency that enforces civilization on the ego'.

Further Reading

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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 representation of sexuality on the English Renaissance stage.

Shakespeare Survey: Shakespeare and Sexuality 46 (1994): 269 p.

Issue wholly devoted to the topic of sexuality in Shakespeare's works.

Traub, Valerie. Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama. London: Routledge, 1992, 182 p.

Investigates "the relation between erotic desire and its corollary, anxiety, and their role in the construction of male and female subjects in Shakespearean drama."


Selected Studies of Shakespearean Production


Shakespeare and Clarissa: 'General Nature', Genre and Sexuality