Shakespeare, Sex, and Love
Stanley Wells
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Buy *Shakespeare, Sex, and Love* by Stanley Wells online

Shakespeare, Sex, and Love
Stanley Wells
Oxford University Press
282 pages
June 2010
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Was The Bard bawdy? You bet your sweet bippy! But we knew that – so what is new?

In this intellectually titillating treatment, we learn the cultural roots of Shakespeare’s sexy sonnets, the lascivious love scenes, the ever pun-filled, all-but (and sometimes all-out) pornographic poetry. The author, Stanley Wells, is “our greatest authority on Shakespeare’s life and work,” according to Roy Hattersley, and serves as Chairman of the Trustees of Shakespeare’s Birthplace among many other honors, including being an editor of The Oxford Dictionary of Shakespeare. This book is published by Oxford University Press, so all silliness aside, it is a serious look at a subject every schoolboy has been peeping and winking at for hundreds of years – the lewd language of the greatest English writer.

There were two major influences that informed Will’s gutter waggery. One was the church, and the other was the opposite. The church in Shakespeare’s time was all tied up in “nots” – trying to compromise between the received morality of the streets (and the royal boudoirs) and the Biblical injunctions against most of what was going on under the pious priestly noses. Not so very different from the twenty-first century, when you think about it. And with Shakespeare, so with our modern writers - always pushing the limits of decorum, thinly coating sexual dialogue in intelligent innuendo to the delight of the audience.

There were notable differences, of course. In Shakespeare’s time, girls were marriageable at age 12, so such heroines as Juliet and Desdemona were likely very young teens. Seen in this light, we realize that girls were a great deal more mature in every way than most average teens of today. Sex in marriage was expected to be enjoyed; thus Desdemona asks to be able to accompany Othello to the battlefield: “If I be left behind, a moth of peace, and he go to the war, the rites for why I love him are bereft me.” The author points out that “rites” can also be interpreted as “rights” - to sexual fulfillment.

Shakespearian sexual puns run the gamut, with knives and staves and pikes and pricks being commonly used for the male equipment. For women, well, it could be anything from a girdle to a case to a sulphurous pit. Death is often used as a metaphor for orgasm. There is little subtlety in lines like these between two clowning twins in The Comedy of Errors:

“The heads of the maids?”

“Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads, take it in what sense thou wilt.”

“They must take it in the sense that feel it.”

“Me they shall feel while I am able to stand, and ‘tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.”
Much has been made of Shakespeare’s own sexual experience – as a rather young man, he married a woman already pregnant, and many of his sonnets suggest that he was bisexual. The author cites characters in The Bard’s plays whose homosexual love is more than implied, as in the case of Antonio and Sebastian in Twelfth Night. The author believes that Shakespeare’s works, including the sex and love among his amazing range of characters from Romeo to Falstaff, from Kate to Cleopatra, will be viewed according to changing mores “in relation to the society in which they are performed and to the personalities of those who experience them. The plays read us, just as we read them.”

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2010

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