Shakespeare, Sex & Love

Shakespeare, Sex & Love, by Stanley Wells, Oxford University Press £16.99 304 pages, FT Bookshop price: £13.59

You talk greasily,” protests Maria in Love’s Labour’s Lost, as she listens to a discussion of archery full of smutty double-meanings – “Let the mark have a prick in’t”, “Then will she get the upshot”, “I fear too much rubbing”, and so on. The real greasy talker, of course, is Shakespeare himself, whose plays and poems are full of such cunningly packaged obscenities. Eric Partridge, the New Zealand lexicographer who first collected and expounded them in Shakespeare’s Bawdy (1947), found 68 periphrases for the female genitalia, and 45 for the penis. Actual four-letter words do not openly appear, but are smuggled in – there is the Welshman’s grammar lesson in Merry Wives of Windsor, which includes verbs in the “focative” case, and there is Hamlet’s well-known reference to “country matters” (see also “constable” in All’s Well).

In its time this rich vein of sexual wordplay was just one of the plays’ selling points – indeed younger writers like Thomas Middleton and John Marston might be considered even dirtier. But in the 18th century, editors and commentators began to take arms against this sea of innuendo, striving to play down its importance, and in the case of Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler, whose Family Shakespeare appeared in 1820, to expunge it entirely. Nowadays we are free once more to relish it, and many important studies of Shakespeare’s sexual discourse have been published. Stanley Wells’s Shakespeare, Sex, and Love is a characteristically crisp and knowledgeable survey of the subject by one of the doyens of contemporary Shakespeare studies.

As his title suggests, the sexed-up language is only one aspect of Shakespeare’s treatment of sex, and the sexual only one aspect of his more philosophical treatment of love. It is perhaps no accident that his most famous and romantic love-story, Romeo and Juliet, has one of the highest counts of bawdy doubles entrendres in the canon. It is an early play, and the bawdry has a youthful, randy wit. Later, in the mouths of characters such as Thersites in Troilus and Cressida and Parolles in All’s Well, the imagery becomes nastier. The mad King Lear expresses a profound sexual nausea, with the vagina epitomised as “the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption”, and one is tempted to think that Lear’s self-prescription – “Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination” – might be of benefit to the author as well.

The first part of Wells’s book is contextual, looking at the general climate of sexual mores, both in the Stratford of Shakespeare’s youth and in London, where his theatrical career brought him into close contact with the city’s booming sex industry. The second part is more textual, exploring Shakespeare’s literary treatment of such major themes as sexual desire, betrayal and jealousy.

Wells probes discreetly into the nature of Shakespeare’s own sex-life. Does the absence of any children after 1585 suggest that the remainder of his marriage was sexless? Does the close interest in prostitution evident in plays such as Measure for Measure and Pericles tell us something of Shakespeare’s sexual arrangements while in London, particularly given that he wrote Pericles in collaboration with a hack writer, George Wilkins, whose chief line of business was a running a brothel in Clerkenwell? Do his frequent references to syphilis imply – as most recently proposed by Germaine Greer – that the prematurely bald Shakespeare had it himself? Do the Sonnets explore genuine personal entanglements? Ultimately, the answer to these questions is that we just do not know, but Wells has a knack of talking round a subject so that fresh insights emerge even if answers do not.

Most puzzling – and most troubllng for the bowdlerisers of yore – is the apparently homoerotic nature of many of the Sonnets, which are addressed to a “fair youth” or “sweet boy”. Wells sensibly avoids trying to identify this golden lad (the young Earls of Southampton and Pembroke, both of whom have known connections with the poet, are the front-runners) and looks instead at the literary context. He finds a discernible sub-group of poets in the early 1590s writing on homosexual themes, or with a deliberate homoerotic tone, thus placing Shakespeare’s same-sex Sonnets alongside such works as Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, Richard Barnfield’s The Affectionate Shepherd and Michael Drayton’s The Legend of Piers Gaveston. These suggest an element of literary fad and an upmarket, gay-tinged readership which the Sonnets were consciously targeting. Definitions are difficult because the norms of physicality in male relationships were different in those days – and in Wells’s view the Sonnets “transcend the boundaries” of gender anyway – but one should certainly not preclude the more straightforward inference that Shakespeare was bisexual.

This is not a long book, but it draws on Wells’s decades of close-focus research as a Shakespeare scholar and editor. Deeply versed in the period, urbane and unflappable in tone, refreshingly free of ideological agendas, he is an expert and highly readable guide to the highways and byways of Shakespearean sexuality.

Charles Nicholl is the author of ‘The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street’ (Penguin)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.