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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: February ::
Re: Shakespeare and Sex
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0545  Monday, 25 February 2002

[1]     From:   Brian Willis <
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        Date:   Friday, 22 Feb 2002 18:06:23 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

[2]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Saturday, 23 Feb 2002 11:24:24 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0504 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

[3]     From:   Robin Hamilton <
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        Date:   Saturday, 23 Feb 2002 17:47:11 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

[4]     From:   Brandon Toropov <
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        Date:   Saturday, 23 Feb 2002 10:55:19 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

[5]     From:   Adrian Kiernander <
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        Date:   Sunday, 24 Feb 2002 13:59:44 +1100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

[6]     From:   Sophie Masson <
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        Date:   Monday, 25 Feb 2002 03:43:50 +1100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

[7]     From:   Sam Small <
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        Date:   Sunday, 24 Feb 2002 14:49:07 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

[8]     From:   David Bishop <
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        Date:   Sunday, 24 Feb 2002 16:04:08 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Willis <
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Date:           Friday, 22 Feb 2002 18:06:23 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

I need to correct a serious error I committed in my last post. After
reading Ernst Honigmann's essay "Shakespeare's Life" in The Cambridge
Companion to Shakespeare, I realized I have my facts mixed up. To quote:

"He had his will redrafted on 25 March 1616. Word must have reached him
that his new son-in-law, Thomas Quiney (he had married Judith in
February), was due to confess to 'carnal copulation' in the parish
church the next day, 26 March. Shakespeare inserted new clauses to
protect his daughter against her feckless husband."

Basically, Shakespeare would give her 150 pounds "'not to be paid unto
her so long as she shall be married'". In other words, Shakespeare
strongly disapproved of Quiney's reputation and had no confidence in his
ability to make Judith happy.  Perhaps this does not prove Shakespeare's
own proclivities, but it makes it hard to believe in a Shakespeare who
ran around promiscuously loving and leaving women and men. Certainly he
felt some sense of moral responsibility. Instead, some would have us
believe because of a dark lady and a young boy in the sonnets that he
ran around with hundreds of sexual partners. At the MOST, if the sonnets
were found somehow to be autobiographical, Shakespeare could be accused
of strong feelings (perhaps platonic, perhaps not) for a young man and
torment over a lady with dark hair. Still, it is hardly evidence for
massive adultery.

I always had the sense that Shakespeare goes out of his way to show
couples who are committed to each other despite accusations of the
contrary. I also feel that other playwrights of the period, percentage
wise, have higher incidents of adulterous activity than Shakespeare. Now
that would be a study!

Brian Willis

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Saturday, 23 Feb 2002 11:24:24 -0500
Subject: 13.0504 Re: Shakespeare and Sex
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0504 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

> > And isn't Aaron a
> > model father?
>
> Puppet-show territory, I think.

You are entitled to your opinion, of course.  But it seems to me that
Aaron, who is elsewhere drawn as a stick figure, a stage Maciavel, a
Barabas wannabe, shows some signs of humanity in the scenes with his
baby son.

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robin Hamilton <
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Date:           Saturday, 23 Feb 2002 17:47:11 -0000
Subject: 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

To pick up on the points made around the term "adultery" by Martin
Steward, Bill Arnold, and Hardy Cook.

Martin writes,

> The strand on "Adultery", once it gets into using concordances, runs
> into problems of semantic shift. Following the stoics, Augustine, and
> especially Jerome (surprise surprise), "Adultery", understood as the
> crime prohibited by the 7th Commandment, was taken to mean any kind of
> sex which was not within marriage and not aimed at procreation.

I cited the concordances to make the point that the +term+
"adultery/adulterous" was available to, and on occasion used by,
Shakespeare. As I was using the term in my own post, I was mainly
drawing on the modern meaning.

That, however, doesn't excuse me from being either sloppy and/or glib.
So, more carefully ...

While Martin is right in terms of +strict+ Elizabethan morality (and
legality?), that the term  "adultery" could apply to +any+ unsanctioned
sexual act (as, in parallel, "sodomitical acts" in the Elizabethan
period could refer to the same -- wide -- range of activity), there are
reservations to be made.

OED2 gives as the primary meaning of ADULTERY:

1. Violation of the marriage bed; the voluntary sexual intercourse of a
married person with one of the opposite sex, whether unmarried, or
married to another (the former case being technically designated single,
the latter double adultery). [1366 on]

... and as the secondary meaning:

b. Extended in Scripture, to unchastity generally; and by various
theologians opprobriously used of any marriages of which they
disapproved, as of a widower, a nun, a Christian with a Jewess, etc.
(interpretative adultery). [1388 on]

More cogently (as I'm sure none of us take OED +definitions+ on trust)
there are numerous instances among the OED2 citations for
adultery/adulterous/etc., where the writers show themselves
+distinguishing+ between adultery, lechery, and fornication.

Indeed, the earliest cited instance distinguishes between adultery and
fornication:

1366 Mandeville 249 Gif ony man or woman be taken in Avowtery or
Fornycacyoun, anon thei sleen him.

I'll cite just one more among many:

1485 Act 1 Hen. VII, c. 4 Avoutrie fornicacion inceste or eny other
flesshely incontinency.

So there would be two major meanings of "adultery" available in the
Elizabethan period -- what might be called the Strong Meaning (to which
Martin refers) -- any illicit sexual act -- and the Common Meaning,
which would refer specifically to violation of the marriage bed.

(Though here it's worth noting that even the Common Meaning isn't
+quite+ the same as our contemporary meaning of "adultery", which would
refer to sexual intercourse between a man and a woman, one or both of
whom are married.  A nice distinction, but important when we come to the
point Hardy raises.)

Hardy writes,

> >["adulterous", the concordances tell me, occurs twice in the plays, and
> >"adultery" six times.]
>
> True, "adulterous" appears twice in the plays, but let us not forget
> that one of them is by the Ghost of Old King Hamlet accusing Claudius of
> having an adulterous relationship with Gertrude. Even considering Henry
> VIII's application for a dispensation from his marriage to Catherine on
> grounds suggesting that the relationship was adulterous, doesn't what
> the Ghost says suggests that the adultery occurs before his [i.e., Old
> King Hamlet's] death?

One small caveat here -- Henry VIII doesn't contest his marriage on the
grounds that it was adulterous but, very specifically, on the grounds
that it was incestuous.  See "An Act Concerning the King's Succession"
(1534), citing Leviticus 18-20.

> Riverside Edition
>
> <Ghost.> Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
> With witchcraft of his wits, with traitorous gifts --
> O wicked wit and gifts that have the power
> So to seduce! -- won to his shameful lust
> The will of my most seeming virtuous queen.

By the very act of contracting an +incestuous+ marriage with Gertrude,
Claudius is violating the marriage bed of Old Hamlet, even after his
death.  The words that the Ghost speaks don't +necessarily+ imply a
sexual relationship between Gertrude and Claudius while Old Hamlet was
alive.

(As to whether or not the marriage between Claudius and Gertrude +is+
incestuous ...  Since Elizabeth I is on the throne, if not necessarily
in the theatre, it would be a brave member of the audience who would
leap up and say, "Oi!!  Young Hamlet is wrong.  'Tain't incest at all!"
Given that if the marriage of a man to his deceased brother's wife
+isn't+ incestuous, then Elizabeth [whose mother, Anne Boleyn, married
Henry while Catherine of Aragon was still alive] would be illegitimate.)

Coincidentally, the earliest OED2 citation for ADULTERATE is from
Shakespeare -- in this instance, as Adriana is using the word, it is,
even in the narrowest terms, "adulterous".

ADULTERATE ppl. a.

1. Defiled, or stained by adultery, either in origin or conduct;
adulterous.

1590 Shakes. Com. Err. ii. ii. 142, I am possest with an adulterate
blot, My bloud is mingled with the crime of lust.

[In normal times, I'd automatically run this through the EMEDD, but as
this was hacked a week or so ago, it's currently off-air.  Phoey!!]

Robin Hamilton

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brandon Toropov <
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Date:           Saturday, 23 Feb 2002 10:55:19 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

Martin Steward writes,

> I would deduce, not that he was a serial adulterer who
> never thought twice
> about tupping anything in sight (male or female),
> but that he felt
> terribly guilty about a single incident, a single
> fall from grace which
> preyed on his mind for the rest of his life; or,
> alternatively, he had a
> steady, long-term, marriage-like relationship with a
> woman in London,
> reluctantly perhaps, to make up for the fact that he
> hardly ever saw his
> real wife. The idea of a sex-crazed Shakespeare with
> no feelings just
> doesn't feel right, somehow.

With no evidence whatsoever, I've always imagined that the agonies of
temptation that circle around Macbeth in the early scenes of the play
could have been developed out of raw material of a very different sort,
namely some real-life internal debate S conducted before committing
himself to an illicit affair of some kind. (I know, it's a bit of a
stretch, but so is imagining that he contemplated murdering someone...)

Brandon

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Adrian Kiernander <
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Date:           Sunday, 24 Feb 2002 13:59:44 +1100
Subject: 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

Bill Godshalk wrote,

     I assume that Adrian is suggesting that Bianca is married - the
fair
     wife that Cassio is almost damned in. And this would be an
interesting
     way to explain Iago's line.

     But apparently Bianca would be able to marry Cassio (if he so
wished).
     Cassio says, "She is persuaded I will marry her out of her own love
and
     flattery, not out of my promise" (Oxford 4.1.126-8). I take this
     to indicate that she is not married.

     But perhaps I misunderstand.

Bill has indeed misunderstood what I was thinking. I have no idea
whether Bianca is married. My reading of Iago's line, if I decide to
take it literally, is that at the start of Othello Cassio is married,
apparently to a very attractive woman. (The line is notoriously obscure,
but I take it to mean something like, "Cassio has a wife who is so
attractive that he is in danger of committing the sin of lechery in the
course of his married life with her". There are of course other possible
readings.) I further assume that this wife is not Bianca, and that he
hasn't even met Bianca yet. He then goes to the war, and unlike Othello
he leaves his wife behind, as is normal. In Cyprus he takes up with
Bianca, conveniently forgetting to mention to her the existence of a
wife back home. This would make Cassio a fairly blatant adulterer.

Of course it has been suggested that the line in question is anomalous
or erroneous, some kind of false start or dead end that Shakespeare
didn't tidy up later. With the line still there though, unless it is cut
in performance, I'm not sure where this explanation leaves Cassio in
terms of morality.

But, since Cassio is a fictional character in a play rather than a human
being, I'm equally happy to regard him as having options which are wider
than ours, and which defy any logic or consistency. In this way he can
easily be married in Act I and never married in Act III, just as Antonio
can have a son (and Miranda a cousin) in The Tempest in 1.2 ("...the
Duke of Milan and his brave son being twain") but at no other point in
the play, or as in Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine 100 years elapses
between Acts I and II but the characters age only 25 years. This is only
a problem for theatre which is trying to create the illusion of reality.

Adrian Kiernander

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sophie Masson <
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Date:           Monday, 25 Feb 2002 03:43:50 +1100
Subject: 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

Why should poetry be taken as being any more autobiographical than a
novel or a play? I know poets who have written about love affairs
they've never had, and adventures they've only imagined--and also things
that they wrote for other people. We assume now that poetry must be
confessional. But it can be every bit a mask, every bit as much a
fiction, as any other kind of writing. The Lover in the sonnets can be
every bit as much a role as Hamlet, or Rosalind, or any character you
care to name. I don't think we can gauge WS' attitude to sex by the
sonnets, or the plays, really, we can only get little flashes which may
or may not be his real feelings, or may be part of his 'radio-set'
function as a writer.

Sophie Masson
Author site:
http://www.northnet.com.au/~smasson

[7]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sam Small <
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Date:           Sunday, 24 Feb 2002 14:49:07 -0000
Subject: 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

Martin Steward makes some good points and I too must use the same
defence that I have no proof whatever.  Therefore, rather than be
silent, I look for the circumstantial evidence of whether the Sonnets
were factual and personal - even autobiographical.  If they were purely
fictional why was the identity of the dedication such a secret?  Why is
there not one name mentioned in the poems?  Why are place
identifications totally omitted?  In fact why is there almost no way to
identify anything or anybody if the whole thing was pure fiction?
Shakespeare was adept at hiding contemporary political comment within a
historical disguise - why not with a series of erotic poems? The only
conclusion must be that the Sonnets were real events about real living
people.  And of course, although Shakespeare revealed himself to be a
promiscuous partner we have to conclude that those affairs were
conducted in secrecy.  We have to believe that or else the identities of
the characters in the Sonnets would be well known today.   And Martin
Steward's apologist assertion that Shakespeare fell from grace just once
pretends that there is any real difference between one marital deception
and ten.  And is his comment that Shakespeare's adultery was "to make up
for the fact that he hardly ever saw his real wife" a quaint
justification?  And to me the Sonnets do not suggest a "sex-crazed
Shakespeare with no feelings" but someone who is idealistically
searching for divine bliss between the bedsheets.

In reference to points made by Brian Willis I mention the fact of
Shakespeare's marriage, as cited by Anthony Burgess and others, is that
the 26 year old spinster (and on the shelf) Anne seduced young 18 year
old William and had her two brothers turn up at the Shakespeare house,
cudgels in hand, demanding that the boy Will do the honest thing.  If
this were true then it doesn't bode well for a perfect honeymoon or the
life beyond.  My guess is that Anne knew of the London affairs but kept
the estate going in Stratford realising that by doing so they would both
be better off.  There is even a rumour that Anne had an affair with one
of Shakespeare's brothers.  The whole point being that the worst part of
adultery - certainly in modern terms - is that Shakespeare committed no
deception.

Finally Martin Steward reminds us of the "second best bed" clause in
Shakespeare's will.  I now understand that the bed in question was not a
referring to Shakespeare's preference for his mistress over his wife but
that the bed was a certain piece of furniture, rather like a best guest
bed, put in a certain room.  So no warmth there, Martin, unless you were
sharing it with Anne.

SAM SMALL

[8]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Bishop <
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Date:           Sunday, 24 Feb 2002 16:04:08 -0500
Subject: 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0527 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

Hardy points out that the ghost describes Claudius as "that incestuous,
that adulterate beast" and asks if this shows Claudius committed what we
would call literal adultery with Gertrude. I would say no, for several
reasons.

As Martin Steward points out, the word "adultery" used to be
considerably more flexible, as was "incestuous." The OED includes, for
the latter, "Loosely or more vaguely: Adulterous." It finds "adultery"
"by various theologians opprobriously used of any marriage of which they
disapproved." And from 1753: "A kind of second marriage, which was
esteemed a degree of adultery."

The "incest" of the marriage, though it may make it suspect, also seems
a somewhat technical charge, one marker that Hamlet's rage at his
mother's remarriage could be a bit extreme. The ghost associates himself
with that rage, and goes it one better with "adulterate". Both Hamlet
and the ghost show an excessive, puritanical self-righteousness.
Hamlet's picture of the ideally pure marriage, in which his father would
keep the rough wind from his mother's cheek, his apparent approval of
the player-queen who vows never to remarry, his disgust with the thought
of his mother having sex with her husband--all help to establish his
early character as somewhat priggish--enraged beyond the objective
justification (correlative). True, Claudius is also a bit decadent,
using the cannon to announce each draught of rhenish. The point, I
think, is that Shakespeare distances the audience from each of these
characters. The excessive outrage at "lust", "incest", and "adultery",
unite Hamlet and the ghost in puritanical rage--a rage which would be
more justified if it concentrated more directly on the murder, instead
of swerving off toward sex. It may be significant that the ghost does
not call Claudius "adulterous" but "adulterate"--which also means
impure. To grow up, and become a more sympathetic character, Hamlet has
to lose some of his self-righteous purity and become, in his own eyes,
"a little soil'd i'th'working."

Another big reason for doubting the literal truth of the adultery charge
is its lack of resonance. Hamlet never picks up on it: "as kill a king,
and marry with his brother" omits adultery. Later in the play, as he
calms down, and begins to mature--to come of age--he no longer demands
that his mother not go to her husband's bed. She apparently hasn't
stopped sleeping with Claudius, even hopes for a reconciliation, yet
Hamlet by the end seems perfectly friendly toward her. A literally
adulterous Gertrude could not be as sympathetic a character as she is,
by the end, either to Hamlet or to the audience.

Other more subtle points could be made: incest would invalidate the
marriage, making it in a sense adulterous. The ghost still feels alive,
making Gertrude's relationship with Claudius feel like adultery. Some
had a stringent view of the unfaithfulness of second marriage, as in the
player-queen's opinion that it was akin to murder. If "man and wife is
one flesh" they can't be put asunder.

Overall, I think both Hamlet and the ghost give the impression that they
don't distinguish literal adultery from the act of remarrying, and
especially marrying Claudius. "Whor'd my mother", coming from Hamlet,
could refer to either. Gertrude's "crime" could have been more carefully
distinguished from the simple act of marrying Claudius, but it isn't,
which suggests that her accusers are pushing too hard, and displaying an
excessively puritanical rage. This echoes the ghost's rage for revenge,
which also needs somehow to be tempered, to make Hamlet not simply a
raging revenger but a tragic hero.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

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