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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: February ::
Re: Shakespeare and Sex
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0582  Tuesday, 27 February 2002

[1]     From:   Brandon Toropov <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 26 Feb 2002 11:20:12 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0565 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

[2]     From:   W. L. Godshalk <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 26 Feb 2002 22:10:21 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0565 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

[3]     From:   Anna Kamaralli <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 27 Feb 2002 15:06:25 +1100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0504 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

[4]     From:   Arthur Lindley <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 27 Feb 2002 15:05:00 +0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0565 Re: Shakespeare and Sex


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brandon Toropov <
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Date:           Tuesday, 26 Feb 2002 11:20:12 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 13.0565 Re: Shakespeare and Sex
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0565 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

David Bishop writes,

>Two points: (1) Gertrude could be -- and perhaps >is
-- a sympathetic
>character inspite of having committed adultery
>with Claudius.
>Cleopatra
>is a sympathetic character, and so is Cressida (to
>some, anyway).  Mary
>Magdeline is a sympathetic character in the >Gospel
Story, and so.  It
>seems to me that the question of Gertrude's >adultery
is simply kept up
>in the air by Shakespeare, a rather maddening >habit
of his in many of
>his plays. In this play, her "adultery," like the
real >character of
>Hamlet, Sr., is part of a past that we long to know
>but is
>purpose-fully
>denied us by the playwright.

I agree that there are many such frustrating (yet theatrically
effective) bits of sleight-of-hand in the plays. But note what
A.C.Bradley had to say on this subject:

<begin quote from p. 136 of SHAKESPEAREAN TRAGEDY>

The answers to two questions asked about the Queen are. it seems to me,
practically certain. 1) She did not merely marry a second time with
indecent haste; she was false to her husband while he lived. This is
surely the most natural interpretation of the words of the Ghost (I. v.
41 f), coming, as they do, before his account of the murder.... 2) On
the other hand, she was *not* privy to the murder of her husband, either
before the deed or after it. There is no signe of her being so, and
there are clear signs that she was not. The representation of the murder
in the play-scene does not move her; and when her husband starts from
his throne, she innocently asks him, "How fares my lord?" In the
interview with Hamlet, when her son says of his slaughter of Polonius,

"A bloody deed!" almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king and marry with his brother,

the astonishment of her repetition is evidently genuine....

<end of quote>

The passage Bradley cites in support of 1) above is the familiar speech
of the 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.
O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there ...
(etc.)

This is certainly a powerful portion of the play, and it comes back to
me sharply, as it surely is designed to do, when I see Hamlet take his
mother to task after Polonius's death. I think WS tries, as usual, to
have it both ways (i.e., retain sympathy for Gertrude) by not pressing
the specific question of adultery quite as emphatically after this point
in the play.

Interesting, isn't it, to picture WS the actor intoning these particular
bitter words on stage? You wonder: What family issues related to the
fall of his own father might be lurking beneath the surface? We'll never
know...

Brandon

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W. L. Godshalk <
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Date:           Tuesday, 26 Feb 2002 22:10:21 -0500
Subject: 13.0565 Re: Shakespeare and Sex
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0565 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

Brandon Toropov writes,

>This is an extremely important point, one well worth bearing in mind
>whenever we are tempted to analyze theatrical characters as though they
>were flesh-and-blood individuals on the therapist's couch.  They are,
>instead, hypothetical creations designed for the express purpose of
>eliciting an emotional response from an audience (when properly
>performed).

Yes, of course, dramatic figures do not have sex -- really, but we
certainly pretend that they do. Ophelia is pregnant when she commits
suicide. Cassio has actually slept with Desdemona; that's why she's so
anxious to have him back in the service (so to speak). Claudius has had
a thirty year affair with Gertrude.

All of these things have been suggested. And who are we to say no?

But it is nice to have a little bit of textual evidence to support our
make believe.

Yours, Bill Godshalk

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Anna Kamaralli <
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Date:           Wednesday, 27 Feb 2002 15:06:25 +1100
Subject: 13.0504 Re: Shakespeare and Sex
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0504 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

Robin Hamilton writes,

> Ed Taft pointed me to towards Paris and Helen in _Troilus and Cressida_,
> to which I'd add (though Cressida and Troilus aren't formally married)
> Cressida and Diomedes.

This observation raises a few really interesting points about this play
and its portrayal of sexual betrayal.

Firstly, the fact that Troilus and Cressida are not married should not
be regarded casually.  This incident of unmarried, consensual,
unadulterous sex (so hard to find a less censorious word than
fornication...) is highly unusual (unique?) in Shakespeare.  Hector's
argument to the Trojan council about the duty a wife owes to a husband
emphasizes that the world of the play does include marriage, so the lack
of mention of it between the young lovers, and Troilus's failure to make
any offer of marriage to Cressida, is significant (believe it or not, he
also never actually tells her that he loves her!).

Second, and perhaps more importantly, Cressida's "adultery" with
Diomedes is a kind of theatrical optical illusion: we know we saw it; we
think we know we saw it; but when you look closely it isn't there.

It's all to do with where in the text we get our information about what
is happening between Cressida and Diomedes, and whether we can trust the
person reporting it.  There is no doubt at all that Troilus believes he
is seeing himself betrayed, and he describes with outrage the
infideleous (if this isn't a word, it should be) acts going on before
his eyes (there is a nice tie-in here with the "dialogic stage
directions" thread).  Surprisingly though, the most damning thing he can
come up with is "She strokes his cheek!" and "What, so familiar?" (when
Cressida says "hark, a word in your ear" and "whispers" to Diomedes).
Nothing along the lines of "lo, they shaggeth" or even "She kisses him."

The other commentators are Ulysses, the Machiavellian (ah - another
tie-in) enemy of Troilus and all Trojans, and Thersites, the enemy of
mankind: both of whom have a personal interest in construing the worst.

Diomedes' lines strongly indicate that he hasn't yet got what he wants
from Cressida ("What did you promise me before?...  Then let your mind
be coupled with your words... Give me some token of the surety of it").
By the end of the scene Cressida has promised _only_ that she will allow
him to come and see her, but she refuses to specify a time or make
further promises, despite his asking.  So all we have by the end of "the
betrayal scene" are hints that Cressida might have further meetings with
Diomedes, and a pretty clear indication that she's still holding him at
arm's length.

Because I can't resist bringing in one more current thread, it could be
argued that Cressida's real betrayal of Troilus in this scene is nothing
literally sexual, but is the symbolic one of handing over Troilus's
favour: the sleeve.  In courtly love terms this is about as big as a
betrayal can get.

Those who have seen the play performed could be forgiven for not being
aware of the ambiguity of the text, as most directors seem determined to
stamp it out with blocking and gesture.  In the 2000 Michael Bogdanov
production in Australia, for example, when Cressida is lying on her back
on a camp bed, legs spread-eagled, with Diomedes lying on top of her,
and a horrified Troilus cries "she strokes his cheek" one can only wish
to point out to him that this is the least of his worries...

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Arthur Lindley <
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Date:           Wednesday, 27 Feb 2002 15:05:00 +0800
Subject: 13.0565 Re: Shakespeare and Sex
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0565 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

Robin Hamilton suggests that 'the only literary text which equates a
widow's remarriage with adultery' is _The Vicar of Wakefield_.  The Wife
of Bath's Prologue doesn't exactly make the equation, but that is
certainly something Alisoun is worried about, from her first citation of
Christ's rebuke to the five times married Samaritan woman (John 4:6) on.

Arthur Lindley

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