The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1987  Monday, 13 August 2001

From:           Nora Kreimer <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Saturday, 11 Aug 2001 23:19:35 -0300
Subject:        Lingua Franca "The Pound of Flesh"

Volume 11, No. 6-September 2001
Table of contents for this issue

The Pound of Flesh

EARLY IN A MIDSUMMER Night's Dream, Oberon squeezes magic love juice
onto the eyelids of a sleeping Titania. When Titania wakes up, the juice
makes her fall madly in love with the first creature she encounters:
Bottom, the weaver who has been transformed into an ass. Because
Shakespeare's text does not provide an explicit answer, directors who
adapt the play often ask themselves what happens next: Does Titania have
sex with Bottom?

When the director Stuart Canterbury was developing his recent film
adaptation, he had no trouble deciding what to do about the
Titania-Bottom sex question-they would have sex, lots of it. And
Canterbury didn't stop there. Demetrius and Helena would have sex, too.
So would Titania and Oberon. So would Lysander and Hermia. And, in an
opening scene nowhere to be found in Shakespeare's text, so would five
writhing female fairies overseen by a feather-waving Titania.
The film in question is A Midsummer Night's Cream-tag line: "What
(Horny) Fools These Mortals Be!"-and it's merely one recent example of a
growing genre of Shakespeare adaptation: Shakespeare porn. Nominated for
ten 2001 Adult Video News Awards, including a best actress nomination
for the porn legend Nina Hartley as Titania, Canterbury's film joins
Romeo and Julian (1993), Hamlet: For the Love of Ophelia (1996), Taming
of the Screw (1997), and dozens of other works in this expanding canon.

Shakespeare scholars of a more traditional sort might dismiss these
X-rated adaptations as nothing more than video-store giggle fodder. But
Richard Burt, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts
at Amherst, sees a lot more going on here. In Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares:
Queer Theory and American Kiddie Culture (St. Martin's, 1998) and in a
number of articles he has published in recent years, Burt argues that
these porn adaptations, along with other "dumbed-down" versions of
Shakespeare, can provide insights into not just the plays themselves but
also the larger workings of American culture in the post-Cold War world.
He says a prime motivating force behind these unorthodox renditions is
"a new form of cultural imperialism in which Shakespeare is regarded as
a native export, as if the United States could claim anything as its

"If you're going to think about Shakespeare adaptations, which is
something that I think about," says Burt, "then why not Shakespeare
porn? It's one kind of adaptation. It's a phenomenon, it's out there,
it's part of the culture, so why not study it?" Burt's project is made
easier by the fact that he's an avid porn fan. His Web site,
www.naughtyprofessor.com, features a page called "Porn Stars I Have
Known" and photos of himself with Nina Hartley and pro-porn feminist
Annie Sprinkle. He's even written a screenplay called Shrew You!, which
he believes is the first lesbian adaptation of Taming of the Shrew. And
he's not the only scholar studying Shakespeare porn: The April
conference of the Shakespeare Association of America in Miami featured a
seminar titled "Pornographic Shakespeare." Though most of the
participants focused on bawdy elements of the original plays, David
Linton, a professor of communication arts and the chair of the
humanities division at Marymount Manhattan College, presented a paper
about A Midsummer Night's Cream and a recent gay-porn version of the
same play.

Shakespeare porn varies widely in production quality and in faithfulness
to the original texts. Many of the higher-budget productions seem to be
using Shakespeare partly as bait for the female and couples markets. "By
adding Shakespeare to anything," says Hartley, who also appeared in the
porn director Paul Thomas's Romeo and Juliet (1987), "you automatically
class it up. Certainly it helps to get you onto cable." A lot of the
lower-budget productions use the plays as little more than skeletons on
which to hang the flesh of the requisite sex scenes. According to Burt,
the earliest known example of Shakespeare porn is The Secret Sex Lives
of Romeo and Juliet, a soft-core film made in 1968. Not long after,
Roman Polanski directed a version of Macbeth that was produced by
Playboy and featured topless witches and a naked, sleepwalking Lady
Macbeth. A Midsummer Night's Cream is apparently the first porn film to
take much of its script from Shakespeare's original text; other films,
such as Taming of the Screw, contain virtually none of the Bard's
language. Still others, such as Tromeo and Juliet (1996)-in which Tromeo
masturbates to an interactive porn CD-ROM called As You Lick It and
Juliet calls 1-900-FUL-STAF for phone sex-use the plays as mere
jumping-off points. (Burt freely acknowledges the "relative
tastelessness and absence of formal complexity" of most of these

The fast-forward button has long been a handy tool for porn viewers, but
Burt is perhaps the first person in history to fast-forward through the
sex scenes to get to the dialogue. He did this recently when treating an
interviewer to his analyses of A Midsummer Night's Cream and Taming of
the Screw-a contemporary retelling of the play in which the head of a
law firm offers his employee Pete (a.k.a. Petruchio) a house in Bel Air,
partnership in the firm, and $100,000 if Pete will marry his "bitch" of
a daughter, Kate. Though Taming of the Screw is badly shot, horribly
acted, and relentlessly misogynist, Burt says he finds it much more
interesting than the comparatively sophisticated A Midsummer Night's
Cream, partly because in Taming "the sex and the plot are relatively
well integrated." (A Midsummer Night's Cream is hardly bereft of

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