Shakespeare Retro Reviews – Books: “Shakespeare and Sex and Love” by Stanley Wells

Jon Ciccarelli

Investigating past Shakespeare related movies, books, TV specials and theater productions that are still handy for the modern actor and theater company

In this Shakespeare book review I delve into the randy side of the Bard. For anyone who has performed Shakespeare you know that many lines, sometimes some that are rather innocent sounding, are laced with sexual innuendo and double meanings that can make most readers blush. Beyond the titillation and even the more humorous aspects of these lines, the exploration of love, relationships and sex in Shakespeare’s plays can serve as fertile ground for theater companies looking for new ways to adapt and interpret the works. From Gender Studies to Romantic Comedy, you can’t beat the range that Shakespeare offers.

Stanley Wells, the former president of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon, serves as our guide through the steamier side of Shakespeare. At first glance, Stanley Wells does not seem like the kind of guy who would be providing a sexual survey of Shakespeare’s works. Wells has written the usual academic books that have examined Shakespeare’s life, the plays, and the world they were written in. He comes across as a genial grandfather type more at home in the classroom than the sex shop. However, in the opening chapters as Wells causally drops references to penis and vagina jokes in the plays, the reader is immediately aware that this won’t be a sterile examination of the plays text but a rather spirited tour by someone who thoroughly enjoys the material.

One of the things that I personally like about Professor Wells’ narrative style is that he’s one of the few scholars that will refer to theatrical productions that he’s seen in order to augment a scholarly point. He will casually refer to an RSC show or even an amateur college production he saw 50 years ago when discussing a play and feels strongly that theatrical presentation is an integral part in examining the plays. This is something that should appeal to theater practitioners and producers who butt heads with their professors.

“Shakespeare, Sex and Love” follows the same format of another Wells book, “Shakespeare: A Life in Drama” where he starts the early chapters as a primer to get the reader introduced to the book’s subject matter and then the later chapters offer a whistle stop tour of various Shakespeare plays. Wells delightfully bounces from one play to another touching on major themes such as Shakespeare’s treatments on jealousy, young love, unhealthy sexual desire and rape, mature experience and homosexuality. The subject matter acts more as an avenue for Wells to offer the reader a great crash course in the high points of many of the plays and can also serve as quick reference for anyone looking to research a particular play or investigate new slants on adapting the works. 

Attitudes of the Era Toward Love and Sex

The three early chapters “Sexuality in Shakespeare’s Time”, “Sex and Poetry in Shakespeare’s time” and “Shakespeare and Sex” guide the reader back into the Elizabethan and Jacobean era which can seem both distant and very relatable to our own. As one would assume, the official view on sex was highly influenced by the church. Sex was something that was solely for procreation in marriage and anything outside of that was considered scandalous and possibly criminal. The state followed the church’s example, especially with Queen Elizabeth selling herself as the “Virgin Queen”. However like today there is often a MAJOR disconnect between official history and how people really behaved. 

A couple of the more interesting points that Wells makes was that people didn’t marry all that young. He points out the popular reputation of “Romeo and Juliet” gives the wrong impression that it was quite normal for girls around 14 or 15 to marry. He mentions that the play “Romeo and Juliet” actually showcases the exact opposite where it notes that Juliet is too young to marry and her father is being pushy. Even though, there are records of girls of 12 marrying, the average age for both men and women was 24. This was due in large part to the rules of apprenticeships. Both men AND women could be apprenticed to a particular trade, that is they were legally bound to an employer and apprentices were not allowed to marry during their service. Any marriage could disrupt the master’s investment in time and money in their apprentice. Most apprentices served a contract of seven years but some could last longer. So most would be in their early 20s by the time their service was completed. Secondly, while Sodomy, defined in Elizabethan terms as any homosexual act, was a capital offence Wells notes that only one man in a 68 year period was ever actually executed for the offence and that was a heinous act of pedophilia.

While homosexuality was never really prosecuted to the extent that one would think, offenses such as premarital sex, extramarital sex and premarital pregnancy were more often prosecuted and relegated to what was colloquial known as the “Bawdy Court”. This was a sort of small claims court for sexual offenses that stemmed from church courts. In these courts you could be fined for missing obligatory church services and also be fined and sentenced for having premarital sex. Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna was charged for having cheated on her husband and contracting gonorrhea but she successfully sued for defamation and won against her accuser. 

Premarital sex was often referred to as incontinency, which today has an entirely different connotation. Plays such as in “Cymbeline” where Posthumous refers to his wife Imogen as “incontinent” was actually referring to his belief that she had extramarital sex. The punishments for these offenses were usually minor from fines to public penance usually meant to embarrass the defendant. Such was the case of Elizabeth Wheeler who had an extramarital affair that resulted in pregnancy and was forced to dress only in a white sheet and confessing her crime to her entire church congregation.

Wells, of course, doesn’t leave out the world’s oldest profession but notes that Stratford itself didn’t have any discernible sex trade as its ruling city council or Corporation made sure to clear out any prostitute activity. Anyone practicing the trade would usually be forced into the bigger cities such as the case of two Stratford women who were both arrested for prostitution and during their trial one of them noted that they had known each other back in their school days in Stratford. So this prostitution case provides evidence that girls in Stratford did in fact attend some sort of formal schooling.  

Sex in Poetry and Writings of the Era

Wells then moves into the poetry and writings of the period that deal with sex. Thomas Nashe who is best known as political satirist wrote one pamphlet called “The Choise of Valentines Or the Merie Ballad of Nash, His Dildo”. Nashe writes unabashedly and explicitly about heterosexual encounters and masturbation. Such pamphlets would serve as one type of porn.

Shakespeare himself contributed to the soft porn industry with the more subtle but raunchy “Venus and Adonis.” The volume became the sexy runaway best seller among London’s young lawyers and university students.

As Venus says:
“'Fondling,' she saith, 'since I have hemm'd thee here
Within the circuit of this ivory pale,
I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer;
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale:
Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.”

On the flip side, poets like Richard Barnfield, Christopher Marlowe, and Michael Drayton wrote poetry were full of homoerotic overtones such as Marlowe’s “Edward II”. Barnfield and Shakespeare are interesting in that they are the only poets of the era who addressed love sonnets to men. Writing about sexual activity was not just limited to the poets as the Rev.

Thomas Coyer in his “Haven of Health” wrote that regular sex and masturbation allowed one to feel lighter, more alert and creative. 

Wells caps of this tour through the era’s poetic view on sex by focusing the lens on Shakespeare himself. Will left no writing to denote his personal thoughts but Wells carefully examines his sonnets and while he acknowledges that it’s a slippery slope to say they are autobiographical he acknowledges that they do give the impression of Shakespeare was speaking from real events. The sonnet speaker delivers many sonnets to a young man that he refers to as a lovely boy and having the appearance of a woman but they never contain a sexual component. He does, however, discuss a visceral sexual relationship with a dark haired woman and feels shame for it. Sonnet 135 and 136 dedicated to the “Dark Lady” pun on Shakespeare’s first name as “Will” approximately 20 times and this can mean both desire and penis. Other references to genitals as hell and night are found throughout the sonnets. 

One anecdotal story about Shakespeare’s sexual prowess comes in the form of “Will the Conqueror”.

“Upon a time when Burbage played Richard the Third there was a citizen grew so far in liking with him, that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard the Third. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained and at his game ere Burbage came. Then, message being brought that Richard the Third was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third”

This may be an apocryphal story but it was noted by two separate people in their own personal journals and thus giving it more veracity. So if you thought fans and celebrities getting busy backstage was a modern phenomenon, think again.

Treatment of Sex and Love in the Plays

The later chapters all concern going from one play to another examining specific themes on love and sexuality and this is where the book really comes into its own as a solid theater reference in both to interpret lines but also as food for thought in how to adapt these plays.

In the Fun of Sex chapter, Wells points out the high points of the overly sexy encounter of Petruchio and Kate in “Taming of the Shrew” which has the famous line by Petruchio “What, with my tongue in your tail?” He also points out an interesting bit of sexual word play in “Much Ado About Nothing” interestingly between Benedick and a minor character named Margaret that appears in Act V. Benedick wants her to call Beatrice so he can give her a love sonnet he has been working on but this straight forward exchange turns into a sexually laced word play about men and women’s roles in sex and satisfaction.

The sexual desire chapter covers the touchier subject of rape. As a subject matter, actual female rape doesn’t really come up in Shakespeare all that often aside from the attempted rape in “Two Gentlemen of Verona”, the “Rape of Lucrece” and the rape of Lavinia in “Titus Andronicus”. So Wells examines more those characters who describe their raging sexual desire for another character such as Angelo in “Measure for Measure”, Tarquin in “The Rape of Lucrece” and interestingly enough Helena in “All’s Well That Ends Well”. Wells goes even further with the popular Shakespeare plot device of the “bed trick”. Both Angelo in “Measure for Measure” and Bertram in “All’s Well” are tricked into sleeping with women while they think they are making love to another woman entirely. Wells calls the bed trick an example of “male rape” by a woman and given the modern connotation of coercive date rape its quite applicable. As controversial as such as stance might be it certainly offers a different take on the usual slant with these particular plays where the men are perceived as the jerks in the story.

Wells dedicates an entire chapter to “Romeo and Juliet” paying its due as Shakespeare’s most romantic play and one that has made the greatest impact in pop culture, however, he points out that Shakespeare made the play sexy and memorable. The source for the play is “Romeus et Juliette” a poem by 15th century English poem Arthur Brooke. He essentially tells the same story but uses it as a cautionary tale against premarital sex, saying those who engage in it will wind up dead or in ruin. Wells starts off saying that Romeo in inexperienced in love and is in love with the idea of love. This changes when he meets Juliet who is more mature in her feelings. They speak a shared love sonnet comparing love and attraction to religious pilgrims in a bit of writing virtuosity. Wells then uses the characters of Mercutio and the Nurse as examples of immature love as they speak about sex and relationships in bawdy and explicit terms that the title pair outgrows in the course of the story as their relationship develops.

The chapter on “Sexual Jealousy” explores the appearances of the green eyed monster in several plays such as “Othello” obviously that tracks a heavy and emotional type of jealousy along with some bits of early feminist rhetoric, blind jealousy in “The Winter’s Tale” with Leontes but also with immature jealousy in “Much Ado About Nothing” with Claudio, and a feigned and misplaced jealousy with Troilus in “Troilus and Cressida”. The chapter on “Sex and Experience” is perhaps the least interesting as it seems to indicate more of a profile of married partners or older lovers but is more of a plot retread of “King Lear” and “Hamlet’. I would have expected a dissection of the sexually charged relationship between Macbeth and his wife but its only vaguely touched on. 

The “Whores and Saints” chapter sheds a light on female characters that work either extreme from the virtuous to those who are literal prostitutes. The plays range with an in-depth look at a little done and known show, “Henry IV, Part 2” with the character of Doll Tearsheet. Falstaff is her lover and customer but he always gets all the press. However, Doll is just as saucy as her man but she is often overlooked as she is in the more boring of the Henry IV, Part 2, which is true, aside from the Falstaff episodes the better political intrigues are found in part 1. 

On the saint side, Wells covers “Pericles” which has, Marina, probably the most virtuous and pure character in Shakespeare. She is kidnapped and brought to a brothel which contains some of the raunchiest brothel bits with the Bawd and her assistant Boult. Marina has an almost supernatural power of being to talk men out of having sex and convinces them to pursue more noble endeavors. Other plays that are examined are “Measure for Measure”, and “Timon of Athens” for their episodes of prostitutes.

The “Just Good Friends” chapter highlights primarily male-male relationships. The idea here its very ambiguous in Shakespeare just what the relationship is between two men. Its as if Shakespeare was able to anticipate the famous Saturday Night Live animated skit, “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” which followed a 1960’s type cartoon superheroes, obviously a riff on Batman and Robin. So who are some of Shakespeare’s ambiguously gay duos? The nominees are: Antonio and Bassanio in “The Merchant of Venice, Antonio and Sebastian in “Twelfth Night”, Valentine and Proteus in “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and Arcite and Palamon in “The Two Noble Kinsmen”. 

All of these pairs have a VERY CLOSE relationship were they are overly concerned with each other’s well being and happiness well beyond that of an ordinary friend that it makes the audience raise their eyebrows. What deflects this is that many of these men wind up in a heterosexual relationship or are at least paired with a woman. The men of “Gentlemen” and “Kinsmen” are very into each other’s situations until a woman appears and suddenly they are obsessing about them. The one NOT ambiguous couple is Achilles and Patroclus in “Troilus and Cressida”, who were a famously gay couple in antiquity. This is so much on the nose that the acerbic fool Thersites refers to Patroclus as Achilles’ “male varlet” or man-whore. Not to be left out, Wells touches on some interesting ambiguous female relationships such Rosalind and Celia, Helen and Hermia, and the more obvious play on lesbianism Olivia and Viola.

“Shakespeare and Sex and Love” is a pretty quick read and pretty lively from chapter to chapter. Wells mentions that the basis of the book came from lectures and that shows in the bit size treatments in reading the book. The book I feel can be a great resource for anyone who is looking to produce their next Shakespeare play and exploring options concerning time period, character interpretation, and highlighting contemporary themes. The later chapters give just enough information as a primer to further explore themes and food for thought for your latest adaptation. Sex and relationships from falling in love to gender politics are obviously perennial topics that ensure that Shakespeare’s plays will never go out of style.  


Shakespeare Retro Reviews - TV: John Barton’s “Playing Shakespeare”, episode 1 – “The Two Traditions”

“Soldier X” at the Ma-Yi Theater Company at HERE