Shakespeare, Sex and Love

By Robert Arnold, September 26, 2010

William Shakespeare: the 'Chandos portrait' circa 1610

William Shakespeare: the 'Chandos portrait' circa 1610

As we should expect from the author who was most unstinting in his exploration of the varieties of human experience, in Shakespeare’s works the subject of sex and love is vast.

Not long ago I heard the scholar Stanley Wells interviewed on radio about the subject of his last book, Shakespeare, Sex and Love. It emerged that he had a picture of Shakespeare’s development based on a reading of the plays and poems. Broadly, he saw a movement from a celebration of sex to an advocacy of fidelity and married chastity (chastity in that sense of keeping the body within marriage) in favour of avoiding sexual wrongs. And if you concentrate on certain aspects you certainly could get such a picture.

It is not my intention to single out Stanley Wells or misrepresent him on the basis of an interview, but it got me thinking about why I have always been reluctant to interpret the greatest English artist’s career in terms of hindsight.

On another British programme, I recently heard sexuality and spirituality referred to as the two irrepressible forces in human life. It was a surprise, but the surprise of the obvious and unapparent being restated. With the escalating commodification of sex, it is possible to ‘forget’ the permanent experience of humanity, which from earliest mythologies uniting heaven and earth to the songs of Bob Dylan (for instance in his bitter and tender ruminations on marriage and separation on ‘Blood On The tracks’ or in a song such as ‘Golden Loom’) has seen the spiritual in the sexual, and physical union as a metaphor for completion and communion paralleled only by the metaphor of death for physical dissolution.

As we should expect from the author who was most unstinting in his exploration of the varieties of human experience, in Shakespeare the subject is vast, and present from the start of his career. Sexual violation is not only the late-emerging theme in Cymbeline, it is the whole of the Rape of Lucrece. Unfortunately scholars too often fall into the trap of speaking for Shakespeare and making patterns of his work, tracing an arc that I am afraid is simply speculation and a figment. It is almost a statistical approach, a kind of fairy-story that sees the young Shakespeare, full of beans and optimism about la vie moyenne sensuelle, give way to a wary dad (embodied in the strict Prospero) full of weary knowledge about male sexual hunger, lurking about giving warnings and dire threats about sex before marriage…’as we all do as we get older.’ The idea here is that Shakespeare learned from his mistakes and this is revealed in an increased emphasis on sexual purity, etc.

There are two or three really serious objections to this. The first is textual. If you use this kind of statistical approach you ignore the presence throughout of the knowledge which seems to the fore in later plays (‘Men were deceivers ever’ is from a comedy, for instance; there is an astoundingly obscene joke in Romeo & Juliet etc.). And so you ignore our own – not just Shakespeare’s – innate capacity for wisdom, for drawing conclusions from our observations and experience from childhood on, for understanding the power of jealousy, disillusion and disgust as well as the heady delirium of the first phases of love . We cannot help but learn from such powerful experiences. The problem is we may not like what we learn and invent a less fully real substitute which does not fit with all the facts.

I really think we need to drop altogether this picture of Shakespeare’s career as somehow revealing of personal development and of the later work as some kind of summation. The real development is all in the language and what it does to the mind. You can either have Shakespeare who was a writer and picked his themes at will or you can have some poor fellow who got his future wife pregnant when he was too young and ruined his life and wrote about it for all our benefits.

It would be unfair to single out anyone succumbing to this paralysing tendency for projection. D.H. Lawrence thought the ‘darkness’ attributable to the prevalence of new sexual diseases in Europe. Ted Hughes alluded to some unknown sexual ‘crisis’. Perhaps by getting back to sex and spirituality, or, to put it another way, sex in our experience as entire human beings, we can find a way out from this cleft fork.

It seems to me that what is really happening, for instance in a play such as Troilus and Cressida, is Shakespeare is constantly finding new metaphors and fresh language for fundamental experience like love, betrayal, perceived betrayal and the alienation it produces. Sexual relationships are obviously a common source of this experience, but it was also at the heart of the Western religious tradition, which the Elizabethan playwright was expressly forbidden from representing on stage, because of the status of theatre in relation to society at the time.

Whether in one context or another, the common experience is one of pain amounting to agony, and in his use of sexual imagery and situations, Shakespeare has found a resounding template for expressing love and its denial. The agonised returning to detail, the invention of new horrors by the outraged imagination, all that mirrors the discovery of a reality too awful to want to comprehend in Troilus or Othello. Whether it outweighs the beauties of truth and fidelity present throughout the work, I would maintain, is a personal choice. It is no use saying Shakespeare’s language is ‘stronger’ in one case or the other, the point is, has it made a stronger impression?

As a conscious artist Shakespeare chose in his later works (though not necessarily conceived of, however shadowily, later) to use elements of the legendary, the masque, the blatantly supernatural, and the folkloric, and I would say he was striving artistically for some primal expression of the tension of fundamental forces. The sheer strangeness of something like The Winter’s Tale is something quite new in representation and something far superior I would say, unrivalled except in Mozart’s work for the stage, to the worldly summations of Homer and Tolstoy often vaunted by narrowly ‘humanist’ critics as the acme of achievement in art.

It is what it can be most like to be a human being ,with multiple parts, endlessly entering ‘pursued by a bear’, INSIDE in this endlessly mysterious universe, at night as well as in the day. If we would only reach out to ourselves, we could ‘get’ Shakespeare, not some pseudo-biographical construct; and we would no longer have a mere version of either. He worked so hard to give freely from his mine and that, I would say, is love: one instance of it. What except the pettiness of the ego’s designs prevents us from accepting it? I do not have the patience to list all the narrowness this has revealed, even if I knew it: from Joyce’s cuckold to Peter Ackroyd’s young buck to Freud’s Bacon to some Debrett-fixated snob’s Earl of Oxford to Edward Bond’s fledgling capitalist, it all seems to be about private fears and fantasies and the need to push them onto one who – the works attest – ‘was of a free and open nature.’

What a sour return! But it’s ourselves we’re really cheating on if we choose so to respond. Because that is where the answer lies when we opt to refuse great love, it is preferring the fears and the fantasies to a free and open answer.

On these grounds I simply cannot recommend reading almost any critical book in favour of re-reading Shakespeare. It’s just more mortar in the mortuary wall. It is no use saying nice things about Shakespearean criticism if they are not meant; the good stuff can be counted on two hands. Try On The Knocking At The Gate In Macbeth from De Quincey, that is the authentic hot chill of response; the modern industry is a butter-mountain in comparison. It is a sad fact that thousands of grown men and women make a respectable living from these activities, and sadder still that their younger charges defer to them. If literature departments were more about writing and less about salaried critics, we might get more of the good stuff coming through again! But whereof you do not partake, you simply cannot teach or illuminate. So let’s have plenty of sabbaticals where the critics get in touch with their more wide-eyed selves, perhaps even fall in love with something again and decide to forget all about that next magnum opus. ‘Ripeness is all.’

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