Shakespeare, Sex, and Love - Stanley Wells Review to come. Review has come:

For the last few months I’ve been streaming the Canadian comedy “Slings & Arrows” from my Netflix queue. It recounts the lives and loves of a Shakespearean Theater Company in Canada (naturally), and it’s at its best when it manages to incorporate Shakespeare’s plays into the storyline. Beyond the natural association of a Bard-related TV show and the book under review, Stanley Wells’ Shakespeare, Sex, & Love also reminds me of my favorite scene, which is from the 1st season, when the company is putting on “Hamlet.” Geoffrey, the artistic director, has been forced to moderate one of those turgid corporate seminars on the business acumen of literary figures, in this case Claudius. He’s standing up before a room of bored office drones and asks if they really think that they can learn anything useful about being better salespeople from looking at how Claudius deals with Hamlet, and a lonely voice at the back of the room says, “No.” “Good,” says Geoffrey, shoving the podium aside, “let’s fuck with some texts.”

And that’s exactly what Wells asks us to do in this short look at Shakespeare’s use of sexuality, lust, jealousy and love (both spiritual and carnal) in his works. The first part of the book (chapters 1-3) looks at Shakespeare’s social milieu (what was acceptable sexual behavior and what people actually did) and indulges in some speculation about his personal life; the second, and larger, part (chapters 4-10) looks at sex and love as Shakespeare wrote about it in his plays and poetry. Well’s final remarks neatly summarize his conclusions:

“(Shakespeare) saw sex as an instrument of relationships between people, and one that cannot…be divorced from love…. He knew of the dangers of mistaking animal desire for a higher passion, that the sexual instinct is one that may be misused, that it can lead to rape and murder, to a prostitution of all that is best in man. But he knew too that sex is an essential component of even the highest forms of human love, that it can lead to a sublime realization of the self in a near-mystical union of personalities….

Shakespeare gives us no easy answers, but he goes on helping us, if not to understand, at least to explore ourselves through his depiction of an amazing range of human sexual experience.”
(pp. 250-51)


In Elizabethan/Jacobean England, sex outside of a marriage was illegal. Prostitution was illegal. Sodomy – which covered a lot of ground, including homosexuality – was illegal. But, of course, there was sex outside of marriage (Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne produced a child within six months of the nuptials), brothels flourished (Shakespeare’s collaborator on “Pericles,” George Wilkins ran one), and sodomy was frequently practiced (the Earl of Southampton had a houseful of pages with whom he dallied, and the Earl of Oxford is reported to have boasted that “he would often tell my lord Harry, myself, and Southwell that he had abused a mare”). Indeed, Wells refers to arguments suggesting that there was a community of young (and not-so-young) nobility who demanded homoerotic literature willingly supplied by authors such as Marlowe, Richard Barnfield and Michael Drayton, as well as Shakespeare. (Wells tries to set Shakespeare apart from this circle to some extent by noting that he was equally at ease writing heteroerotic verses and scenes and writes, “So perhaps we can say that Shakespeare succeeds in writing verse which, like that of the contemporaries I have been discussing, can certainly appeal to a homoerotic readership but which transcends the boundaries of subdivisions of human experience to encapsulate the very essence of human love.”)

Writers could be quite explicit. Thomas Nashe, for example, describes a young man’s nearly disastrous visit to a brothel:

“…limbs unwieldy for the fight,
That spend their strength in thought of her delight.
`What shall I do to show myself a man?
It will not be for aught that beauty can.
I kiss, I clap, I feel, I view at will,
Yet dead he lies not thinking good or ill.’
`Unhappy me,’ quote she, `and will’t not stand?
Come, let me rub and chafe it with my hand.
Perhaps the silly worm is laboured sore
And wearièd that it can do no more.’”
(p. 45)


These verses would never be published; rather they would be passed around like the samizdat of the Soviet era. The respectable stuff presented (heterosexual) love in an idealized manner modeled along the lines laid down by Petrarch.

As with all talented subversives, though, Shakespeare manages to get pieces by the censors, as in Sonnet 151, describing an erection:

“My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no farther reason,
But rising at thy name doth point out thee
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.
No want of conscience hold it that I call
Her `love’ for whose dear love I rise and fall.


And John Donne gets away with it by making the lover God Himself:

“Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town to’another due,
Labour to’admit you; but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue,
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy.
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthral me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.


The point of all this is to show that while the official line was Puritanical, reality tolerated a wide breadth of sexual and sexualized expression. Which is not to say that the courts weren’t clogged with cases related to sexual offenses – they were – but the punishments were often light and only rarely fell upon the powerful (unless they had annoyed someone even moreso).

Chapter 3 offers what we know about Shakespeare and his domestic life – vanishingly little. He appears to have been sexually precocious. For the 60-year period from 1570 to 1630 recording marriages in Stratford, Shakespeare is one of only 3 who married before the age of 20. The average age (for both men and women interestingly enough) was 24. There’s also nothing particularly odd about the small size of his family; it could easily be explained by Anne having suffered some injury giving birth to the twins, Hamnet and Judith (note 1). And, though circumstantial, it’s unlikely that he was a faithful husband as a story found in the journal of John Manningham makes clear:

“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.” (p. 71)


Wells also mentions William Davenant, the self-described bastard of the Bard, and the possibility that Shakespeare suffered from syphilis (or some other STD). Wells leans toward disregarding both. (Though he’s not explicit one way or the other, Wells is clear that all of this is speculation and, barring a truly groundbreaking discovery, forever unresolved.)

For Wells, what can be said – at most – regarding Shakespeare and his personal life is that he was a man betrayed by its turbulence as evidenced by Sonnet 129:

“The’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell”


Wells isn’t sanguine about unearthing much of Shakespeare’s biography in his plays but he is more amenable to finding evidence in the sonnets for four reasons: (1) The sonnets, though written in the 1590s, were not published until 1609, and then in a probably unauthorized version. (2) Though the conclusion is subjective, Wells feels that the extreme anguish found in many rings true. Contrived anguish would not be beyond a man who wrote a character like Othello but combined with point (1) suggests a personal investment. (3) There are hints of a love triangle between Shakespeare, another man named Will and an unnamed woman. And (4) the collection is original and genre bending, breaking decisively with the Petrarchan model to explore not just idealized love but love (and lust) in all of its manifestations.

The final chapters look at Shakespeare’s works, primarily the plays. Chapter Four, “The Fun of Sex,” looks at Shakespeare’s comedic use of sexuality. As the Bard developed as a playwright he became more complex and, one might say, darker, more cynical even, in his outlook but in his earliest works he enjoyed bawdy badinage and played up many a situation for laughs. Shakespeare being Shakespeare, however, even his bawdy often served a dramatic purpose. Take for example this exchange between Kate and Petruchio from The Taming of the Shrew:

“PETRUCHIO: Good morrow, Kate; for that’s your name, I hear.

KATE: Well have you heard, but something hard of hearing:
They call me Katherine that do talk of me.

P: You lie in faith; for you are call’d plain Kate,
And bonny Kate and sometimes Kate the curst;
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation;
Hearing thy mildness praised in very town,
Thy virtues spoke of, and thy beauty sounded,
Yet not so deeply as to thee belongs,
Myself am moved to woo thee for my wife.

K: Moved! In good time: let him that moved you hither
Remove you hence; I knew you at the first
You were a moveable.

P: Why, what’s a moveable?

K: A join’d-stool.

P: Thou hast hit it: come, sit on me.

K: Asses are made to bear, and so are you.

P: Women are made to bear, and so are you.

K: No such jade as you, if me you mean.

P: Alas! Good Kate, I will not burden thee;
For, knowing thee to be but young and light –

K: Too light for such a swain as you to catch;
And yet as heavy as my weight should be.

P: Should be! Should – buzz!

K: Well ta’en, and like a buzzard.

P: O slow-wing’d turtle! Shall a buzzard take thee?

K: Ay, for a turtle, as he takes a buzzard.

P: Come, come, you wasp; i’ faith, you are too angry.

K: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.

P: My remedy is then, to pluck it out.

K: Ay, if the fool cold find it where it lies.

P: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.

K: In his tongue.

P: Whose tongue?

K: Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell.

P: What, with my tongue in your tail? Nay, come again,
Good Kate; I am a gentleman.”
Act 2, Scene 1


Aside from the comedy as these two spar with each other, the audience (or the reader) sees a developing relationship and attraction between them.

In As You Like It, Shakespeare develops four types of relationships. First, there’s that of Silvius and Phoebe, straight out of classic Renaissance pastorals. Then there is that of Touchstone and Audrey, two commoners whose affair illustrates basic carnal desire. The third relationship is between Celia and Oliver. It too must find a physical expression but is also more enduring and on a higher plane than Touchstone’s almost bestial lust. The final relationship, that between Rosalind (disguised as the boy Ganymede) and Orlando, is problematic and plays up the ambiguities of love and pushes the envelop as to how far a male-male relationship could go on the public stage.

In these and other plays, Shakespeare creates dramatic, though farcical, situations that emphasized their absurdity. Wells argues that as he matured, Shakespeare continued to milk sex for its humor but that the humor became darker and its presence less.

The next chapter takes us into the realm of “sexual desire,” and how one makes the distinction between love and lust:

“Love comforteth, like sunshine after rain,
But lust’s effect is tempest after sun.
Love’s gentle spring doth always fresh remain;
Lust’s winter comes ere summer half be done.
Love surfeits not; lust like a glutton dies.
Love is all truth, lust full of forged lies.”
Venus and Adonis


Titus Andronicus depicts a situation of lust unalloyed with love of any sort; even the love of Bassianus and Lavinia seems oddly superficial. In later plays, “Shakespeare wrestles more creatively with human problems created by tensions between … raw sexual desire that seeks satisfaction only in the moment of gratification … and … sex as a natural and fruitful realization of virtuous and God-given desires which can find their fulfillment within a tenderly loving relationship….” (p. 122) (Note 2) Two examples of this are Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. In both of these plays, sexual desire and love are present in the relationships, and their propriety is examined. I will be honest and say that, not being a fan of the comedies, I hadn’t read these plays (a lack that will be remedied), and it was eye opening to read about the decidedly odd nature of the protagonists’ loves, particularly in AWTEW, where Helena entraps Bertram into marriage. Considering the circumstances and Bertram’s attitude, I can’t imagine that the final scene’s happy ending can last.

Wells argues here that for Shakespeare “sexual desire” is dangerous and must be controlled. Though an integral part of real love, desire is not its end, and if there is no more than desire than the sexual act is no more than rape.

Wells devotes an entire chapter to Romeo and Juliet because of its iconic status as love story. He opens his discussion by pointing out the sexually charged and violent nature of the opening scene dialog when two of Capulet’s servants enter:

“SAMSON: True; and therefore women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall: therefore I will push Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall.

GREGORY: The quarrel is between our masters and us their men.

S: ‘Tis all one, I will show myself a tyrant: when I have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the maids, and cut off their heads.

G: The heads of the maids?

S: Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads; take it in what sense thou wilt.

G: They must take it in sense that feel it.

S: Me they shall feel while I am able to stand: and tis know I am a pretty piece of flesh.”
Act 1, Scene 1


And then there is Mercutio, who along with the Nurse, represents a very pragmatic view of love, and – in his case – a very cynical and violent one. A reader of the play would not be amiss if they wished to interpret his relationship to Romeo in a homoerotic light. At the very least, it expresses a desire to keep the girls out of the tree house and the fear of losing touch with close friends.

But Shakespeare takes Romeo and Juliet’s relationship to a higher level of commitment, leaving behind the practicality and cynicism of Mercutio and the Nurse.

Wells doesn’t bring this up but upon rereading the play, I came across a further example of Shakespeare’s wrestling with the ambiguities of love. It takes place in Act 4, Scene 1, when Juliet is despairing because she’s to marry Paris:

“Tell me not, friar, that thou hear’st of this,
Unless thou tell me how I may prevent it:
If, in thy wisdom, thou canst give no help,
Do thou but call my resolution wise,
And with this knife I’ll help it presently.
God join’d my heart and Romeo’s, thou our hands;
And ere this hand, by thee to Romeo seal’d,
Shall be the label to another deed,
Or my true heart with treacherous revolt
Turn to another, this shall slay them both:
Therefore, out of they long-experienced time,
Give me some present counsel, or, behold,
‘Twixt my extremes and me this bloody knife
Shall play umpire, arbitrating that
Which the commission of thy years and art
Could to no issue of true honor bring.”


It’s in the ninth and tenth lines that Juliet – a very mature 13-year-old – acknowledges that even her undying love for Romeo may be betrayed by a traitorous heart.

If RJ is an example of a mature playwright struggling with all the complexities of desire and love, then his conclusion is “an elegy for wedded love, a condition in which sex … is subsumed in celebration of a spiritual as well as physical unity.” (p. 167)

From the pure, if ill fated, love of Romeo and Juliet, Wells next tackles sexual jealousy and though he glances at Much Ado About Nothing, Troilus and Cressida and The Winter’s Tale, the center of his attention is, not surprisingly, Othello. Like RJ, the play opens with brutal images of sexuality as Roderigo and Iago badger Brabantio with images of the black ram mounting his white ewe and the beast with two backs. But then the audience hears Othello and Desdemona describe their love before the Venetian senate in terms that mirror Romeo’s descriptions of his love for Juliet – acknowledging a physical desire for each other but incorporating it in a fuller relationship.

Wells also points out that, unlike the jealousy of MAAN or TWT, Shakespeare brilliantly follows Othello’s descent into madness and self-destruction. And, overall, this series of plays shows Shakespeare’s growing confidence in depicting (potentially) corrosive passion.

Chapter 8, “Sex and Experience,” is the least persuasive of the book. Wells seems to be stretching his central argument to include Hamlet and King Lear but he does provide an interesting discussion of Antony and Cleopatra, where he looks at an affair as equally star crossed as Romeo and Juliet’s but from the points of view of two mature and realistic people.

(review continued in comment section)