Shakespeare’s bawdy

William Shakespeare was baptized on this day in 1564 and what a life he led before he died at the age of 52 on April 23, 1616. He explored love and sex in his plays with a detailed vividness that leaves Masters and Johnson looking pretty skimpy, writes Simon Callow in the Guardian.

The Elizabethans were as prurient as the stereotypical Victorians were prudish. They loved bawdy and double entendre — and Shakespeare had to entertain his audience.

Sexual desire is rampant in the opening lines of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Theseus tells Hippolyta he is impatient about having to wait four more days for their wedding. She says the days will pass quickly. Look at the imagery they use.


Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Another moon: but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires,
Like to a step-dame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man revenue.


Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;
Four nights will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.

Love’s Labours Lost begins with a three-year pledge of sexual abstinence. Longaville tells Ferdinand the king of Navarre:

I am resolved; ’tis but a three years’ fast:
The mind shall banquet, though the body pine:
Fat paunches have lean pates, and dainty bits
Make rich the ribs, but bankrupt quite the wits.

This struggle between mind and body is a recurrent theme in Shakespeare’s works, memorably expressed in Sonnet CXXIX:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d 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.

Shakespeare writes about sex in all its variety. None of his famous characters is a full-blown homosexual like Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, but some of his sonnets are addressed to a young man, and mistaken sexual identity is a source of rich entertainment in Twelfth Night. Viola disguised as a young man runs into problems. Olivia falls in love with her, mistaking her for a young man, while she herself is in love with Duke Orsino, who also doesn’t realize she is a woman. The complications are sorted out in the end when she is reunited with her twin brother, Sebastian. Olivia marries Sebastian while the duke proposes to Viola. But there is an undercurrent of homoeroticism. The duke tells Viola, who is now revealed as a woman:

Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times
Thou never shouldst love woman like to me.

Such references to same-sex attraction are extremely rare in English literature between the Elizabethan period and the 20th century.

The Elizabethans were permissive in practice. Callow writes:

Prostitution, though technically illegal, was everywhere available, especially in London (though Wells acquaints us with the remarkable fact that in Oxford there was in the 12th century a street named Gropecuntlane). These “nunneries” (brothels, as in Hamlet) catered to all tastes, including an establishment where male prostitutes satisfied “forlorn unfortunate dames married to old husbands”. The theatre was closely associated with these activities; the actor-managers Alleyn and Henslowe both owned inns which were in fact brothels, as did Shakespeare’s co-author, the unsavoury George Wilkins, who was responsible for chunks of Pericles. Boy actors were known to be available for hire for sex with both men and women.

Technically, sodomy was punishable by fierce laws which, however, were almost never enforced: in the whole of the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, there were only six indictments and one conviction, and that was for sex with a five-year-old boy. The king himself, though married and the father of three sons, was flagrant in his passionate pursuit of male favourites, justifying his involvement with one, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, with the startling and rather moving words (uttered to the Privy Council): “Christ had John, I have George.”

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