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Scholar discusses sex in Shakespeare

Madeline Buckley | Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells used public records from Shakespeare’s hometown Stratford-upon-Avon to understand the sexual behavior of Shakespeare and his contemporaries during his lecture “Sex and Literature in Shakespeare’s Time” Monday.

Sexual misconduct was not blatant under the eye of Queen Elizabeth, who was often referred to as the Virgin Queen, and the church or the state did not tolerate adultery, incontinence or pre-marital sex, Wells said.

“Stratford records give record of prosecution for fornication,” Wells said.

In spite of the danger of punishment, evidence shows that Shakespeare himself engaged in pre-marital sex, as his wife Anne Hathaway was already pregnant at the time of their marriage, Wells said. It seems as though he escaped prosecution for this and escaped “scot-free.”

Shakespeare’s personal sexual experiences are reflected in his writing, Wells said. In Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” Rosalind discusses pre-marital sex, and in his Sonnet 151, Shakespeare gives an “extraordinary description of an erection, detailing the rising and the falling of the penis,” he said.

This frank discussion of sexual encounters gave Elizabethan theater a bad reputation, Wells said. There were some religious leaders who blamed the plague that spread throughout Europe on theatrical performances and Wells compared the players who dominated the Shakespearian stages to the current celebrity culture.

“It was a sexy business,” he said. “Rumors circulated about the sexual misconduct of the players.” Like actors now, players were scrutinized for more than their acting skills, Wells said.

While prostitution was also a component of Elizabethan society, it is left out of much literature of the time, Wells said. Although the practice did occur, public records are scarce on the subject, he said. However, one prison record indicated the existence of a prostitute from Shakespeare’s hometown. A woman by the name of Elizabeth Evans lived a colorful life as a prostitute until she was finally arrested for using a 5 year-old girl to earn money as a prostitute, Wells said.

Homoeroticism was another scandalous literature theme “in vogue” at the time of Shakespeare, he said.

Although sodomy was punishable by death, “male-to-male relationships were common,” he said. Most famously, accounts detail the sexual exploits of Queen Elizabeth’s successor, King James I, Wells said. His “fondness for handsome young men” is well documented, he said.

While homoerotic themes were popular in the literature of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and many believe that some of Shakespeare’s work falls in the same category, Wells is skeptical that Shakespeare’s writing can be classified as homoerotic.

“Shakespeare succeeds in writing verses that could be applied to homoeroticism,” Wells said, “but ultimately, he simply captures the very essence of human love.”