The controversy over a sexy portrait of Shakespeare.

Scrutinizing culture.
April 2 2009 6:47 AM

Should We Care What Shakespeare Did in Bed?

The controversy over a sexy new portrait.

(Continued from Page 1)

He asks whether, for instance, when a dying Cleopatra exclaims "Husband, I come," the contemporary usage of come applies. Wells also expresses mixed feelings about Eric Partridge's study Shakespeare's Bawdy, one of the first modern explorations of Shakespearean verbal licentiousness. He's genially amused by Partridge's obsessiveness but is aware it can become too grimly single-minded or double-entendre entangled.

Despite his skepticism, however, Wells seems to have been seduced by what I think may be a practical joke on Eric Partridge's part, having to do with Shakespeare's alleged favorite sexual predilection.

Partridge, a polymath independent scholar and linguist who died in 1979, proclaims in Shakespeare's Bawdy that he has discovered Shakespeare's secret sexual obsession, an act that Partridge—who is not shy about discussing the most explicit and far reaches of sexuality—says he cannot bring himself to verbalize. It's just too outré.

Partridge says—as if it's a matter of principle or honor for him—that Shakespeare was nothing less than 100 percent heterosexual, but that he had an idiosyncratic and unspeakable heterosexual taste.

And in a hilarious and yet somehow touching passage of sexual bardolatry, Partridge proclaims Shakespeare was not only good in bed but maybe the best there ever was. Shakespeare, Partridge tells us swooningly,

was an exceedingly knowledgeable amorist, a versatile connoisseur, and a highly artistic, an ingeniously skillful, practitioner of lovemaking who could have taught Ovid more than that facile doctrinaire could have taught him; he evidently knew of, and he practiced, an artifice accessible to few—one that I cannot becomingly mention here, though I felt it obligatory to touch on it, very briefly, in the Glossary.

Wow, a Shakespearean sexual secret that's too hot to handle, hidden in the glossary!

Wells couldn't resist trying to uncover what Shakespeare liked under the covers: "Scouring the Glossary," he writes, for our benefit, of course, "to save my readers the trouble of doing so, I have come to the conclusion that [Partridge] means heterosexual anal intercourse, though 'artifice' seems a funny word for it."

It does indeed. And "heterosexual anal intercourse" doesn't seem like something Partridge would find too obscene to relate in ordinary fashion.

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And so, momentarily setting aside my strictures against the sexualizing of Shakespearean study (only in order to, as Wells put it, "save my readers the trouble of doing so"), I too scoured Partridge's glossary to discern what exactly it might have been.

I must admit I couldn't figure it out. At first I thought it had to be something more recherché than Wells' solution. But then it occurred to me that Partridge may have been playing a practical joke on his readers, knowing that he could tempt people like Wells and me to abandon momentarily our scholarly scruples and go looking for the naughty bits. It's an eminently successful bit of trickery, one that demonstrates that our continuing preoccupation with Shakespearean sex is an understandable human trait, if often a misleading mode of literary investigation. One has to admire him for it.

Because by planting the seed (so to speak) that there was the solution to some ultimate Shakespearean sexual mystery in his glossary, he managed to make sure that the glossary, which otherwise might have been ignored but was probably the product of years of devotion, was probably the most well-read—and reread—glossary of all time.

Practical jokes aside, these inquiries into Shakespeare's sexual tastes distract us from genuinely difficult-to-resolve question about what Shakespeare's characters did or did not do in bed, which seems to me far more important since we are dealing with the greatest poet of love in both its ecstatically erotic and darkest, most self-destructive manifestations.

Here is where Wells gets interesting, I think. In the introduction to Looking for Sex in Shakespeare, he has this to say (italics mine):

Many relationships in Shakespeare's plays may be, but are not necessarily, sexual. Did Hamlet go to bed with Ophelia, as he visibly does in Kenneth Branagh's film? [Wherein Branagh's Hamlet rolls around with an unsurprisingly naked Kate Winslet's Ophelia.] ... Was Gertrude Claudius's lover before her husband's death? And is Bottom to be assumed to have had sex with Titania?

Now we're talking. You would think, after 400 years, that we would have reached some consensus on these questions, but they are not easy, and the answers shape the way we envision two of Shakespeare's greatest works and six of his most memorable characters. It is in this sense that talking about sex in relation to Shakespeare can be illuminating.

Let's set aside the Bottom/Titania question, which I don't think is quite as difficult. Yes, I think they did it. The tone of the scenes following their "wedding" are unmistakably post-coital.

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