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 2)

But look at the different Hamlets one gets—the different Shakespeares one gets—depending on how one understands the relationships between Gertrude and Claudius, and Hamlet and Ophelia. Was Shakespeare's vision in his plays misogynist, one that saw women as weak and unprincipled, subject to the whims of desire, abandoning fidelity for the lure of a hottie or someone royally powerful?

Consider first Gertrude and Claudius. Did Claudius kill his brother (Hamlet's father) because he was sleeping with Gertrude already and that heady experience drove him to murder so that he, alone, could possess her? Or did he kill his brother because he wanted to sleep with Gertrude? Did her seductive allure and perhaps unconscious encouragement of his designs lead him to fratricide?

Our answers to these questions determine how just Hamlet's suspicions of his mother are. Does his heated denunciation of her alleged licentiousness reflect reality, or does it reflect a more general delusional distrust of women's fidelity? And what are we to think when we compare it with his denunciation of Ophelia, the one that concludes: "Get thee to a nunnery." Is he denouncing her because she slept with him before marriage (which would make him more than a bit hypocritical) or because of a loathing for sexuality itself, even if she didn't?

And why is it so difficult to find any certainty about these questions in the text? Is the ambiguity part of a deliberate design in which Shakespeare prompts us to ask these questions while deliberately withholding the answers? The play, after all, begins with an unanswerable question: "Who's there?" Who indeed is out there in the darkness of the universe that surrounds the battlements of Elsinore castle? All the questions of the play can be seen as variations on that initial question. Who are these women actually, who's there beneath the artifice and costume that Hamlet denounces in that misogynist attack on Ophelia—and women in general—for using makeup and (my favorite sign that Hamlet's view of women is a bit deranged) giving nicknames to pets?

At first glance, the testimony of the ghost might seem to be decisive on the Gertrude and Claudius question. The ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius "won" Gertrude to "his shameful lust" with "witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts." But the time scheme is unclear—does this mean the seduction preceded or followed upon the murder? Was the killing the cause or the effect of the sex?

And is it possible Shakespeare changed his mind about his vision of Gertrude, his vision of women in general, in the later Folio version of Hamlet? I spend some time in The Shakespeare Wars demonstrating how Shakespeare's (or the play's) attitude toward Gertrude softens in the later Folio version of Hamlet, published seven years after Shakespeare's death in 1623, as opposed to the original full-length version of the play published in 1604 (the one known as the "Good Quarto" version).

Did he change his mind about whether Gertrude was a wanton seductress, emblematic of the weakness and wickedness of all women, or merely a frightened and abandoned and powerless queen?

There are hints in small changes, such as the way Hamlet describes her as having a "wicked tongue" in the earlier Quarto and merely an "idle tongue" in the later Folio.

Another subtle change can be found in the scene when, fending off Hamlet's denunciation of her, Gertrude asks Hamlet if he's forgotten who she is. In both versions, he says, "No, you are the Queene, your husband's brother's wife."

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In the Quarto he adds, "And would it were not so, you are my mother." In the later Folio he says, "But would you were not so. You are my mother." Thus in the Quarto he tried to disclaim her motherhood, while in the Folio he claims it. In other words, in the Folio it's "would it were not so you are related to that demon Claudius," not "would it were not so you are my mother."

Does the softening of the condemnation of Gertrude imply that in the later version he has less reason to accuse her of adultery before the murder?

But how Hamlet judges the queen, his mother, and how we judge Hamlet's judgment of her (and women in general) may depend on how we answer Stanley Wells' question: Did Hamlet sleep with Ophelia? If he's played the cad with her, he'd have less reason to be self-righteous about his mother. I think the important thing here is that—after centuries of argument and pettifoggery—there is no "correct" answer to these questions about who slept with whom and when. And why is that? Because Shakespeare either couldn't make up his mind himself or—more likely—had a preference for indeterminacy, for open-endedness (no pun, etc.), for the possibility of both answers being true or at least intriguing, in which the conclusion one comes to says more about the observer than about the indeterminable "facts" of the case. Just as in quantum physics, where a quantum of energy can be both a wave and/or a particle, a connection between quantum physics and literary ambiguity that scholar Jonathan Bate, author of the forthcoming Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare, first argued in a brilliant TLS essay back in 1999.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this indeterminacy, the dueling answers to key questions that Shakespeare seemed to favor (and not just in these "did they or didn't they do it?" duality) and the most important aspect of the fact that we now are faced with dual, or dueling, portraits, is that it reminds us that despite his singularity as literary genius, he was the supreme artist of ambiguity, sexual and poetic. An artist who, in every pun and double-entendre expressed a delight in the way ambiguity (not fuzziness but an array of carefully counter-posed alternative possibilities) deepens and enriches our appreciation of what we would otherwise think of as the strict single-mindedness of reality.

So whether or not the "new" portrait gives us another face of Shakespeare, the controversy over it reminds us that one of the things that makes his work so memorable is that it is so often, so deeply and profoundly, two-faced.