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.

At left, a known representation of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout; at right, a portrait thought by some to represent the bard and by others to depict Sir Thomas Overbury. Click image to expand.
At left, a known representation of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout; at right, a portrait thought by some to represent the bard and by others to depict Sir Thomas Overbury

Was Shakespeare a hottie? Was Homer a hunk? John Milton: six-pack abs? Dante: hot or not?

You would think, from recent coverage of the portrait newly claimed to be of Shakespeare (a claim front-paged by the New York Times early last month) that these are valid literary questions rather than evidence that the culture of celebrity has irretrievably corrupted literature.

Fortunately, the Times story was written by the redoubtable John Burns, who included a good dose of skepticism.

Nonetheless, the piece did quote the promotional brochure that is to accompany an exhibition of the "newly discovered" Shakespeare portrait that opens at the Stratford-on-Avon Shakespeare Center on April 23, the bard's birthday. The quotation tells us everything that is wrong with Shakespearean biography—indeed, with most literary biography—and reminded me of the recent profoundly clueless sexsational controversy over the singularity of Hitler's testicle.

Here is the brochure's heavy-breathing, lubricious description of the so-called "Cobbe portrait" (which belongs to an Irish family named Cobbe):

This Shakespeare is handsome and glamorous, so how does this change the way we think about him? And do the painting and provenance tell us more about his sexuality, and possibly about the person to whom the sonnets are addressed?

In a word: No. There's nothing wrong with speculating about what Shakespeare looked like nor about what he might have gotten up to in bed. In fact, I'll touch on the latter question a little later in this essay. The problems begin when baseless speculation about the life is used to interpret—and, more often than not, misinterpret—the work.

It has been odd to watch the media all aflutter when our supreme literary genius is revealed to be movie-star handsome and red-carpet ready. He's no longer the pudgy, balding figure we see in the so-called "Droeshout engraving" that appears on the cover of the First Folio, the engraving that most experts, drawing on quotations from those (like fellow poet Ben Jonson) who knew Shakespeare in the flesh, testify is his likeness.

What is remarkable about the fight over this "new" portrait—and it is, indeed, developing into a scholarly shootout—is that one of the leading eminences of British academic Shakespeare, Stanley Wells, general editor of the Oxford Shakespeare series, has lent his name to the venture. It was Wells who spearheaded a press conference unveiling the "Cobbe portrait" as the centerpiece of the upcoming exhibition, which is somewhat grandly called "Shakespeare Found." His support is especially surprising given how quickly and credibly other scholars, such as Oxford's Katherine Duncan-Jones, have presented evidence that the portrait isn't of Shakespeare at all but rather of a Jacobean contemporary, Sir Thomas Overbury. (Duncan-Jones' piece on this subject in the Times Literary Supplement is worth clicking on because it presents a portrait that is indubitably Overbury and it looks exactly like the one Wells claims to be of Shakespeare.)

And yet there was Wells putting his imprimatur on the alleged "Shakespeare" portrait at a press conference. And there was Wells, along with two other Shakespeareans, firing back at Duncan-Jones in the letters pages of the TLS, dubiously claiming that "independent scientific investigation" supports his claim that the Cobbe portrait depicts Shakespeare. The "science" involved a "tree-ring" study of the wooden frame of the portrait; it hardly needs to be said that no "science" can establish whom a portrait depicts, barring some studio mishap that leaves the subject's DNA all over it.

Wells' unequivocal advocacy is surprising, but it's also easily explained: There is something about the trifecta of fame, sex, and Shakespeare that seems irresistible to scholars, even to someone of Stanley Wells' gravitas.

The whole contretemps reminds me of the recent debate about whether Shakespeare wrote the "Funeral Elegy," a wretched, mind-numbingly sententious, and witless 600-line poem found in a manuscript that had long been gathering dust in an Oxford library. As I recounted in my book The Shakespeare Wars, the false (and eventually discredited) claim about the ludicrous elegy was nonetheless a serious matter: If that dreadful work had survived persistent jeers from outsiders such as myself, and definitive debunking by scholars such as Gilles Monsarrat and Brian Vickers, and been taken for authentic, it might have forced us to re-evaluate, through the prism of its rebarbative verse, everything we thought we knew about Shakespeare's attitudes toward life, death, and mortality. We would have had to take the text especially seriously, in fact, because the claim was that it had been written by Shakespeare in 1612, four years before his death, and that he was writing in his own voice—eulogizing a friend—and thus not speaking through a character whose clumsy words could be excused or explained by dramatic irony or some other literary device.

It is perhaps not surprising that the promoters of the wretched elegy initially tried to "sex up" their "discovery" by insinuating that the poem revealed something scandalous about Shakespeare's sex life—perhaps even the identity of the homosexual lover to whom many of the sonnets were supposedly addressed.

The "Shakespeare portrait" brochure makes similar claims, asking whether the new, "hotter" Shakespeare tells us anything about the bard's "sexuality" or "the person to whom the sonnets are addressed," although it's unclear how a portrait could do any such thing. (Are all bisexual men handsome? All heteros ugly?)

There is so little established certainty about Shakespeare's personal traits that it is almost always a reductive and foolish thing to try to read his work through urban legends about his life, or his life through his work. Recently, I tried to make this point in a seminar moderated by Robert Brustein, a great Shakespearean director and author of the just-published Tainted Muse. I argued that Homer's works are still considered the greatest in all of literature, and our lack of any certain knowledge about him (or her, for all we know) doesn't change that. If we were to learn Homer had a happy or unhappy marriage, or favored hermaphrodites, it would change—add or subtract—nothing, zero, from our understanding, our awe, at the grandeur of the Iliad or The Odyssey.

But the beat goes on, especially when there's some snippet of sex. In fact, Stanley Wells, before he became a promoter of sexy portraits, wrote intelligently on our obsession with Shakespeare's sexual language; he's the author of a thought-provoking book (well, a collection of three lectures) called Looking for Sex in Shakespeare that has many judicious things to say on the subject. His first essay is an examination of the way modern, post-Shakespearean sexual connotations are often read into his verse retroactively when the sexual usage of the word or phrase in question was unknown at the time.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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