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Sex and the Shakespeare

Sex and the Shakespeare

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Published by skpaul_muzaffarpur
This essay is mainly focussed on elements of sex to be found in a few Shakespeare's Comedy.What is archaic for the British, is ultra-modern for the Americans.
This essay is mainly focussed on elements of sex to be found in a few Shakespeare's Comedy.What is archaic for the British, is ultra-modern for the Americans.

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Published by: skpaul_muzaffarpur on Jan 08, 2009
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10/30/2012

 
Sex and the Shakespeare Reader 
Theodore Dalrymple
S
hakespeare’s plays are subject to fashion, just like everything else. In a recent production of 
Hamlet 
at my local repertory theatre, the Prince raped Ophelia on stage, which fully explained her subsequent insanity to any politically correct audience. At last it understood why she chantedsnatches of old tunes, as one incapable of her own distress. Shakespeare, it seems, can bemade to serve almost any agenda.For most of the four centuries since it was first performed,
Measure for Measure
found little favor,and was even despised. Dryden, Doctor Johnson, and Coleridge—acute critics, all—detested it.Dryden wrote that it was “grounded on impossibilities, or at least so meanly written, that thecomedy neither caused your mirth, nor the serious part your concernment.” Dr. Johnson thoughtthat in this play, Shakespeare “makes no just distribution of good and evil . . . he carries hispersons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the end dismisses them without further care.” Coleridge called it “the most painful—say, rather, the only painful—part of his genuineworks.”But suddenly, in the latter half of the twentieth century, it came to seem one of Shakespeare’smost compelling and intriguing works. The questions it asks—to what extent does the state havethe right or the duty to impose a sexual moral code upon its citizenry and, deeper still, how issexual passion to be humanized?—seem more relevant to us now than at any time in theintervening years. In my everyday work as a doctor, for example, I see the results of ungoverned,and consequently ungovernable, passion: that is to say, murder, mayhem, and misery.And, as usual, Shakespeare’s answers to the questions he raises are subtle, far subtler thanthose of any ideologue or abstract theorist could ever be: for he is a realist without cynicism andan idealist without utopianism. He knows that the tension between men as they are and men asthey ought to be will forever remain unresolved. Man’s imperfectibility is no more an excuse for total permissiveness, however, than are man’s imperfections a reason for inflexible intolerance.
V
incentio is Duke of Vienna, a sovereign with undisputed power and therefore muchresponsibility. Unfortunately, he has let things slide; he has allowed the laws against immorality tobecome a dead letter, and the Viennese to do very much as they please. He does not like theresults:We have strict statutes and most biting laws,The needful bits and curbs to headstrong jades,Which for this fourteen years we have let slip;Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cage,That goes out not to prey.Now, as fond fathers,Having bound up the threatening twigs of birchOnly to stick in their children’s sight,For terror, not for use, in time the rodBecomes more mocked than feared . . .And liberty plucks justice by the nose;The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwartGoes all decorum.The Duke realizes that something must be done, but he is not the man to do it:
 
Sith ‘twas my fault to give the people scope,‘Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall themFor what I bid them do . . . .He therefore proposes to leave Vienna for a time, ostensibly to go on a long journey, but in realityto disguise himself as a friar to observe what happens in Vienna in his absence. As his deputy, heappoints Angelo, a man of inflexible moral principle, akin to the Puritans, who were increasinglyinfluential in the Corporation of London at the time
Measure for Measure
was first performed.Viewing the drama and the playhouses as destructive of virtue and provocative of vice, thePuritans wished to close them down—a threat to Shakespeare’s art and livelihood.Angelo disdains human weakness. According to the Duke:. . . Lord Angelo is precise,Stands at a guard with envy; scarce confessesThat his blood flows, or that his appetiteIs more to bread than stone.Having been handed the Duke’s power, Angelo decrees that all the brothels in Vienna must beclosed and pulled down, and he orders that Claudio, “a young gentleman,” be arrested andcondemned to death for having got his beloved Juliet, whom he has promised to marry, with child.This is in strict accordance with the law against fornication.Isabella, Claudio’s beautiful and chaste young sister, who has just entered a convent as a novice,goes to plead with Angelo for her brother’s life. At first, he refuses her suit; but then he finds thathe is as other men are and comes strongly to desire her. “Ever till now,” he soliloquizes, “Whenmen were fond, I smiled and wondered how.”He offers to spare her brother’s life if Isabella will sleep with him. Isabella is horrified; but after various machinations suggested by the Duke disguised as a friar, it is arranged that Angeloshould sleep with a former betrothed of his, Mariana, whom he has cruelly repudiated becauseher dowry was lost at sea. After he has done so, however, still believing that he has slept withIsabella, he goes back on his word and orders that Claudio be executed nonetheless. Further machinations of the Duke prevent this mischance. The Duke returns to Vienna, publicly exposesAngelo as a hypocritical villain, and condemns him to death—the
Measure for Measure
of thetitle. Angelo is spared, however, because of the pleas of Mariana and Isabella on his behalf. Hemarries Mariana, the Duke marries Isabella, and Claudio marries his Juliet. Puritanism is soundlydefeated, and all’s well that ends well.
M
easure for Measure
was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw acted on the professional stage.It was in 1962, and my father took me to Stratford to see it during a school vacation. I don’tsuppose I understood much of its moral import at the time, and I certainly didn’t realize that thequestions it raises were to be so important in my later professional life. It must have been asomewhat uncomfortable experience for my father, an inveterate womanizer given to stern,universal, and almost puritanical moral pronouncements.As it happens, the one individual performance I still remember is that of Angelo, who was playedby Marius Goring, a distinguished stage and screen actor. When I read of his death in 1998, aged86, more than a third of a century after I had seen him on the stage, he was still clad in myimagination in the burgundy velvet tunic and tights of his costume as Angelo.By strange coincidence, Goring’s father, Charles Goring, was a prison doctor, as I was myself tobecome years later. Doctor Goring wrote a big volume called
The English Convict 
, intended as a
 
refutation of the predominant criminological theory of the time, Italian positivism, whose mostfamous proponent, Cesare Lombroso, argued that criminality was a biological trait recognizableby physical signs such as a sloping forehead or narrowness between the eyes. Dr. Goringmeasured hundreds of English prisoners from head to toe and administered batteries of tests tothem, correlating each measure with every other, and concluding that,
Measure for Measure
,there was no such thing as the biological criminal type.At the time, this argument decisively swept the field: criminals are made, not born. But norefutation of so broad a theory as Italian positivism is ever quite decisive, and since thenbiological theories of crime have made a spirited, if still wrongheaded, comeback. The heredity of criminality and the neurobiology of illicit acquisition and aggression are once again respectablesubjects of research, though they can never explain the important question of why some eras or populations are more crime-ridden than others.
T
he relation between the biological and the social, between the animal and the human, is theprincipal theme of 
Measure for Measure
, as it was of Dr. Goring’s less inspired, but still important,work. And Shakespeare certainly gives biology its due. Not only is his play anti-puritanical, but itrecognizes without censoriousness the strength of the sexual urge and the intense pleasure itoffers. The comic characters of the play (and
Measure for Measure
is counted amongShakespeare’s comedies, though its theme could hardly be more serious, and a tragic outcome isonly just averted) are almost innocent in their cheerful acceptance of fornication as a permanentand welcome feature of human existence. Certainly Mistress Overdone, the innkeeper whosehostelry is also a brothel of which she is the madam, Pompey her tapster, and Lucio, “aFantastic,” never sink anywhere near the depths of evil to which Angelo sinks, on account of theinevitable conflict between his unbending principles and his own human nature. Better a certainmoral elasticity than complete moral rigidity. Moreover, an evening in their company would bevery much more fun than an evening with Isabella, however morally perfect she might be. And if Ihad to guess what Shakespeare’s personal attitude was to Mistress Overdone and her cronies, itwould be affection, not outrage.These comic characters are not without insight into human nature. When Mistress Overdonelearns that Angelo has ordered that “All houses [brothels] in the suburbs of Vienna must beplucked down,” Pompey consoles her:Come, fear not you; good counsellors lack no clients.Though you change your place, you need not change your trade.The oldest profession will survive whatever the laws against it might be, for human nature willnever change. Similarly, when Lucio, a libertine somewhat higher up the social ladder thanMistress Overdone and Pompey, speaks to the Duke (at the time still disguised as a friar) aboutLord Angelo, he suggests that “a little more lenity to lechery would do no harm in him.” The Dukereplies, “It is too general a vice, and severity must cure it.” With a shrewd realism, Lucio sayssomething whose truth only a man deluded by his moral enthusiasm, such as Angelo is, wouldnot recognize at once: “it is impossible to extirp it quite . . . till eating and drinking be put down.”Lust really does spring eternal.
B
ut Shakespeare most decidedly does not leave it at that. He does not say, or in any way imply,that because lust is eternal, because it can never be extirpated quite, any and all sexual relationsare perfectly in order and morally equal. I do not think, for example, that Shakespeare would viewthe sexual free-for-all of contemporary Britain—with its harvest of child neglect and abuse, morbid jealousy, sexual violence, and egocentric savagery—with the complacent impassivity of today’sBritish intelligentsia. On the contrary: he would loathe it, for its consequences are precisely whathe sees lurking in human nature if civilizing restraint be removed. Shakespeare is not a partisanof the noble savage who lives by instinct alone: rather, it is the savage in man that he fears and

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