Sex and Shakespeare
With a Focus on Hamlet
Theater is about understanding humanity, it is about giving people a piece of life to watch and relate to. It is about connection, human connection. Some of the most pressing aspects of humanity are love and sex, two of the ways in which humans connect. A lot of the time love and sex are intertwined with each other and other times they have nothing to do with the other. And they are both present every second of every day all over the world. So theater, in turn, often if not always has something to do with love and sexuality. But sexuality more than love is at the very basis of human connection, it is the animal instinct in all of us. The prehistoric human, before we evolved into our modern form had the same animal instinct and very likely had many different sexual partners having nothing to do with love or commitment due to that instinctual urge to copulate. Sex is possibly the most human act there is because it is what can possibly lead to the creation of more human life. William Shakespeare, author playwright and literary genius, understood this better than most, delving into the subjects of love, sex and sexuality with a power and truth that is unrivalled by any other. In other words, sex, sexual puns and jokes, homosexuality, sexual tension and really just all things sex are all over most everything Shakespeare ever wrote. To delve more deeply into the sex that is ever-present in Shakespeare’s works and the ways in which he seamlessly integrates those sexual themes into his plots and dialogue, one of his most well known and influential plays can be looked at, Hamlet. But first let us look at Shakespeare’s attitude toward sexuality in general, as well as English society of the time as a whole.
The way that modern society most widely learns about the history of our world aside from in school (where they usually keep the more steamy details out of the lesson plan) is through film and television, or in other words, Hollywood. There are countless historical movies and television shows out there, especially based on events of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in England, or more specifically, the era of the Tudor dynasty. There are over 50 movies and TV shows that have been based on people and events of the era including Shakespeare in Love (1998 film), Elizabeth (1998 film), The Other Boleyn Girl (2007 film), and The Tudors (2007-2010 Showtime series). And what was in every one of these Hollywood portrayals of the Tudor dynasty but sex, sex, and more sex. The thing is, this time Hollywood really was not far off. In Elizabethan England prostitution was a thriving business, homosexuality was definitely present, adultery was an everyday occurrence and even the Virgin Queen loved herself a good naughty joke and some sexual tension. The queens court itself was a place where adultery and pre-marital sex constantly occurred. An example of these kinds of goings-on comes in the form of one of Elizabeth’s courtiers, the Earl of Essex, “Not only was his adoring wife Frances pregnant, but he was having affairs with four maids of honour simultaneously (Haynes, 56).” Of course everyone, especially the church, pretended that none of this was happening. But there’s no denying Elizabethan England was more sexually active than an attractive hormonal teenage boy in a rock band with a slight porn addiction.
So in turn, Shakespeare’s attitude towards sex and sexuality goes right along with what was going on in society at the time. “The invisible playwright was nudging king and council with the mild view that ‘fornication, adultery, sex outside marriage and stews – law or no law – will exist’ (Haynes, 86).” And while cold hard facts are difficult to come by, it is believed that Shakespeare himself was very sexually active man with many different women. “Shakespeare's personal sexual experiences are reflected in his writing. In Shakespeare's "As You Like It,"...