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Sex and the Shakespeare Reader

from the magazine

Sex and the Shakespeare Reader

Autumn 2003
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

Shakespeare’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 chanted snatches of old tunes, as one incapable of her own distress. Shakespeare, it seems, can be made 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 the comedy neither caused your mirth, nor the serious part your concernment.” Dr. Johnson thought that in this play, Shakespeare “makes no just distribution of good and evil . . . he carries his persons 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 genuine works.”

But suddenly, in the latter half of the twentieth century, it came to seem one of Shakespeare’s most compelling and intriguing works. The questions it asks—to what extent does the state have the right or the duty to impose a sexual moral code upon its citizenry and, deeper still, how is sexual passion to be humanized?—seem more relevant to us now than at any time in the intervening 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 than those of any ideologue or abstract theorist could ever be: for he is a realist without cynicism and an idealist without utopianism. He knows that the tension between men as they are and men as they 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.

Vincentio is Duke of Vienna, a sovereign with undisputed power and therefore much responsibility. Unfortunately, he has let things slide; he has allowed the laws against immorality to become a dead letter, and the Viennese to do very much as they please. He does not like the results:

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 birch
Only to stick in their children’s sight,
For terror, not for use, in time the rod
Becomes more mocked than feared . . .
And liberty plucks justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes 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 them
For what I bid them do . . . .

He therefore proposes to leave Vienna for a time, ostensibly to go on a long journey, but in reality to disguise himself as a friar to observe what happens in Vienna in his absence. As his deputy, he appoints Angelo, a man of inflexible moral principle, akin to the Puritans, who were increasingly influential 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, the Puritans 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 confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone.

Having been handed the Duke’s power, Angelo decrees that all the brothels in Vienna must be closed and pulled down, and he orders that Claudio, “a young gentleman,” be arrested and condemned 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 that he is as other men are and comes strongly to desire her. “Ever till now,” he soliloquizes, “When men 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 Angelo should sleep with a former betrothed of his, Mariana, whom he has cruelly repudiated because her dowry was lost at sea. After he has done so, however, still believing that he has slept with Isabella, 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 exposes Angelo as a hypocritical villain, and condemns him to death—the Measure for Measure of the title. Angelo is spared, however, because of the pleas of Mariana and Isabella on his behalf. He marries Mariana, the Duke marries Isabella, and Claudio marries his Juliet. Puritanism is soundly defeated, and all’s well that ends well.

Measure 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’t suppose I understood much of its moral import at the time, and I certainly didn’t realize that the questions it raises were to be so important in my later professional life. It must have been a somewhat 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 played by Marius Goring, a distinguished stage and screen actor. When I read of his death in 1998, aged 86, more than a third of a century after I had seen him on the stage, he was still clad in my imagination 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 to become 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 most famous proponent, Cesare Lombroso, argued that criminality was a biological trait recognizable by physical signs such as a sloping forehead or narrowness between the eyes. Dr. Goring measured hundreds of English prisoners from head to toe and administered batteries of tests to them, 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 no refutation of so broad a theory as Italian positivism is ever quite decisive, and since then biological 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 respectable subjects of research, though they can never explain the important question of why some eras or populations are more crime-ridden than others.

The relation between the biological and the social, between the animal and the human, is the principal 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 it recognizes without censoriousness the strength of the sexual urge and the intense pleasure it offers. The comic characters of the play (and Measure for Measure is counted among Shakespeare’s comedies, though its theme could hardly be more serious, and a tragic outcome is only just averted) are almost innocent in their cheerful acceptance of fornication as a permanent and welcome feature of human existence. Certainly Mistress Overdone, the innkeeper whose hostelry is also a brothel of which she is the madam, Pompey her tapster, and Lucio, “a Fantastic,” never sink anywhere near the depths of evil to which Angelo sinks, on account of the inevitable conflict between his unbending principles and his own human nature. Better a certain moral elasticity than complete moral rigidity. Moreover, an evening in their company would be very much more fun than an evening with Isabella, however morally perfect she might be. And if I had to guess what Shakespeare’s personal attitude was to Mistress Overdone and her cronies, it would be affection, not outrage.

These comic characters are not without insight into human nature. When Mistress Overdone learns that Angelo has ordered that “All houses [brothels] in the suburbs of Vienna must be plucked 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 will never change.
Similarly, when Lucio, a libertine somewhat higher up the social ladder than Mistress Overdone and Pompey, speaks to the Duke (at the time still disguised as a friar) about Lord Angelo, he suggests that “a little more lenity to lechery would do no harm in him.” The Duke replies, “It is too general a vice, and severity must cure it.” With a shrewd realism, Lucio says something whose truth only a man deluded by his moral enthusiasm, such as Angelo is, would not recognize at once: “it is impossible to extirp it quite . . . till eating and drinking be put down.” Lust really does spring eternal.

But 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 relations are perfectly in order and morally equal. I do not think, for example, that Shakespeare would view the 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’s British intelligentsia. On the contrary: he would loathe it, for its consequences are precisely what he sees lurking in human nature if civilizing restraint be removed. Shakespeare is not a partisan of the noble savage who lives by instinct alone: rather, it is the savage in man that he fears and detests. The service that Mistress Overdone provides is fine—indeed, needed—as a safety valve, but as a model of all intimate human relations it is the primrose path to earthly perdition.

In fact, none of the major characters in the play regards sex as merely a biological or animal function and therefore of no moral concern. Of course, to regard sex only as a moral problem, as an impulse to be repressed at all costs, as Angelo does, is as deforming as to regard it as having no moral importance. An excess of moral rigor leads to dehumanization as surely as its total absence: and because of his moral zeal, Angelo’s relations with women are thus either coldly contractual, as in the breaking of his engagement to Mariana, or those of a rapist, when the natural impulse becomes too strong to be resisted.

Claudio, the first victim of Angelo’s inhuman zeal, does not himself deny the moral content of sexual relations and extenuates his impregnation of Juliet thus:

. . . upon a true contract
I got possession of Julietta’s bed:
You know the lady; She is fast my wife,
Save that we do denunciation lack
Of outward order.

His love of Juliet and his sincere promise to marry her, therefore, extenuate his conduct in his own eyes and, he hopes, in the eyes of others. But you only offer extenuation when you believe you have done wrong, or at least behaved less than ideally, in the first place. So Claudio is not claiming that he is innocent, only that his sin of not waiting for all the formalities to be completed is not a mortal one. And obviously we are intended to agree, for otherwise the disproportion between his action and Angelo’s proposed punishment would not strike us so forcibly, and the tension would go out of the play. (Perhaps it is not coincidental that Ann Hathaway gave birth to Shakespeare’s first child only six months after they were married.) If Angelo had merely fined Claudio and given him a stern lecture, the drama would have ended there and then.

But though Claudio accepts his guilt, he also points out that he is the victim of the zeitgeist of leniency in Vienna. When Lucio sees him being led off to jail, he asks Claudio “whence comes this restraint?”

From too much liberty, my Lucio, liberty.
As surfeit is father to much fast,
So every scope by the immoderate use,
Turns to restraint.

And, like everyone else in Vienna, Claudio has taken advantage of this liberty without much thought for the consequences:

Our natures do pursue
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die.

In other words, restraints upon our natural inclinations, which left to themselves do not automatically lead us to do what is good for us and often indeed lead us to evil, are not only necessary; they are the indispensable condition of civilized existence.

Of course Isabella, Claudio’s sister, disapproves of sexual intercourse outside of marriage. When she goes to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life, she begins by saying:

There is a vice that most I do abhor,
And most desire should meet the blow of justice,
For which I would not plead, but that I must . . . .

Later, when she goes to her brother in jail to tell him of Angelo’s wicked proposition, she is horrified that Claudio, after a very brief resistance, suggests that, after all, his life is more important than her chastity, and therefore she should comply with Angelo. Outraged, she replies:

Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd,
‘Tis best that thou diest quickly.

These are the very last words she addresses to her brother in the play, and modern critics have found her fierce defense of her own chastity, even at the cost of her brother’s life, puzzling and disproportionate, sententious and unattractive.

But this response shows a lack of historical understanding and imagination. Throughout most of history, chastity has been honored as an important virtue, precisely because it helps to control and civilize sexual relations. It has often been horribly overvalued, of course: for example, only last week a Kurdish Muslim refugee in Britain cut his own 16-year-old daughter’s throat and left her to bleed to death because she was dressing in revealing western clothes and having sex with her boyfriend. But Isabella knows that a society that places no value at all on chastity will not place much value on fidelity either: and then we are back to the free-for-all and all its attendant problems. She fears not only for her own soul if she sins, but for that of society.

But if virtues and ideals (all of which are impossible to achieve perfectly) are part of what makes us human, Shakespeare implies that they, too, must be proportionate. At the end of the play, Isabella abandons her chastity and marries the Duke, suggesting that there is a time and place for such restraint, but it is not over the whole course of a human life. Carried to an extreme, chastity will cease to be a virtue and become, if not a vice, at least a stimulus to vice. If Angelo had not been so militantly chaste, he would have been far less likely to make his wicked attempt on Isabella.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Lucio, the rake and libertine, also sees the value of chastity. When he approaches Isabella to ask her to go to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life, he says (and there is no suggestion that he is merely buttering her up):

I hold you as a thing enskied and sainted,
By your renouncement an immortal spirit
And to be talked with in sincerity,
As with a saint.

These are not the words of someone who thinks that sex is of no moral import. On the contrary, they are the words of someone who takes St. Paul’s view of sex as a regrettable but inevitable snare, which most people, Lucio included, are too weak to avoid. His own conduct, however, is a living refutation of the impossibility of imposing the Pauline view by force, as Angelo tries to do.

A speech that the Duke, disguised as a friar, addresses to Pompey, Mistress Overdone’s tapster, provides the key to the play. The Duke, remember, is responsible for the moral laxity of Vienna, but his previous reluctance to enforce the “strict statutes and most biting laws” does not spring from an ideological belief that everyone should be allowed to do whatever he wants, that anything goes, but rather from inattention, weakness, cowardice, and perhaps a desire for popularity. He is not himself licentious, being a studious and cultivated man, nor does he approve of licentiousness in others. He says to Pompey:

Fie, sirrah, a bawd, a wicked bawd!
The evil that thou causest to be done,
That is thy means to live. Do thou but think
What ‘tis to cram a maw or clothe a back
From such a filthy vice. Say to thyself,
From their abominable and beastly touches
I drink, I eat, array myself and live.

Canst thou believe thy living is a life,
So stinkingly depending?

This is not just rhetoric: the Duke, still disguised as a friar and acting, presumably, on religious authority, has Pompey carted off to jail.

The key word is “beastly”: their beastly touches. By beastliness, the Duke means sexuality without the human qualities of love and commitment: for without love, sex is merely animal—beastly in the most literal sense. And, as the play’s premise makes clear, the animal triumphs over the human when laws or institutions are too weak. The baby is not socialized by the nurse but beats her whenever it is thwarted in a desire, which in infancy can only be instinctive. It is only by having desire thwarted, and thereby learning to control it—in other words, by becoming civilized—that men become fully human.

So if Shakespeare is not a Puritan—he certainly does not think, because there is such a thing as virtue, that there shall be no more cakes and ale—he is not a complete latitudinarian in moral matters either. On the one hand, Angelo’s utopian scheme to “extirp it quite” must founder on the rock of human nature, not least the human nature of the would-be extirpers themselves (as history attests); on the other, complete surrender to instinct leads to beastliness and therefore to a shallowing of the human personality. Shakespeare thus places himself between utopian totalitarians and libertarian fundamentalists. He provides us with no easy answers to the questions that confront us now and that will always confront us. His is a call neither to draconian severity and repression, nor to utter leniency and permissiveness, the two temptations of those who like to argue from first principles. He calls us to proportion, that is to say to humanity. We must both recognize the limitations imposed upon us by our natures and at the same time not give up striving to control ourselves. If we fail to do either, we shall succumb to ideological or instinctual beastliness—or (the curious achievement of our own age) to both.

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