Shakespeare walks into a pub and the barman says to him: “Get out mate, you’re bard.” *Cue groans* As fairly common as that joke is, it does provide me with a handy link into a lesser known and (apparently) true story told about Shakespeare by one of his friends which certainly has the feel of a pub anecdote: Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s leading man, was just on the verge of charming his way into a woman’s bed during a run of Richard III and things had progressed to the point that she had arranged for him to visit her after the show one night under the name of Richard III. (Oo-er). Shakespeare overheard this and, essentially, got in there before him. * When word was brought to the lady’s bedroom that Richard III was at the door, Shakespeare sent the reply: “William the Conqueror was before Richard III.”
Now it’s either testament to Burbage’s capacity to forgive, or Shakespeare’s to be a charming bugger that the two remained lifelong friends. Now it’s important that you remember that this is the man we’re dealing with, – a rakish, witty, and occasionally downright dodgy, charmer. The man who wrote Twelfth Night, Henry IV Part 1 and 2, Othello and all those bleeding sonnets, only one or two of which ever gets a quote in edgeways. As a writer, he covered the entire spectrum of love and sexuality from arty poser-ish-ness, unwitting lesbian attraction, and doomed teenage romance to bawdiness, extreme sexual jealousy and a downright attempt to blackmail someone into bed. So get the stale, mummified image out of your head, take a hammer to the faded icon on the wall with enormous scared eyes, quivering lips and the frilly neck-gear – the asexual figure which was promoted for so long by academics. Shakespeare, that is the writings of, is downright sexy. “Sexy,” as well as all the kinky implications, I also use in an excruciatingly literal sense – as in it’s full of the stuff. It’s obsessed. And even the historical plays have their moments. When it’s not the plays themselves, contemporary interpretations will often add it in to highlight aspects of gender, power and (quelle surprise) sexuality.
When you really read or watch Shakespeare, you’d be surprised out how charged most of it is. I was when I re-visited it simply at the variation on a theme. Over the course of the next God knows how long, I am going to look at every Shakespeare play and most of the poems and look at them in terms of sexuality, sexual politics, lust, language, rhetoric and whatever else pops into my head at the time. Now some ground rules:
- I will not be looking at every single goddamned sonnet. Entire rainforests have been written about them and I very sincerely doubt if there’s much more for me to add. And there are loads of them, I don’t know if you’ve noticed?
- Oxfordians, Baconians and Queen Elizabeth I-ians, no I will not be addressing all that. For my purposes, Shakespeare was Shakespeare. Maybe another day. But not now.
- This will not be an uninterrupted stream of posts. Otherwise I will get very, very, very bored. I will still be reviewing other books and maybe some more adaptations.
Okay that’s all for now, folks – Fifty Shades of Shakespeare will reurn in… Romeo and Juliet, or “Suicide isn’t Romantic, Kids.”
*Shakespeare never gave himself major roles in his own plays, if any, and by the sounds of this story he used the free time while his friends were performing wisely…