(Here is a post I had meant to finish before traveling to Europe for the northern summer from New Zealand, where I live. Finally! It is not so good as I would like. It is true that I am not a scholar, in Shakespeare or anything else, but I do not need to be.)
Anyone interested even a little bit in the work of William Shakespeare knows there is a lot of sex talk. There isn’t any sex, as it wasn’t the done thing in those days, though there are moments, as in Romeo and Juliet, when the deed is done just out of view. But the range of sexual allusion is astonishing, as it must be, I think, for the Bard to be who he is – the greatest writer ever.
Shakespeare wasn’t alone in his time in dwelling on sex. Most or even all of his contemporaries waxed lyrical. Thomas Middleton, for example – check out his Chaste Maid in Cheapside, in which the only thing chaste is the word in the title. While the sexual attitudes of the time may be charted through dramatic evidence, it is also true that theatre companies competed with other entertainments aiming to satisfy different kinds of bloodlust – bear-baiting and cockfighting among them. Getting bums on seats meant giving the punters spectacle and juicy bits.
Today there are still those who find the amount of sexual imagery and allusion unsettling**, but there are also those who find it fascinating. Gordon Williams has made a career out of tracing sexual references and innuendo in the literature of the time, and has produced a three volume dictionary (and more), but he is far from alone.
Demitra Papadinis has boldly – and as she says, “frankly” – annotated several of Shakespeare’s plays focusing on the sexual, giving readers the original First Folio texts to relish and prove her point. If all the references she finds were to be taken out, the Bowdlerised** complete works would engrave easily on the head of a pin, with room for the Iliad and Odyssey in Greek and translation.
Papadinis makes no apology for readings that might give a remark by a character five or six simultaneous interpretations, and why should she? We are dealing with the master. Let it be.
Papadinis is very far from thinking all the references to sex in Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists are positive, or erotic and it is clear they are not. A great deal is actually negative and often refers to disease. To read Troilus and Cressida in the David Bevington Arden edition is to discover a wealth of detail relating to syphilis as the clown Thersites spews invective at his fellow Greeks. Yet T & C is arguably a comedy. *** Whether it be or no, the sexual allusions can easily be missed as our language and meanings have changed over the centuries, and they affect the overall reading of the play.
Just so with Romeo and Juliet. After studying Troilus and Cressida, a few years ago I witnessed the performance of the scene between Juliet and the Nurse, who has returned from a meeting with Romeo, played as funny, and that’s all. It’s a big laugh when the Nurse says “Fie how my bones ache, what a jaunt I have had.” (Act II, scene five, line 30.)
The reality – I mean this – is that the Nurse has syphilis. An audience of Shakespeare’s time would have recognised immediately in the Nurse’s complaint of her aching bones that she was syphilitic, yet so far as I am aware no edition of the play picks up on this, though to her credit Papadinis recognises that it may refer to sexual disease. It does. The scene is humorous, but also tragic: the Nurse’s rambling as Juliet tries to get sense from her is also a sign of the mental degeneration associated with the disease. As Shakespeare wrote it, it is funny and very sad at the same time. Say I: it is the precise moment when the play, which until then had been pretty comic despite some ominous gestures (principally from Tybalt), begins to reveal its tragic momentum.
There were hints of the Nurse’s illness earlier. Her rambling trip down memory lane with Juliet’s mother near the beginning is a clue but more significantly, Mercutio, meeting with the Nurse and her “man”, the clown Peter, mocks her appearance as of a prostitute and the fact she has lost her hair. It’s a quick quip from the jester Mercutio, foreshadowing the Nurse’s return to her charge. Mercutio elsewhere pokes fun at other sufferers who “cannot sit at ease on the old bench. O, their bones, their bones.”
Syphilis in Shakespeare’s time was a much different illness than we tend to think of it today****. It was a new sickness for Europeans, imported from the “New World” by Spanish sailors, and spread via the Spanish-owned “Kingdom of the Two Sicilies” which included the Italian “boot”. “Neapolitian bone-ache” raced up the peninsula to infect the whole of Europe remarkably quickly and incredibly virulently. Attempts to stop its spread into England were fruitless, and before 1540 the disease, already known simply as “bone-ache”, was well-established in the sceptered isle.
In Europe as a whole, syphilis affected millions upon millions of people. Apart from making the victim’s bones ache, hair fell out, and even parts of bodies lost en route to an early death. Sir William Davenant, a mid-17th century poet and playwright who may or may not have been a natural son of Shakespeare^, shed his nose to the disease. It has been argued that Shakespeare himself died of syphilis. Plainly there is no proof of this, but his profession would lay him open to it.
The effects led to new or revived^^ industries including wigs and cosmetics as sufferers sought public (and pubic^^^) disguises for the ravages of the disease, and to increased emphasis on sexual fidelity (read on).
It seems the strength of the disease lessened over time so that the epidemic of the 16th and 17th centuries became less apparent, though treatment until the 20th century and penicillin never amounted to a cure. The Nurse’s name may be “Angelica”, used as a (also fruitless) herbal remedy. Among latter day sufferers were political rogues Adolf Hitler and Lenin.
Does this matter in terms of the play? I think so. The Nurse as syphilitic – which I think is unarguable – may explain things that are otherwise left at best moot, beginning with the relationship between the two lovers. Early in the play the Nurse says her wish in life is to see Juliet married “once”. She wants her charge to marry a virgin, and thus not fall prey to her illness, and her tarted up mission to see Romeo is a comic episode designed to satisfy that desire. Juliet wants simply for the arrangement she has made with her newfound love to be settled; the Nurse wanted to see if Romeo was sexually inexperienced and is relieved to discover him just so. The play earlier implies it, that Romeo is a newcomer to love and its pursuit, as Benvolio’s gentle treatment of his friend reveals.
Paris, Juliet’s suitor through her parents, seems more likely to be sexually experienced and thus plausibly syphilitic, though the Nurse, obedient to the wishes of Juliet’s mother, urges him on her after Romeo is banished for killing his lover’s cousin Tybalt. Romeo is portrayed as not only younger, but in the first flushes of lust. His infatuation with Rosaline, Benvolio (meaning “Goodwill”) treating him as a tyro, the older Capulet’s referral of him as virtuous, all suggest not merely youth, but virginal youth.
Within all this, Juliet is revealed as mature in ways that Romeo is not. She rebukes herself for cursing her new husband after her hotheaded cousin Tybalt is killed by him and goes on to rebuke the Nurse for urging Paris on her, destroying Juliet’s trust. While Romeo exalts his bride in long soliloquies and in dialogue with the Friar, Juliet’s attitudes are not simply empathetic, but practical. She may have seemed easily swayed, but while a teenager, is adult compared to her husband.
In this we are again struck by Shakespeare’s attitude to women’s place, in this early play as later. He does not accept the idea that woman should be mounted on a pedestal as many of his contemporaries, in thrall to the “Virgin Queen” (see sonnet 130), but as wiser, more temperate, and sadly, tragically, victim. Juliet ends her life as her sole lover has ended his but only after struggling to find a solution her husband initially, foolishly, rejected. Elsewhere in his work Shakespeare seems to subscribe to the romantic view of relationships as lovers meet, fall in love, and stay happy ever after, but to me it is fair to argue that this is in a context of sexual and romantic relationships he could only chart but which is, say I, changing.#
The moral of Romeo and Juliet is played out by the remorse of the warring Montague and Capulet families and was a motive of the Friar’s and the Nurse’s in joining the two together. The Nurse, who needs to keep sweet with the Capulet family, is swayed this way and that as she tries to help Juliet.
So all this, stemming from a revealing (to me) remark by the Nurse, missed by a few centuries of scholarship. Much of my argument is circumstantial. But the truth of the Nurse is not to be dismissed. Poor woman.
Thanks for reading.
*An exchange between Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margaret in the Mike Nichols-directed, Jules Feiffer-scripted film Carnal Knowledge. Jack in glass-encased shower calls out to his new lover, who somehow discovers his erection in the steam. . .
**Thomas Bowdler and his sister Henrietta gave their name to the English language as they attempted to purge Shakespeare of sex. They lived two hundred years ago, but their shadow falls even over contemporary scholars. It is hard to believe, but it is true.
***See my post “Toiling with Troilus”.
****See Johannes Fabricius, Syphilis in Shakespeare’s England. Gordon Williams in his 3-volume dictionary, says that examination of pre-Columbian bones throughout the world finds evidence of syphilis only in the New World and Oceania.
^Sir William’s parents owned an Oxford tavern where Shakespeare stayed while travelling by foot between his home in Stratford and London. Sir William is reported to have betrayed his biological origins when inebriated.
^^Wigs had been popular in classical times but their use fell away until the Renaissance and syphilis.
^^^The merkin was/is a pubic wig for intimate concealment.
#This is a central theme of my fiction, which readers are welcome to buy and read online at Smashwords – US99c each, cheap! See also my posts “Toiling with Troilus” and “Grand Larssony” on this blog. Recent revelations and developments in human relationships, especially in the United States, seem to suggest my interpretation is the right one.