Whether he fills his scenes with raunchy innuendos, or boldly writes erotic poetry, or frequently reverses the gender norms of the time period, Shakespeare addresses the multifaceted ways in which sex, love, marriage, relationships, gender, and sexuality play an integral part of human life. Sixteenth century England was preoccupied with marriage prohibitions (avoid members of your immediate family), marriage feasts (what to wear), maternity wear (emphasizing the baby bump and fertility), treating syphilis (a sweating tub?), misogynist pamphlets (and feminist responses), sexual fact (The Hundred Years War), and sexual fiction (Greek mythology). Take a look at the slideshow below to see some of Shakespeare’s literary, historical, and mythological influences, social norms of the Elizabethan era, and works related to sex and gender by other writers in his time period.
A table of prohibited marriages from William Clerke's The Triall of Bastardie, London, 1594
In 1594, the English writer William Clerke published a treatise prohibiting certain marriages. He goes into detail about the “abominable customs” that a man must avoid when seeking a marriage, namely those involving an immediate or extended family member.
Image: A table of prohibited marriages from William Clerke’s The Triall of Bastardie’, London, 1594.” by William Clerke. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
A Marriage Feast at Bermondsey
This painting by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder depicts a marriage feast in Bermondsey, a district in South London, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The foreground features brightly clad people socializing and celebrating, while the background is painted with more muted colors and includes the Tower of London.
Image: “A Marriage Feast at Bermondsey” attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of an Unknown Lady
This portrait, painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, is of an unknown pregnant woman dressed in traditional Elizabethan clothing. Her dress, jewelry, and the fact that her family could afford to commission a portrait of her all suggest that she was either a member of the English nobility or of a wealthy family. This painting also offers an interesting glimpse into the style of 16th century maternity wear.
Image: “Portrait of an Unknown Lady” attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Randolph's Cornelianum dolium
The Latin comedy Cornelianum dolium (1638) was attributed to the poet and playwright Thomas Randolph. It addresses the various treatments used to cure syphilis as experienced by the hero of the story. The image above is the frontispiece for the play which features the main character in a Sweating-tub, also called Cornelius’s tub.
Image: “Randolph’s Cornelianum dolium” by Wellcome Images. CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Svvetnam, the vvoman-hater, arraigned by women. A new comedie, acted at the Red Bull, by the late Queenes Seruants
In 1615, British pamphleteer Joseph Swetnam published a misogynistic, offensive, and poorly written pamphlet titled The Araignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward and Unconstant Women. Three women in particular responded to his attack on women in their own publications: Rachel Speght, Esther Sowernam, and Constantia Munda. Soon after, a play titled Swetnam the Woman-Hater, Arraigned by Women was performed at the Red Bull Theatre in London. The play was presented as a comedy and generally mocked Swetnam’s ignorance.
Image: “Svvetnam, the vvoman-hater, arraigned by women. A new comedie, acted at the Red Bull, by the late Queenes Seruants” printed by William Stansby. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Digital Folger Shakespeare Library
In Greek mythology, Ganymede was a youth who tended sheep on Mount Ida. He was abducted by Zeus and carried to Mount Olympus on the back of an eagle. In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Rosalind disguises herself as a boy named Ganymede and Celia disguises herself as the shepherdess Aliena. In both the play and the mythological depiction above, the ambiguity of gender and gender roles are heavily emphasized.
Image: “Ganymede” by Virgil Solis in 1563 edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D., University of Virginia, Ovid Illustrated. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via
Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales
Joan of Arc
During the Hundred Year’s War, a woman named Joan of Arc rose to prominence in the French military due to her divine visions of how to defeat the English. She was a significant figure in the war effort and was deemed a martyr 25 years after she was burned at the stake by the English. In Shakespeare’s history play Henry VI, Part 1, she is introduced as Joan la Pucelle to Charles, the Dauphin of France. Her role as a character loosely follows her actual role in history, mainly involving her visions, her military involvement, and her subsequent death. She is a unique female character, given the fact that she is not married against her will, entangled in a love triangle, or confined to a stereotypical 16th century female role. However, similar to the fate of several other female Shakespearean characters, she suffers a particularly gruesome death.
Image: “Joan of Arc” by unknown. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Tarquinius and Lucretia
The Rape of Lucrece, published in 1594, is one of Shakespeare’s most popular pieces. Written as a narrative poem, it gravely recounts the rape of Lucretia by Sextus Tarquinius. In the painting above, Italian painter Titian depicts the terrible act with evocative detail and vivid colors.
Image: “Tarquinius and Lucretia” by Titian. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Venus and Adonis
The above painting, by Peter Paul Rubens, depicts the mythological encounter between the goddess Venus and the mortal Adonis. Shakespeare retells the story in his erotic narrative poem, Venus and Adonis.
Image: “Venus and Adonis” by Peter Paul Rubens. Public Domain via WikiArt Visual Art Encyclopedia
Featured Image: “Troilus and Cressida, Act V, Scene II” engraving by Luigi Schiavonetti after a painting by Angelica Kauffmann. Library of Congress. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons