Shakespeare made many gifts to the English language, but his most memorable gift in the particularly rich and rarefied area of euphemisms for sexual intercourse comes in the opening scene of Othello, when Iago strives to provoke Desdemona’s father Brabantio to outrage with the news that “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.” Shakespeare seems to have borrowed the phrase from the French writer Francois Rabelais, who refers to “la bête à deux dos“. Thomas Urquhart memorably translated Rabelais’s account of the characters Grangousier and Gargamelle towards the end of the seventeenth century as “These two did oftentimes do the two-backed beast together, joyfully rubbing and frotting their bacon ‘gainst one another.” It is easy to see what drew Shakespeare, like Rabelais before him, to the fine mixture of the monstrous and the silly that this phrase contains. Though it has passed into common parlance, it is still prone to prompt a ripple of laughter or an outright snicker from a modern audience.
One of the remarkable features of Shakespeare’s work, however, is his ability simultaneously to provoke a response, and a response to the response; we both laugh, and scrutinize ourselves laughing, particularly when it comes to sex, or the language of sex. Euphemism is a particularly powerful case in point. We titter at the mental image conjured up by Iago’s words because it hints at an uncomfortable truth: sex is awkward and ungainly, twisting those who engage in it into strange and contorted shapes. Laughing at Iago’s line in a theatre is at once a discomforting and a comforting experience. It is discomforting because each person who laughs confirms that she or he recognises exactly the strange activity to which he is referring, and has likely engaged in it, probably many times, and possibly plans to do so later that evening following a nice night out at the theatre. But it is comforting because laughing in the dark while facing the stage exorcizes the danger of such an admission, allowing each person tacitly to acknowledge the commonality of sexual activity, without doing anything as awkward as talking about it or even making eye contact.
Like anything that is truly interesting, but for a distinctive set of historical and cultural reasons, sex is both something that we cannot stop talking about, and something that is extremely difficult to talk about properly, to feel that we can (or should) adequately bring into language. There is a whole register of linguistic indirection – euphemism, bawdiness, obscenity – which emerges from this basic fact, and in which Shakespeare had an obvious interest. The proposition that we should read a playwright from four centuries past in order to think harder about sex and its role in human life and language is not obviously compelling, but there are various reasons to consider doing so. One reason, though rightly the least respectable, would be because Shakespeare’s works give us insight into his own sexual orientation or proclivities, the most elusive aspect of an all-round elusive biography. Stephen Booth gave this prospect short shrift when he wrote that “William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. The sonnets provide no evidence on the matter.” Even Booth’s brusque dismissal assumed that these categories are theoretically applicable to Shakespeare, and a second reason for considering sex in his works would be in part to question this assumption, to use them as a basis for historicising the very categories through which we understand sex, and stress the inescapably historically specific dimensions of this biological necessity. And a third reason, effectively a version of the old claim for Shakespeare’s timelessness, would be to assert that he grasped something essential and unchanging about human sexuality and sexual behaviour, and can therefore help us understand our own, very different time.
None of these options seem satisfactory to me, nor have they satisfied the many scholars who have written very well on the topic in recent years. I began with euphemism and the responses that it provokes in the theatre because Shakespeare seems persistently interested in sex as a route into the realm of the unsaid and the knowing, the entire world of unspoken assumptions and silent rituals that serve as the glue for social interaction of all sorts – including, but not defined by, sexual interaction. Precisely because these assumptions are tacit, they are both immensely important, and fraught with danger.
This is one way of understanding Shakespeare’s recurrent concern with jealousy, which returns us to Othello. Iago’s opening euphemism is actually unusual in its directness, for his favourite technique involves convincing his auditors that gestures of courtesy and esteem in fact bespeak deeper desires and lusts. Describing Desdemona’s treatment of Cassio to Roderigo, he asks “Didst thou not see her paddle with the palm of his hand? Didst not mark that?” Roderigo replies “Yes, that I did; but that was but courtesy,” but Iago waves this away: “Lechery, by this hand; an index and obscure prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts.” The meaning of the paddling of palms depends not only upon Iago’s commentary, but on how it has been played in this particular performance; it is a powerful and chilling moment precisely because Shakespeare insists that there can be no absolutely clear line drawn between the sexual and the rest of human life, or between sexual and non-sexual actions. Paddling a person’s palm might no longer be an accepted gesture of courtesy, but it is easy to find modern equivalents: a handshake or a casual embrace can be entirely unthinking or formulaic, but if either of them is drawn out for a few seconds too long, or if a fleeting kiss on the cheek is too fervent or lands too close to the mouth, they can silently change into something quite different. This is difficult territory to navigate, precisely because is usually has to remain unspoken in order to function normally (if one comments on the quality of a particular kiss, hug or even a handshake, things get awkward quickly). The ambiguity created can be enjoyable for both parties – as with mutually pleasurable flirting – but it is open both to unfortunate misunderstanding and deliberate abuse, as in many cases of sexual harassment. Shakespeare’s own persistent interest lies as much in this fraught, unspoken realm of pleasure, risk, discomfort and danger, as in the sexual act itself.
In his other great treatment of jealousy, The Winter’s Tale, Leontes shrieks indignantly at his wife’s behaviour towards Polixenes, without even an Iago to prompt him: “Is whispering nothing? / Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses? / Kissing with inside lip?” These are the impossible questions towards which Shakespeare’s treatment of sex recurrently prompts us; he knew all too well that such tiny gestures could indeed be nothing, but, between certain people at certain times, they could very well be everything.
Featured image credit: Desdêmona by Rodolfo Amoedo. Museu Nacional de Belas Artes. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.