Jaunty Jezebel: Sexy Shakespearean subtext
Shakespeare. Sex. Shakespearian sex? Shakespeare and sex together in the same sentence?
Forget what your English teachers taught you (if you haven’t already) about Shakespeare. This literary genius is all about sex, just like any modern day writer.
Don’t believe me?
First go rent Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet. Luhrmann’s modern take on the classic love story isn’t too far from the original. Sure it’s set in this century (well the last century, the movie is 13 years old), but the story is the exact same as is the language. But more importantly, the meaning is the same.
“She (Juliet) has her famous speech which is ‘gallop apace thee fiery foot of steeds’ while she’s waiting for Romeo to come to her,” says the artistic director of Shakespeare in the Park, Martin Fishman. “And she uses ‘come’ at least six times. It meant the same then as it does now.”
Shakespeare in the Park is Mount Royal Conservatory’s summer theatre program. This year they are running with the theme of Shakespeare love stories, including, of course, Romeo & Juliet and Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I’m telling you to rent the movie version of Romeo & Juliet because Shakespeare in the Park doesn’t start until July 3. You’ll need the refresher. Once you’ve clued into the obvious sexual overtones in R&J maybe pick up other movie versions or books of Midsummer Night’s Dream or Much Ado About Nothing.
“Historically he based a lot of his plays on Plutarch, who was a Roman playwright,” Fishman explained. “What he did was he took all the romanticism of those plays and turned them into sex. So all of his plays whether it’s Much Ado About Nothing, which is sort of an older couple — Beatrice and Benedict — they are very witty and falling in love but all the references are sexual.”
And that old Shakespeare is kind of twisted too. You know the liquid that Puck pours into Titania’s ear in Midsummer Night’s Dream? That’s an aphrodisiac says Fishman. This liquid aphrodisiac makes the consumer fall in love with the first person they see. The first person Titania lays eyes upon is Nick Bottom, whom Puck has turned into an ass. So the Queen of Fairies falls in love with a donkey. Lovely.
Shakespeare is full eroticism in all of his plays and this overt sexuality was not lost on the audiences of his time.
“There’s a line in Hamlet when he’s talking to Ophelia and he talks about her country.” What Fishman is referring to may be lost on the written page but in our conversation emphasis on certain words and the use of pauses effectively send the message.
“He has a scene with his mother, ‘may I lay my head in your lap?’ ” Fishman pauses. “Well. They got it.”
Remembering the struggle I had getting through Hamlet it takes a little stretch of the imagination to rethink Shakespeare in more adult terms, without the Catholic school filter.
“It’s a really good question ‘how much does our audience get it?’ ” Fishman says. “I guess as much as you want to see in it — if you’re going to approach it kind of prudishly and all that, you might miss it, which is okay.”
Fishman has to balance a fine line with the Shakespeare in the Park series. The park in question is Prince’s Island. Open to all, there’s likely to be some youngsters in the crowd whose parents may not appreciate nudity or blatantly obvious sexual references. As director, it’s up to Fishman to highlight the scenes in an appropriate way. To get the message across, the actors really have to understand the meaning of the lines they are delivering.
“You have all this wonderful language and that’s what really makes it more erotic is because the language is so beautiful,” Fishman emphasizes.
Like Luhrmann’s stylized take in the movie version, Fishman plans to use popular music to tell the story without changing the language.
“Midsummer Night’s Dream we will be doing to Queen music,” Fishman said. “In my mind, it’s going to be the Midsummer’s Night Queen and Puck is going to be like Freddy Mercury. I just can’t wait, it’s going to be so cool.”
For Romeo & Juliet, Fishman plans to use hip-hop including some of his favourites like Notorious B.I.G and M.I.A.
Along with the theme of love, Shakespeare in the Park is a great place for a date. Plays begin at 7 p.m. giving you the option of having dinner beforehand or after or even having a picnic in the park. You can bring your own or buy a picnic basket from the River Café.
And most importantly, the next time you watch or read Shakespeare, keep in mind it may be better than a Danielle Steel novel.