Australia’s leading international student news website

SEXtember: Sexspearean literature

Trinity College Foundation Studies

Tue Sep 30 2014


AS part of our ongoing SEXtember coverage, Trinity College Foundation Studies students U-Jane Chan and Felicia Chan explore the sexual undertones of some of Shakespeare’s beloved works.


Imagine Shakespeare authoring Fifty Shades of Grey? It does seems far-fetched, but possible. After all, Shakespeare’s plays are peppered with sexual connotations. You read that right. It is the very same Shakespeare you’re (probably) dreading to study!

Here’s a glimpse into the sexual innuendo of Shakespeare’s literary world so that you may enjoy the saucy bits the next time you read his plays.

And, like most of Shakespeare’s works, this article is going to turn out ‘bawdy’. If you’re offended by sexual content and foul language, consider yourselves warned!

It is widely assumed that the people of Shakespeare’s era (the Elizabethan age) were conservative, but here’s a fun fact – the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s plays were presented, had a brothel around the corner.

The many brothels in London’s Bankside (where ‘bank’ refers to ‘brothel district’) may have influenced the dialogue in Shakespeare’s works. Some of his cheekier plays featured sexual puns like “tongue” and “noon” which, apart from their layman definitions, refer to a woman’s clitoris and an erect penis respectively.

Shakespeare’s The Globe Theatre. The theatre was located near a brothel during Shakespeare’s time. Photo by Jeff Hitchcock via Creative Commons/Flickr

Furthermore, women were forbidden to act on stage in that era; Female roles were played by males who cross-dressed on stage.

“Women were expected to behave with grace, modesty and charm,” says Kathy Kasapidis, a Literature lecturer at Trinity College currently working on her PhD thesis paper on Shakespeare.

It was the opposite in Shakespeare’s world where women are portrayed to be wittier than males. Cue in Portia from The Merchant of Venice. She was shown to be (spoiler alert!) cunning and smarter than Antonio and Shylock as she was able to find a loophole in the bond and save Antonio’s life.

This, however, doesn’t mean that all of Shakespeare’s female characters are portrayed as such. While there is the subversive Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, there is still the tragic, subservient Ophelia from Hamlet.

Feminism aside, Shakespeare was both subtle and obvious with sexual references in his work. On one hand, he offered a crude depiction of sex from the lower class characters, but on the other hand, the more sophisticated characters portrayed a more romantic side, sometimes in the same play, such as As You Like It.

Most, if not all, of Shakespeare’s sexual references were disguised. “To sing”, for example, meant to have sex. Sometimes, they even functioned as double entendres and had more than one meaning. For example, the last line of Sonnet 135 goes as such: “Think all but one, and me in that one Will”.

This roughly translates to “Think of all of your lovers as being a single one, and treat me as the only one you want to fuck, the sole occupier of your cunt (vagina) – your Will”, where Will refers to prick, cunt, sexual desire and the Christian name ‘Will’ all at once.

While literature students today pick apart each of his words for education, the people of that time were paying to watch his plays for pure entertainment.

“Shakespeare, like anyone paid to entertain, exaggerated all kinds of things to make them entertaining,” says Gayle Allan, another literature lecturer working on her PhD thesis paper on Shakespeare.

“Like today’s writers, he knew that sex sells, and Shakespeare often chose titillating or challenging subject matter (and used quite crude and sexual language) to entertain the crowds.”

Ms Kasapidis adds that Shakespeare’s plays, “especially the comedies, can probably be likened to modern day rom-coms.”

Although Shakespeare was a bit of a crude fellow, you probably wouldn’t associate him as such due to his tragedies like Hamlet and Macbeth.  After knowing this, perhaps you’ll find more to the playwright the next time you feel forced to read his plays.