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Sex and Literature: Erotica in the 17th Century

by Beth Divine 3 Jul 2018

Who could talk about the 1600s, sex and human beings without mentioning William Shakespeare, probably the world’s best-known playwright who is often revered for his beautiful prose, and his word inventions. He is credited with inventing (or putting down in writing for the first time, anyway) over two thousand two hundred words. For example, we would not be saying ‘good morning’, ‘belongings’ and ‘cold-blooded’. Even ‘fashionable’ is a word that we owe to the Bard of Avon.

Shakespeare is often held – by those who have never experienced the full glory of his plays, relying instead on his more traditionally themed and worded sonnets – to be a writer whose works are full of aristocratic language and highfalutin phrasing. Don’t get me wrong, Shakespeare was a great writer, and he could stir the blood with a warlike speech, and move a cynic to tears with his romantic poetry. But a lot of his plays were aimed at working class people, those who could get behind a good war story or a full-blooded romance, but who really thrived on innuendoes full of smut, dick jokes and dirty puns.

The best way to get the most out of Shakespeare’s plays is to watch them being performed, preferably by people who really get all the layers of meaning from his words.  For example, even quite modest sounding phrases like ‘from hour to hour’ when read in the vernacular street accent of the time come out as ‘from whore to whore’ – which is an entirely different prospect and puts a very different spin on that particular line!

Even Shakespeare’s poetry (which can also be found in his plays – the introduction to Romeo and Juliet is a sonnet, and the lines between Viola and Oliva in Twelfth Night also make up a beautiful poem – this was to make it easier for the actors to learn their lines – having them rhyme makes it easier to remember what comes next) should be heard rather than read. Shakespeare was aware that many of his audience members were functionally illiterate if not outright illiterate. He wrote words that are designed to be spoken aloud, making clear their meaning with vigorous iteration and intentional punning and double-entendres.

Shakespeare was, of course, not the only writer and playwright in those days – it is highly probable that he and his contemporaries would not have produced the high quality of work without the competition from the others. Some are even more vulgar and less subtle than Shakespeare, while others do aim for more high-minded works. Which is why their names are all but forgotten, while Shakespeare’s sharp human observations and witty dialogue go on from hour to hour and year to year.