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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Fifty Shades Of Shakespeare

420 years ago this month, in May 1593, Shakespeare published his erotic poem Venus and Adonis.

It was the Fifty Shades of Grey of the Elizabethan era.

Venus and Adonis by Titian, 1554

I went back and looked at what Germaine Greer wrote in her great book Shakespeare's Wife about this erotic poem.

The theatres in London had closed in June 1592 due to the plague, and had re-opened briefly again in December, but then closed again until May 1594. Many thousands of people died during this time.

It must have been a particularly frightening time for Shakespeare. He had a terrible fear of the plague from the time that he was born.

He had been in London since about 1587, and by the time the theatres were closing in June 1592 he was enjoying great success.

But for an artist like Shakespeare, so early in his career, he must have known that his success could be fleeting.

He would need to write another play or two to make enough money to secure his future.

Then the plague struck.

He couldn't make money as a play-poet.

What would he do?

Germaine Greer writes that Venus and Adonis "would be the first time a work by Shakespeare would appear in print."

Shakespeare had little to no interest in seeing his plays printed during his lifetime, and it was only after he died that his plays were published as a collection.

So, the importance of writing this poem and seeing it published can not be underestimated.

Shakespeare must have been afraid that the theatres may never open again.

He had to do something to survive, so he would have been very keen to write a "bestseller."

And like they say, sex sells.

Venus and Adonis by Paolo Veronese, ca. 1582

"Perhaps Shakespeare penned [the poem] at Ann's kitchen table; he might have read them out to her, to see if they made her blush or laugh."

I love the idea that he would have tried the poem out on his own wife, and I really love the idea that she would have approved of his writing this at all. It suggests that the Elizabethan period, and rural Stratford, was not as straight-laced as we have come to believe.

When the book was published it "must have changed Ann Shakespeare's quiet life. Everybody was reading it; no fewer than eleven editions of the poem would appear in her lifetime and each had so many readers that only single copies of each edition have survived, the rest being read to pieces. And in every single copy could be seen the full name of the author at the end of the dedication."

Ann died in 1623. So for 30 years of her life she would be known as the wife of the guy who wrote that saucy poem! Imagine all of the gossip and the looks she would get.

As famous as her husband would have been, in Stratford and London, she must have been the local celebrity. Probably all of her neighbors read it. People who passed through Stratford read it.

She probably had to endure some ridicule, and receive some positive praise, on a daily basis.

Also, she may never have seen any of his plays in the theatres and saw the laughter and roar of the crowd, but she certainly saw the effect his erotic poetry had on people.

Venus and Adonis by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1630

"What may have made life even more difficult for Ann at this juncture is that the poem was decidedly erotic." Greer goes on to say that erotic poetry had previously been just for the "delectation of educated gentlemen, who read it in Latin and Greek." Shakespeare wrote in the language of the common people and his Venus and Adonis "would be passed from hand to hand by excited housewives."

As if that was not enough, and what with the theatres still closed due to plague, Shakespeare immediately began writing another erotic poem, The Rape of Lucrece.

It was not as successful as the first book, and the theatres opened again, so Shakespeare went back to being a play-poet.

The books did not make him wealthy -- there were no such thing as royalties in those days -- but they did make him famous, and arguably more famous than for his plays.

It's one of those great what ifs in history -- what if Shakespeare had not gone back to the theatres, and just wrote more "mommy porn?"


David B. Schajer

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