Shakespeare’s ‘Sublimely, Disturbingly Smutty Effect’ Must Endure

When I wrote my recent essay on Shakespeare and cancel culture, I was not prepared for the overwhelming response of people flooding my inbox. Clearly, I’m far from alone in wanting my Shakespeare served straight, unpasteurized and unsanitized for polite and sensitive consumption. We lose something essential when we eradicate the sexual ribaldry, over-the-top violence, righteous anger and transgressive shock from Shakespeare’s work. It harms not only the rich texture of the plays but their meaning as well.

The question remains, though: Why did Shakespeare, who was capable of writing the most sublime poetry, sneak these bits into his plays? One obvious answer is that he was a working professional, participating in a competitive marketplace, and people wanted to see them. Prurience has always fetched a premium. But I also think he was simply being honest. Shakespeare was interested in writing about the human experience — all of it — and not denying, or censoring, these aspects of what makes us human. Shakespeare wanted to show us as we were — and as we are — warts and all. We would be well advised to take heed of his example.

Times Opinion wanted to know which of Shakespeare’s verses brought out the “humanity” in our readers, so we asked readers to share the lines that got their blood flowing. In more than 700 responses, we read about sexual awakenings, recognition of repressed rage, acknowledgment of society’s dark side and the dark within themselves. I’ve responded to a selection, below. They have been lightly edited for length and clarity.


— Beatrice, “Much Ado About Nothing,” Act 4, Scene 1

My extended family read a few Shakespeare plays together over Zoom in the winters of 2020 and 2021. I was fortunate enough to take the role of Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing.” These few lines made me shudder. The prose culminates with a brutal syntactic clarity. It feels like a brief detour into 20th-century realism. She is desperate but pragmatic. She knows that violence and masculinity are woven into prevailing notions of justice. — Isaiah Silvers, 26, Newcastle upon Tyne, England

As a woman who has had to protect herself from men more than once in my life, this spoke to me of the rage that so many women carry within, which doesn’t have a culturally approved means of expression. I have occasionally wanted to eat a man’s heart in the marketplace, metaphorically speaking. — Maureen Wynn, 67, Maryland

Drew Lichtenberg: I have seen audiences riveted to their seats by Beatrice’s words, which not only indict the patriarchy in terms apt for #MeToo, but vent a ferocious appetite for vengeance that is cannibalistic in its intensity. Coming just after the halfway point in a play that starts out as a purposefully low-stakes and sun-dappled romantic comedy, it has a knockout effect.

In “The Bacchae” by Euripides, the queen Agave is driven into such a state of frenzy that she tears her own son Pentheus limb from limb and gorges on his flesh. Shakespeare’s transformation of Beatrice into a figure almost out of Greek tragedy is a masterstroke of dramatic plotting, surprise and rhetoric.


— Aufidius, “Coriolanus,” Act 4, Scene 5

I heard this in one of the first professional Shakespeare productions I saw as a college kid in London in 1985. I felt both surprised and titillated by the overt and complex mingling of lustful and violent fantasies Aufidius reveals to his longtime enemy. He tells Coriolanus that he’s more excited by him than by his wife on their wedding night. — Lynne Stephens, 58, Herndon, Va.

Drew: “Coriolanus,” simply put, is a queer classic, capable of putting Cocteau and Genet to shame with its violent and homoerotic imagery. Throughout the play the Roman warrior Coriolanus is alternately drawn toward and repelled by his military rival Aufidius. Freud would have a field day with the way the relationship combines Eros and Thanatos — not to mention all the talk of fisting and penetrating. In this memorable speech, Aufidius confesses his own obsession. He dreams of Coriolanus nightly, and the two are locked in mortal combat, a fight to the death, mutually assured destruction. Read it again, however, and every phrase has a double meaning.


— Iago, “Othello,” Act 1, Scene 1

I taught this play every summer for almost 20 years to first-generation American high school students. Many of their families came from Vietnam, the Dominican Republic and Africa. Iago’s racism is like the xenophobia of Tom Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby” — an expression of white fear and superiority spoken by an individual, yet met by silence or agreement. My students learned that Shakespeare’s 17th-century Italy held some of the same societal evils as their 21st century. I learned from them the courage, intellect and resilience required to succeed in a racist society. — Alden Mauck, 66, Newton, Mass.

Drew: In the very same scene, a few lines later, Iago coins a famous phrase when he tells Brabantio that “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.” The phrase has an obvious bawdy context and has entered the modern parlance as such. When seen in context, however, its racist overtones are unmistakable — and risible. As elsewhere, Shakespeare works through a principle of juxtaposition, with two meanings forming a compound that is difficult to break down into its constituent elements. In this case, Iago’s imagery is disgustingly vivid, testimony to the ugly thoughts that racism can breed in the mind.


— The Taming of the Shrew, Act 2, Scene 1

I blushed when reading these for the first time. It’s a perfect mix of puns, a battle of wits and some sexual comedy; an ideal passage for convincing people that Shakespeare is not stuffy or boring. It’s exhilarating, and it makes my heart race. For literature to have such a powerful and immediate impact on the body of the reader is incredibly rare. — Rachel D. Smith, 19, New York City

Drew: Here we see how Shakespeare uses rhythms and interlocking wordplay to sublimely, disturbingly smutty effect. This passage is not just about sex; the aural and theatrical experience is synecdochic of the thing itself. And that sex is of a certain kind, driven by the imp of the perverse, smacking of dominance and submission and climaxing with a sudden, rude surprise. Petruchio is toxic masculinity to a T; what makes the passage (and the play) troubling is that Katherine seems to respond to his negative energy by playing along. Not to mention the reference to cunnilingus.

— Malvolio, “Twelfth Night,” Act 2, Scene 5

When I was kicked out of Sunday school, my mother made me read “The Complete Works of Shakespeare.” At 9, the jokes flew by me. I thought that Malvolio was spelling C-U-T. And I thought the tongue-tail reference was an Elizabethan version of Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey. My parents let me read everything, provided I gave them a book report; my teachers assigned books they thought relevant to our general curriculum. No one thought kids were too fragile. I survived, and I love words, have a killer vocabulary and, at long last, get the Bard’s japes and jests. — Lora-Ellen McKinney, Renton, Wash.

Drew: In his classic study of the “carnivalesque,” the Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin writes about what he calls laughter’s “utopian” power to save the world, particularly laughter which operates on the “material bodily principle.” As Bakhtin argues, degradation is the flip side of regeneration. Just as the old year turns into the new year, winter into spring, so too does the human animal commit “acts of defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy, and birth. Degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one.”

“Twelfth Night” is named after one of these periods of carnivalesque degradation and regeneration. The Twelfth Night after Christmas in Shakespeare’s time was a night of gluttonous feasting, drinking and revelry, one last party before the dark and cold nights of winter close in and the beginning of the long thaw before spring. The tradition of the Twelfth Night Feast may have dated back all the way to the pagan carnival of the Roman Saturnalia, which was held on the winter solstice.

If you look at the play this way, these lines have an importance beyond their obviously obscene meaning. In this scene, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are laughing at their enemy Malvolio, a Puritan who disdains their feasting and their “cakes and ale.” In a degrading and regenerating act of defiance, they’ve tricked him into spelling out the c-word. In other words, this comic subplot is about something deadly serious, which we are encountering again today: a standoff between those who would banish the unruly spirit of art from society and those who need art in order to experience life in its audacious fullness, its most riotous vitality.

Drew Lichtenberg is a lecturer at Yale University and an associate director at the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C.

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