William Shakespeare

Sex in Shakespeare’s Writing

Sex could not be portrayed explicitly on the Elizabethan stage. Even kissing was considered risky, not least because a “heterosexual” kiss between a male and a female character was in reality a kiss between two male actors. However, sexual language largely escaped censorship so long as it was comic, and Shakespeare included many sexual puns and jokes in his plays. In fact, many of Shakespeare’s jokes are so explicit that they were removed from editions of his plays published in the nineteenth and even the early twentieth century. When Shakespeare wanted to make sex part of a tragic story, he had to refer to it indirectly. In Hamlet , Shakespeare implies that Ophelia and Hamlet have had a sexual relationship. When Ophelia goes mad, she sings several popular folk songs about unmarried sex: “Young men will do it/When they come to it.” In Romeo and Juliet , Juliet looks forward to her wedding night with a speech full of erotic metaphors: “Come, gentle night, come, loving black-browed night,/Give me my Romeo. And when I shall die,/Take him and cut him out in little stars.” In Elizabethan English, “die” could mean “climax.” Juliet comes as close to describing sexual ecstasy here as Shakespeare could have expected to get away with.