The woman's part: desire and sexuality

90VenusNew Twist in the plot: A painting of Venus and Adonis, done in 1582 by Paolo Veronese. In his poem on Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare has made Adonis unresponsive to Venus, which results in unimaginable sexual and gendered complexity | Getty Images

Female characters often subverted gender equations

  • There are more than 80 variations for the spelling of Shakespeare's name, including Shakespur, Shaxver, Saxper, Shaxberd, Shackspeer and Shakysper


The woman’s part' is a phrase Shakespeare uses in his play Cymbeline to introduce us to two different ideas about gender. First, that women are inferior and one must guard the line that separates a man from a woman by excising the woman’s part from men. And second, that a 'woman' is a part that anyone can play. The woman’s part is both a part that belongs only to one gender and a role that any person can play. Shakespeare’s theatre, in which all parts, male and female, were played by men and boys, ensured that these questions acquired a degree of urgency. What we think of as Shakespearean today would be inconceivable without these parts and their politics.

Several Shakespearean comedies have women as the lead protagonists. Rosalind in As You Like It teaches the hero how to fall in love; Viola in Twelfth Night and Portia in The Merchant of Venice salvage the plots of their plays. All these women achieve their status while dressed as men or, as we may say, while playing the man’s part.

Their taking on of male disguise not only addresses the very real problem—then as now—of the woman’s role in the public sphere, but also allows us to see gender as a costume that one puts on and takes off. It allows us to take seriously the possibility, scary to many, that “clothes [might indeed] make the man”. Or, as Lafew puts it in All’s Well That Ends Well, that “the soul of this man is his clothes”.

Many Shakespearean heroines joke about how easy it is to “become” a man, a swagger here and some aggression there is the generally accepted formula to achieve the state.

Master of disguise Master of disguise: American actor Gertrude Elliot as Portia (dressed as a man) and English actor Johnston Forbes-Robertson as Shylock in a production of Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice' | Getty Images

Shakespeare intensifies such delightful send-ups of gender by also asking the question of desire. How do men and women play their parts in desire, and how do these desires get narrated? Portia’s cross-dressed presence in The Merchant of Venice exists alongside Antonio’s intense homoerotic bond with Bassanio. Viola in disguise as Cesario in Twelfth Night limns both a male homosexual relationship between Cesario and Orsino, and a female homosexual relation between Viola and Olivia.

Not just the comedies, but the tragedies and histories, too, ask these questions. Is Hamlet’s desire for Gertrude incestuous? How does Richard II’s desire for his male courtiers play a leading role in his play? What kind of kinky sex do Antony and Cleopatra have when each dresses up as the other? Gender and desire are everywhere explored by the Shakespearean text, and most powerfully so when this exploration takes place in tandem.

One of the utterly breathtaking examples of such an exploration exists not in a Shakespeare play but a poem; indeed, in Shakespeare’s very first published piece, Venus and Adonis. The poem was a huge hit even in Shakespeare’s lifetime. It was first published during the London plague in 1593, and by 1640 had gone through 16 editions. Historical records tell us that it was popular with prostitutes and aristocrats alike; everyone in 16th century England was reading Venus and Adonis.

Shakespeare takes as his inspiration for this poem a tale from Roman poet Ovid’s 1st century CE poem, Metamorphoses, that describes the relationship between Venus, the goddess of love, and Adonis, a young and extremely handsome hunter. Shakespeare takes the tale from there, but he changes it in one very crucial manner. In Ovid, Venus and Adonis share a mutually satisfying and sexually intense relationship. But in Shakespeare, the poem makes Adonis unresponsive to Venus, and the entire text is an attempt by her to woo him. This single change produces a text of unimaginable sexual and gendered complexity.

C.S. Lewis famously noted in a 1967 essay that he hated the poem because he could not understand “why [Shakespeare] made [Venus] not only so emphatically older but even so much larger than the unfortunate young man [Adonis]”. This discomfort is not surprising, given that it exists within a socio-historical structure that insists on men being older and more active than women in matters of desire.

No marriage is arranged between a younger man and an older woman. When such marriages happen, they excite disapproving comments about the horror of the “woman being on top”. Shakespeare takes this horrifying situation and plays with it extensively to create a poem of surpassing beauty, a character of unparalleled passion, and a situation that calls us to account for our prejudices in desire.

91Rosalind Leading light: Actor Edith Evans as Rosalind and Eileen Peel as Celia in Esme Church's 1936 production of Shakespeare's 'As You Like It' | Getty Images

Venus is older and larger than Adonis. She plays the active role in the courtship. She picks Adonis right off his horse: “Over one arm, the lusty courser’s rein; / Under her other was the tender boy, / Who blushed and pouted in dull disdain / With leaden appetite, unapt to toy. / She red and hot as coals of glowing fire; / He red for shame, but frosty in desire.”

In this vivid scenario, not only is the woman stronger and more aggressive in her desires, but also, the man is weaker and uninterested in sex. Shakespeare uncouples desire from gender by inverting the heterosexual paradigm of lustful man and coy woman, active male and passive female.

When Adonis continues to resist her overtures, Venus tries to lure him by talking about reproduction: “Seeds spring from seeds, and beauty breedeth beauty: / Thou wast begot; to get is thy duty.” Adonis remains unresponsive, and the poem makes clear that for Venus, the idea of reproduction is only a fig leaf for sexual desire. She is interested in having sex with Adonis, and does not mind using any means whatsoever to achieve that desire. In this, the poem is like Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, which pointedly separates sexual pleasure from reproduction.

As though inverting the relationship between gender and desire, and distancing desire from reproduction were not enough, the poem also introduces us to bestiality. Adonis does not want to have sex with Venus because he is more interested in chasing the boar. Venus warns him against the hunt, but Adonis is determined, it is the only thing he desires. Adonis is killed by the boar, and Venus says she cannot blame the animal: “He ran upon the boar with his sharp spear, / Who did not whet his teeth at him again, / But by a kiss thought to persuade him there, / And, nuzzling his flank, the loving swine / Sheathed unaware the tusk in his soft groin.”

Venus then explicitly draws an analogy between herself and the boar: “Had I been toothed like him, I must confess / With kissing him I should have killed him first.”

The woman’s part is filled with passionate desire and unbridled sexuality. Equally, it resists any easy determination between gendered dichotomies. Venus is both physiologically female and behaviourally male; Adonis is both physiologically male and sexually drawn to other males; the boar is both the goddess of love and a murderous animal. Male or female, Shakespearean parts tend to be unconventional in their narration of gender and desire. Passionate women, bestial men, sex without reproduction: such are the treasures of the Shakespearean trove. And best of all: there is a part here for every one of us.

Menon is professor of English at Ashoka University.

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