Tag Archives: cuckold

Sexual Metaphor in “Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare

I read this play back when I was in college, and what the professor who taught the class said about it was something that stayed with me ever since. He asserted that in Elizabethan times, “nothing” was a reference to female genitalia. A man had a thing, and a woman had no thing. So basically, you could rename this play “Much Ado About _____” (fill in the blank with your favorite vaginal slang). So when you read the play from this perspective, you quickly notice all the sexual puns and innuendos hidden within the text, which is something I figured we could explore in this post.

Early in the play, Benedick, one of the main characters, asserts that he will forever remain a bachelor, claiming that women are prone to fooling around and making cuckolds of their husbands.

That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she
brought me up, I likewise give her most humble
thanks: but that I will have a recheat winded in my
forehead, or hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick,
all women shall pardon me. Because I will not do
them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the
right to trust none; and the fine is, for the which
I may go the finer, I will live a bachelor.

(Act I, scene i)

It is also worth noting that his name can be broken down into bene dick, or good dick. According to Oxford Dictionary, the word dick started being used in the 1500’s as a term representing a fellow, or man, in the general sense (https://www.lexico.com/definition/dick). I don’t know whether Shakespeare intended to pun to mean “good man” or “good penis,” but certainly both apply to modern interpretations.

As the play progresses, Don John spreads some lies to make Claudio believe Hero, his betrothed, is not a virgin. Claudio then slut-shames Hero on their scheduled wedding day, in front of her and her family.

Sweet prince, you learn me noble thankfulness.
There, Leonato, take her back again:
Give not this rotten orange to your friend;
She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour.
Behold how like a maid she blushes here!
O, what authority and show of truth
Can cunning sin cover itself withal!
Comes not that blood as modest evidence
To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid,
By these exterior shows? But she is none:
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed;
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.

(Act IV, scene i)

So if we consider what has happened, Don John’s lies have made something out of nothing, or made a big deal about a woman’s supposed sexuality. And why would men make such an ado about a woman’s sexuality? Shakespeare quickly follows up in the same scene by pointing out that it is the biblical belief that a woman was responsible for original sin, and that a woman’s sexual desire is equated to a fall from grace and a loss of virtue.

Wherefore! Why, doth not every earthly thing
Cry shame upon her? Could she here deny
The story that is printed in her blood?
Do not live, Hero; do not ope thine eyes:
For, did I think thou wouldst not quickly die,
Thought I thy spirits were stronger than thy shames,
Myself would, on the rearward of reproaches,
Strike at thy life. Grieved I, I had but one?
Chid I for that at frugal nature’s frame?
O, one too much by thee! Why had I one?
Why ever wast thou lovely in my eyes?
Why had I not with charitable hand
Took up a beggar’s issue at my gates,
Who smirch’d thus and mired with infamy,
I might have said ‘No part of it is mine;
This shame derives itself from unknown loins’?
But mine and mine I loved and mine I praised
And mine that I was proud on, mine so much
That I myself was to myself not mine,
Valuing of her,–why, she, O, she is fallen
Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again
And salt too little which may season give
To her foul-tainted flesh!

(Act IV, scene i)

In the final act, Don Pedro delivers four lines which for me encapsulate the essence of this play.

Gentlemen both, we will not wake your patience.
My heart is sorry for your daughter’s death:
But, on my honour, she was charged with nothing
But what was true and very full of proof.

(Act V, scene i)

I interpret this as asserting that Hero was deemed guilty for no other reason than that she was female, or had no thing. There would be no ado if she had a thing. It appears to me that Shakespeare was asking the questions: What is the big deal about sex? Why do we care whether a woman is a virgin or not? Does a person’s sexual experience or gender matter all that much in the grand scheme of things? Why do we make much ado about nothing?

In our modern culture, we have made great strides toward equality and acceptance of one’s gender and sexuality, even though we still have a ways to go. I think Shakespeare would be glad that we are making less ado about nothing.

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 13

Painting by Michele Desubleo

Painting by Michele Desubleo

This episode corresponds with the section concerning Nausicaä in Homer’s Odyssey.

In Book Six of the Odyssey, Odysseus is shipwrecked on the coast of the island of Scheria. Nausicaä and her handmaidens go to the sea-shore to wash clothes. Awoken by their games, Odysseus emerges from the forest completely naked, scaring the servants away, and begs Nausicaä for aid. Nausicaä gives Odysseus some of the laundry to wear, and takes him to the edge of the town. Realizing that rumors might arise if Odysseus is seen with her, she and the servants go ahead into town.

(Source: Wikipedia)

In Joyce’s novel, Gerty MacDowell corresponds with Princess Nausicaä, Gerty’s friends Cissy and Edy represent Nausicaä’s handmaidens, and Leopold Bloom is associated with Odysseus. As in the Homeric epic, the scene takes place on the beach and is full of sexuality, which in Joyce’s book is much more overt. Essentially, Bloom masturbates as he watches the girls on the beach.

Early in the episode, Gerty fantasizes about a storybook wedding. Images of fairy tales and being swept away by her Prince Charming abound. It is implied that while she is having these fantasies, Bloom is having his own as he watches. As Gerty notices Bloom watching her, she begins to tease him and play up to his fantasy, positioning herself so he can better see her and steal glimpses up her skirt. She begins moving her leg in a manner evocative of sexual intercourse.

Queen of angels, queen of patriarchs, queen of prophets, of all saints, they prayed, queen of the most holy rosay and then Father Conroy handed the thurible to Canon O’Hanlon and he put in the incense and censed the Blessed Sacrament and Cissy Caffrey caught the two twins and she was itching to give them a ringing good clip on the ear but she didn’t because she thought he might be watching but she never made a bigger mistake in all her life because Gerty could see without looking that he never took his eyes off of her and then Canon O’Hanlon handed the thurible back to Father Conroy and knelt down looking up at the Blessed Sacrament and the choir began to sing Tantum ergo and she just swung her foot in and out in time as the music rose and fell to the Tantumer gosa carmen tum.

(pp. 359 – 360)

What is interesting about this is that while Bloom is fantasizing about Gerty and Gerty is playing up to his attentions, there is a Catholic service happening at a nearby church. This builds a symbolic connection between Gerty and the Virgin Mary. Joyce seems to be criticizing our obsession with virginity and our secret desires for those things which are pure and generally out of our reach. I cannot help but wonder how many men, sitting in a church service, secretly wondered how a statue of the Virgin Mary might look if naked, like classical Greek statuary. Probably more than would be willing to admit.

Undoubtedly, the most memorable scene in this episode is when Bloom reaches orgasm. It happens as fireworks are exploding in the sky over the beach and Joyce employs the image of a Roman candle as a phallic symbol.

She would fain have cried to him chokingly, held out her snowy slender arms to him to come, to feel his lips laid on her white brow the cry of a young girl’s love, a strangled little cry, wrung from her, that cry that has rung through the ages. And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! They were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively! O so soft, sweet, soft!

(pp. 366 – 367)

It is worth pointing out that Joyce uses the word “rapture” to describe the experience. I get the impression that he is also making the connection between orgasm and a profound religious experience. The image that comes to my mind is that of Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.

Bernini - Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

Bernini – Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

The episode ends on a sad note, with the sound of a cuckoo clock sounding the time.

Cuckoo
Cuckoo
Cuckoo

(p. 382)

The implication here is that Bloom was made a cuckold, that his wife Molly and Blazes Boylan have consummated their affair at the same time he was masturbating and fantasizing. So while it’s easy to look at Bloom in this episode and see a pervert jerking off as he watches a young girl at the beach, you can’t help but pity him also. He seems a sad and lonely person.

I’ll post my thoughts on episode 14 in about a week or so.


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11

Episode 12


 

References:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section13.rhtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nausicaa

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