Tag Archives: sex

“Measure for Measure” by William Shakespeare – #MeToo

I had not read this play since college, and it bothered me back then. But reading it now, in light of the whole #MeToo movement, it was even more infuriating.

This play is a “comedy,” not because it is funny, but because it ends with marriage (as opposed to a tragedy, which ends in death). It is definitely considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, along with Merchant of Venice. It is a play that explores questions of justice, law, punishment, and mercy. But what is most problematic for me is the depiction of how women are sexually exploited by men in positions of power and authority.

Basically, what happens in the play is that the Duke of Vienna places all authority to enforce laws upon his Deputy, Angelo. Angelo is strict and supposedly steadfast, and the Duke claims he wants to test Angelo’s resolve. Angelo begins enforcing a long-ignored law sentencing people to death for having sex out of wedlock. His first example is Claudio, who has a virgin sister named Isabella. Isabella goes before Angelo to plead for her brother’s life, and Angelo basically tells her he will only spare her brother if she agrees to have sex with him.

And now I give my sensual race the rein:
Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;
Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes,
That banish what they sue for; redeem thy brother
By yielding up thy body to my will;
Or else he must not only die the death,
But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
To lingering sufferance. Answer me to-morrow,
Or, by the affection that now guides me most,
I’ll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,
Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.

(Act II, scene iv)

I won’t spoil the details of how everything plays itself out, but suffice to say that Isabella manages to save her brother and her virginity, with the aid of the disguised Duke. But that sets us up for what, in my opinion, is the most offensive part of this play—the very end.

Long story short, the Duke pardons people, measures out justice that seems to be tempered with mercy, and thereby reinstates order out of the chaos. But it is the Duke’s “pardoning” of Claudio that is the major issue.

If he be like your brother, for his sake
Is he pardon’d; and, for your lovely sake,
Give me your hand and say you will be mine.
He is my brother too: but fitter time for that.

(Act V, scene i)

Basically, the Duke is doing the same thing Angelo was doing, pardoning Claudio on the condition that Isabella giver herself to him. And while, yes, the implication here is that the Duke intends to marry her, it’s still not OK. He is still using his authority to get what he wants, taking advantage of a young woman, and even worse, not applying the scales of justice evenly to himself as to others (namely Angelo).

I don’t claim to know Shakespeare’s intent when he wrote this play. Maybe he was making a critique against the patriarchal hierarchy, or maybe he was claiming it is OK to take advantage of a woman as long as you are “responsible” and marry her. But the fact is, in the 21st century, this attitude towards women is offensive, to say the least.

In spite of the gender issues in this play, it is still worth reading for the exploration of law, justice, punishment, and mercy. As always, feel free to share your thoughts on the play. Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading challenging stuff.

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Thoughts on “Troilus and Cressida” by William Shakespeare

This is a very strange play, and I can understand why it is categorized as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” I found it difficult to connect with any one character, and it was not clear who the tragic hero was. Hector dies, but he was not nearly as prideful as Achilles. Only thing close to a tragic flaw that Hector has is he refused to listen to the women who prophesized that something bad would happen to him if he went to fight. Troilus is betrayed by Cressida who gives herself to Diomedes, but they all live. Patroclus dies, but it is almost like a sidenote. Anyway, in spite of all the structural issues, there are some interesting themes that are worth considering.

There is some debate in the play about the contrast between fortune and free will. Early in the play, Nestor embraces the concept of free will over fortune.

In the reproof of chance
Lies the true proof of men: the sea being smooth,
How many shallow bauble boats dare sail
Upon her patient breast, making their way
With those of nobler bulk!
But let the ruffian Boreas once enrage
The gentle Thetis, and anon behold
The strong-ribb’d bark through liquid mountains cut,
Bounding between the two moist elements,
Like Perseus’ horse: where’s then the saucy boat
Whose weak untimber’d sides but even now
Co-rivall’d greatness? Either to harbour fled,
Or made a toast for Neptune. Even so
Doth valour’s show and valour’s worth divide
In storms of fortune; for in her ray and brightness
The herd hath more annoyance by the breeze
Than by the tiger; but when the splitting wind
Makes flexible the knees of knotted oaks,
And flies fled under shade, why, then the thing of courage
As roused with rage with rage doth sympathize,
And with an accent tuned in selfsame key
Retorts to chiding fortune.

(Act I: scene iii)

In contrast, Ulysses asserts that fortune plays an important role in human events.

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick!

(Act I: scene iii)

Pride seems to be another of the key themes in this play, and Achilles is the embodiment of pride. At one point, Ajax and Agamemnon discuss the pride of Achilles, and how it feeds upon itself.

Ajax: Why should a man be proud? How doth pride grow? I know not what pride is.

Agamemnon: Your mind is the clearer, Ajax, and your virtues the fairer. He that is proud eats up himself: pride is his own glass, his own trumpet, his own chronicle; and whatever praises itself but in the deed, devours the deed in the praise.

Ajax: I do hate a proud man, as I hate the engendering of toads.

(Act II: scene iii)

In Act V, we see a very bleak assessment of humanity. Thersites comes to the conclusion that men are motivated by two things: war and sex. It is almost a premonition of Freud’s concept of eros and thanatos, that sex and death are the primary drives in human nature.

Lechery, lechery! Still wars and lechery! Nothing else holds fashion. A burning devil take them.

(Act V: scene ii)

This is not my favorite Shakespeare play, but it is not the worst either, in my opinion. While there are some obvious problems with the play, there is enough thought-provoking material there to warrant a read. I am curious, though, whether it would come across better when performed on stage. I will have to keep an eye out for a stage production, and then see for myself.

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“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman: Issue 01

In my humble opinion, Gaiman is a literary rock star. There is nothing of his that I have read which has not completely blown my mind, particularly his novel American Gods, a book I was considering reading a second time. But then when I learned Gaiman was writing a graphic series based upon his book, I figured I would read that instead… for now anyway.

This first installment contains the beginning threads of two strands of the tale. First, we are introduced to Shadow Moon, who is released from prison right after his wife is killed in an automobile accident. He is approached by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday who offers him a job. The second thread introduces us to a goddess incarnate as a prostitute. She convinces her trick to worship her during sex, which increase her power (divine beings require worship for strength). The scene concludes with a reverse birth, where the man is returned to the womb of the goddess in a symbolic representation of the spiritual cycle of birth-life-death-rebirth.

One of the symbols that figures prominently in this first issue is the storm.

Inmate: We got to talk.

Shadow: mmm?

Inmate: Storm’s on the way.

Shadow: Feels like it. Maybe it’ll snow soon.

Inmate: Not that kind of storm. Bigger storms than that coming. I tell you, boy, you’re better off in here than out on the street when the big storm comes.

Shadow: Done my time. Friday I’m gone. Eagle point, Indiana.

Inmate: Like I said, big storm coming. It’s like… what do they call those things continents ride around on?

Shadow: Tectonic plates?

Inmate: That’s it. Tectonic plates. It’s like, when they go riding, when North America goes skidding into South America, you don’t want to be in the middle. You dig me?

Shadow: Not even a little.

Inmate: Hell, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The coming of a storm is something unseen, yet very tangible. Even before you see the dense clouds gathering on the horizon, there is an electricity in the air, a heaviness, a sense of foreboding. Forces build to the point where there is a violent release of pent-up energy. I have felt this in society. It certainly feels like there is a storm on our global horizon right now, too. If we are lucky, the clouds will dissipate and not coalesce into a storm, but whether this happens or not is truly beyond our control.

As far as the artwork in this graphic series goes, it’s OK. It is not nearly as great as the artwork in some of Gaiman’s other graphic works, particularly the Sandman saga, but it’s not the worst artwork either. But it is Neil’s craftsmanship of the written word that really drives this tale; the art just seems to add another layer of symbolism to it. I’m really excited to see how the story plays out on the pages. Second installment should be out soon. Expect my thoughts shortly afterward.

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Thoughts on “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace – Part 11: On Pornography

BehindGreenDoor

I woke early this morning, made some coffee, and sat down to read more of Infinite Jest. One of the protagonists in the story, Hal, was reminiscing about when his older brother Orin got caught by their father as Orin was getting ready to watch “Behind the Green Door.” Their father does not forbid his son from watching the film; instead, the father explains why it would be better if he waited until he had more experience before watching the movie.

But Himself said that if Orin wanted his personal, fatherly as opposed to headmasterly, take on it, then he, Orin’s father – though he wouldn’t forbid it – would rather Orin didn’t watch a hard-porn film yet. He said this with a reticent earnestness there was no way Orin couldn’t ask him how come. Himself felt his jaw and pushed his glasses up several times and shrugged and finally said he supposed he was afraid of the film giving Orin the wrong idea about having sex. He said he’d personally prefer that Orin wait until he’d found someone he loved enough to want to have sex with and had had sex with this person, that he’d wait until he’d experienced for himself what a profound and really quite moving thing sex could be, before he watched a film where sex was presented as nothing more than organs going in and out of other organs, emotionless, terribly lonely. He said he supposed he was afraid that something like The Green Door would give Orin an impoverished, lonely idea of sexuality.

(pp. 955 – 956)

There is no doubt that many young people learn about sex through pornography, especially in the age of the internet, when access to porn is a click away. And while I personally have nothing against pornography, Wallace is correct that it establishes a lonely idea of sex. Pornography removes intimacy from sex and transforms it into a solitary, isolated experience for too many people.

I cannot help but wonder if the proliferation of online porn is having a negative impact on our society. It seems that there is a growing sense of alienation and isolation as people become more engrossed in virtual experiences, experiencing life vicariously instead of actually engaging in the experiences that life has to offer. I can’t say for sure, but these are my musings this morning.

Thanks for stopping by, and feel free to share your thoughts.

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“The Venal Muse” by Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire

Muse of my heart, lover of grand chateau,
When January unleashes storm and sleet,
Through the black dreary evenings when it snows,
Will you have coals to warm your violet feet?

With gleaming starlight that has pierced the blinds
Will you reanimate your shoulders’ cold
Marble? Your palate dry, your purse unlined,
From vaults of azure will you harvest gold?

To earn your evening bread you’ll have to swing
the censer like a choirboy, and sing
Te Deums of which you don’t believe a word,

Or, starving clown, show off your charms, your smile
Wet with tears that none see, to beguile
and cheer the sick spleen of the vulgar herd.

(Translation by C. F. MacIntyre)

I struggled with this poem, because I essentially see two interpretations, which I will explain below. But first, I want to provide the official definition of venal from Merriam-Webster: “capable of being bought or obtained for money or other valuable consideration.”

So the first impression I had of this poem was that Baudelaire was writing about a prostitute and his desire to find artistic inspiration through procured sex. The imagery of the muse being cold and poor certainly lends itself to this interpretation. But as I read it again, I became less confident about this was the only meaning of the poem.

I think it was the image of the incense censer and the singing of “Te Deum” which caused me to consider another possibility. I looked up the words to “Te Deum,” and thought the opening was relevant:

We praise thee, O God :
we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee :

As I read this, I began to envision Baudelaire supplicating to a fickle muse, making prayers and offerings in the hopes of gaining artistic inspiration. Sacrifices must be made in order to achieve artistic insight, and Baudelaire was willing to make those sacrifices to his muse as payment for the reward of inspiration.

In the end, I suspect both interpretations are valid. That’s the thing with symbols and metaphors; they lend themselves to multiple interpretations.

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“To Tirzah” by William Blake

ToTirzah

Whate’er is Born of Mortal Birth
Must be consumed with the Earth
To rise from Generation free:
Then what have I to do with thee?

The Sexes sprung from Shame & Pride,
Blow’d in the morn, in evening died;
But Mercy chang’d Death into Sleep;
The Sexes rose to work & weep.

Thou, Mother of my Mortal part,
With cruelty didst mould my Heart,
And with false self-deceiving tears
Didst bind my Nostrils, Eyes, & Ears:

Didst close my Tongue in senseless clay,
And me to Mortal Life betray.
The Death of Jesus set me free:
Then what have I to do with thee?

In order to fully grasp this poem, there are a couple religious references which should be explained. First, the name Tirzah “is derived from The Song of Solomon vi.4, and signifies physical beauty, that is, sex.” (Geoffrey Keynes) Also, the words on the robe of the aged figure offering the water of life in the engraving are “the second half of St. Paul’s sentence, I Corinthians xv.44: ‘It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body’.” (Keynes)

In the image associated with this poem, there are two women holding the body of the young man, who is the speaker in the poem. My impression is that the two women symbolize two aspects of the divine feminine: the mother and the maiden. I sense conflict in the speaker, who may be experiencing maternal love as well as sexual attraction. The mother’s name, Tirzah, is associated with sexual beauty. I’m sure Freudians would agree with this interpretation. But there is also a sense of anger directed towards the mother. The speaker feels he is a spiritual being and through childbirth is now trapped within a physical body, hence bound to the earth and to corporeal existence. At least until he dies. As such, he relates to Christ. When Christ died, his soul was restored to the divine. Hence, when the speaker dies, he also will be “raised a spiritual body” and become one with god.

This is certainly a psychologically challenging poem. Does one have to sever parental connections in order to live a spiritual life? How did Christ feel about his mother? Does the Oedipus myth tie into all this? Personally, this poem just stirs questions for me. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please feel free to post comments below. Thanks, and keep reading challenging texts.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book X – The Grace of the Witch

CirceAndSwine

In this book, Odysseus continues his tale of his journey. He actually covers three parts of his odyssey in this book. First, he describes his dealings with Aeolus, ruler of the winds. Aeolus gives him a bag of wind to aid in his voyage, but some of his greedy men think it has gold and open it, resulting in the boat being blown back to Aeolia. Next, Odysseus and his crew arrive at the land of the Laestrygonians, who are cannibalistic giants and devour a few of his men. Finally, they arrive at the island of Circe, who is depicted as a goddess but also a sorceress.

What I found the most fascinating about this book are the allusions to magic and ritual. Circe is obviously very skilled in the mystical arts and the imagery of her weaving “by that craft known to the goddesses of heaven” (Fitzgerald Translation: p. 171), her use of herbs and potions, and her wielding of a wand, all conjure some fantastic visions of the mystical woman.

The god Hermes offers to assist Odysseus in overcoming Circe’s spells. He provides Odysseus with instructions on how to use an amulet in conjunction with sex magic to protect himself from the sorceress.

But I can tell you what to do
to come unchanged from Kirke’s power (Note: alternate spelling in translation)
and disenthrall your fighting crew:
take with you to her bower
as amulet, this plant I know—
it will defeat her horrid show,
so pure and potent is the flower;
no mortal herb was ever so.

Your cup with numbing drops of night
and evil, stilled of all remorse,
she will infuse to charm your sight;
but this great herb with holy force
will keep your minds and senses clear:
when she turns cruel, coming near
with her long stick to whip you out of doors,
then let your cutting blade appear,

Let instant death upon it shine,
and she will cower and yield her bed—
a pleasure you must not decline,
so may her lust and fear bestead
you and your friends, and break her spell;
but make her swear by heaven and hell
no witches’ tricks, or else, your harness shed,
you’ll be unmanned by her as well.

(ibid: p. 174)

The plant that Hermes refers to appears to be mandrake, which according to myth will drive a human insane if pulled from the ground.

He bent down glittering for the magic plant
and pulled it up, black root and milky flower—
a molu in the language of the gods—
fatigue and pain for mortals to uproot;
but gods do this, and everything, with ease.

(ibid: p. 174)

Mandrake

Mandrake

Near the end of the book, Circe tells Odysseus that he must open a portal to the underworld, summon the spirit of the blind prophet Teiresias, and inquire about what he needs to do in order to return home. Circe provides instructions to Odysseus, and these instructions read like a dark magic ritual.

Here, toward the Sorrowing Water, run the streams
of Wailing, out of Styx, and quenchless burning—
torrents that join in thunder at the Rock.
Here then, great soldier, setting foot obey me:
dig a well shaft a forearm square; pour out
libations around it to the unnumbered dead:
sweet milk and honey, then sweet wine, and last
clear water, scattering handfuls of white barley.
Pray now, with all your heart, to the faint dead;
swear you will sacrifice your finest heifer,
at home in Ithaka, and burn for them
her tenderest parts in sacrifice; and vow
to the lord Teiresias, apart from all,
a black lamb, handsomest of all your flock—
thus to appease the nations of the dead.
Then slash a black ewe’s throat, and a black ram,
facing the gloom of Erebos; but turn
your head away toward Ocean. You shall see, now
souls of the buried dead in shadowy hosts,
and now you must call out to your companions
to flay those sheep the bronze knife has cut down,
for offerings, burnt flesh to those below,
to sovereign Death and pale Persephone.
Meanwhile draw sword from hip, crouch down, ward off
the surging phantoms from the bloody pit
until you know the presence of Teiresias.
He will come soon, great captain; be it he
who gives you course and distance for your sailing
homeward across the cold fish-breeding sea.

(ibid: p. 181)

I cannot help but wonder whether Homer was schooled in the magical arts. Regardless, this is a very interesting segment of the epic. I am eager to read about Odysseus’ encounter with the spirits. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book XI.

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