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SEXSPEARE: Sesso ed erotismo nelle liriche del Bardo


Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets published in 1609, covering themes such as the passage of time, mortality, love, beauty, passion, infidelity, jealousy, and lust. The first 126 of Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed to a ‘fair youth’, and the last 28 addressed to a woman – a mysterious ‘dark lady’.


Lust can make one dishonest, murderous, violent, blameworthy, savage, extreme, rude and not to be trusted. As soon as its goal has been achieved one despises it. One is crazy in the pursuit of sex, and during sex too: having had it, having it and hunting for it one goes to extremes. It’s blissful while it’s happening but can turn to a true sorrow afterwards – before an anticipated joy, afterwards nothing but a dream. Everyone knows this very well, yet “no-one knows it well enough to avoid the heaven that leads men to this hell”.

“Becoming Shakespeare”: Number the lines in the right order and “recreate” the original Sonnet 129

Mad in pursuit and in possession so,

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;

Past reason hated as a swallowed bait

On purpose laid to make the taker mad;

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,

Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,

Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had

Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action; and till action, lust

A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

Now you can check your work by listening to the original Sonnet:


Sonnet 20: A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted

A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted

Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;

A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted

With shifting change as is false women’s fashion;

An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,

Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;

A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,

Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.

And for a woman wert thou first created,

Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,

And by addition me of thee defeated

By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.

But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure,

Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.


Your face is more beautiful than a woman’s because it’s been painted by nature and not artificially. You are both master and mistress of my passion. You have the gentle heart of a woman but without the fickleness characteristic of women. Your eyes, that light up the very object that they look on, are brighter than theirs but without their shallow flirtatiousness. You have all the best qualities a man could have. All other men look to you as a model: you catch the eye of men and you amaze women. Nature first intended you as a woman, but as she was making you, she fell madly in love with you and, by adding something, deprived me of you; by adding one thing she made you unattainable to me. But since she equipped you for the pleasure of women, let me have your love and them your body.

You can now enjoy Rufus Wainwright's musical version:


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. Although Shakespeare frequently indulges in sexually suggestive wordplay, many of his plays emphasize pre-marriage chastity.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, two young couples, Hermia and Lysander as well as Helena and Demetrius, fall under a fairy spell and experience a wild night in the forest, lost in a comedic game of magic-induced desire and repulsion. The next morning Duke Theseus discovers the couples sleeping together on the ground just outside the forest. The couples lay together so suggestively that Theseus jokes:

“Saint Valentine is past. / Begin these woodbirds but to couple now?” (IV.i.). The audience knows they have not begun to couple, but laughs at his inference nonetheless.

In Shakespeare there are also some instances that indicate the possibility of pre-marriage sex. The most famous example appears in the third act of Romeo and Juliet, when the young couple wakes up after having spent the night together in Juliet’s room. Shakespeare does not confirm that the couple had sex, but he does provide suggestive evidence.

When Romeo says, “I must be gone and live, or stay and die” (III.v.), he means that he needs to leave before he is found and condemned to death. Yet the word “die” is also slang for orgasm, indicating that Romeo may be playfully referencing sex.

Another example of ambiguity appears in Hamlet. Although Shakespeare makes no direct reference to a sexual relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, when Ophelia goes mad she sings several popular folk songs about unmarried sex that imply they may have had sex: “Young men will do it / When they come to it” (IV.v.).

Despite the ban on portraying sex onstage, sexual language largely escaped censorship so long as it was comic, and sexual puns and erotic innuendos abound in Shakespeare’s 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 early twentieth centuries.

Shakespeare mastered the art of making dirty jokes through the liberal use of puns and double entendres. Early in Romeo and Juliet Mercutio refers to Romeo’s affection for Rosaline as a “driveling love [that] is like a great natural that runs / lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole” (II.iv.). The phrase “lolling up and down” strongly implies sexual intercourse, as does the phrase “hide his bauble in a hole,” where “bauble” and “hole” are slang for penis and vagina, respectively.

Shakespeare may even have made the first “your mom” joke in history when he wrote the following exchange in Titus Andronicus (Act 4, Scene 2):

CHIRON - Thou has undone our mother. / Hai disfatto nostra madre

AARON - Villain, I have done thy mother. / Canaglia, io mi sono fatta tua madre

Bawdy humor like this allowed Shakespeare to delight popular audiences without ever depicting sex directly.


1) Twelfth Night: Act 1, Scene 3

SIR ANDREW - But it becomes me well enough, does ’t not?

SIR TOBY BELCH - Excellent; it hangs like flax on a distaff; and I hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs and spin it off.

In this scene, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew are discussing Andrew’s hair, which is apparently flat and lifeless. While Toby uses the image of a woman spinning yarn from flax, the line is a rather unfortunate double entendre. Essentially, Sir Toby is telling Andrew that he hopes a woman takes him “between her legs” and that he contracts syphilis, a disease which causes hair loss.

2) Hamlet: Act 3, Scene 2

HAMLET Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

OPHELIA No, my lord.

HAMLET I mean, my head upon your lap?

OPHELIA Ay, my lord.

HAMLET Do you think I meant country matters?

OPHELIA I think nothing, my lord.

HAMLET That’s a fair thought to lie between maids' legs.

OPHELIA What is, my lord?

HAMLET Nothing.

By this scene, Hamlet’s words become especially obscene when one knows that “nothing” was Elizabethan slang for a woman’s lady bits. And about “country matters”, remove the last syllable on “country” and you’ll understand the pun!

3) A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Act 5, Scene 1

PYRAMUS - O kiss me through the hole of this vile wall!

THISBE - I kiss the wall's hole, not your lips at all.

This scene features a play within the play, and characters are acting as lovers Pyramus and Thisbe. Perhaps more importantly, another person is filling the role of the wall. Kissing “the wall’s” hole … well, that is something Thisbe most certainly does not want to do.

4) The Taming of the Shrew: Act 2, Scene 1

PETRUCHIO - Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.

KATHARINA - In his tongue.

PETRUCHIO - Whose tongue?

KATHARINA -Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell.

PETRUCHIO - What, with my tongue in your tail?

C’mon. This one is quite easy…

5) Henry V: Act 2, Scene 1

PISTOL - Pistol’s cock is up, And flashing fire will follow.

The word “cock” may not have developed its current slang meaning until a decade or two after Henry V was written, so this might not have been an intentional pun. Either way, it was too good to exclude. With the possible double meaning and such vivid imagery, Shakespeare himself would have approved of this joke, unintentional or not.

6) Much Ado About Nothing: Act 5, Scene 2

BENEDICK - I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes.

In Elizabethan slang, “to die” was, as we said, a euphemism for sexual climax, so Benedick telling his lover, Beatrice, that he will “die” in her lap has less-than-chaste implications. It should also be noted that the title of the play itself is a dirty pun; remember, “nothing” was an Elizabethan euphemism for a woman’s lady parts.

7) All’s well that ends well, Act 1, Scene 1

PAROLLES - … Your date is better in your pie and your porridge than in your cheek. And your virginity, your old virginity, is like one of our French withered pears: it looks ill, it eats dryly.

date fruit / age = penis

pie and porridge = plays on the sense of 'vagina'

porridge plays on the sense of 'vagina'

French withered pears old fruits = syphilitic vaginas

eats dryly = tastes dry

8) Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 3

MERCUTIO - Thy wit is a very bitter sweeting: it is a most sharp sauce.

ROMEO - And is it not then well served into a sweet goose?

MERCUTIO - O here's a wit of cheverel, that stretches from an inch narrow to an ell broad!

sweeting = sweet apple

sharp sauce =bitter sauce for food

And … goose? alludes to the proverb 'sweet meat must have sour sauce', suggesting that the sauce (semen) is being served sexually to the goose (prostitute)

wit = plays on the sense of 'penis'

cheverel = easily stretched leather

ell = forty-five inches / penis


Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm'd;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Here’s a ‘translation’ into modern English:

Shall I compare you to a summer’s day? You are more lovely and more moderate: Harsh winds disturb the delicate buds of May, and summer doesn’t last long enough. Sometimes the sun is too hot, and its golden face is often dimmed by clouds. All beautiful things eventually become less beautiful, either by the experiences of life or by the passing of time. But your eternal beauty won’t fade, nor lose any of its quality. And you will never die, as you will live on in my enduring poetry. As long as there are people still alive to read poems this sonnet will live, and you will live in it.

and a musical version by David Gilmour

Riccardo Zambon


Sabato 9 Aprile 2022

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