Sex-Speare vs. Shake-Speare3: On Nudity and Sexuality in Some Screen and Stage Versions of Shakespeare's Plays

By Fabiszak, Jacek | Text Matters, November 2013 | Go to article overview

Sex-Speare vs. Shake-Speare3: On Nudity and Sexuality in Some Screen and Stage Versions of Shakespeare's Plays


Fabiszak, Jacek, Text Matters


The article is an attempt to address a rather controversial and debatable issue in Shakespearean criticism: the explicit presentation of sexually-informed (suggested) nudity. Shakespeare's plays abound in references to sexuality, both overt and covert. Eric Partridge's now classic book Shakespeare's Bawdy testifies to the critics' acknowledging that Shakespeare's morality did not meet the stereotypically Victorian standards. Even on the Elizabethan stage, subject to the strict political and moral censorship, verbal imaginings of nudity and sexuality, not only in the form of jokes, were paralleled to an extent by a visual representation of actors dressed in costumes imitating naked human skin. A faint echo of this practice can be found in present-day theatre when actors put on flesh-coloured apparel which stands for nakedness. Early film versions of Shakespeare's plays appear to perpetuate the Victorian approach to the touchy sexual innuendoes in the Bard's oeuvre: in Percy Stow's The Tempest (1908) Caliban, rather than attempting to rape Miranda, declares his love of her by placing the palms of his hands on his heart (it is quite curious why the director decided to include this scene in his rather short film, a scene that is only reported in the play). In Sven Gade and Heinz Schall's silent Hamlet (1921) with the then famous Danish actress Asta Nielsen in the role of the Prince even gender switching does not hinder a by-the-book treatment of love and sexuality (no explicit nudity allowed, of course), yet one of the final scenes presents unsuspecting Horatio placing his hand on the dead Hamlet's heart (i.e., breast) and discovering to his horror that Hamlet is a woman! Here, we deal with a fairly explicit sexual reference, actually shown on screen. In the post-sexual-revolution era the directors of Shakespeare's dramas have been granted greater freedom in the treatment of nudity and sexuality. Yet, there is allegedly a marked difference between representing sexuality on stage and on screen; furthermore, cinema and television do not treat sexual nudity, or nudity in general, in the same way. On top of it, one needs to consider the canonical, indeed, special status of Shakespeare in Western culture: on the one hand, the tradition of Bardolatry, on the other, approaching his works as litmus paper helping sound the contemporaneous problems. If it so happens that among them is human sexuality, so be it.

As a result, I would like to address the issues of realism and convention on screen and stage, the (ab/mis)use of sexuality in screen and stage versions of Shakespeare's plays, as well as crossing and/or maintaining the borders of filmic/televisual/theatrical provocation by exposing the viewers/spectators to scenes of nudity and/or explicit sexuality. I will exemplify this discussion with a selection of screen and stage productions of Shakespeare's plays containing post-1960s treatment of sex and nudity. As one may expect, it would be rather difficult to cover the rich variety of both stage and screen productions and thus offer any conclusive inferences. One should be especially cautious in view of the frequent practice of blending media on both stage and screen whereby conventions become blurred, which opens room for a more or less explicit presentation of sexuality. Therefore, I have excluded from the discussion productions in which such blends prevail, focusing on examples which allow for a more unequivocal generic/media allocation, which-consequently-helps establish the kind of realistic conventions deployed in them.

I would like to begin the discussion of Shakespeare and nudity and sexuality with a brief overview of the concepts of realism and conventions and their applicability to stage performances, TV theatre productions and films. There are many definitions and understandings of the concept of realism in art in general and in literature in particular. A rather tentative and general idea concerning the use of realism in art has been proposed by Corner and Ang: "empirical realism" (likeness of setting, social action and ostensible theme) and "formal realism" (formal conventions). …

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