An Evening of Sex with the Shakespeare Society

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
   All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
   To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

…thus began the Shakespeare Society’s night of “Sex in Shakespeare.”

Program cover for the Shakespeare Society's "Sex in Shakespeare"

The society invited Shakespeare Scholar and Harvard English professor Stephen Greenblatt along with five New York actors to discuss and perform selections illuminating the playwright’s musings on the sexual act.  Actor Stephen Spinella gave this opening reading of Sonnet 129 (you may recognize him from the Public Theater’s recent production of The Intelligent Homosexual) and was joined by actors Jonathan Cake, Francesca Faridany, Santino Fontana, and Cristin Milioti.

The Shakespeare Society was founded in 1997 with the mission to create a non-academic society that would “increase the enjoyment, understanding, and appreciation of Shakespeare’s works.”  Greenblatt is one of the Society’s “academic advisors” and is the author of the book Will in the World, a biography of William Shakespeare, which remained on the New York Times Best Seller List for nine weeks.  He is also the General Editor for The Norton Shakespeare.

Greenblatt started the night by noting its “ghastly relevance” (a reference to that day’s news regarding local congressman Anthony Weiner’s twitter “fiasco”).  He went on to express how glad we should all be that Shakespeare was a secular poet/playwright, and on that note summoned a reading from St. Augustine’s City of God, again performed by Stephen Spinella.  In this rather amusing passage (Book 14, Chapter 24) Augustine describes how sex would have been performed before man had fallen after Eve’s temptation in the Garden of Eden.  Augustine notes, “That if men had remained innocent and obedient in paradise, the generative organs should have been in subjection to the will as the other members are.”  He goes on to describe a number of interesting abilities that he has seen people exhibit such as the ability to wiggle one’s ears, flagellate musically, or sweat on cue and draws the conclusion that it is then not unreasonable to assume that before Eve’s original sin, the sexual desire may have been completely subject to one’s will, and never subject to one’s uncontrollable lust.

The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, where the event was held

The rest of the evening consisted of readings from The Winter’s Tale, Romeo & Juliet, All’s Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus & Cressida all of which were glued together by interesting and illuminating commentary by Greenblatt.  The one thing the evening was wanting perhaps was more interpretation from Greenblatt.   His comments were interesting and were a tease in an evening that spent more time on the readings than on what he had to say about them.

The performances, however, were excellent.  Especially laudable was Jonathan Cake and Francesca Faridany in Act II, Scene iv of Measure for Measure – even with scripts in their hands, both of their performances were more compelling, specific, and smart than many fully rehearsed and performed Shakespeare productions.

Cristin Milioti finished the evening with Juliet’s “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds…” soliloquy from Romeo & Juliet.  Greenblatt’s closing remarks focused on the idea of the physical nature of Shakespeare’s notion of the spirit of love as well as the act of love.  Juliet says in her speech, “think true love acted simple modesty” and with those words, ended a modest evening of immodest matter.

Visit the Shakespeare Society’s website if you are interested in finding out about their future events or want to become an official member.


Zachary Lindberg
Columbia College ’13
Arts Initiative Student Associate

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