BDSM is a complicated business – just because you enjoy being abused in a very specific sense, does not mean that you’re any less romantic, stable or emotionally centred than anyone else. Perhaps we’re just more honest with ourselves. Shakespeare, the master of romance poetry, may well be one of the best examples of this. From our perspective, Shakespeare could have had some interesting strings to his bow that have gone unnoticed. Take a look at this extract from Venus and Adonis:
‘Thus he that overruled I overswayed,
Leading him prisoner in a red-rose chain:
Strong temper’d steel his stronger strength obeyed,
Yet was he servile to my coy distain.
O, be not proud, nor brag of thy might,
For mastering her that foil’d the god of fight!
Prisoner in a red-rose chain? Servile to coy distain? There’s something strangely familiar in that, and I think we all know what it is. This immensely long poem goes on and on with these references – Venus is the goddess of beauty and she falls in love with Adonis, who is no match for her charms and submits to her completely. Well, almost completely. There’s a bit of a power-struggle that, again, has some interesting connotations:
Imperiously he leaps, he neighs, he bounds,
And now his woven girths he breaks asunder;
The bearing earth with his hard hoof he wounds,
Whose hollow womb resounds like heaven’s thunder;
The iron bit he crusheth ‘tween his teeth,
Controlling what he was controlled with.
Now, it’s not likely that Shakespeare was into BDSM simply because it may not have existed at that time; and if it did, it didn’t exist in the way we know it. Then again, the human desire to complicate sex knows no bounds, and there’s every possibility a man like Shakespeare would be willing to experiment. Either way, the psychology is there, and there’s little doubt in our mind that if Shakespeare was alive now, he’d be interested in this kind of thing.
We have just quoted from one poem so far, which is hardly enough to prove much – he could have just been writing for Venus and Adonis’ sake, and not from his own emotions. After all, the goddess of beauty must have done a lot of things in her time – if anyone is planning on experimenting in the darker areas of sex; leading a lover by a red rope, for example, it would indeed be her. Indeed, as Shakespeare could have put it; love makes slaves and fools of us all. Perhaps in her physical form, Venus would be interested in exercising her mastery in a different manner.
Shakespeare appears to have gone through a brief period of servility, where he wrote sonnets 57 and 58:
Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend,
Nor services to do till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world-without-end hour
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour
When you have bid your servant once adieu.
Nor dare I question with my jealous thought
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
But, like a sad slave, stay and think of nought
Save where you are how happy you make those.
So true a fool is love that in your will,
Though you do anything, he thinks no ill.
That god forbid that made me first your slave
I should in thought control your times of pleasure,
Or at your hand th’account of hours to crave,
Being your vassal bound to stay your leisure.
O, let me suffer, being at your beck,
Th’imprisoned absence of your liberty;
And patience, tame to sufferance, bide each check
Without accusing you of injury.
Be where you list; your charter is so strong
That you yourself may priviledge your time
To what you will; to you it doth belong
Yourself to pardon of self-doing crime.
I am to wait, though waiting so be hell,
Not blame your pleasure, be it ill or well.
We would quite like to meet whatever lady made the great man write like that. And he is certainly writing for someone here, as opposed to something, as he might have been in Venus and Adonis. This isn’t some metaphysical concept – it’s real. You can see it in the fleshy way he writes and the ability to criticise: phrases like “Though you do anything, he thinks no ill” and “That you yourself may priviledge your time” feel like they’re for a person – love has no care for time, and Shakespeare would never dream of criticising love itself. This is personal, and dirty, too – he’s enjoying being the slave, or at least enjoying not enjoying it.
Yet another example of Shakespeare’s potential tendencies comes with this section, from The Taming of the Shrew, that at first glance looks like some pretty basic misogynism, but on closer inspection…
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintence; commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land;
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at they hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience-
Too little payment for so great a debt,
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is forward, peevish, sullen sour
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel,
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
Now, this might just be some simple sexism, but generally Shakespeare doesn’t go for that kind of thing – he had a lot of respect for women, and wrote strong female and male characters without caring too much about their placing in the world, so it’s a little strange he’s such an advocate of family values now. Unless, of course, he’s hinting at something else when he mentions “true obedience”. We cannot tell, but under a certain light it’s certainly starting to look like Shakespeare used leather to bind more than just his books.
As far as the specifics of what the great poet enjoyed, the ‘B’, ‘D’, ‘S’, or ‘M’; there’s no way to tell. I like to think he was a switch, though, given the way he writes from both sides – with a collar around his neck and a lead in his hand. We like to think Shakespeare enjoyed exactly what we enjoy. But then again, doesn’t everyone?