That Shakespeare’s works are preoccupied with love and sex, the relationship between the two and their often tragic consequences, is not a revelation. This is not to say, however, that the sexual content of the plays and poems has lost its power to shock or engage. It is a cliché, but it does seem reasonable to think that audiences in five hundred years’ time – in whatever form the theatre then exists – will still be gripped by the annihilating force of Othello’s jealousy, and still empathise with Romeo’s passion for Juliet. The complex and vulnerable emotions of Juliet, Desdemona and Ophelia are also likely to be of more than historical interest. Readers of poetry will still be both mesmerised and dismayed by the sonnets’ slide from the celebration of a beloved to injury and self-loathing.
As Stanley Wells observes in the introduction to Shakespeare, Sex, and Love, his well-paced and informative new book, readers have always sensed the presence of the beast with two backs in Shakespeare, and more often than not been troubled by it. From the eighteenth century editors expurgated passages