26 April 2016

Sex With Shakespeare: Here's Much to do With Pain, but More With Love by Jillian Keenan

Summary from Goodreads:
A provocative, moving, kinky, and often absurdly funny memoir about Shakespeare, love, obsession, and spanking

When it came to understanding love, a teenage Jillian Keenan had nothing to guide her—until a production of The Tempest sent Shakespeare’s language flowing through her blood for the first time. In Sex with Shakespeare, she tells the story of how the Bard’s plays helped her embrace her unusual sexual identity and find a love story of her own.

Four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, Keenan’s smart and passionate memoir brings new life to his work. With fourteen of his plays as a springboard, she explores the many facets of love and sexuality—from desire and communication to fetish and fantasy. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Keenan unmasks Helena as a sexual masochist—like Jillian herself. In Macbeth, she examines criminalized sexual identities and the dark side of “privacy.” The Taming of the Shrew goes inside the secret world of bondage, domination, and sadomasochism, while King Lear exposes the ill-fated king as a possible sexual predator. Moving through the canon, Keenan makes it abundantly clear that literature is a conversation. In Sex with Shakespeare, words are love.

As Keenan wanders the world in search of connection, from desert dictatorships to urban islands to disputed territories, Shakespeare goes with her —and provokes complex, surprising, and wildly important conversations about sexuality, consent, and the secrets that simmer beneath our surfaces.

So one of my little weird obsessions is that I love Shakespeare.  I watched Branagh's Henry V when I was about 10 or 11 and I was hooked.  The only literature course I took in undergrad was Shakespeare from Dr. Miriam Gilbert, which was awesome (except for that whole "act in a scene" bit, which I was not enthused about, but I did Ophelia so I could wear my bathrobe and hand out flowers like a crazy hippie) [I only needed one class because I brought credits from high school].  So would I want a memoir by a Shakespeare scholar that specifically examines non-vanilla references in Shakespeare?  Um, HELL yes.

Keenan opens the book when she's studying abroad in Oman.  She's been running from herself - she doesn't quite understand her sexual fetish or understand how it works and so has retreated to a place that she feels is deliberately repressive.  So she can hide.

And then she describes a vision in the desert where Demetrius and Helena from A Midsummer Night's Dream have their argument from Act II, Scene 1 in front of her:

I love thee not, therefore pursue me not.
Where is Lysander and fair Hermia?
The one I'll slay, the other slayeth me.
Thou told'st me they were stolen unto this wood;
And here am I, and wode within this wood,
Because I cannot meet my Hermia.
Hence, get thee gone, and follow me no more.

You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant;
But yet you draw not iron, for my heart
Is true as steel: leave you your power to draw,
And I shall have no power to follow you.

Do I entice you? do I speak you fair?
Or, rather, do I not in plainest truth
Tell you, I do not, nor I cannot love you?

And even for that do I love you the more.
I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you:
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love,--
And yet a place of high respect with me,--
Than to be used as you use your dog?

Tempt not too much the hatred of my spirit;
For I am sick when I do look on thee.

And I am sick when I look not on you.

You do impeach your modesty too much,
To leave the city and commit yourself
Into the hands of one that loves you not;
To trust the opportunity of night
And the ill counsel of a desert place
With the rich worth of your virginity.

Your virtue is my privilege: for that
It is not night when I do see your face,
Therefore I think I am not in the night;
Nor doth this wood lack worlds of company,
For you in my respect are all the world:
Then how can it be said I am alone,
When all the world is here to look on me?

I'll run from thee and hide me in the brakes,
And leave thee to the mercy of wild beasts.

The wildest hath not such a heart as you.
Run when you will, the story shall be changed:
Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase;
The dove pursues the griffin; the mild hind
Makes speed to catch the tiger; bootless speed,
When cowardice pursues and valour flies.

I will not stay thy questions; let me go:
Or, if thou follow me, do not believe
But I shall do thee mischief in the wood.

Ay, in the temple, in the town, the field,
You do me mischief. Fie, Demetrius!
Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex:
We cannot fight for love, as men may do;
We should be wood and were not made to woo.


I'll follow thee and make a heaven of hell,
To die upon the hand I love so well.

It's this conversation that piques Keenan's interest in re-examining Shakespeare - given the specific language in this scene, what if Demetrius and Helena have a S/M or S/d relationship of a sort?  The idea turns a problematic scene where a woman is often interpreted as a nutjob into one of power dynamics where Helena comes from a place of strength (for Keenan's specific textual reasoning, you'll need to read the book).  Now, before you get all pearl-clutch-ey about Shakespeare and sexual dynamics and how BDSM is a modern thing, there are actually Elizabethan references to fetishes and S/M-like practices (again, you'll need to read the book to get the references).  [And besides, as much as the Victorians tried to scrub up Shakespeare into squeaky-clean entertainment, he is all about sex and it's good and bad manifestations because people.  See also: the Sonnets.]  From here Keenan jumps back to show us her introduction to Shakespeare and her realization that she has a spanking fetish.  Each chapter is aligned with a play - The Tempest, Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline (which is only of the only Shakespeare plays I haven't seen or read) and so on - that has textual relevancy to the chapter subject. I loved the chapter on Twelfth Night where she discusses interviews with young women at the university in Oman using the Shakespeare plays they are studying as a way to discuss love, sex, and marriage.

This book is so readable and so interesting.  The chapters describing Keenan's search to find the right words to describe her specific fetish to her fiancé, and perhaps also to herself, just had me hoping she would get her own love story. Underlying a lot of the anxiety is the utter lack of resources for young people who have non-normative/non-vanilla desires; there is a great need for safe spaces to ask questions and explore without judgement. Keenan was able to use her love for Shakespeare and her work as a Shakespeare scholar to find inspiration and guidance within the words of Shakespeare's characters.

Now, I was hoping for a wee bit more Shakespeare criticism, but that's just me.  Had this been a book where Keenan took each play and broke down all the non-hetero/vanilla codes I would have been the happiest of happy little text nerds. But this is first and foremost a memoir. Keenan has story to tell and she tells it very well.  Even if the "vision scenes" with the play characters seem a bit odd at first, they do go quite a way toward explaining a concept or feeling.  (PS: Jillian, if you ever write that textual analysis I will read the crap out of it.)

Sex With Shakespeare is out today, April 26, wherever books are sold in the US.

Dear FTC: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher.


  1. Did you ever read any of the Shakespeare mysteries by Jennifer Lee Carroll?

    1. I bailed on Interred With Their Bones when the bad guys blew up the Widener Library and then the MC and her bodyguard (?) snuck into the Folger with the caterers.