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Shakespeare and porn: a topic for theoretical, not practical, analysis

Being a badly dressed academic is nothing to be ashamed of, says Peter J. Smith. An undressed professor, however, is a step too far

Credit: Paul Bateman

We all know that academics are badly dressed, but what happens when they are undressed? I don't mean brief or fumbled extra-mural encounters between philosophers at the annual bash of the Society for the Study of Heidegger, Adorno, Gramsci (or Soc-SHAG), I mean actually getting naked as part of their professional duties.

Under what circumstances would the baring of an academic bosom become corporeal rather than intellectual, literal rather than metaphoric?

Picture the scene: five well-known Shakespeareans gathered around a table in Florida with two hours dedicated to the questionable topic of Pornographic Shakespeare.

This meeting took place in the wake of the notoriety provoked by the website, upon which a senior American academic had launched pictures of himself with various naked porn stars. His site is no longer active, and the address now links to another site.

The room was windowless and frigidly (bad word choice) air-conditioned. The delegates included a tedious Englishman whose paper was about the characterisation of Iago as voyeur, neither original nor exciting, but I had to get there somehow; that is to say, Miami had long been on my list of places I'd wanted to visit.

Another learned speaker introduced porn-film versions of the Bard's most canonical works with titles such as The Taming of the Screw, Much Ado About Humping and A Midsummer Night's Cream - in which the actor playing Bottom (fnarr, fnarr) was not only hung like... well, a donkey, but could bray while he ejaculated. Extracts of the appropriate sequence attracted murmurings of approval and envious admiration. Fortunately, at that time, Carol an' Anus had not yet "come out", although it has probably been made since.

Never before have I held Mary Whitehouse in such high esteem. Never before have I had such a strong impression of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But things were going to get much worse. For obvious reasons, I am not prepared to say, I should have seen it coming...

One of the seminarians (oh stop it!) was a professor who has a well-established list of publications that refer to sexual acts in literature. Several of these couplings do occur in the texts. The rest of them seem to be pure fantasy and for that simple reason, none of them is demonstrable. But that was about to change. As she rose from her seat and went over to shut the door, a fearful silence descended. She recounted that a recent episode of an American sitcom had been set in a lap-dancing club and involved a routine in which a stripper spoke the words of Portia's "The quality of mercy is not strained" over the tune of My Heart Belongs to Daddy, all the while thrusting her professional assets towards an enraptured audience.

With knuckles white from gripping my chair, I knew, suffering the embarrassment only an Englishman can feel, that we were about to get a re-enactment, as if having watched Bardcore porn in the company of several strangers hadn't been bad enough. Although not an ex-spurt (sic or rather sick?) in such matters, one appreciates that such spectatorship would be more profitably undertaken in the privacy of one's own boudoir: "Ay, there's the rub" or, less energetically, "A little touch of Harry (not to mention Tom or, more likely, Dick) in the night".

Sure enough, she pushed a button on her tape player and as Eartha Kitt began purring to us about her designs on the caddy, the professor disrobed while reciting Portia's speech. Quite what academic purpose this served was anyone's guess, but after her routine, she nonchalantly threw her jacket over her shoulders and took her seat back at the table, the effects of the air-conditioning both blatant and impressive.

An awkward silence ensued. "Do you have any questions?" she asked sweetly. "Yes," I replied in order to get us to move rapidly on. "What's that?" she smiled.

"Do you have tenure?" I replied. After such a display, the question was thoroughly deserved and I couldn't help inwardly gloating, though it did bring the seminar to a grinding halt.

The moral of this tale? When my superiors and colleagues tell me how scruffy I am (and my habiliments seem to be a fertile topic with the creative writing students), I can at least say that they should be grateful that the only things I ever take off in the workplace are my glasses and my shoes.

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