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Bard to the bone

Matthew Reisz talks to Stanley Wells, doyen of Shakespearean editorial scholarship, about his lifetime commitment to the playwright and his new book on romance and the 'beast with two backs'

It is hard not to think of Stanley Wells as "Mr Shakespeare". He was general editor, with Gary Taylor, of the one-volume, modern-spelling Complete Works, published by Oxford University Press in 1986, with a second edition in 2005. And when Richard II is published in 2011, it will round off OUP's Oxford Shakespeare series of plays, making him, Wells says, "the only general editor of a multi-volume Works ever to have seen the whole thing through from beginning to end. I'm quite pleased at the thought of that."

Alongside such editorial scholarship, Wells has produced a stream of books aimed at a broader readership, including Shakespeare: The Poet and His Plays (2001), Shakespeare: For All Time (2002) and now Shakespeare, Sex, and Love. Given that he turned 80 last week, his latest work offers a remarkably frank and enthusiastic account.

It opens with a brief guided tour of sexuality in Shakespeare's time. This considers cross-dressing, the records of the "Bawdy Court", proposals for licensing brothels, homosexual coteries and a fierce sermon condemning those who treated what we would today call casual sex as "no sin at all, but rather a pastime, a dalliance, and but a touch of youth". It even quotes some prize extracts from The Choice of Valentines, Thomas Nashe's astonishing privately circulated poem about premature ejaculation and dildos.

Shakespeare was himself an "early developer", marrying young to a pregnant Anne Hathaway. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, set partly in a brothel, was co-authored by a seedy real-life brothel-keeper, George Wilkins. Although Wells rightly points out that the Bard is "renowned as the great celebrant of romantic heterosexual love", he (or his characters) often express intense sexual disgust, and the fathers in the late plays give their daughters stern lectures on the need for premarital chastity.

All this leads to three key questions. What kind of story emerges if we try to deduce Shakespeare's changing attitudes to sex? How significant are the homoerotic elements? And just how smutty are certain phrases and passages?

Wells explores the whole corpus and argues, perhaps a little schematically, that we often find tensions between "raw sexual desire that seeks satisfaction only in the moment of gratification" and "sex as a natural and fruitful realisation of virtuous and God-given desires, which can find their fulfilment within a tenderly loving relationship".

So how did Wells achieve his position as eminent Shakespearean and chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon?

"It came on me slowly," Wells replies. A grammar-school boy who was the first in his family to attend university, he studied at University College London, was called up for military service in the RAF and then rapidly invalided out because of a duodenal ulcer.

After that, he recalls, he "drifted around for a bit and became a schoolteacher in the country - as Shakespeare is supposed to have done - for six years, while keeping up an interest in scholarly matters, especially palaeography".

His teacher's pay meant that he couldn't afford proper holidays, so he applied to do voluntary work at the postgraduate Shakespeare Institute in Stratford (part of the University of Birmingham), offering to help transcribe documents from microfilm.

This was probably not a job that many people were queuing up to do and, at the end of two weeks, he was asked if he would like to apply for a scholarship.

This led to a PhD editing two works by Robert Greene and then, in 1962, a junior lecturing post at the institute, where he was to remain until 1997, eventually becoming director. An interlude saw him work as a research Fellow at Balliol College, Oxford, while employed by OUP on the Complete Works.

Despite pointing out the schoolmasterly connection, Wells hastens to add that "I don't think I'm Shakespeare reincarnated! But I hope I've developed a sensitiveness to the spirit that infuses the plays - a sense of the language that helps me to go beyond the language."

He remains glad to have had a solid editorial training, "a demanding discipline" that he often recommends to young scholars, since "you need to know about bibliography, lexicography, the history of the language, the history of the theatre as well as literary criticism. You can't edit a play in just a technical sense - you've got to think about meaning and interpretation, even when deciding whether to change a particular word."

Laurie Maguire, tutorial Fellow in English at Magdalen College, Oxford, noted recently that today's academic Shakespeareans often shy away from talking about loss, jealousy or unrequited love in the plays, and instead concentrate on "epistemology and representation and semiotics and differance and liminality and cultural positions".

This is very much not what one gets with Wells.

"I'm a traditionalist," he agrees. "I'm interested in the structure of plays. I'm interested in the attempt to discern artistry of language in dramatic and theatrical art. I'm not a theorist: I've never approached the works through French theory, for example.

"I also see myself as a sort of populariser. I have no shame - indeed, I take pride - in writing intelligibly and trying to interest the non-specialist. That is an aspect of any real teacher: you have to be able to diffuse your knowledge, your enthusiasm and your critical skills. I find it depressing when critics write in a way that can be understood only by people within a very small circle."

Shakespeare seems not to have had close links with the most overtly homosexual circles in Elizabethan England. However, once he became a saleable "property", homoerotic poetry by others was attributed to him.

Wells turns to the work of queer theorists and asks whether there is anything in the portrayal of male pairs such as Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice "that might enable us to tell whether they are just good friends, or that they love each other non-sexually, or that one of them feels unreciprocated desire for the other, or that the two are lovers in the fullest sense of the term".

His answer, as a passionate life-long theatregoer (and honorary emeritus governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre), is that there is no right answer. The same relationships can be viewed and presented erotically or platonically, according to what individual actors, directors and indeed members of the audience feel happy with - and this range of interpretations is something to be celebrated.

More generally, Shakespeare, Sex, and Love attempts to steer a path between two extremes. It seems ridiculous today that editors used to acknowledge lewd jokes, if at all, with a coy phrase such as "with a bawdy quibble". But Wells clearly feels that the pendulum has swung too far the other way, with articles on "bestial buggery in A Midsummer Night's Dream" and Jonathan Bate, professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance literature at the University of Warwick, promoting the Royal Shakespeare Company edition of the plays as the "filthiest" ever.

"I thought I was able to take a more balanced view," Wells explains, "and write about sex without lubricity, but with a sense of what is theatrically workable. A lot of the interpretations people attribute to Shakespeare in terms of sexual innuendo would require a terrible amount of bad acting to put across - leering and mugging and gestures."

The book surveys Shakespearean references to incest, oral sex, "married chastity", "bed tricks", venereal diseases ("the Neapolitan bone-ache") and their fearsome Elizabethan cures. It makes a plausible case for finding double meanings in the words "die", "hell", "nothing", "stand" and "will", as well as "come" and "prick".

In one complex passage, "out" is said to mean either "unable to ejaculate" or "denied vaginal access". (Some of the "jokes" inevitably take 10 minutes to explain and turn out not to be very funny.) But since such words are naturally also used in more straightforward senses, there remains plenty of room for debate about just how "dirty" some passages are.

Neither sex nor Shakespeare is a topic likely to be exhausted any day soon. Wells brings a lifetime of committed scholarship to his entertaining map of the territory.

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