Time on to-read list: A few months
Reason for hesitating to pick up (in the form of an internal monologue): “Ooh, that interview was great, I really want to read that, on the list it goes! Oh wait…. won’t that make me look weird for wanting to read that? I don’t know.. maybe it’s all really narcissistic and stupid anyway… I’ll wait… I’ll wait. Oh wait, there it is at the bookstore. No wait, too embarrassed to pick it up. Maybe next time. Next time.”
Reason for finally picking up (Part II of monologue): “….fuck it, I’m getting it this time. Gonna start reading it while I’m waiting…. *half an hour passes* Damn. Oh man, what time is it? I have to get this- must finish. Plans CANCELLED. Not even the checkout lady’s loud, weirded out announcement of ‘Sex with Shakespeare’?!?! is going to deter me, nope, nope, but thanks for that anyway, lady. Taking this home now and-*reads for rest of the night obsessively*”
Verdict: This is why book-shaming sucks. This book was wonderful. At least it was for me. I hope, below, you can see if it might be for you, too.
Sex with Shakespeare is Jillian Keenan’s memoir of growing up and trying to form an identity, and the deep external and, worse, the deep internal resistance she encounters in this process. Keenan’s struggle focuses especially on her sexual identity as what is commonly referred to as a “spanko,”* aperson for whom being spanked is the highest possible sexual gratification, if not the only sexual gratification possible. She differentiates early and often between people who have a “kink” of liking to be spanked occasionally as part of generalized BDSM play and people who have a “fetish” for spanking, which she defines as people for whom spanking comes first and sex comes a very very distant second. In fact, Keenan calls sex a “dessert”, an optional thing that is nice, but as she says, “if I had to give up sex-all kinds of sex-or spanking, I’d flush sex like a drug smuggler ditching his stash in an airport bathroom. My fetish isn’t something I do. It’s something I am.”
As you might imagine, Keenan encounters more than a few problems growing up as she becomes more and more aware of her fetish and just how central it is to her core identity. (And she’s got a rough enough childhood situation to contend with without this added complication.) But luckily, she’s got a pal with her on this journey, one she was lucky enough to meet early: Will Shakespeare. Each chapter focuses on how a different play of Shakespeare’s helps Keenan process a different moment in her life. This can range from an academic discussion of ways to interpret Shakespeare’s verse to wonderfully hallucinogenic, personal conversations Keenan has with Shakespeare’s characters, who dispense advice to her like older sisters, best friends, demanding mentors, bro-tastic frat boyfriends or offer her helplessly tempting words that could destroy her, according to which interpretation she chooses to listen to.
This truly wonderful device should be recognizable to anyone who loves literature to this same obsessive degree. It’s the most direct demonstration I’ve ever seen of one of my favorite passages by one of my favorite writers, where he says, “Sometimes I sensed that the books I read in rapid succession had set up some sort of murmur among themselves, transforming my head into an orchestra pit where different musical instruments sounded out, and I would realize that I could endure this life because of these musicales going on in my head.”** Keenan is able to get through each day because these characters swoop in and save her in a variety of pensive, soul-searching, comedic, tragic or tragi-comedic circumstances. One example of her analysis comes with her use of Macbeth to process through the nature of trying to develop an identity and hide that process from everyone, including yourself, and the harm that can do. The catalyst for this moment is when she is faced someone in her life who is lying to himself in a way even more extreme than she is, a friend with a girlfriend who is against gay marriage that she finds, unexpectedly, in a gay bar in Singapore:
“Macbeth is a play about doubles. But there is a twist.
In Shakespeare’s tragedies, the hero (or antihero) often has a double, or a voice-a secondary character who speaks for the main character, linking him to the real world and to the audience. Marjorie Garber describes these sidekicks as “someone on the stage who encounters things and verifies that what seems impossible or unbearable is, nonetheless, true.” In Hamlet, Horatio fills that role: at the end of the play, Horatio is the one who promises to tell Hamlet’s story. In King Lear, that voice is Edgar…
Macbeth’s obsession with equivocation speaks to this idea of double voices. The word equivocation itself comes from the Latin oequivocus, which means “of equal voice”. In Macbeth, where even the fundamental premise of the play demands verification- are the witches real, or merely a product of Macbeth’s imagination?- that double voice is more important than ever. At first, Banquo fills the the role of the double. He links Macbeth to the audience. We know Banquo saw the sisters too. Unlike the dagger that Macbeth sees, or imagines, before he kills Duncan, Banquo’s voice verifies that these sisters do exist.
But Macbeth has a tragedy that sets it apart from every other Shakespeare tragedy: Macbeth murders his voice. Mad with fear that Banquo’s heirs will seize the throne, Macbeth has Banquo killed. After that, our antihero is on his own. There is no one left to verify what is real and what is not. In fact, the night after Banquo dies is the very last time we see Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who previously had the strongest marriage in Shakespeare canon, speak to each other. When Macbeth’s voice dies, everything else disappears, too. Macbeth is alone.
He can’t survive that way. No one can.
And Shakespeare is there for her again when she tries to process something beyond kink, something even more threatening to her that she can’t name:
Cleopatra was standing at the foot of the bed. There was no one else in the room.
“Where’s David?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she replied coolly.
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Why had David left? I sighed.
“Cleo, is Antony’s love for you just an Oedipal thing?” I asked.
“That’s none of your business,” Cleopatra snapped. “If you want to know why David is attracted to you, ask him yourself. Stop displacing your fear onto us.”
I crossed my arms in front of my chest. “I’m not ‘displacing’ my feelings onto you,” I replied. “I’m processing them through you. That’s how people experience literature.”
Cleopatra scoffed. “Are you sure there isn’t something more?” she asked. “Something you’re unwilling to face?”
I bristled. “Hey,” I said, pointing my finger at her. “I faced it. I was honest with David about that shit from the beginning.”
Cleopatra’s lip curled in contempt. “Good grief, I’m not talking about your ‘kink’,” she said. “This incessant whining doesn’t impress me at all.”
There were angry shouts upstairs. I slid off the bed. “Is there a point to any of this?” Cleopatra pressed, her voice rising to a yell. “Or are you just wasting our time?”
The endless hours that Keenan has obviously spent studying Shakespeare- until he became an extension of her thought and her body, until she can reach for him without effort and feel his lines flowing through her body with such natural ease- makes this moving to watch. She finds, as so many have found before her, truth in Shakespeare. For her, that truth happens to include seeing kinky sex all over Shakespeare’s world. The instinct of the reader is to of of course be skeptical of this (or at least mine was) and even be thrown out of the narrative by what seem like, at best, highly selective interpretations of Shakespeare’s stories. But that would be to miss the point entirely.
Nobody reading this, by the end, will care whether or not Keenan’s interpretations of Shakespeare are the most correct or convincing things you’ve heard. (Although a few of them- like Helena’s situation in Midsummer, like Kate and Petruchio of Taming of the Shrew, and her particularly disturbing Lear reading are challenging enough that I think it would make for excellent debate material to throw them into the mix of any discussion on those plays). At least no one that I really care to know. Because if you can see anything at all, it is that the knowledge, fierce intelligence, passion and care she puts into each interpretation is what matters most. It is watching her take these pieces of the greatest playwright the world has ever seen and reshuffle them into their best of all possible uses: self-understanding, acceptance, love, the breaking down of walls and the defeat of her worst impulses. It is watching literature become the savior we all already knew it was, allowing this clearly fierce woman to emerge from this place of seclusion and doubt she’s been imprisoning herself in for far too long. It’s watching an uncertain child become a woman. Not a perfect woman by any means, but a woman who has figured out a path that feels true at long last and at great cost.
Yes, there’s some sex (and a few scenes of sexy sex, if you ask me). Yes, there’s some desperately sad parts and some truly scary parts and some parts where you might cry or be enraged, but what I left this book with was a great feeling of joy, however unlikely that seems. I felt like I’d just watched Keenan climb the Himalayas, and all I thought was: You did it, girl. You did it.
And if you’ve got any skin in this emotional game- and no, I don’t only mean the kinky one- you’ll feel like you’ve gone through it with Keenan. I found memories flying through my head as I read, blending with what I was reading. Sometimes I needed to stop and process, it felt like all too much. But like Keenan’s relationship with Shakespeare, her memories allowed me to access my own, opening up the hard to access path that only a few authors seem to really get to walk with each person: the path you don’t always want to walk, but the one that leads you, ever so slowly, to yourself.
**(A word she despises and compares to “cans of spray cheese”, but I’ll use it just this once for clarity’s sake and then not again, since I happen to agree with her that even the sound the word is both hilarious and gross.)
***Orhan Pamuk, The New Life. He’s good, guys. Get on that. Istanbul is by far his best book, but My Name is Red is pretty brilliant too.