At a time when sexuality is beginning to be accepted by the mainstream media and mass culture as something that occurs in a variety of forms different than previously (popularly) imagined, Jillian Keenan’s memoir Sex with Shakespeare offers a palpable explanation of what is to a large sector of the population, not just sexual theory.
Keenan has been writing publicly about spanking since her coming out story ran in The New York Times Modern Love column back in 2012. Since then, Keenan has vehemently defended and explained erotic spanking in terms of science, psychology, and personal experience. In 2014 Keenan wrote a piece for Slate Outward depicting kink and fetishism as valid forms of sexual orientation – meaning, that for those who have kinks and fetishes (for Keenan, that’s spanking), such are the driving forces of our sexuality.
Hence the title: Sex With Shakespeare. For Keenan, “sex” and “spanking” are synonymous. Through her masterful grasp of Shakespeare’s most popular texts seamlessly strung throughout personal memoir (occasionally, the two intertwine in a fiction like way), Keenan comes to terms with the fact that her sexuality often has very little to do with sex as we know it.
Appropriately, the book is broken down into acts rather than chapters. Each act revolves around a different stage of Keenan’s sexual life, paired with a relevant Shakespearean text. The lens through which we see each act shifts between characters of its corresponding literary work. Generally, Keenan relies on such passages to draw comparisons between her own sexual crisis and the struggles of a certain Shakespearean character. One of the earliest members of this troupe we encounter is Caliban, of The Tempest.
First, we see Caliban as Keenan does for the very first time – on the stage of a theatrical production of The Tempest that Keenan witnesses in her adolescence. Shortly after, Caliban steps out of reality and into Keenan’s psyche, which the reader witnesses in a fiction like way:
There was a soft tap on the living room window. I glanced over and gasped with surprise.
Caliban was there.
I ran up to the window and pressed my hands against the pane.
“What are you doing here?” I whispered, amazed. It was the first time a Shakespeare character had stepped off the page and into my life.
Caliban’s entrance in this passage sets a precedent that others of Shakespeare’s creation follow throughout the text.. In each act’s separate scenes, Keenan interacts with one of Shakespeare’s characters as though they are a real friend, family member, lover or mentor. Just as Caliban appears at Keenan’s childhood home’s window, elsewhere Helena appears in an apartment in D.C., Friar Lawrence is found washing his hands alongside Keenan in an airport restroom, and Cleopatra bonds with her over drinks in a Manhattan bar.
Before we see these characters in the flesh – so to speak – as Keenan writes them, we are introduced to them through the Shakespearean text from which they belong. Keenan focuses on a particular circumstance the character faces, and then isolates a trait that informs the way that character handles their circumstance. By the time the reader is confronted with a living, speaking version of one of these Shakespearean characters, their allegorical purpose has already been made clear.
Keenan relies heavily on allegory throughout Sex With Shakespeare to justify, explain, and drive the actions (her actions) that move the text. But the personification of Keenan’s emotional struggles through Shakespearean characters serves more than one purpose – it also conveys an overwhelming sense of solitude.
There are very few instances in Sex With Shakespeare when Keenan is offered advice or insight from a real person in her life. Of all the the real people Keenan introduces us to (there aren’t many), her childhood (and now adult) friend Peng is the most consistent in her presence, yet only appears several times (although the thought of her is invoked more than her appearances).
Instead, Keenan has conversations with Shakespeare’s characters (and at a later point in the book, Shakespeare himself). It’s easy to write these interactions off as purely rhetorical, as a means of conveying a certain emotion or struggle by projecting it onto another. But further interpretation offers another explanation: that Keenan is historically lonely – as a daughter, as a young woman with a complicated disease, and perhaps most importantly, as a sexual being.
Keenan speaks to Shakespeare because she has no one else to speak with (particularly where her sexuality is concerned), and because no one else can offer her what Shakespeare does. In his texts she finds compassion from a like-minded outcast (Caliban), validation of a love that does not take the form we expect (Helena), the path to commitment and fidelity (Fidele), words of warning in the face of youthful passion (Friar Lawrence), and the bravery to plunge into a love that is powerful despite at times appearing ill-fitted (Cleopatra).
The author’s uninhibited (albeit self aware) erotic imagination, paired with her need for sexual understanding and explanation, allows her to read Shakespeare unlike one would be encouraged to in any standard English class. Her fetishistic lens takes readers deeper into Shakespeare’s texts than they may be willing to travel without a guide, often exposing sides to characters we might not readily consider alone. The doors she opens along the way often lead to personal as well as socio-political revelations regarding sex, love, and companionship, particularly as they pertain to – I hesitate to say – non-normative relationships, or family, sexual, and romantic dynamics that simply are not depicted on a regular basis in mainstream media, certainly never in a positive light. And I’m not just talking about spanking and fetishes here, I’m also referring to abnormal childhoods – ones featuring one parent instead of two, disciplinary methods that blur definitions of right and wrong, alcoholism and disease, and perhaps the most unique feature of all: children that come out relatively healthy and successful despite (or perhaps, in spite) of these odds.
Sex With Shakespeare is a welcome addition to the literary canon – one that does not yet contain nearly enough texts depicting a diverse set of sexual practices in a positive light, one that still seems tentative to discuss both the dark and light sides of non-heteronormativity as mass media defines it, one possessing a modern readership that is thirsty for experiences reflective of their own. For the fetishist and the fetish curious alike, Sex With Shakespeare is a humorous, heart breaking, intelligently handled memoir dealing with a topic that in 2016, we seem finally ready to seriously consider.