Issue 220: 2019 10 24: Sex and Authority

24 October 2019

Sex and Authority

Morocco, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia.

By Neil Tidmarsh

The most interesting of all the Shakespeare folios held by the Folger Library in Washington DC (and it has the world’s largest collection of them) must be the copy of the second folio, published in 1632, which originally came from the library of the Real Collegio Seminario de los Ingleses in Valladolid, Spain, and was owned in the seventeenth century by one Guillermo Sánchez, an official of the Holy Office and the Society of Jesus.

The Jesuit Señor Sánchez was the Spanish Inquisition’s censor at the Royal Seminary College, where exiled English catholics were trained as priests.  He went through his copy of the works of Shakespeare wielding a sharp knife, a sharp pen, a pot of thick black ink and a sharp eye quick to spot heresy.  His cuttings and redactions suggest that he found plenty of it.  He inked out words, phrases and passages in most of the plays.  But he took his knife to one whole play – Measure For Measure – and cut it out in its entirety.

The play’s subject matter is premarital sex, so it’s easy to understand why the Holy Office found it so offensive.  But the play isn’t really interested in premarital sex as a moral issue – what interests Shakespeare is authority’s attitude to it, and it is this which must have got Señor Sánchez sharpening his knife and frothing at the mouth.

In the Vienna of Measure For Measure, authority is no longer respected or obeyed because the Duke’s rule has been too liberal.  The Duke’s despotic deputy takes over and attempts to restore respect, obedience and fear among the populace by reviving an old and forgotten law which prohibits fornication (extramarital sex) and by imprisoning a hapless pair of unmarried (but affianced) lovers as an example pour encourager les autres.

Thus Shakespeare suggests that authority’s prohibition of fornication isn’t anything to do with morals – it’s a repressive tactic for controlling the individual, for enforcing obedience through fear.  Moreover, Shakespeare suggests that such prosecution is not only cruelly despotic (the guilty are to be executed) but, ironically, is also corrupt and hypocritical (the Duke’s deputy is himself a guilty individual).

Chop away, Señor Sánchez, but you’re on the wrong side of history.  Aren’t you?  That was the seventeenth century but this is the twenty-first.  Isn’t it?  Well, a number of stories in the news recently suggest that such optimism might be misplaced.

‘Fornication’ is still illegal in some countries today.  Including Morocco, where an unmarried journalist – Hajar Raissouni – was convicted of the ‘crime’ last month and jailed.  She denies the charge (and that of having an abortion), but what really brings this slap-bang right into the middle of Measure For Measure territory is the suggestion by her supporters that the charge was brought against her as a punishment for her criticism of the government and state and for being related to an opposition figure.  The issue appears to be politics rather than morality.  Widespread protests against her conviction gained her a royal pardon this week, however, and she has been released (along with four others who were convicted with her – her fiancé, a doctor and two other medics).

Other countries, where the law against ‘fornication’ has been scrapped, are now trying to reintroduce it.  And again this appears to be a political tactic rather than a crusade against immorality.  Massive anti-government protests erupted in Indonesia last month, demonstrating against a number of political initiatives including: collusion with commercial activities such as mining and logging which are proving ecologically disastrous; proposed legislation which will reduce the power of the country’s anti-corruption commission; and proposed revisions of the criminal code which will criminalise insults against the president, vice-president, religion, state institutions, the national flag and the national anthem, and which will also criminalise – yes – premarital sex and couples living together outside marriage.  The protests, by students and human rights groups, have been so widespread, however, that the president has postponed the ratification of the revisions to the criminal code.

The ban on extramarital sex would apply to everyone in Indonesia, foreigners and Indonesians alike – which raises some interesting questions about its potential effect on the country’s tourist industry (Bali, after all, is in Indonesia).  The Australian government changed its travel guidelines, warning its citizens about the potential risks of holidaying there.

The same problems applied to Saudi Arabia – until last month.  Extramarital sex has been illegal for everyone in Saudi Arabia, but Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is determined to turn Saudi Arabia into a leading tourist destination as part of his Vision 2030, his plan to diversify the country’s economy and reform its society.  Last month, for the first time, the country started issuing tourist visas for visitors other than religious pilgrims – and couples will no longer have to prove that they are married before they can book a room in a hotel.  It’s a start, even if extramarital sex remains a crime for everyone else in Saudi.

Authority – political or religious – invariably picks on this particular ‘sin’ because it’s seen as subversive and dangerous, a product of the individuals’ strongest urges and so a potential threat to his or her ability to conform and a potential rival to a despotic authority’s ability to control.  Authoritarian regimes are inevitably suspicious of the private, the personal, the intimate (Big Brother is watching you…) – and what is more private, personal and intimate than sex?  A generation or two later than Shakespeare and Sánchez, the libertines of the Restoration certainly saw themselves and their erotic endeavours as championing liberty in the wake of the Commonwealth’s repressively puritanical regime.

Shakespeare himself had a dog in this fight, of course.  It appears that he was forced to marry a pregnant Anne Hathaway, and it’s even been suggested than he’s making fun of himself in the character of Lucio in Measure For Measure, the comical fall guy who is forced to marry the pregnant Kate Keepdown.  Even if they prove to be no more than flashes in the pan, he’d have been delighted about the royal pardon for Hajar Raissouni in Morocco, the suspension of the criminal code revisions in Indonesia and the slow but steady reforms in Saudi Arabia.

And Guillermo Sánchez – seventeenth-century Spanish Inquisitor, Jesuit and censor for the Holy Office – would have been appalled.  But here in twenty-first century Europe we live in more advanced, liberal and tolerant times.  Don’t we?  We wouldn’t dream of chopping and changing Shakespeare’s work these days, cutting out bits which upset us and putting in bits which reassure us, in order to conform to today’s political or social orthodoxy and to eradicate perceived heresies.  Would we?

Ah, well, perhaps Señor Sánchez is having the last laugh after all, his ghost nodding with approval as he watches current, fashionable and politically-correct productions of ‘Shakespeare’ at the Bridge Theatre, and the Globe, and the RSC.



Follow the Shaw Sheet on

It's FREE!

Already get the weekly email?  Please tell your friends what you like best. Just click the X at the top right and use the social media buttons found on every page.

New to our News?

Click to help keep Shaw Sheet free by signing up.Large 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list