The Politics of Desire in Elizabethan Shakespeare

With various shades of “want” – love, pride, ambition – so powerfully driving nearly all of Shakespeare’s works in one way or another, it becomes natural to call into question the exact role of “desire,” not merely as a rhetorical tool for character and plot development, but as a central thematic force that proves highly political in nature. In her critical essays on Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Marjorie Garber proposes that these works portray desire as something irrational and dangerous that is often conflated and confused with death.

This essay aims to expand on these initial claims by contextualizing their sociocultural foundation and examining the various ways in which desire is articulated as a threatening and fatal force in each of the works cited by Garber, as well as in a number of Shakespearean sonnets. Taking this perspective reveals a political discourse surrounding desire in which Shakespeare simultaneously supports and subverts a societal definition of desire that allows female sexuality and desire to be designed by and performed through the man.

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Together these evaluations render “desire” a complicated and gendered literary creation that advances the narrative of a necessary suppression (or deferral) of desire—a suppression which is both self preserving and predicates a return from chaos to social order.

Garber introduces the theme of uninhibited desire as a force leading to social and personal undoing in her collection Shakespeare After All. She describes that “love and death are often versions of the same act” in many Shakespearean works, and points to evidence in Romeo and Juliet-particularly their “erotic suicides” which iconographically “engage traditional symbols of male and female sexuality” (202).

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She also notes that A Midsummer Night’s Dream “strikes a careful balance between ‘cool reason’ and the dangers of the irrational…. There is freedom in fleeing from a repressive parent and a repressive law, as Hermia does, to follow her lover into the wood… [b]ut there is a parallel danger in excessive sexuality and desire” (229). Each of these observations are important and interesting on their own, but also inspire further questioning into the reason behind such a complex and somewhat critical depiction of human desire when performed passionately and rebelliously, as in the case of Romeo, Juliet, Hermia, and Demetrius. A certain amount of this representation can be understood by taking into account the historical context in which Shakespeare was writing, as well as the cultural and linguistic traditions from which he drew.

Erotic language as crafted in Elizabethan plays and poems can be viewed in part as an artifact of sociocultural constructions that both limit and define female desire through a male lens. A Midsummer’s Night Dream and the poetic ‘l’ of the Sonnets, in particular, provide excellent examples of the recreation of the woman through the man both literally, by the use of boy actors, as well as linguistically, by the use of male-dominated forms in a male-dominated artistic scene. While Romeo and Juliet interchangeably mocks and manipulates the language of love so that “the spirit of Petrarchism is revealed as tragically fatal and idealized romance collapses” (Davis 36), Dream and—to a larger extent many of the Sonnets confront the issue of romantic expression more experimentally than directly. “Whereas for the erotic-mythological fantasies, the Elizabethans had an abundance of classical examples to find a source and inspiration, the sonnet could not be so directly imitative since Ovid and Virgil had not known the form” (Haynes 91). Throughout the Sonnets, the poetic speaker vacillates between encouraging the object of his affection to procreate (principally seen in Sonnets 1-17) to taking much more violent or idealistic perspectives on love, lust, and the satisfaction of desire. The negative perspective on sex and desire comes to a head in Sonnet 129, in which Shakespeare writes that lust:

Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight. (132)

Sonnet 129 is particularly unique in having a relatively impersonal tone; rather than addressing a beloved or relating a particular experience of the poetic speaker, it arguably serves as a kind of edifying, blanket warning seemingly directed to no one but the reader. This differs from most of the other sonnets, which often either address a man or “[portray] the poet by stifling the woman’s voice” (Davis 46). Examples of this “stifling” of the woman’s voice can be seen in the admiring love poems (such as Sonnet 18), in which the poetic speaker in many ways outcompetes the beloved and becomes the focus of the work; the “muse” is silenced and ventriloquized by the artist. The poem “gives life” to a woman who never speaks for herself, and thus “female sexuality [becomes] a production of male discourse” (Carroll 14). These alternating patterns of describing and defining desire through and to the man as either the partner to “reproductive duty” or as the root of all emotional suffering is in itself a notable contradiction. It is a contradiction that highlights the political nature of desire as designed in Shakespearian works, which is in large part linked to Garber’s analysis that Dream embodies a battle between the rational and irrational, between social anarchy and social control.

The story of A Midsummer’s Night Dream is in many ways a story of the role of desire in disorder; it is “traditionally both a Shakespearean marriage play and a celebration of civil order and cosmic harmony by its end” (Parker 93). It is important to note that this “civil order and cosmic harmony” is restored by means of a public and authority-approved joining through marriage. While the unrestrained form of desire that exists in the forest is portrayed as violent and chaotic, the desire at the play’s end is controlled and familiar. Demetrius describes his newfound love for Helena by saying:

Like a sickness, I did loathe this food;
But as in health, come to my natural taste,
Now I do wish it, love it, long for it. (68)

Here the language itself signals a return to the ‘natural,’ through an analogous linking of sickness with subversive desire and health with desire controlled. In this way, the suppression and/or redirection of desire emerges as an instrument of social control intended to promote a particular hierarchy.

This view of desire can be compared again with the Sonnets in which, as we have seen, the pursuit and attainment of desire is described both as an act of irrationality, turmoil and suffering, as well as reduced to the sexual act defined in and through the goal of reproduction. Consequently desire itself can appear both desirable and undesirable, depending on the situation. In a sense the both Sonnets and the world of Dream establish two alternate forms of desire one constructive, and the other unstable. The desire present in the dream-state of the forest is volatile and transgressive, while the tamed desire at the play’s end proves much safer both on a social and a personal level. Just as the unloosed desire of the lovers in the forest is, by the play’s conclusion, dismissed as a dream, Sonnet 129 asserts that lust, once satisfied, evaporates into an insubstantial dream: “Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream” (Orgel 132). Such a linking of transgressive desire with the dream-state illustrates more than anything its deep connection to irrationality, a topic that will be discussed in greater depth later. Presently we will focus on the significance of rejecting dream-desire in favor of practical desire; that is, a desire that forges marriage and produces progeny. The benefit of framing the sexual act in terms of procreation is that it channels the perhaps more innate urge of “dream-desire” into a didactically “natural” or socially condoned and productive action, rather than a potentially pernicious and relatively uncontrollable act of youthful rebellion. Thus, desire is “[e]njoy’d no sooner but despised straight” (Orgel 132), unless it is controlled or defined by social constraints and imperatives.

Although these competing definitions of desire exist in Shakespearean works, instruction on how to process them or which of them is “correct” is not at all made clear. There is additional confusion born of the projection of female desire through the man, as can be seen once more in the case of Theseus’s decree to Hermia:

Either to die the death or to abjure
For ever the society of men.
Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires. (5)

Not only does this passage provide another example of a union of death with desire; it also casts off the definition of “desire” as being something that is fixed and unquestionable. This is a theme that carries through the text, when the desires of the four lovers are treated as interchangeable by means of Puck’s mischief. Despite Hermia’s refusal to alter her desires in order to conform to cultural law, the seeming frailty of desire in A Midsummer’s Night Dream conceivably sends the implicit message that desire, both male and female, can and should be flexible for the sake of restoring order or harmony. This warning is arguably more explicit in Romeo and Juliet, where the result of a devotion to uninhibited desire is played out to its fatal end. In both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, “resisting or contesting patriarchal authority allows a temporary move toward selfhood…. [L]ove appears to be one’s own, yet both plays show the impossibility of holding onto it. The personal is as elusive as it is idealized, destined to slip back into constraining and distorting social forms” (Davis 44). In this view, the stories of Hermia and Juliet each portray a woman’s rejection of controlled desire as well as the failure to maintain this rejection in the face of a society that demands control. Whether or not this failure is meant to serve as a social critique, a warning, or merely an accurate portrayal of the politics of desire can be further examined by returning once more to Garber’s comments on Dream regarding the balance struck “between ‘cool reason’ and the dangers of the irrational” (229).

The “irrational” at work in A Midsummer’s Night Dream is not merely restricted to the magical fairy court; it is more notably expressed as the disruptive force of desire that exists alongside it. Again, a theme of Dream is reproduced in the Sonnets—most notably in Sonnet 147, which includes the lines:

My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except
Past cure am I, now reason is past care. (152)

Here, the anarchistic power of desire is translated from the social realm to the personal. Reason is the cure to love; it is the tool that can be used to repress and distort desire, to “question” its domination of the self. This personal perspective challenges the societal by doubting the extent to which something fundamentally irrational can be molded at will, as Theseus proposes to Hermia. Hermia can’t simply “question her desires” and resultantly change them and if desire is truly so inflexible (without the aid of magic), her options become either to stifle her desire by refusing to act on it, or to act on it and risk personal harm. Hence Shakespeare creates a wildly complex view of desire that undeniably results in self and social harm, but also cannot be easily avoided or rejected on an individual level. It is in fact the basic irrationality of desire that always forces it into opposition with the harmony of social order; it is the same basic irrationality that leads to suffering and disharmony of the self when desire is left unsatisfied, or is satisfied and then lost. The fact that desire is not a choice so much as a physical and psychological inhabitation makes it intractably subversive.

Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Sonnets all cast desire in a sometimes contradictory and often negative light, making a clear demonstration of extant historical and political perspectives while concurrently calling them into question. In these works, “personal romance and desire are revealed as authoritative codes which conceal and impose official sexuality” (Davis 40), and this “official sexuality” often becomes a central thematic inquiry directed at the audience. In these works, Shakespeare treats desire as he does many of life’s great issues: with wit, a subtly critical eye, and a certain historical honesty.

Works Cited

  1. Carroll, Willam C. “Language and Sexuality in Shakespeare.” Shakespeare and Sexuality. Ed.
  2. Catherine M. S. Alexander and Stanley Wells. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. 14-34.Print.
  3. Davis, Lloyd. “Death and Desire in Romeo and Juliet.” Shakespeare and Sexuality. By Catherine S. Alexander and Stanley Wells. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. 35-51. Print.
  4. Garber, Marjorie B. Shakespeare After All. New York: Pantheon, 2004. Print. Haynes, Alan. ‘Untamed Desire’: Sex in Elizabethan England. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, Print.
  5. Parker, Patricia A. “Rude Mechanicals’: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Shakespearean Joinery.” Shakespeare From the Margins: Language, Culture, Context. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1996. 83-115. Print.
  6. Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ed. Russ McDonald. New York: Penguin Group, 2000. Print.
  7. Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Peter Holland. New York: Penguin, 2000. Print.
  8. Shakespeare, William. The Sonnets. Ed. John Hollander. New York: Penguin Group, 2001. Print.

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The Politics of Desire in Elizabethan Shakespeare. (2021, Sep 11). Retrieved from

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