It’s a truism that each generation thinks it has invented sex, and yet, certain eras – the Roaring 20’s, the Belle Époque – have a certain cachet as being sexier than others. Given it’s association with the virgin queen, the Elizabethan era is not typically on that list. Certainly the rules of the Catholic Church, if taken literally (and reproduced in this flowchart) tended to paint a discouraging picture. And yet, we know that the Reformation was changing the rules (Lutheran priests and nuns could and did marry), and records suggest that between 25% and 30% of brides where pregnant on their wedding day.
One of my classes this semester covers the playwrights of this (and the subsequent Jacobean) period. I call the class Anybody But Shakespeare, since the bard is explicitly excluded from our study.
Anyone who has studied Shakespeare, however, is probably aware that the verb “to die” was frequently used as a euphemism for sex, and for orgasm in particular, after the French phrase la petite mort.
An example of this can be found in The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kid. In Act 2 scene 4, the lovers Bel-Imperia and Horatio meet in a garden bower at night:
BEL. If I be Venus, thou must needs be Mars; And where Mars reigneth, there must needs be wars. HOR. Then thus begin our wars: put forth thy hand, That it may combat with my ruder hand. BEL. Set forth thy foot to try the push of mine. HOR. But, first, my looks shall combat against thee. BEL. Then ward thy-self! I dart this kiss as thee. HOR. Thus I return the dart thou threwest at me! BEL. Nay then, to gaine the glory of the field, My twining armes shall yoke and make thee yield. HOR. Nay then, my armes are large and strong withall: Thus elms by vines are compassed till they fall. BEL. O, let me goe, for in my troubled eyes Now mayst thou read that life in passion dies! HOR. O, stay a-while, and I will die with thee; So shalt thou yield, and yet have conquered me.
What is presented as a battle between Mars and Venus/Aphrodite (who were also lovers as well), is really a sex scene: hands touch, then legs, kisses are exchanged, the lovers bind themselves tightly to one another until each have “died.” Note that both lovers get to experience that rapture; it was taught at the time (based on Aristotle), that a woman couldn’t become pregnant unless both parties came to orgasm, so at least in couples that were trying to have children, the woman’s sexual experience was just as important as a man’s.
It is in this period also, that we have the first recorded use of the term “dildo.” Thomas Nashe, a novelist and playwright (who is sadly not in our syllabus), wrote a comic-erotic poem called “The Choice of Valentines,” in which an encounter where a man pays for the favors of a “gentle mistress” and is chagrined when he finishes before she is satisfied. No problem, says the courtesan, I have something “That bendeth not, nor foldeth any deale / But stands as stiff, as he were made of steele.”
After describing the lady’s evident pleasures with the device, the narrator worries that mere mortal men, can never match such a device – always at the ready, and able to satisfy it’s mistress many times in a short period of time. “I am not”, he proclaims, “as was Hercules the stout / That to the seventh journey could hold out.”
Of course, all this sexy-talk had to be covert, either spoken metaphorically like Kid’s battle between god and goddess, or literally so. Nashe’s poem was so scandalous that it was circulated only in hand-copied form. It took until 1899 (la Belle Époque) before it was actually published. But it’s existence proves that even the Elizabethans were capable of giving each other a good time.