This recently found painting might just be the only one of William Shakespeare done in his lifetime.  It is certainly idealized, with an open and sweet likeness, re-kindling the generations of gossip as to whether he was bisexual, as some of his best-loved poems and sonnets, dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, suggest.

“To me, fair friend, you never can be old, For as you were when first your eye I eye’d, Such seems your beauty still.”

On the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth (or most certainly his baptism date of April 26th), we’d like to take a journey into early modern England and his play about two seminal figures in the history of sex, Antony and Cleopatra.  The story of two powerful, yet doomed lovers surrounded by the conditions of war; the tale escalates with their sexual tension.

In the early modern period, it was crucial that women stayed chaste until marriage, at which time they could have sex.  These taboos were backed-up in magazines which showed how important it was to remain a virgin, to protect yourself from damaging your goods.  Women were thought of in terms of family only: wives, mothers and daughters.  Although a lot has been said about his negative treatment of female characters, Shakespeare did not express this in Antony and Cleopatra.  Cleopatra is far from pure or naive in this tale.  She is witty, clever, promiscuous and exotic.  Simply trying to get some satisfaction – she breaks the mold of love and lust.  Her audiences can’t get enough of her.   She “makes hungry where she most satisfies”.

In their long death scene, the sexual tension is reconciled.  Imagine an age when romantic love was only possible in death!  In his life as in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare plants his philosophy about love and desire, releasing us from the notion that romantic love isn’t possible.




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