Bardcore

Mr William Shakespeare's dramatic and lewd adventures in ye American pornography industry. (Unsuitable for readers of tender years)
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The Independent Culture

Early in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon squeezes magic love juice on to the eyelids of a sleeping Titania. When Titania wakes up, the juice makes her fall madly in love with the first creature she encounters: Bottom, the weaver, who has been transformed into an ass. Because Shakespeare's text does not provide an explicit answer, directors who adapt the play often ask themselves what happens next: does Titania have sex with Bottom?

When the director Stuart Canterbury was developing his recent film adaptation, he had no trouble deciding what to do about the Titania–Bottom sex question – they would have sex; lots of it. And Canterbury didn't stop there. Demetrius and Helena would have sex, too. So would Titania and Oberon. So would Lysander and Hermia. And, in an opening scene nowhere to be found in Shakespeare's text, so would five writhing female fairies overseen by a feather-waving Titania.

The film in question is A Midsummer Night's Cream – tag-line: "What (Horny) Fools These Mortals Be!" – and it's merely one recent example of a growing genre of Shakespeare adaptation: Shakespeare porn. Nominated for 10 2001 Adult Video News Awards, including a best-actress nomination for the porn legend Nina Hartley as Titania, Canterbury's film joins Romeo & Julian (1993), Hamlet: for the love of Ophelia (1996), The Taming of the Screw (1997) and dozens of other works in this expanding canon.

Shakespeare scholars of a more traditional sort might dismiss these X-rated adaptations as nothing more than video-store giggle fodder. But Richard Burt, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, sees a lot more going on here. In his book Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares: Queer Theory and American Kiddie Culture (St Martin's, 1998) and in a number of articles he has published in recent years, Burt argues that such porn adaptations, along with other "dumbed-down" versions of Shakespeare, can provide insights into not just the plays but also the larger workings of American culture in the post-Cold War world. He says a prime motivating force behind these unorthodox renditions is "a new form of cultural imperialism in which Shakespeare is regarded as a native export, as if the United States could claim anything as its own.

"If you're going to think about Shakespeare adaptations, which is something that I think about," says Burt, "then why not Shakespeare porn? It's one kind of adaptation. It's a phenomenon, it's out there, it's part of the culture, so why not study it?" Burt's project is made easier by his being an avid porn fan. His website – www.naughtyprofessor.com – features a page called "Porn Stars I Have Known" and photos of himself with the actress Nina Hartley and the pro-porn feminist Annie Sprinkle. He's written a screenplay called Shrew You!, which, he says, is the world's first lesbian adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew.

And he's not the only scholar studying Shakespeare porn: the conference in April of the Shakespeare Association of America, in Miami, featured a seminar entitled "Pornographic Shakespeare". Though most of the participants focused on bawdy elements of the original plays, David Linton, a professor of communication arts and the head of the humanities division at Marymount Manhattan College, presented a paper about A Midsummer Night's Cream and a recent gay-porn version of the same play.

Shakespeare porn varies in production quality and in faithfulness to the text. Many of the higher-budget productions seem to be using Shakespeare partly as bait for the female and couples markets. "By adding Shakespeare to anything," says Nina Hartley, who appeared in the porn director Paul Thomas's Romeo and Juliet (1987), "you automatically class it up. Certainly it helps to get you on to cable."

A lot of the lower-budget productions use the plays as little more than skeletons on which to hang the flesh of the requisite sex scenes. According to Burt, the earliest-known example of Shakespeare porn is The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet, a 1968 soft-core film. Not long after, Roman Polanski directed a version of Macbeth that was produced by Playboy and featured topless witches and a naked, sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, played by Francesca Annis. A Midsummer Night's Cream is apparently the first porn film to take much of its script from Shakespeare's text. Other films, such as The Taming of the Screw, contain virtually none of the Bard's language. Still others, such as Tromeo and Juliet (1996) – in which Tromeo masturbates to an interactive porn CD-rom called "As You Lick It" and Juliet calls 1-900-FUL-STAF for phone sex – use the plays as jumping-off points. (Burt acknowledges the "relative tastelessness and absence of formal complexity" of most of these so-called Shakesploitations.)

The fast-forward button has long been a handy tool for porn viewers, but Burt is perhaps the first person in history to fast-forward through the sex scenes to get to the dialogue. He did that when treating an interviewer to his analyses of A Midsummer Night's Cream and The Taming of the Screw – a contemporary retelling of the play in which the head of a law firm offers his employee Pete (aka Petruchio) a house in Bel Air, partnership in the firm and $100,000 if Pete will marry his "bitch" of a daughter, Kate. Though The Taming of the Screw is badly shot, horribly acted and relentlessly misogynous, Burt says he finds it more interesting than the comparatively sophisticated A Midsummer Night's Cream, partly because in Taming "the sex and the plot are relatively well integrated". (But A Midsummer Night's Cream is hardly bereft of interpretative élan. Hartley says she was impressed that Kyle Stone, the actor who plays Bottom, brayed loudly during his orgasm. This spontaneous bit of artistry received loud applause from the rest of the cast once the cameras stopped rolling. "In our line of work," Hartley says, "actors don't usually get a chance to express themselves like that.")

Amid all the raunchy sex in Shakespeare porn, one person never has any luck with the ladies: Shakespeare himself. The Bard appears as a character in a number of Shakespeare porn films, but, according to Burt, he never gets any action. (Yes, Burt concedes, Shakespeare – in the form of Joseph Fiennes – has sex with Gwyneth Paltrow in the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love, but it isn't explicit.) When asked what this Shakespearean celibacy may mean, Burt says he thinks it has to do with "some relation between Shakespeare and the sacred" – some unspoken rule against overt sexualisation of the godlike Shakespeare. Allowing Shakespeare to get down and dirty, he says, would be an ultra-transgressive act akin to making Bible porn – and that, at least, is one genre the porn industry has yet to develop.

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