Feb 142014

Brown, Carolyn E. “Erotic Religious Flagellation and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure”, English Literary Renaissance, Vol.16, Iss. 1, Dec 1986

Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure (first performed in 1604) links religious asceticism and flagellation with deviant sexuality and political tyranny. The Duke of Vienna, the judge Angelo and the novice nun Isabella claim to be pious and chaste, while their sexuality is repressed in such a way that it emerges as indifferent voyeurism, aggressive sadism or masochism, respectively. “…by drawing parallels to historical or topical events, Shakespeare suggests that the protagonists’ very asceticism, ironically, causes this deviant desire and that they associate their austere religious practices with pleasurable feelings.”

Woman in nun's habit kneels facing away from man in suit, sitting on couh

Isabella and Angelo

The plot revolves around a couple, Claudio and Juliet, who have not properly observed all the rules of engagement and marriage. While the Duke travels through Vienna in disguise as a friar, he hands power over to the judge Angelo, who decides to make an example of Claudio and condemn him to death for fornication. Claudio’s friend Lucia asks Isabella, the novice nun and Claudio’s sister, for help. Angelo offers to free Claudio in exchange for sex with Isabella.
The trio of the Duke, Angelo and Isabella are all ascetics (though none are actually clergy), and are hostile to sexual desires, believing that “pain kills the libido and thus subjecting themselves and others to physical abuse.”

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Mar 092012

Research in the previous post brought my attention to Venus in Fur, a Broadway play adaptation of the classic of male masochism, Venus im Pelz by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

Judging by the description, it’s strongly metafictional, as the two leads play a director and an actress auditioning for a stage adaptation of Venus. This presents an interesting angle on the story, in which Severin has an image of the cruel woman in his mind before Wanda appears and slots herself into it. This is very much a story about roles and scripts.

As I’m nowhere near Broadway, I have little chance to see this. Hopefully it will tour. I’m curious to know how this play was adapted for a mainstream audience. If female masochism is regarded as a problem, male masochism is regarded as a joke at best, and rarely if ever a sexually desirable trait to heterosexual women, at least not in mainstream media.

Aug 132010

A friend in Rostock, Germany, is producing and directing a stage play based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s classic (or it should be) novel of male submission and female domination, Venus in Furs, or Venus im Pelz.

The play stars Dino Gebauer as Severin and Meike Faust as Wanda, and directed by Florian Dedio. There are two shows, on September 11th and 15th.

Wish I was in Germany, and could understand German.

I’m glad to see this kind of project as I believe Sacher-Masoch is much neglected as a historical and literary figure, and his work deserves wider exposure and his life more academic study. For a man whose name was attached to an entire realm of human behavior and emotion, he is curiously forgotten. Freud’s two essays on masochism make no mention of Sacher-Masoch or his work

Jun 302008


The 20th century’s answer to Sade is probably Jean Genet, a novelist and playwright who developed a strange kind of ascent through descent, finding a kind of apotheosis. If heroism is impossible, one distinguishes oneself through cultivating betrayal and abuse.

One of his plays was The Balcony (1956), a surreal exploration of fantasy and fetish.

Most of the scenes occur in the Balcony, a “house of illusions” or a brothel, depending on the mood of Irma, the house’s madam. Irma presides over the constantly shifting boundaries of fantasy and reality, dealing with clients who want to be Bishops and Generals, and may in reality be those things, a pimp who is actually a cowardly crossdresser and a whore who wants to be a saint. The Judge insists on hearing “true confessions” from a whore dressed as a criminal, who technically is a criminal, but the Judge shrinks from the thought that the woman actually committed any crimes.

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Aug 302006

First lesson in writing: the library is your friend.

I got a copy of Thomas Otway’s 1682 play Venice Preserved (incorrectly cited as “Venus Preserv’d” in Emily Apter’s Feminizing the Fetish) at the library today, and read it in the dull moments at my temping job.

Venice Preserved is a political allegory about England set in the republic of Venice. The kinky stuff comes in Act III, Scene i. Antonio, a lecherous and corrupt old senator, goes to the house of Aquilina, the Greek courtesan. Aquilina tries to turn him away, as she finds him repulsive, but he pushes his way in.

Antonio addresses Aquilina by childish nicknames (“Nacky, Nacky, Queen Nacky — come let’s to bed…”) and then as “Madonna.” He disregards her insults and brags about his “eloquence” which his actions equate with bribery. He overcomes her objects with money.

Aquil. No, sir, if you please I can know my distance and stand.

Anto. Stand: how? Nacky up and I down! Nay, then, let me exclaim with the poet,
Show me a case more pitiful who can,
A standing woman, and a falling man.
Hurry durry—not sit down—see this, ye gods—You won’t sit down?

Aquil. No, sir.

Anto. Then look you now, suppose me a bull, a basan-bull, the bull of bulls, or any bull. Thus up I get and with my brows thus bent—I broo, I say I broo, I broo, I broo. You won’t sit down, will you?—I broo—[Bellows like a bull, and drives her about.]

Aquil. Well, sir, I must endure this. Now your [she sits down] honour has been a bull, pray what beast will your worship please to be next?

Anto. Now I’ll be a Senator again, and thy lover, little Nicky Nacky! [He sits by her.] Ah toad, toad, toad, toad! spit in my face a little, Nacky—spit in my face prithee, spit in my face, never so little: spit but a little bit—spit, spit, spit, spit, when you are bid, I say; do prithee spit—now, now, now, spit: what, you won’t spit, will you? Then I’ll be a dog.

Aquil. A dog, my lord?

Anto. Ay, a dog—and I’ll give thee this t’other purse to let me be a dog—and to use me like a dog a little. Hurry durry— I will—here ’tis.

[Gives the purse.]

Aquil. Well, with all my heart. But let me beseech your dogship to play your tricks over as fast as you can, that you may come to stinking the sooner, and be turned out of doors as you deserve.

Anto. Ay, ay—no matter for that—that—[He gets under the table]—shan’t move me—Now, bow wow wow, bow wow …

[Barks like a dog.

Aquil. Hold, hold, hold, sir, I beseech you: what is’t you do? If curs bite, they must be kicked, sir. Do you see, kicked thus.

Anto. Ay, with all my heart: do kick. kick on, now I am under the table, kick again—kick harder—harder yet, bow wow wow, wow, bow—’od I’ll have a snap at thy shins—bow wow wow, wow, bow—’od she kicks bravely.—

Aquil. Nay, then I’ll go another way to work with you: and I think here’s an instrument fit for the purpose.

[Fetches a whip and bell.] What, bite your mistress, sirrah! out, out of doors, you dog, to kennel and be hanged—bite your mistress by the legs, you rogue—

[She whips him.]

Anto. Nay, prithee Nacky, now thou art too loving: Hurry durry, ’od I’ll be a dog no longer.

Aquil. Nay, none of your fawning and grinning: but be gone, or here’s the discipline: what, bite your mistress by the legs, you mongrel? out of doors—hout hout, to kennel, sirrah! go.

Anto. This is very barbarous usage, Nacky, very barbarous: look you, I will not go—I will not stir from the door, that I resolve—hurry durry, what, shut me out?

[She whips him out.]

Aquil. Ay, and if you come here any more to-night I’ll have my footmen lug you, you cur: what, bite your poor mistress Nacky, sirrah!

Enter Maid.

Maid. Heavens, madam! What’s the matter?

[He howls at the door like a dog.]

Aquil. Call my footmen hither presently.

Enter two Footmen.

Maid. They are here already, madam, the house is all alarmed with a strange noise, that nobody knows what to make of.

Aquil. Go all of you and turn that troublesome beast in the next room out of my house—If I ever see him within these walls again, without my leave for his admittance, you sneaking rogues, I’ll have you poisoned all, poisoned, like rats; every corner of the house shall stink of one of you; go, and learn hereafter to know my pleasure.

What’s interesting to me is the ambiguous relationship between client and dominatrix, in short, who exactly is on top here? Aquilina doesn’t like him or want him around, but he’s able to pay her to follow his script. She refuses part of the script, to spit on him, and then goes over his limit by whipping him and then kicking him out. There’s a constant push back and forth. It has a ring of truth to it, much as the flagellation scene in John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, published in the middle of the next century.

Later in the play (Act V, scene ii), Aquilina threatens Antonio with a dagger as promised vengeance for the state execution of her beloved Pierre.

Aquil. Thou! think’st thou, thou art fit to meet my joys;
To bear the eager clasps of my embraces?
Give me my Pierre, or—

Anto. Why, he’s to be hang’d, little Nacky,
Trussed up for treason, and so forth, child.

Aquil. Thou liest: stop down thy throat that hellish sentence,
Or’ ’tis thy last: swear that my love shall live,
Or thou art dead.

Anto. Ah-h-h-h.

Aquil. Swear to recall his doom
Swear at my feet, and tremble at my fury.

Anto. I do. Now if she would but kick a little bit, one kick now.

Aquil. Swear, or—

Anto. I do, by these dear fragrant foots
And little toes, sweet as, e-e-e-e my Nacky Nacky Nacky.

Aquil. How!

Anto. Nothing but untie thy shoe-string a little, faith and troth,
That’s all, that’s all, as I hope to live, Nacky, that’s all.

Aquil. Ney, then—

Anto. Hold, hold, thy love, thy lord, thy hero Shall be preserv’d and safe.

Aquil. Or may this poniard
Rust in thy heart.

Anto. With all my soul.

Aquil. Farewell—

Even with Aquilina’s dagger at his throat, Antonio seems to be getting off on the situation, angling for more kicks or views of her feet. It’s unclear whether he’s enough of a drunk, a fool or a fetishist that he can’t see he’s in real danger. After her depature, Antonio lies down and pretends to be dead, and Aquilina is not heard from again.

According to Apter’s Feminizing the Fetish, the first scene was the basis for the animal roleplay scene in Emile Zola’s Nana, but I suspect both can be connected to the story of Phyllis coaxing Aristotle into playing the role of a horse for her, which IIRC goes back to the middle ages, though not classical times.